After the controversial summit of Russian and European far-right nationalists in St. Petersburg, the threat of extreme nationalism making political inroads across Europe is becoming increasingly ominous.
Nationalist demonstrators carry their flags and, some of them, raise their hands in a Nazi salute during a march to mark National Unity Day, in Moscow. Photo: AP
The congress of European far-right nationalists, held on March 22 in St. Petersburg, was virtually ignored by Russian state television. The Kremlin also declined to comment on the event, stating only that it was “not its agenda.” However, the forum of radicals received considerable coverage in the foreign media.
“For more than a year now, the Kremlin has warned of a resurgence of fascism in Europe—meaning the pro-Western government in Ukraine,” writes The Wall Street Journal. “But on Sunday, a lawmaker whose party cooperates with the ruling United Russia in parliament, hosted a foreign legion of politicians too far to the right for most of Europe.”
As the organizers explained, it was “the world’s first ever forum of nationally oriented political forces in Europe and Russia.” However, Russia’s independent press and Ukrainian media categorized it differently, describing it as a “neo-Nazi rally.”
With friends like these, who needs enemies?
“Russia, you’ve gone nuts!” writer and opinion-maker Yuri Karyakin once cried in despair from the podium. That was 1993, when the Liberal Democrats led by populist Vladimir Zhirinovsky took second place in the State Duma elections.
Were he alive today, Karyakin would have been less polite in describing this gathering of “brownshirts,” neo-Nazis and former terrorists from across the continent in Russia’s northern capital — a mere six weeks before the 70th anniversary of the victory over fascism, which is due to be marked with pomp and ceremony in Moscow and elsewhere. Many of those in attendance had banners with stylized swastikas and openly expressed admiration for Adolf Hitler.
The Holiday Inn in St. Petersburg, where the event took place, is connected to an infamous incident in December last year, when it was declared to be “mined” and then evacuated so as to disrupt a teleconference with Russian oligarch and former political prisoner Mikhail Khodorkovsky. No bombs were discovered at this year’s International Russian Conservative Forum (the official title of the meeting), and the event passed off in an orderly manner.
That is not surprising. The chief organizer of the event was the pro-government party Rodina (founded by Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin), and the forum was opened by United Russia representative Anatoly Zhuravlev, who also happens to lead Rodina.
The official website of the event cited Vladimir Putin’s address to the Valdai Club in September 2013, to the effect that European countries are abandoning their traditional values and risking disastrous consequences. Putin urged everyone to “unite for the sake of continued existence on Earth and for the sake of conscientious and good-neighborly relations between the nations of Europe in the fight to preserve traditional values in modern society: family, spirituality and morality.”
But the “values” preached at the St. Petersburg forum are, in fact, anything but moral. The short list of invitees indicates that they represent the most odious nationalist organizations on the extreme fringe. For instance, among them was the “Party of the Swedes” (Svenskarnas Parti), a neo-Nazi outfit in everything but name. It was revealed during the 2014 elections in Sweden that four out of ten party candidates had been convicted of various offenses typically unrelated to political activity, including theft, armed assault and hate crime. In the general election of 2014 the party won 0.07 percent of the vote, or 4,189 votes.
According to the Russian independent TV station Rain, sniper Mikael Skillt, a former activist from the Party of the Swedes, is fighting in Ukraine with the Azov battalion.
There is even a bounty on his head, and his involvement in the hostilities has allowed Russian propaganda to accuse Ukraine of recruiting foreign mercenaries.
“The hero-city of St Petersburg welcomed Russia’s last friends,” sneered independent Novaya Gazeta. “Friendless, encircled by enemies, even with Crimea life is not altogether sweet.”
Among Russia’s new “friends” are the most inveterate radicals from the ranks of the national socialists. Meanwhile, Europe’s largest far-right organization, France’s Le Front National, declined the invitation to attend. Even Marine Le Pen, a strong admirer of Putin, apparently considered this “witches’ coven” a step too far.
The “Fourth Reich” and fears of neo-Nazism
Last week, the global community was shocked by a collage on the cover of influential German magazine Spiegel. The picture showed a laughing Angela Merkel in the company of Nazi officers against a backdrop of ancient Athens. Does anyone really view the respectable Frau Merkel as a new female führer?
