Populism and Russian influence in Europe


Last year, two historic events shook the West: the Brexit camp’s victory in the British referendum and Donald Trump’s election as the president of the United States. Both developments are symptoms of the political reorganisation in the frames of which traditional political dividing lines lost their dominance. The new division is between the establishment forming the political centre and the new populist wave threatening the status quo. The joint study of the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute and Political Capital examined the driving forces behind European populism and Russian influence exerted on the main political forces.

The study’s main conclusions are:

  • As dissatisfaction with the European Union grows, populism is getting stronger all across Europe. Some populist parties routinely channel Russian propaganda, Moscow’s autoritarian solutions to society’s problem and its governing principles into their own narratives. With this method populist parties weaken trust in the European Union, NATO and liberal democracy. Certain actors (e.g. the French National Front) maintain financial connections with the Kremlin as well.
  • Before any anti-populism strategy is established it is important to understand the phenomenon itself. After considering previous attempts at providing a definition, our starting point is that populism refers to a political strategy, a political style and a political platform at the same time. Consequently, populist political actors base any and all of their political messages on what the majority of the electorate wants to hear. This strategy is followed by both the left and right, their narratives are the same: the believe that the out-of-touch elites deceived and abandoned the silent and angry majority.
  • Although the causes of the advance of populism are related to cultural, ideological and socialogical factors, histrorical experiences indicate that it strengthens after serious financial crises due to the slow pace of economic recovery. Thus, decision-makers mainly focus on economic growth and creating jobs to halt the rise of populism, including the encouragement of transatlantic trade and investment.
  • Even though populism often refers to actual problems, it rarely offers a solution. Instead, as it is visible on the examples of Hungary and Poland, after populist forces gain power they build an authoritarian system and strive to erode the system of checks and balances, and weaken civil society.
  • The previous strategies of European political elites to overcome the threat posed by populism are not enough anymore. Instead, they need to offer solutions matching the demands of the electorate in the areas that push them towards populists.
  • The United States can help, too—most importantly by holding its European friends and allies to high standards of democracy and rule of law, helping them combat Russian disinformation, and fostering greater economic openness.


The full study is available here: