Former State Duma deputy Konstantin Rykov has 133,000 followers on Twitter. A prodigious web entrepreneur back in the pre-Twitter era, he is dubbed the father of Russian troll culture and the toxic, beyond-the-pale language that is still used by millions in the Russian-language sector of the world wide web. He later helped set up several pro-Kremlin news portals and the website of Russia’s main TV channel.
Bashing Russian democrats, Barack Obama, Ukrainian and EU leaders is his main pastime on social networks, but there are two politicians he absolutely reveres. One is naturally Vladimir Putin, the other one is Marine Le Pen. While regularly posting fresh pictures of the National Front leader on his main feed @rykov, he also runs a separate French-themed account – @rykov_fr. The latter is almost entirely dedicated to her progress as a front runner in the next presidential election.
Rykov’s keen interest in French politics is hardly idle. As the investigation team led by the Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny revealed, he is a French resident and the owner of a luxury villa in Mougins – a Cote D’Azour town, a short drive from Cannes. A right-wing stronghold, Mougins gave the most votes to the National Front in the 2014 EU parliamentary election.
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When in March Crimea voted to secede from Ukraine in a referendum hastily organised three weeks after the Russian occupation of the peninsula, Marine Le Pen said that the poll “raised no questions” and that Crimea was “historically a part of Russia”. Her foreign policy adviser Aymeric Chauprade even travelled to Crimea during the referendum and announced that the vote was “legitimate”, although not even Russia’s closest allies – Belarus and Kazakhstan – have recognised it as such.
In response to Le Pen’s endorsement, Rykov launched a campaign on Twitter, urging his followers to flood her feed with messages of gratitude. He led by example with a tweet that simply read: “Merci, Marine!” Thousands of Russians joined in.
The exchange of favours continued throughout the year. MEP Jean-Lux Schaffhauser, who represents a party affiliated with the National Front, travelled to the rebel-held Donetsk at the end of October to express support for the elections held by the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic. Clips from his press conference featured prominently on Russian TV channels which were keen to show that Europe is far from unanimous on the issue of Ukraine and that Kremlin is not completely isolated.
It was Schaffhauser who, according to the French investigative website Mediapart, has brokered a 9 million euro ($11m) loan provided to the National Front by the Russian-registered First Czech Bank – a little-known fiscal organisation once investigated by the Czech authorities on suspicion of being linked to Russian secret services.
Six days after the loan story broke, the deputy head of the Russian State Duma Andrey Isayev appeared as a guest star at the National Front’s congress. In his address, he lamented that “the sovereignty of once mighty nations, such as Germany and France, […] is being eaten away by the so-called Trans-Atlantic integration”, and that “the will of European countries is being suppressed by little known EU bureaucrats, who are in fact marionettes of the US”. Isayev is a leading member of Putin’s United Russia party, which has, in recent years, rebranded itself as a defender of “traditional Christian values” echoing the slogans of the European far right.
It would have shocked someone living in the USSR circa 1980s had they learned that Russian officials would be cozying up to the party created by Jean Marie Le Pen (Marine’s father) – who was lambasted by Soviet TV as a “neo-fascist” and a “brown plague”. But Putin’s spin doctors and Soviet ideologues are about as similar as a MacBook and abacus. People who shape the political agenda in Moscow these days are happy to tap into any ideology as long as it serves their political goals.
One such goal is to prevent Europe from becoming more united. A kind of Europe that implements a single foreign and energy policy is Putin’s nemesis. Russia’s European strategy is based on punishing countries it perceives as hostile, such as Ukraine or the Baltic states, while rewarding friends, such as Italy, Hungary, Finland and Serbia – with favourable gas contracts, investments, shares in multibillion dollar infrastructure projects and greater access to the domestic market. At home and in the immediate neighbourhood, the goal is to marginalise pro-European forces and to discredit the very idea of European integration.
All the above turns enemies of united Europe into Putin’s natural allies. Apart from common goals, there is a strong mental bond, which both side have discovered in recent years. Putin’s political machine runs on a synthetic post-modernist streak of populism unrestrained by any ideological principles. The rise of the European far right (as well as far left, such Syriza in Greece) is fuelled by the same kind of negative energy, but European populists are to a much greater extent constrained by democratic procedures, unwritten rules of political decency and the need to stick to a semblance of political principles.
What happens when these constraints suddenly vanish becomes evident whenever these politicians surface in areas grabbed away from Ukraine in the last nine months. Pro-Ukrainian activists have been systematically imprisoned, tortured and killed in rebel-held territories. But it all fell on deaf ears of the numerous European visitors representing far-right and far-left populist parties and groups which travelled to the area and voiced out support for the rebels in front of Russian TV cameras.
Considering their popularity in such pillars of European civilisation as France and Britain, one may only wonder how far we are from the point when democracy in Europe is in real danger.
Leonid Ragozin is a freelance journalist based in Moscow.