Divide and Conquer?

How Vladimir Putin Feeds Europe’s Rabid Right

The Kremlin, which accepts no separatism in the Russian Federation, is encouraging it all over Europe.

Photo Illustration by Kelly Caminero/The Daily Beast

VIENNA — Victor Orban, the right-wing leader of Hungary, offered his people a simple formula: Come and vote in a referendum against allowing in more asylum-seekers and you will be safe from terrorism in your country.

Prime Minister Orban also promised that if people did not show up for the migration referendum on Sunday, Hungary would have wasted more than $36 million, which is what the authorities were spending to organize the vote to reject the European Union quota of 1,229 refugees. That was the price to stop terrorism, according to Orban. (According to critics, that was $30,000 per head of anti-humanitarian spending.)

As often happens in Europe these days, the results were confusing, and unsettling.

Orban had compared migrants to “poison.” Hungary would “give Europe the finger,” he said, vowing to change Hungary’s constitution so the European Union would have no right to impose any rules on the country without its parliament’s approval.

This is the same country, remember, that just a dozen years ago celebrated its membership in the EU. Now it wants to restructure the whole thing.

In the event, voters did not turn out en masse to support Orban. Only 43.3 percent or 3.58 million participated in the referendum on Sunday, which means the vote is not binding. But 98 percent of those who did vote said “no” to accepting more migrants.

Hungary, as we know, is not the only country where far-right leaders—who are inspired by, and inspiring growing xenophobia—have pushed for more autonomy from Europe.

In neighboring Austria up to 52 percent of the electorate supports the far-right Freedom Party. Here in this country of graceful architecture, beautiful landscapes, and the world’s best music, right-wing nationalism is on the rise.

Last week in Vienna, European leaders met for an emotional talk about the fate of hundreds of thousands of refugees.

Germany has grown tired of its role as a lonely humanitarian hero dealing with the largest wave of immigration in Europe since World War II. It has done its duty by opening its doors to 2 million people and now, “other EU countries will have to jump in,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel told the gathering of EU prime ministers and heads of state.

Merkel, whose party has suffered scathing losses at the polls in regional elections, seemed defeated by criticism for her generous migration policy. She suggested the EU cut deals with developing nations—Africa, Pakistan, and Afghanistan—to send those rejected from European asylum back home.

None of her fellow leaders were inclined to take up the relay. The key EU decision makers complained that their countries’ economies were suffering, that the immigration crisis made people think more about their private property and national identity.

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The politicians agreed that this would be a good time to close the western Balkan route “for good,” as European Council President Donald Tusk demanded the participants in the talks looked for somebody to blame, and Hungary’s Orban criticized Greece for failing to protect its borders. Austria continued to pressure its neighbors to close their borders to asylum seekers.

The elephant in the room, the rising far-right behemoth, was dancing in triumph in Vienna.

Young Austrian editors, journalists, publishers, and entrepreneurs worry about the future of their democracy. Indiana Leibovici, a publisher, said he no longer trusts any television news: “The TV propaganda is full of political manipulations. I do not watch local television. I do not watch Russia Today, either,” he added when we talked. “My main concern is the rise of the Nazism-inspired far-right wing,” Leibovici said.

The refugee haters are united in one anti-immigration fist, including politicians from Austria, Hungary, Italy, Romania, and France, some of whom are known for their fascist if not indeed Nazi backgrounds. And Moscow is encouraging them every step of the way.

“The more that politicians from France, Italy, Austria, Hungary, or other EU countries grow radically right-wing, the more chance there is that they will lobby on behalf of the Kremlin’s interests,” says Anton Shekhovtsov, a fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna.

The Freedom Party’s candidate, Norbert Hofer, has a very good chance of becoming Austria’s next president when elections finally are held Dec. 2.

At the peak of the immigration crisis, 10,000 refugees a day were coming into Austria and far-right politicians quickly saw their opportunity. Like Donald Trump with his wall, and Orban with his heavily guarded razor-wire barrier on Hungary’s southern border, they promised a crackdown on immigrants.

