In an email to Newsweek, the embassy declined to comment on the meeting, but one of the guests was more forthcoming. “The background is that [the tabloid] Bild reported that [Vladimir] Putin was trying to influence AfD by offering us loans and gold bars, but we were unaware of any such attempts,” explains Christian Lüth, the party’s communications director. “We even double-checked our gold inventory, but there’s nothing there from Russia. So I called up [Grinin], who said that he doesn’t comment on news stories but that he’d be happy to meet. We spoke about our respective positions on different issues, but that’s something we do with many ambassadors.” Other political parties do the same with various ambassadors, Lüth notes.
Nevertheless, news of the meeting raised eyebrows around Europe. A couple of months earlier, Grinin had had two other AfD politicians over for a meeting. Also last autumn, the Russian-affiliated First Czech Russian Bank gave a €9.4m loan to the French right-wing party Front National, and FN leader Marine Le Pen visited Moscow to discuss policy issues with Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin and other officials.
The leader of Austria Freedom Party (FPÖ), Heinz-Christian Strache, also visited the Russian capital on a self-described confidence-building mission. Then, after a recent visit to Crimea and Moscow, where he met with top officials, Italian far-right party Lega Nord’s leader, Matteo Salvini, praised the Russian capital’s safe underground system and announced that “Russia wants dialogue”.
Finally, Jobbik, which became Hungary’s third largest party in last year’s elections, maintains particularly close relations with the Kremlin. In a recent speech in Moscow, Jobbik party leader, Gábor Vona, denounced the US as “the deformed offspring of Europe”, and the party’s chief foreign policy expert, Béla Kovács, has even been accused of spying for Russia.
Kovács is an MEP. So are two fellow Jobbik members, five Lega Nord members, four from FPÖ, three from Greece’s Golden Dawn, two from the far-right Sweden Democrats, one from Belgium’s Vlaams Belang and 23 members of FN, now France’s largest party in the EU’s legislating body.
In addition to these committed supporters of Russia, the current European Parliament comprises parties such as Poland’s Nowa Prawica and Britain’s UKIP, which maintain an open attitude towards the superpower in the East. In fact, nowhere does Russia have more elected friends than in the EU’s legislative body. And while Moscow’s interest in European fringe parties isn’t news, their political clout is.
“One fifth of MEPs now belong to radical, fringe and non-mainstream parties,” explains Péter Krekó, director of Political Capital Institute, a Budapest-based research group, and author of a recent report on Russia’s connections with European radicals. “By maintaining close connections with these parties, Russia can destabilise Europe from within, now especially in the European Parliament, and at the same time legitimise Russia’s actions.”