Report

The Real Russian Threat to Central Eastern Europe

Neo-fascism. Russian disinformation. State-sponsored ethno-nationalism. And all around unwillingness to do much about any of it — yet.

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The European People’s Party adopted a resolution at its annual congress in Malta on Wednesday. The subject? “Russian disinformation undermining Western democracy.”

It’s the latest chapter in a push to get the European Union to take seriously what is becoming a growing threat to liberal democracy in the world’s biggest democratic club. And it comes just as lawmakers in the United States grapple with the fallout of Russia’s disinformation campaign during the 2016 election, widely believed to have been meant to help tip the scales in favor of Donald Trump.

Last week, members of the EPP signed an open letter along with government officials and other experts calling on EU foreign minister Federica Mogherini to “Please start taking the Russian disinformation threat seriously!” They asked her to call out Russia “and its proxies” by name as the source of a lot of disinformation and fake news that is helping push Europeans away from the liberal notions that underpinned the creation of the union in the first place. They also asked for her to unleash the very creature — the EEAS East STRATCOM Team — built to counter that threat in the first place.

Russian disinformation, the letter says, is “aimed at destabilising our societies, meddling in our elections and referendums, misleading our political leaders and breaking up the EU unity by supporting those who want to destroy it.”

Mogherini did not respond by pledging to increase resources (though she did send out a tweet featuring a cartoon on the importance of remaining a union). Nor did she acknowledge what the letter’s signatories seemed to want her to say: that Russian disinformation, as well as the separate but related issues of illiberalism and political extremism, is increasingly becoming a big problem in Europe, and specifically in the “Visegrad Four” countries in Central and Eastern Europe, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia. And far from trying to tackle it — as Finland, for example, has done with some success — those governments seem to be in many cases willing accomplices of a campaign that ultimately makes it easier to cement their own rise to power.

The poster child for touting the Kremlin’s line, of course, is Hungary, where the ruling party, Fidesz, switched to an openly pro-Russia stance in 2010. In 2014, Prime Minister Viktor Orban famously called for the creation of an “illiberal” state, and has been vocal in his support for and emulation of Russia.

Nearby, a similar story plays out. The Czech Republic may have established the Center Against Terrorism and Hybrid Threats to counter disinformation, but those efforts have been specifically criticized by Czech President Milos Zeman, who has openly called for an end to sanctions on Russia. And while Slovakia’s President Andrej Kiska has criticized Russia’s disinformation campaign, the president of the Slovak police corps signed an anti-immigrant letter riddled, as the former prime minister put it, with “absurdities, confused facts and illogical pseudo-connections.”

And Russian disinformation seeps into the media, as well. While some is simply perpetuated by sympathetic conspiracy theorists, in some cases there are direct links to Russia. For example, in Slovakia, the editors of the extreme far-right (some say conspiracy-focused) magazine Zem a vek met with the Russian ambassador to Slovakia to ask for support. Later, editors from Zem a vek, among others, travelled to Moscow to discuss the establishment of a new media project, including a TV channel (that channel is now defunct). This trip came the same year that Zem a vek called for Slovakia’s withdrawal from NATO.

Slovak state media outlet TASR announced a “content sharing” deal with Kremlin-backed outlet Sputnik — and even though TASR pulled out on Thursday after the deal came under media scrutiny, the fact it was made in the first place suggests that the Kremlin line is not viewed as suspiciously as it once was.

Even the one Visegrad country that hasn’t taken a friendly line toward Russia — Poland — is still busy copying the Kremlin playbook. Under the Law and Justice Party, Poland has lurched away from liberalism, essentially taking over the constitutional tribunal, flirting with media restrictions, and souring relations with Brussels. Throughout, the government has disseminated dubious information to undermine public confidence in Brussels. Disinformation in Poland doesn’t have to come from the Kremlin, in other words, to undermine cohesion within Europe.

“The Polish government, for instance, repeatedly lies about the number of Ukrainian refugees Poland has supposedly accepted,” said Mateo Mazzini, a Warsaw native studying in London. “They do so to have an excuse not to accept refugees from the Middle East, but these statements are just blatant lies. Our own, native, Polish lies, though – no need to import them from Moscow.”

Put another way: Poland is pushing what some consider illiberal disinformation on its own, but it’s cribbing from Hungary, which is copycatting Russia. The true origins of this phenomenon are local,” Maria Snegovaya of Columbia University said — though not exclusively home brewed. “The policies of Fidesz and Law and Justice have a lot in common with Putin’s own policies.”

And Poland is following Hungary’s illiberal model perhaps in part because its government knows there won’t be repercussions from the EU. “The message Orban sent to the whole region,” said Peter Kreko, a senior associate of the Budapest-based Political Capital Institute, “is: You can do it” — act illiberally and get away with it.

To be sure, ill feelings toward the European Union among people in Central and Eastern Europe aren’t solely about Russian disinformation, or even about the rise of far-right political parties. The problem is also in part about the European Union and the European project itself. Even EU boosters acknowledge that the former Soviet-bloc countries were brought into the European Union by roping in local elites. Many regular people felt, and still feel, that the EU has done little to engage on issues that matter to them, from immigration to the economic impact of European accession to the realities of employment in an increasingly globalized Eastern Europe.

Take the issue of Syrian refugees. “One of the root causes” of risking nationalism and EU-skepticism in Poland, said Karol Zwirello, who lives and works in Gdansk, “was Angela Merkel’s welcoming policy toward illegal migrants. The pressure for EU countries to divide the number of migrants each of them would have to host has caused strong opposition.”

Others struggle to find their views reflected in elitist, mainstream media.

“I have this notion that mass media in Slovakia — really, most of them, 90 percent of the coverage you can get is mostly pro-Western or pro-European oriented,” said Peter, who lives and works in Bratislava and asked to be identified only by his first name. “I think it’s not proper representation of Slovak society.”

And when they don’t see it in mainstream outlets, Peter said, they turn to the internet, and to social media, and to ever increasingly extremist sites associated with once-fringe political parties that have moved to the mainstream. And even once-mainstream parties could be seen as having gotten more extreme: Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico called journalists critical of him prostitutes, and said Islam has no place in Slovakia before he later deigned to criticize fascism.

Those parties, too, get a boost from Russian disinformation. “Russian influence is stronger on the far right where it’s stronger on the mainstream, most notably in Slovakia and Hungary,” said Kreko. “The second rule that we found — the more extreme you go, the stronger the Russian influence is.”

The fascist People’s Party Our Slovakia, which won eight percent of the vote in elections last March, is anti-EU, anti-NATO, pro-Nazi leaders, and pro-Russia (the party papers over the historical contradictions in that stance by pointing to Slovakia and Russia’s shared Slavic roots.) Jobbik, a Hungarian party even further to the right than Orban’s Fidesz, is also openly pro-Kremlin, and introduced a Hungarian version of Russia’s law requiring NGOs that take foreign funding to declare themselves as foreign agents — a policy since pursued not by a fringe party, but by the Hungarian government.

But Russian kindling isn’t even needed to light a far-right fire, with Visegrad countries learning from one another. “Groups such as the National Movement operate and march in public under openly anti-semitic, racist and xenophobic slogans, yet Law and Justice sees no reason for dismantling them,” Mazzini said.

Europe’s illiberal turn, and Russia’s role in accelerating it, isn’t irreversible, though it is easier for leaders in the West to push back against a rising illiberal tide than for those in the east already knee-deep. Governments could promote media literacy among the population, get security services involved, and share best practices, said Kacper Rekawek and Daniel Milo of Bratislava’s GLOBSEC Policy Institute in Bratislava. Finland has done much of that to parry Russian attempts at manipulation.

And, they said, leaders could craft a new narrative seeking to explain to skeptical populations why liberalism and European values are worth fighting for in the first place.

But what governments have tried so far has been half-hearted. “I don’t see a sincere effort” to sell people anew on Europe, Milo said, “and the old narratives aren’t working anymore.” Rekawek said “it needs to be rebooted.”

But that’s not likely to come from leaders in Visegrad countries. Orban, Zeman, and Law and Justice chief Jaroslaw Kaczynski benefit at the polls the more voters are skeptical of western liberalism in general and the EU’s rules in particular.

What about leaders in Brussels? They haven’t even been able to take any meaningful action to censure illiberalism in Poland or Hungary, two member states. And Mogherini, Jakub Janda of the European Values Think Tank said, is eager to maintain working relations with Russia to cooperate on Syria — making her wary of naming Russian disinformation as a threat.

Big elections are coming up in France and Germany, the core of the EU — with plenty of momentum for the far-right, anti-EU National Front leader Marine le Pen in France. That’s already got plenty of people in Brussels (and Berlin) nervous that one of the keystones of the 60-year European experiment is about to get hit with a sledgehammer.

As if that weren’t enough, as of Wednesday, Brexit is officially underway. That gives the European Union an even bigger and more immediate threat to its shape, unity, and purpose — at the expense, perhaps, of trying to roll back the tide of illiberalism further east. The European Union is understandably trying to grapple with potentially existential threats on its western flank. But perhaps, in doing so, it’s ignoring one that’s already arrived.

Update, March 30, 2017, 2:20 pm ET: This post was updated to clarify relations between Slovak outlet Zem a Vek and Russia.

Photo credit: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Emily Tamkin is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering ambassadorial and diplomatic affairs in Washington. @emilyctamkin

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