Is Europe's frosty relations with Russia thawing amid growth of populism?
The rise of populist politics across both Europe and the USA have seen the established order in retreat and many countries taking a friendlier approach to its consistent foe, Russia.The shift in political opinion throughout Europe includes the growth of anti-establishment politics in Italy, where leader of the Five Star Movement - which has backed the successful no vote against changing the constitution - calling on closer links to Vladimir Putin.
And this week Spain also invited Russia’s foreign minister to the nations to improve relations between Madrid and Moscow.
In Italy, the rise of M5S and the Northern League, both of whom want to drastically change the country’s relationship with the European Union, want better relations and have called for anti-Russia sanctions lifted. M5S senator Vito Petrocelli said last month during a trip to Moscow: “If Russians are content with having Putin as their president, then we are content with it as well. We do not meddle in other nation’s politics, and firmly believe that no country should interfere in the political affairs of another. All we do is support the economic, political and social interests of our fellow countrymen and companies in Italy and abroad. And if these interests coincide with those of another country, big or small, that’s not important.”
Currently Italy is in political limbo following the resignation of the Prime Minister Matteo Renzi following the defeat of his referendum on constitutional change. Should a general election be called, opinion polls indicate these anti-establishment parties could very likely sweep to power.
Across swathes of Europe the old teutonic plates of the established order are shifting as the populist parties benefit from a surge in support, seemingly inspired by the UK’s Brexit decision and the election of Donald Trump as president in the US. Upcoming elections in Germany, France and the Netherlands could easily see the dominant parties ousted and replaced by ones that want closer ties with Russia.
Even some of the Soviet Union’s former satellite countries are becoming wary of what they see as the ever-growing dominance of the EU. The Visegrád Group - Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic have often challenged EU directives, especially over the recent influx of migrants through their countries to Germany. Both Bulgaria and Moldova last month voted for leaders who had called for the lifting of sanctions and improving relations. In Sofia, Socialist-backed General Rumen Radev, a former air force commander who wants to lift EU sanctions against Russia, won by a wide margin against the ruling centre-right GERB Party candidate Tsetska Tsacheva, securing 59 percent of the vote compared to Tsacheva’s 36 percent. Prime Minister Boyko Borisov resigned his post after the defeat.
In Moldova, the staunch pro-Russia leader Igor Dodon, who has in the past threatened to tear up an EU association agreement in favor of a trade deal with Russia, won by a narrower margin. In a second round runoff, Dodon received 52 percent of the vote compared to pro-Europe rival Maia Sandu’s 48 percent according to the Moldovan Central Election Commission.
Even NATO has recently indicated it wants a warmer relationship with Mr Putin, representing a softening of views since Russia annexed Crimea. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said on December 5: "We continue to strive for more constructive relationship with Russia and we strongly believe that in times when tensions run high it is even more important to have dialogue, to have a chance for political dialogue open and we continue to pursue our dual-track approach with strong defense combined with dialogue and political communication with Russia.”