President Vladimir Putin is widely suspected of being behind an extraordinary Russian cash and charm offensive that is reported to be trying to woo Europe’s far-right populist parties in order to strengthen the Kremlin’s political influence within the European Union.
In recent weeks, the Kremlin’s targets have included France’s xenophobic Front National (FN) party, and politicians from three German parties including the neo-Nazi National Democratic Party (NPD), the Eurosceptic Alternative for Germany (AfD) and the Social Democrats (SPD).
Marine Le Pen’s Front National was recently granted a €9m (£7m) loan by a small financial institution called the First Czech-Russian Bank. The cash will be used to fund the party’s campaign for next year’s regional elections.
French banks were unwilling to fund the FN. “We cast our the net wide: in Spain, in Italy, in Asia and in Russia,” Ms Le Pen told Le Monde. “We have signed with the first catch and we are very happy.” In the past, Ms Le Pen has made no secret of her support for Mr Putin.
The FN’s bank loan was followed this week by the release of details from a leaked Moscow strategy paper that suggests Mr Putin has been advised to try to influence European politics by such wooing.
On Monday Germany’s mass-circulation Bild newspaper published sections of a paper put out by the Moscow-based think-tank Centre for Strategic Communications entitled “Putin: the new leader of international conservatism”. The paper spelled out how the Russian President could influence EU countries including Germany – the country’s pivotal European trading partner.
Analysts say the move is an attempt by the Kremlin to find European friends who support Russia’s stance in Ukraine. “Russia feels isolated. It is going back to its instinctive conservatism, as in the century before the First World War,” Christian Wipperfürth of the German Foreign Policy Association told Germany’s The Local website.
Mr Putin has so far relied on his German friends such as the former Social Democrat Chancellor Gerhard Schröder to exert a degree of political influence in Berlin. Mr Schröder, who now works for the Russian energy giant Gazprom, once described Mr Putin as a “flawless democrat”. However the Ukraine crisis has persuaded his successor, Angela Merkel, to adopt a much tougher stance towards Moscow.
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The think-tank paper suggested that Moscow could repeat its French FN deal and influence Germany’s newly arrived and increasingly successful right-wing Eurosceptic AfD. The paper recommended funding the AfD with Russian gold, or using the party as a middleman for gold-trading at commission in order to fill its coffers.
Part of the AfD’s anti-euro strategy is to conduct its finances in gold. The party has sold €2.1m-worth of the metal since October. Its deputy leader, Alexander Gauland, is a defector from Ms Merkel’s conservative Christian Democrats who has warned repeatedly about a “further weakening of Russia” through Western sanctions. His stance has since divided his party over a so-called “Russian question”.
The Kremlin is also suspected of being behind a Russian-sponsored “peace summit” designed to explain Moscow’s current stance in Ukraine. The summit was held at a luxury hotel in Berlin last weekend, and attended by two members of the neo-Nazi NPD, Mr Gauland and the veteran SPD German detente politician Egon Bahr, in a gesture that embarrassed the SPD leadership.
The peace summit’s star guest was 66-year-old Vladimir Jakunin, the homophobic head of Russia’s rail network, who is a close associate of Mr Putin and one of the few Russians in Moscow’s inner circle who are not on a sanctions list and therefore still able to visit the European Union.
Bild was banned from the summit. The paper pointed out that Mr Jakunin had caused outrage in Germany during a visit earlier this year when he openly criticised homosexuals, claiming that they possessed an “abnormal psychology”.
The nominal organiser of the peace summit was the German magazine Compact, which is run by a pro-Kremlin journalist. Germany’s Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper described the publication as a “right-wing populist magazine with a conspiracy theory bent”. The summit was billed as “the most important summit of the year – peace with Russia”.
Earlier this month Moscow also launched a German version of the pro-Kremlin TV news channel Russia Today. The broadcaster has since been criticised in the German media for using journalists with far-right views. One of them was recently sacked from the German public channel RBB for making anti-Semitic remarks.