Putin’s European allies

Presidential candidate Marine Le Pen poses for a photo at an election rally in Sturing Wendell, France, on Friday, April 1, 2022 (Andrea Mantovani / The New York Times)

President Joe Biden described the world as involved in a “battle between democracy and autocracy”, and Ukraine has become a central front.

There, Vladimir Putin, Russia’s autocratic ruler, launched a military invasion designed to destroy democracy, and his military seems to be committing horrific atrocities in the process. An important part of Russia’s military efforts is the economic aid it receives from another authoritarian government, China. On the other side of the struggle, many democracies – including the United States and much of Europe – have rallied to support Ukraine by supplying it with weapons and imposing tough economic sanctions on Russia.

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But Ukraine is not the only place where competition between autocracy and democracy takes place. It also happens inside several European democracies through elections rather than military conflict. In these countries, Putin-friendly politicians – and those who share his right-wing nationalist views – are trying to gain power.

Two of them seem to have succeeded on Sunday. Both Hungary and Serbia have re-elected incumbent leaders who support Putin. A bigger test will take place this month in France, where it will hold its own presidential election – and where the victory of the far-right candidate will be a geopolitical earthquake.

Here’s a look at all three countries.

Hungary

Viktor Orbán, Putin’s friendly Hungarian prime minister, seems to have won there. “We have won such a great victory that it can be seen from the moon and, of course, from Brussels,” Orban told his supporters on Sunday night, looking back at the European Union.

Hungary is the purest example of a democracy that is sliding towards autocracy. After taking power in 2010 with a legitimate election victory, Orbán began changing the rules to stay in power. He joined forces with allies and used lawsuits to end critical media coverage. He aggressively changed the election rules.

In each of the last two national elections, Orbán’s Fidesz party won less than half of the vote, but won a two-thirds majority in parliament. After Sunday’s election, Fidesz seems on track to win 135 seats in the 199-seat parliament.

Orbán oversaw a government that combines cultural nationalism, economic populism and high-level corruption. His policies have boosted the incomes of many Hungarians, including the more rural areas that make up his base, while causing fear of immigrants and, more recently, LGBTQ.

All this brings him closer to Putin. In recent weeks, Orban has tried to express himself as a neutral peacemaker in Ukraine, knowing that many Hungarians have long feared Russia. But mostly he sided with Putin.

Hungary has not joined Western Europe’s efforts to provide Ukraine with weapons, and it opposes efforts within the EU to ban Russian energy imports. On Sunday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called Orban “almost the only one in Europe who openly supports Putin.”

Hungary became the closest to the fifth column within NATO and the European Union. It is officially a Western democracy, but in fact an ally of Putin.

Serbia

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic used both Putin and Orban as role models. By becoming president in 2017, Vucic helped turn Serbia’s once independent media into something more like a propaganda machine. In recent months, pro-Russian commentators have broadcast Putin’s lies that Ukraine is a Nazi nest.

Serbia is not a member of either NATO or the EU, and many of its citizens share Russia’s distrust of the West.

But the country is not strictly pro-Russian. Although Vucic did not impose sanctions on Russia and did not suspend flights to Moscow, his government voted in favor of a UN resolution condemning the invasion.

Voter turnout was high in Sunday’s election, but opposition politicians said they were concerned about indecent play. Vucic’s party is on track to retain power in parliament, but according to exit polls, the majority is smaller.

France

French voters will go to the polls on Sunday in the first round of the presidential election. If no candidate gets a majority – and most likely no one will – the second round in two will take place in two weeks, on April 24.

The favorite is incumbent President Emanuel Macron. But his advantage in the polls is not great, and the war in Ukraine seems to harm him. Inflation was already quite high in Europe, as in much of the world, due to the pandemic. The war has led to even higher prices, mainly due to sanctions on Russian oil.

While Macron has focused on trying to find a diplomatic solution in Ukraine – and so far it has failed – his main opponent has focused on the French economy. This opponent is Marine Le Pen, a hard-line candidate.

As Roger Cohen of The New York Times writes: “Her patient focus on the cost of living has resonated with millions of French people who are struggling to make ends meet after rising gas prices by more than 53% over the past year. ”

Le Pen has a long history of friendship with Putin. Her party took loans from a Russian bank and she met with him in 2017 to strengthen her political image. Prior to the invasion, Le Pen largely supported Putin’s policies. Even now, she is largely opposed to tough policies toward Putin.

Le Pen lags behind in polls by about 6 percentage points – a small enough margin to be able to imagine the disorder. If she wins, the autocracy-friendly cacus in Europe’s democracies will become much larger than it is.

“Its victory,” Cohen writes, “would threaten European unity, alarm French allies from Washington to Warsaw, and confront the European Union with the biggest crisis since Brexit.”

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