As Alexander Warzilek, the head of the Austrian Press Council told The Daily Beast, the Freedom Party “has had the migration topic on their agenda for decades and now the Austrian people are scared.”

There is a sense that the millions of Muslims fleeing the wars in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan will bring violence with them like an infection, and the proven presence of a handful of jihadists among them has been exploited endlessly by the demagogues of the right.

“We are in greater danger than we can imagine,” Antal Rogan, a Hungarian cabinet minister proclaimed on Monday. If the EU has its way, he suggested, immigrants would be put in every town and village in Hungary.

Russia plays a far from constructive role in all this.

One of the leading figures in Austria’s Freedom Party, is Russian-speaking Johann Gudenus, who frequently meets with top Russian and Belarusian politicians and businessmen in order to establish better relations with the Kremlin.

Speaking at a press conference in January, Gudenus praised Russian President Vladimir Putin for acting in the interests of Russia’s people and called for European leaders to act the way Putin does. They should “act as their peoples expect them to act and not in the Americans’ or NATO’s interests,” Gudenus said. He insisted that the U.S. “dictated” to Europe when economic sanctions were implemented against Russia after it annexed Crimea.

“If the EU on the one hand implements sanctions against Russia, a European country, and on the other hand negotiates membership with a non-EU country, Turkey, such an EU is taking a dangerous route,” Gudenus said.

(Gudenus’ father, John Gudenus, gained a certain notoriety in 1995 when he denied the existence of Nazi gas chambers during the Holocaust. Ten years later, rather like Jean-Marie Le Pen in France, he was still playing this sinister rhetorical game. Asked whether gas chambers actually existed in the Third Reich, he answered: “I believe we should debate this topic with all earnestness and not be forced to answer the question with ‘yes’ or ‘no.’”)

In June, 2014, soon after not a single one of the UN states supported Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the younger Gudenus was invited to Moscow by State Duma Speaker Sergei Naryshkin. There, Gudenus blamed the EU, “NATO’s hostage,” for Ukraine’s crisis and praised the Kremlin’s policy.

Hungarian leader Orban also has approved Putin’s “illiberal democracy”: “Russia is not an enemy of Hungary. It’s our partner,” Orban said earlier this year, standing alongside Putin and promising that soon the EU would cancel its economic sanctions on Russia.

There a multiple ironies here. Even as Europe’s far-right leaders in Hungary, Italy, France, the Netherlands, Austria, and even Germany have pushed to close borders and jettison dreams of a united Europe in favor of old nationalisms, and even as Moscow works to crush separatists inside the Russian Federation, the Kremlin has encouraged groups that would fracture even the old nation states of Western Europe. Russia has hosted the world’s unrecognized republics, including separatists from Catalonia, Northern Ireland, and even from the United States—California and Texas!

Why did the Kremlin choose to make allies with right-wing parties and separatist leaders? “The Kremlin needs some other card, besides gas, to wave at the West and say here is who we have for our friends and allies,” says Alexander Verkhovsky, the head of the Sova Information and Analytical Center in Moscow.

A majority of the population does not support Russia’s own far-right parties, including Rodina and the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia. As for the ultra-nationalist movements that were popular four or five years ago, some of them got arrested, others escaped to Ukraine.

The Kremlin banned Hitler’s Mein Kampf (recently re-published in Germany), but it cultivates the far right in Western Europe and the United States, says Shekhovtsov to create “alternate mechanisms” allowing it to expand its influence.

Such is the situation at this point that one hears from liberal Europeans a curious sort of optimism founded on pessimism: The far right will win, the argument goes, but it will fail.

“Once the far-right party leads the government,” Austrian entrepreneur Michael Plankensteiner told The Daily Beast, “people will quickly start to realize that they are not able to change things for the better just by making simple statements that express current fears.”

In Austria, at least, that reasoning may soon be put to the test.