“The New Green EU-Russia Talks“- forum was held 11-12 February 2016 in Moscow, under the theme “A New Form of Anti-liberalism in Europe? Left and Right Wing Populism in EU and Russia“.
Populism as Zeitgeist?
„Populism is simple, democracy is complex“, wrote Ralf Dahrendorf more than a decade ago. The world is becoming more and more interconnected, and transnational links via flows of commodities, capital and migrants as well as supranational unions of states undermine the concept of the nation state as a reference point for belonging. Given issues arising with this complexity both right and left wing populists offer seemingly simple answers to difficult questions. For quite some time populism was seen as a pathological form corrupting Western liberal democracies. Nevertheless, analysts such as Cas Mudde argue that one can even speak of a “populist Zeitgeist”, which has been observed in West European political systems at least since the early 1990ies.
Populism - an elusive concept
Populism as a concept is notoriously difficult to define, as its meaning often depends on the historical and regional contexts. In Europe one essential definitional criterion is the juxtaposition of two allegedly homogenous groups - the “corrupt elite” and the “pure people” - whereby the “volonté générale” of the latter should serve as the basis for political action. Populist movements and parties turn against the political establishment and see themselves as the only entitled interpreters of the popular will. They reject political pluralism and representative democracy. Paul Taggart has argued that a so-called “heartland” such as an ethnically homogenous nation state, functions as a constituent part of the populist worldview. Populism is not a stringent ideology due to the conceptual incompleteness and flexibility. The latter might also explain that attitudes such as anti-parliamentarism and anti-Americanism are both present in left- and right-wing populist movements. In times of crises populists are most likely to garner broader support, but usually populist governments do not last very long.
The end of the liberal consensus in the EU?
Already in the middle of the 2000s some commentators alluded to the end of the liberal consensus within the EU. In particular the rise of the right-wing Fidesz party in Hungary and the, admittedly short stint of the nationalist “Law and Justice” (PiS) party in government with its extreme right coalition partners “Self defense” and the “League of Polish Families” in Poland posed the problem in how far the elite consensus regarding deep European integration and a technocratic, economically liberal transformation of new EU member states was also supported by broader parts of the population and civil society. Euro or EU skepticism - or euro pragmatism as it is sometimes called - is more or less present in all EU member states. The euro and refugee crises have culminated so far in the temporal introduction of border controls in the Schengen zone as well as the upcoming Brexit referendum in Great Britain.
Russia’s turn towards ideology and her populist “fellow travelers” in the EU
From an ideological standpoint Eurasianism was the Russian counterpart of the European extreme right, and “Russophilia” and Euroskepticism were to sides of one coin, says Marlene Laruelle in a recently published edited volume on the relations of Russia with the European extreme right. Russia and EU countries accuse each other of “information warfare” while populists in Germany denigrate quality media outlets as “lying press” (Lügenpresse). Since the annexation of Crimea, some commentators argue Russia once again turned towards ideology adhering to a belief system borrowing from Eurasianism, neotraditionalism and anti-Westernism. At the same time, be it for ideological or tactical reasons - Russia expands its contacts and networks among populist parties in the EU such as the Front National, Alternative for Germany or Bulgaria’s Ataka.
How should the populist challenge be understood in the context of the EU and Russia? Could populist actors also have some virtues and function as a corrective for particular grievances in liberal democracies? Why and under which circumstances do populists garner support among broader segments of society? Does Russia’s domestic and foreign policy increasingly borrow from Eurasianist and neoconservative values, and to what degree does Russia’s support of populist movements threaten the EU? How does civil society and NGOs cope with the populist Zeitgeist?
The above mentioned themes were discussed during the “New Green EU-Russia Talks” –forum hosted by Heinrich Böll Foundation 11-12 February 2016 in Moscow.
Conference coordinator: Nuria Fatykhova, coordinator of the program “Democracy” in the Heinrich-Böll Foundation Russia
Academic consultant: Fabian Burkhardt, Ludwig-Maximilian-University Munich.