Just a few days ahead of the elections to renew the European Parliament, there is much debate about alleged Russian interferences in the democratic process. But apart from cyber-attacks and other covert activities, how do Russian state-sponsored media outlets in English cover the upcoming elections? Answering this question is important, since they are conceived for a foreign audience and adopt a discourse meant to shape the perceptions of the electoral body on the basis of Moscow’s views and objectives.
Examining recent articles from three major outlets (RT, Sputnik News and Russia Insider) allows us to better understand this phenomenon. All three publications present a few recurring themes: the most frequent one is the rise of Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party in the UK, who according to some electoral polls is ahead of the Labour and most importantly of the Tories. RT reports that the latter is sinking in projections; Sputnik states they are in “crisis”, that they are facing a “complete collapse”, that according to polls Farage’s Brexit Party would “hammer” them in the upcoming elections, and that its victory would cause a “major earthquake” in British politics.
France also gets a good share of attention, focusing on the anticipated electoral head-to-head between incumbent President Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen’s National Rally. Both RT and Sputnik have published articles on this (here and here respectively) emphasising how Le Pen is attempting to turn the European Parliament elections into an approval referendum on Macron and his policies by insisting that he should resign in case of defeat as De Gaulle did in 1946 after a defeat in the national parliamentary elections.
The growing influence of Italy’s Lega (League) party headed by Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini is another frequent topic. An article on Sputnik News mentions that the League may become the second-largest single party in the European Parliament.
Russia Insider, adopting a more vivid tone, also published two articles on Salvini. The first highlights his electoral gains and portrays him as “the person who lays the foundation for a wholesale revolt against the European Union and Italy’s participation in the euro” and the man capable of forming a pan-European bloc to “challenge the French/German axis of power.” The piece indicates France’s Le Pen and Hungary’s Viktor Orban as coalition allies and adds statements about his apparent attempts to retake control over Italy’s gold reserves in order to fight the EU. The second article depicts him as a “glorious new Caesar” determined to “free Italy from Gaulish [French] financial slavery”.
The last recurrent topic is the denial of the threat posed by Russian meddling to influence the elections. Responding to a piece published on The New York Times, an article on RT insists that the US newspaper offers no proof of Moscow’s actual implication apart from the opinion of a couple of anti-Russian and pro-NATO experts said to be linked with the US Democratic Party. RT also argues that Russia is not to blame for the rise of Eurosceptic forces, which is instead the result of “the disconnect between political elites and the people they are meant to represent”.
In short, these outlets all give extensive space to news regarding the views of right-wing conservative parties (often described as “populist” or “ethno-nationalist”) and their progress in electoral polls. However, their stance varies. Russia Insider, whose articles often include conspiracy theories and anti-Semitism, hails this trend as a positive course; whereas RT and Sputnik do not necessarily portray it in a positive way.
An article on RT reports that, according to a study by the Bertelsmann Foundation, around 10% of European will vote for such anti-system parties; but the piece also includes a quote by one of the report’s co-authors, Robert Vehrkamp, who stated that “Many citizens no longer choose to back one party, but rather vote against parties they oppose the most”. This suggests that the anticipated electoral success of the Eurosceptic parties is mainly due to “protest votes” resulting from dissatisfaction towards the establishment rather than from genuine support for them.
Similarly, Sputnik published an interview with Dr. Chris Reynolds of Nottingham University where he advances the argument that, rather than being the result of an anti-EU sentiment and opposition to European integration, the rise of right-wing parties is largely due to dissatisfaction over the domestic conditions of each state; meaning that electors will cast their votes as a form of protest against their own government. The interview does not hide Dr. Reynold’s opinion that these are nevertheless “worrying developments” in the light of the upcoming elections.
Similarly, after mentioning the surge of Eurosceptic parties in Europe and the UK, an op-ed by Ken Livingstone (a former British MP of the Labour Party) ends with an explicit invitation to vote for those political forces who want to remain in the EU, which seems to contradict the attention given on Russian outlets to Farage’s Brexit Party.
As such, the objective is not so much to present Eurosceptic parties in a positive light, but simply to constantly remind the readers that they are gaining electoral ground. The differences in style between the various outlets can be explained by the fact that they are tailored for different audiences so to catch the broadest spectrum of the European electorate, but they all have a point in common: they attempt to raise attention towards the expected electoral gains of anti-system parties and most importantly to underline the gap existing between EU institutions and the ordinary people who perceive them as alien. This has the ultimate goal of serving Russia’s geopolitical views by undermining the Union’s legitimacy.
As a matter of fact, since it considers European institutions like the EU (and even more NATO) as a threat or at best as an obstacle to its strategic interests, Moscow prefers a fragmented Europe over an integrated one; and this allows to interpret the coverage of the European Parliamentary elections by Russian-backed media.
*Alessandro Gagaridis is an independent International Relations analyst and owner of the website www.strategikos.it