By Peter Kreko, Director, Political Capital Institute; Europe’s Futures Fellow
According to the rules of traditional, mainstream politics, you are losing popularity if
you receive support from a foreign country. In the era of tribal politics, you should not
be afraid. How can pernicious polarization eat up democratic norms? A case study on
In May 2019, a secretly recorded videotape was published. On this record, two leaders of the
far-right Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ): Heinz-Christian Strache vice-chancellor and party
leader and Johann Gudenus, a deputy leader of the Freedom Party were talking with a woman
disguised to be the wife of a Russian businessman, Igor Makarov. The lady proposed the FPÖ
media influence and positive coverage in turn for some government contracts. Strache and
Gudenus were ready to go to a deal, practically being open to promising to give public assets
such as motorway contracts to a Russian woman for some gains for their parties. "We like
Russia" told Strache on the tape, revealing his intention that "We want to build a media
landscape similar to Orbán's". Two days later the two were approached by a man who asked
them, in the name of the fake Russian woman to release a smear press release against one
owner of the Austrian construction company Strabag. They immediately did so.
This is a scarce moment when politicians' corrupt intentions are revealed prime time this
openly. A few days after this scandal exploded, the Austrian government collapsed. The
nationalist FPÖ that was caught on the tape with this scandal poses as the most prominent
defender of Austrian interests. So many assumed that the party's popularity would nosedive
and they would disappear after elections.
But nothing like this happened. Despite the scandal broke out less than a week before the
European Parliamentary elections, FPÖ could gain 17 percent and delegate three MEPs in the
European Parliament - among them one of the protagonists of the scandal, Strache (He later
resigned from the post). And while FPÖ lost its governmental position as a result of the
following elections, it is still a confident middle-sized party.
At the same time, it was only a fake, orchestrated sting story of Russian interference, where
FPÖ leaders were dump enough to step into a money trap. Then they stepped down, allowing
the party leadership to distance themselves from them. But there were cases of real Russian
interference and help for populist parties that were revealed - but similarly did not turn the
Last summer, an even bigger scandal broke out in Italy. Gianluca Savoini, the right-hand of
deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini, and leader of the populist right Lega party with two
colleagues from the same party, met with three real Russians in a luxurious hotel in Moscow.
On the meeting that took more than an hour, they discussed how the party could be illegally
financed by Moscow via overpriced energy deals involving the Italian energy company ENI,
through intermediaries. The goal of the support that they discussed was to finance the
European Parliamentary election campaign of the Lega party.
"A new Europe has to be close to Russia as before because we want to have our sovereignty"
- Gianluca Savoini said at the meeting where they agreed on a deal that would again put
Russian and party interests in front of the interest of Italy. The whole conversation was taped
and the transcript was released. While Salvini tried to distance himself from Savoini, saying
that he was not even in the delegation, photos showed them on a selfie smiling together on the
Red square, and details emerged on their decade-long alliance and friendship. A legal
procedure began right after the event, and many thought it would be the end of Matteo Salvini
and his party as we know it. These predictions proved wrong again. The "Moscowgate" affair
made practically no impact on the popularity of Lega. The party remained far the most
popular in Italy, close to forty percent support. They suffered a small popularity loss later, due
to the fact that Lega managed to outmaneuver itself from the Italian government and then a
far-right challenger, Giorgia Meloni, took away some voters from Salvini.
A similar thing happened in France a few years before. Less than one year after it turned out
that Marine Le Pen's Front National received 9 million euro loan from a Kremlin-close
Russian bank before the 2014 EP elections, she had her best-ever electoral result, gaining
40% in the fir regional election in France and then she entered into the second round of
presidential elections against Emmanuel Macron in 2017. A more recent example from the
Netherlands: serious revelations of talks about Russian campaign money around the last
elections with party comrades via Whatsapp in April did not have any negative impact on the
popularity of the party of new far right hopeful Thierry Baudet and his Forum for Democracy.
Of course, we find plenty of tribalism beyond continental Europe as well. In the Anglo-Saxon
world, there are similar examples. Nigel Farage and Brexit could keep its support since 2016
despite a strong suspicion emerged that Arron Banks put some Russian money into the
campaign, leading to serious investigations. It did not have a strong impact on voters:
Farage’s Brexit party came first on the 2019 EP elections.
What happened in the United States is even more striking though. After new and new pieces
of evidence emerged in the US on how Russia interfered in the electoral campaign on the side
of Donald Trump in 2016, Republican voters did not lose their Trust in Putin and Russia. On
the contrary: Russia became increasingly popular and friendly in the eye of Republicans.
What can explain this ignorance of voters? These parties and politicians of EU and NATO
countries are all posing as champions of national sovereignty. Still, their voters do not seem to
care when it turns out that a malign superpower, Russia, interferes into their elections to help
them and smear their opponents. They are ignorant despite if these are transgressions of
democratic norms- in some cases, even legal ones. The reason is simple: political tribalism, or
as others call it: “pernicious polarization”. In increasingly polarised environments where
politics is understood as a tribal war, finding foreign allies is important. They can support our
tribe with financial resources, leaks on the opponents, and (dis)information weapons. If
Putin helps our leader of the tribe to win the political war - we will love him even more. Of
course, it does not mean that publishing information on foreign connections of political
parties makes no sense. Also, it is a moral obligation for journalists and experts. But nobody
should assume that it will destroy their credibility in the Tribalist Age. In order to destroy the
credibility of players who received outside help on elections it is not enough to reveal the fact
of foreign interference - it should also be explained how it undermines domestic interests.