"Natural allies" - The Kremlin connections of the Greek far-right

2016-03-01

In 2009, Political Capital was among the first to call attention to East European far-right parties’ orientation towards Russia. In April 2014, in an analysis generating lively international attention, we indicated that with the assistance of far-right parties’ pro-Russian policies “the promotion of Russian interests couched in national colors is proliferating throughout Europe.” We also demonstrated that with the votes they cast in the European Parliament, some far-right parties pledge allegiance to Putin and his regime. All this makes it patently clear that the Russian state’s political influence across Europe has increased in recent years. The European extreme right, with its Eurosceptic and anti-liberal ideology, provided a fertile ground for the two-faced foreign policy of Russia – ideologically hostile, yet economically cooperative – towards Europe. Moreover, the current Ukrainian crisis clearly highlights the “vectors” and tools of Russian influence in Europe and, more specifically, in Greece.

The economic crisis and the tension in Greece’s relations with the Eurozone have upset the broad consensus in Greek politics and society about Greece’s European orientation. In this political context, Western modernization can be perceived as alien by some parts of the Greek population, while Russia can be featured as the alternative vision for the country.

According to a 2014 Pew Research Center poll, Russia’s favorability decreased only by 1% to 62%, while the US’ appeal dropped 5% to 34% as compared to 2013 in the Greek public. Another Gallup poll in 2014 found that 35% of Greeks approved of Russian leadership in the world, and only 23% approved of the EU’s leadership. An October 2015 poll by Greek polling company Public Issue found that while Greeks overwhelmingly still see the EU as Greece’s main ally (44%, as opposed to 12% for Russia), Russia is the second most popular foreign power in Greece (after France), well above Germany and the US and marginally above the EU. If the EU remains popular but divisive (52% positive vs. 46% negative views), Russia’s appeal is much more established (58% vs. 34%), even though this margin decreased markedly in the course of the first SYRIZA-ANEL government.

Although no complete eastward geopolitical shift could be experienced by the SYRIZA-ANEL Greek government that took office in January 2015 and again in September 2015, there are still major future economic and energy issues to be decided upon in Greece, which can favor the Kremlin indeed. The country is potentially vulnerable to Russia in political and economic terms, and the latter may play an indirect role in Greece’s long term debt management through current energy deals and major energy projects in the Eastern Mediterranean.

The more difficult further loan negotiations will turn out to be, and the more difficult it will be for the government to implement austerity measures due to social and political rejection, the stronger political and economic pressure coming from Moscow is expected to become.

Some pieces of evidence suggest the new/old Greek government is not only open towards the Kremlin on several key issues, such as separatism in Ukraine, but members of the government have ties to important Russian stakeholders.  For example, Panagiotis Kammenos Greek Minister of National Defence (leader of ANEL) is close to the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies, once affiliated with Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR); or Nikolaos Kotzias Minister for Foreign Affairs (close to SYRIZA leader Alexis Tsipras), who is close to Alexander Dugin, the main ideologue behind Eurasianism, and who used to have a strong impact on Russia’s geopolitics. Figures even show that 85% of the members of SYRIZA voted against anti-Kremlin resolutions, which is higher than the party’s own caucuses’ (GUE/NGL) percentage of 78%, in selected Russia-related decisions in the European Parliament.

Pro-Eurasianism is much more mainstream in Greece than in most EU countries not regardless of the shared cultural and religious heritage with Russia. More recently, the Greek public has been leaning increasingly towards Russia’s world leadership as opposed to the EU or US after the years of economic crisis, clearly more so than in the past. This means that the SYRIZA-ANEL government’s presumed affinity with the Kremlin might be backed by domestic public opinion gravely disappointed by the IMF/EU crisis management10 Far-right parties have a well-founded ideological and personal relationship with the Russian regime: Golden Dawn’s arrested leaders are openly endorsed by Alexander Dugin, the chief ideologist of Eurasianism. The far-right, populist party of the Independent Greeks (ANEL), who are in government, has an official memorandum of cooperation with Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party. Both the extreme right Golden Dawn and the right-wing populist ANEL parties advocate a pro-Russian geopolitical shift for Greece. In the case of ANEL, the fact that one of Greece’s most outspokenly pro-Russian politicians is also the Minister of Defense raises questions with regards to security cooperation between the two countries in the future, but Golden Dawn advocates for a radical change by moving Greece away from the US and its allies for good. The bottom line is that ANEL and Golden Dawn (as well as SYRIZA) unconditionally supported the annexation of Crimea by Russia. Golden Dawn’s orientation can be detected in selected resolutions criticizing Russia in the European Parliament which were rejected in 100% of the cases by the party’s MEPs.

Golden Dawn’s heavy-handed xenophobic, anti-Muslim policies, and its intolerant ideology fits the Kremlin’s authoritative approach on many issues. The party is nonetheless drawn more by the Russian regime’s statism and authoritarian nationalism, than by its Orthodoxy. The pro-Russian far-right is part of a broader far-right and far-left “patriotic subculture,” apt to portray President Putin and Russia as a potential “savior” to Greece and the Greek economy.

In turn, Alexander Dugin remains in public correspondence with Golden Dawn’s leader, Nikolaos Michaloliakos, who is awaiting his trial for murder, extortion, and involvement in the disappearance of up to a hundred migrants. However, the extreme-right party is not presented by the Russian media to boost the Kremlin’s political legitimacy. Instead, Russian domestic media close to the Kremlin is just a little more positive about the controversies surrounding the party, while Russian international media showcases Golden Dawn as an exemplar of fascism and racism caused by the austerity measures or power ambitions of the West. Even the 2015 report on neo-Nazism by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation casts it “as an organization propagating neo-Nazi ideas, racial, and national exclusiveness”.

The pro-Russian far-right fringe media with a steady foothold in the Greek public discourse blends geopolitics, conspiracy theories, and the supernatural in their reports on Greek and international politics, heavily tilted towards anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism (disguised as anti-Zionism) with superstitious elements.

Discussions and rumors about Russia providing a bailout to Greece intensified at the time of the bailout agreements and political fights, which was part of the tactics of the Greek government to put a pressure on the EU. But generally, while Russia is interested in Greek-EU relations to deteriorate further (Russia is a more positive player in the eyes of the Greek public than the EU), the Kremlin cannot provide a significant financial help to Greece. At the same time, Greek governments so far have been aware of the fact that Russia does not want to substitute Western creditors and also that accepting such a loan would lead to a political marginalization on the EU level.

However, the permanent domestic political and economic crisis along with the pro-Russian and Western-sceptic public opinion gives the Kremlin more opportunities to expand its influence.

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