The results of the elections to the European Parliament and, later, the appointments to the main EU jobs provoked diverse reactions in Russia.
For some analysts, the rise of right-wing parties reflects the Europeans’ expectation of significant reforms, including the recalibration of relations with Moscow. For most, however, the new composition of the European Parliament (EP) and Commission (EC) will not lead to a political turnaround in Russia’s favour.
The European show for the Russian audience
In general, Russian analysts interpreted the elections’ results in the same way as their European counterparts, noting a decline of the major traditional parties (that the Russian conservative media dubbed “establishment” parties, as opposed to “forward-looking” right-wing parties) and the fragmentation of the European political landscape. According to affinities, Russian analysts emphasise either the rise of the right-wing radicals, or the factual victory of the traditional parties. Liberal media stressed that the majority of seats went to “calm eurodemocrats”. Commentators agreed that the EP elections were a form of trust referendum towards national governments, with the voters’ behaviour being less deliberate and more emotional than in the framework of national elections.
There was little reaction to the EC report on the dissemination of disinformation by “Russian agents”. The official Kremlin denies its interference in the European elections as something completely “absurd”. Both liberal and pro-regime commentators blame the European “establishment” for manipulating information and provoking political scandals at the opportune time, thus undermining their credibility in the eyes of the European voter.
The resistance of the European “establishment” is, to the pro-regime press, also reflected in the appointments to EU key leadership positions. Conservative analysts were quick to name the new representatives “heirs to the anti-Russian policies of their predecessors”. Some Russian commentators regretted what they called the rejection of the candidature of Soviet-born Bulgarian Sergei Stanishev to the position of President of the Parliament, without mentioning that he withdrew himself.
For many analysts (not all necessarily pro-Kremlin), the “establishment” embodied in left-wing and centrist ruling European parties has proven itself inefficient in dealing with the issues Europe is facing currently. Voters are turning towards more radical parties that seem to have solutions. Pro-regime commentators welcome this tendency, affirming that if in a number of EU countries right-wing and eurosceptic parties, which mostly favour dialogue with Russia, come to power, Russia can count on the creation of a coalition willing to reconsider relations with Moscow.
The creation of a “Putin’s faction”?
In an interview for radio Ekho Moskvy, chairman of the German-Russian parliamentary group and member of the AfD party Robby Schlund highlighted the similarities between European right-wing parties’ and the Kremlin’s interests, such as the lifting of sanctions against Russia, and stressed that these parties are most open for dialogue with Moscow. The Russian authorities appear to share this point of view. Konstantin Kosachev, head of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Federation Council, believes that more “sober-thinking forces” will appear in the new composition of the European Parliament, which might reduce hostility towards the Russian Federation. Kosachev also called for the resumption of the Russia-EU Parliamentary Cooperation Committee’s work. Director of the Valdai Club Oleg Barabanov wishes for the right-wing EP parties to form a coalition, so as to be able to influence the decisions in the EP. Experts suggest that Moscow elaborates strategies for “seeping through” into the EP by working with individual factions, as well as with their national representatives, and using the opportunities to gain influence through situational coalitions.
For most observers, however, the new composition of the EP does not foresee any fundamental change in the relation between EU and Russia. As a newly re-elected Polish MEP from Law and Justice notes, the influence of the Kremlin should not be sought among the radicals, but among low-key politicians from the ruling liberal coalitions who “quietly promote Russian interests”.
Analysts highlight that on many topics, the EP has little influence anyway, and that one should turn to the EC appointments to get a grasp on Europe’s future politics concerning Russia. The appointment of Ursula von der Leyen as President of the European Commission elicited the most comments among Russian media, especially regarding her statement that the EU must remain in a “position of strength” and uphold the sanctions. Whilst some officials stated that Russia is not ready to return to “business as usual” after such statements, President Putin appealed to von der Leyen’s “rich political experience” to conduct dialogue with Russia, and Foreign Minister Lavrov said that in its relationship with the elected head of the EC, the Kremlin will focus “not on public statements, but practical matters.”
Ursula von der Leyen’s position in regard to Russia is perceived by many as severe, which might be one of the reasons of her appointment, but during her tenure as German Defence Minister she undertook some actions to Russia’s profit, as Novaya Gazeta points out. These included her defending the Nord Stream 2 project from American pressure, and showing openness for dialogue with Russia relative to the conflict in Ukraine.
Politics of European disintegration
“Russia is interested in a strong and stable Europe”, said Deputy Secretary of the Security Council of the Russian Federation as he commented the elections results, yet specifying: “Where states are not agents of alien interests, but build relations with external partners on the basis of their own national priorities and European security interests”. Moscow favours bilateral relations, and therefore probably more out of pragmatism than ideology supports parties that question European unity and identity.
As the European elections reflect the voters’ feelings towards their national politics, they serve as a foretaste of future developments at the national level. Russia counts on the right-wing parties and politicians elected to the EP to destabilize the situation inside their respective countries so as to influence the decision-making process in Brussels.
Moscow is deeply convinced that the European Union will crack by itself: the rise of right-wing europsceptic parties is the sign of the growing dissatisfaction with the current state of things. The European “establishment” and the new EU leadership undermine their own legitimacy by ignoring the peoples’ request for reforms, assure conservative analysts. But as one left-wing anti-system commentator warns: any reform of the EU has the potential to turn out highly destructive, and neither the eurosceptics, nor the europtimists have the recipe for a viable reform.
The Kremlin’s support for European right-wing parties against the left-oriented liberal “establishment” has a long story, but in practice Russia is ready to support anybody with matching interests. Moscow chooses friends and foes pragmatically, the ideological affinity coming as an additional bonus. Russian conservatives express approval for tendencies that are disruptive for the European political order, because they reinforce the belief that the European Union will somehow disintegrate by itself. From this point of view, Russian meddling can only accelerate a process that has started on its own. Which does not mean that the Kremlin is not putting efforts into interfering in European politics in any possible way – the disinformation campaigns are ongoing, targeting national politics specifically. This local country-specific influence might certainly have an impact on further European elections.