This question was answered by editor-in-chief Klaus Brinkbäumer, saying that the collage merely parodies the European view of Germany. Brinkbäumer urged that the montage be taken with “irony.”
The image was prompted by the renewed call for reparations, which the Greek authorities have been demanding for many years. Now that the far left is in power, the demands have begun to sound more persistently.
In his column Brinkbäumer said that the magazine’s lead article “explains why the past is not going away, and why the topic of national socialism has arisen once more in the discussions about Germany’s leading role in the euro zone.”
He says that Merkel has no connection to the Nazis. It is just the result of a journalistic probe in Greece, Italy, Britain, Brussels and Berlin by the authors of the piece to understand the fresh controversy over Athens’ claims for reparations. The fact is that many people in Europe still see Germany as an iron fist, almost akin to a new “Reich,” the difference being that the aim is to rule not through military expansionism, but credit and monetary policy.
Many Western media criticized the shock tactics. But Brinkbäumer is right about one thing - the tragic past is not going away. The world refuses to part company with neo-Nazism. Yet the phenomenon is interpreted differently in Europe and Russia.
“The forum in St. Petersburg points to the muddle that lies at the heart of Russian politics,” writes Nezavisimaya Gazeta. “What is fascism for Russians these days? That terrible foe our grandparents had to fight in the Great Patriotic War? That modern Russian meme that causes phantom pain [due to the events in Ukraine] and is now part and parcel of state propaganda? Or the very real radicals, some of them Russian-made?”
The painful psychological condition of Russian society may have several causes. For Nezavisimaya Gazeta, first and foremost is the historical grievance suffered during the years following the collapse of the Soviet Union when Russia shed her great power status and, according to a majority of Russians, ceased to matter. This resentment was fertile soil for official propaganda claiming that Russia was surrounded by enemies bent on destroying her.
However, the consequences of this “historical grievance” are repugnant. Russia is seeing a rapid rise in social aggression, intolerance and hatred towards America and Western Europe on one side, and the “social traitors” who advocate liberal pro-Western values on the other.
Victory Day in Moscow without the victors
As Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov proudly announced in a recent interview with TV station Rossiya, the 70th anniversary of Victory Day to be held in Moscow will be attended by 30 world leaders.
Given that 60 were invited, is the glass half full or half empty?
Twenty years ago, the May celebrations were attended by all world leaders, and 10 years ago by most (minus Tony Blair and the leaders of the Baltic countries and Georgia). This time around U.S. President Barack Obama, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Francois Hollande, the leaders of the countries that made up the anti-Hitler coalition, will be conspicuous by their absence.
Even “buddy” Bulgarian President Rosen Plevneliev plans to boycott the event. But North Korea’s young leader, Kim Jong-un, will be there, arriving on his trademark armored train, which is unlikely to raise the level of international representation.
Now that Russia is recognized as an aggressor, world leaders are not comfortable rubbing shoulders with Putin. They are wary of public opinion back home. According to high-profile Russian blogger Anton Orekh, “Why would they feel the need to equate the heroism of the Soviet people and the millions who gave their lives for Victory with the present incumbents of the Kremlin?”
Indeed, is it really worth equating the victorious common folk with the fanners of militaristic hysteria? These include Russia’s ambassador to Denmark, Mikhail Vanin, who recently threatened his host country with nuclear weapons.
Even the leaders of the Soviet Union would have balked at that. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev may have banged his shoe on the table at the UN, but the word “bomb” did not escape from his lips. After the fearful Cuban Missile Crisis, any mention of the threat of nuclear weapons was taboo for Soviet and Russian leaders.
But history teaches us only that it teaches us nothing. The past does indeed refuse to go away. The world seems to have forgotten that the national socialists rose on the wings of patriotic spiritual values masking misanthropic ideals.
This is particularly dangerous in view of the economic and spiritual crisis that many countries of Europe face, in both the east and west of the continent. We are all in desperately short supply of such impassioned speakers as the aforementioned Russian litterateur Yuri Karyakin, who would cry out loud and bold: “People, come to your senses!”