30 March 2015

The Russian Mass Media and the Western Far Right

Time was when Russia’s mass media used the far right in Europe as fuel for fear mongering and mockery. Russia still decries its opponents as “fascists”—but it is increasingly courting and using far-right parties and their adherents....
Anton Shekhovtsov

Time was when Russia’s mass media used the far right in Europe as fuel for fear mongering and mockery. Russia still decries its opponents as “fascists”—but it is increasingly courting and using far-right parties and their adherents. The reason is simple. Politicians, activists, publicists and commentators coming from the far right, including conspiracy theory and isolationist circles, approve of or sympathize with Russia’s domestic and foreign policies.


This courting of the Western far right started after the war with Georgia in 2008, when Russia realised that its military victory on the ground was not matched by its success in the information war. Not only had the existing Russian international media failed to convince Western audiences of the alleged legitimacy of Russia’s actions; the entire approach, based on the traditional soft-power concept of presenting an “attractive image” of Russia, had failed. In other words, the simple slogan “Russia is good” was not working.


Instead, Russia tried a new approach: making the West look bad. This involved promoting all kinds of “anti-systemic” news and views. Western far-right politicians and activists who were inherently critical of, among other things, the United States, NATO, the EU, the eurozone, multiculturalism and human rights stopped being simple newsmakers for the Russian media and started to appear as valuable commentators and opinion-makers.


Already in 2008, the Russian media that wanted to justify the Russian aggression in Georgia started to quote far-right politicians and activists. For example, Russian TV channel RT aired an interview with the American far-right activist Lyndon LaRouche, who is obsessed with the idea of the United Kingdom being behind almost all of the problems in the world. RT was happy to convey LaRouche’s belief that Georgia’s actions were “probably a British-led operation with U.S. support.” Further, the Russian media readily quoted Heinz-Christian Strache, the leader of the Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs (FPÖ); according to Strache, Russia “had not acted as an aggressor” in its war on Georgia and “the EU member states should not take their cue from the U.S.” in response to Russia’s actions in Georgia.


From 2008 to the second part of 2013, the Russian media turned to politicians from the Front National, Dansk Folkeparti, Sverigedemokraterna, Vlaams Belang and some other far-right parties to let them voice their grievances about the “bureaucratic monster” of the EU, immigration, gay marriages and more. The explicit message was clear: the West is in decline and failing. The implicit message was about the stability of allegedly traditionalist Russia in comparison to the restless liberal West.


Simultaneously, the Russian media experimented with financing EU-based media projects run by far-right activists. For example, in 2012, Gilles Arnaud, a former regional adviser of the Front National in Upper Normandy and a contemporary member of the far-right Parti de la France, received €415,000 from the Russian government’s now-discontinued international radio service Voice of Russia for two years of operation of the French web-based TV channel under the unambiguous name ProRussia.TV. The servers of ProRussia.TV were located in Russia, and the TV channel brandished a logo closely resembling the logo of Russia’s main pro-Putin party, Yedinaya Rossiya (The United Russia, see below). The Voice of Russia also contributed to establishing the Italy-based Lombardy-Russia Cultural Association founded by the far-right Lega Nord.


The Ukrainian revolution that started at the end of 2013 and the annexation of Crimea by Russia and the Russian invasion of 2014 have dramatically driven up the demand for far-right commentators and their conspiracy theories, anti-establishment ideas and anti-American vitriol. As a result, the number of interviews with far-right activists, including their shorter and longer comments, has increased considerably in the domestic and international Russian media.


A few examples: By the end of December 2014, the French version of the Voice of Russia had aired around 20 interviews with French far-right politicians sympathetic to Moscow’s policies. The Polish service of the Voice of Russia broadcast some 60 interviews with Polish far-right activists from 2010 to 2014, more than half of which aired in 2014. The Hungarian version of the Voice of Russia broadcast six interviews with the leaders of the far-right Jobbik party from 2013 to 2014. The Hungarian broadcast service also demonstrated particular cynicism when it reported, in 2012, on the anti-Semitic scandal that resulted from Jobbik’s Márton Gyöngyösi’s suggestion to draw up lists of Jews who posed a “national security risk,” but a year later interviewed Gyöngyösi – in a neutral way – on anti-Semitic sentiments in Hungary only to allow him to dispel “illusions” about the threats to Hungarian Jews.


Arguably, the most regular far-right commentator and opinion-maker on RT has been Manuel Ochsenreiter, editor of the far-right German magazine Zuerst! RT first involved Ochsenreiter, alternately introduced as a “political analyst,” “German journalist” and “Syria expert,” in 2013 to provide his opinion on “the German government [selling] the privacy of German citizens to the U.S. government” and the U.S. government and CIA’s alleged involvement in the “Syria conflict,” which he called a “proxy war.” In March 2014 Ochsenreiter traveled to Russia-occupied Crimea to “observe” the “referendum” and on April 21 in an interview for the Voice of Russia denied the Russian occupation of Crimea, although on April 17 President Vladimir Putin himself had already admitted to the deployment of Russian troops in the Ukrainian republic.


When the Russian mass media engage with Western far-right politicians in the domestic and international contexts, they pursue two different agendas. Working with the international audience, the Russian media engage with far-right politicians in order to directly and indirectly promote a pro-Kremlin agenda, as well as to subvert and undermine mainstream socio-political narratives in the West.


Working with the domestic audience, the engagement with Western pro-Kremlin, far-right activists aims to demonstrate that Russia and its citizens are not isolated, that the country is not a pariah state but is still considered part of European civilization by Europeans themselves. By conveying the pro-Kremlin views of Western illiberal politicians, the Russian media strive to prove Russia’s appeal to particular Western politicians and, furthermore, that these politicians embrace Russia as the “real Europe” in contrast to the “degenerate Europe” of liberal democratic values. The fact that these Western allies are fringe politicians and publicists with unsavory reputations and doubtful political prospects remains hidden to the majority of the Russian audience, as the Russian media tend to either omit their far-right credentials or even exaggerate their significance so as to present them in a more reputable way.