Putin and the Rehabilitation of Europe’s Populists
Putin has reshuffled European politics by turning some of the bad guys into good guys. Or, to be precise, by rehabilitating some of Europe’s nationalist populists in the eyes of western Europe and the liberal democratic world.
Until Russia invaded Ukraine, an ideological fault line separated a bunch of right-wing populists from the rest of Europe; they were considered a threat to its values and institutions. Eastern and central European countries such as Poland, Hungary, Slovenia, and others, notably the United Kingdom, were the bad guys. The Czech Republic had been part of that group. Still, after a five-party coalition defeated the governing nationalist populists late last year, the perception changed (although the new Czech prime minister’s party, the Civic Democrats, also harbor some nationalist populists who admire Poland’s governing Law and Justice Party and Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán, is the epitome of illiberalism today).
Because of Brexit, Britain’s Boris Johnson was despised by France, Italy, Spain, and Germany, the leading European democracy. A few weeks ago, Western Europe was rooting for what looked like the end of primer minister Johnson when a series of ethical scandals turned many tories against him in Parliament.
All of that has now changed. Even though eastern and central Europe‘s nationalists have more in common, ideologically, with Putin than, say, with France’s Macron or Germany’s new chancellor, Olaf Scholz, they are in a highly vulnerable position vis-à-vis Russia’s expansionist ambitions; a long history of Russian imperialism has left a deep mark in those countries’ psyche. Therefore, their reaction to the war in Ukraine has been to oppose Putin very forcefully and support—almost literally from the frontline—the various efforts led by the West’s liberal democracies (through Nato or separately) in defense of their neighbor, Ukraine.
More significantly, three eastern and central European leaders—Poland’s Mateusz Morawiecki, Slovenia’s Janez Jansa, and the Czech Republic’s Petr Fiala—recently visited president Zelensky in Kyiv even as Russia’s bombs were falling on Ukraine.
Boris Johnson has toured Saudi Arabia and the UAE, acting as a de facto emissary for the West since those Arab leaders refuse to take president Biden’s phone calls. The West needs oil and wants the Middle East to pump more of it. However, the Arab countries have been reluctant to expand production because of disputes related to human rights issues with Washington and some European countries.
Moreover, these nations are hesitant to jeopardize an existing deal with Russia and the oil cartel OPEC. The arrangement could be threatened if they accepted the request to raise production significantly.
Since Johnson is cozy with the notorious Mohammed Bin Salman, the Saudi Crown Prince, Johnson has suddenly acquired renewed favor in the eyes of other western liberal democracies. Of course, these are the very democracies that couldn’t wait for him to be kicked out of Downing Street only a few days ago.
To put an icing on this strange cake, the fundamental dispute now emerging in Europe is no longer between liberal democracies and nationalist populists but between Western Europeans who (like France, Italy, Spain) want, in the wake of Russia’s actions, to increase the common European purse to fund for a massive rise in spending on energy, defense, food and strategic industries, and others (like Germany, the Netherlands, and Sweden) who prefer to keep the existing budget and reset its spending priorities, and for each country to tap its national resources according to its own possibilities.
A most surprising turn of events—courtesy of the Russian tyrant.