This Week in Info War

Dutch populism comes up short

Russian state-owned media has tried to put a positive spin on the poorer-than-expected results for Geert Wilders and his xenophobic, Euroskeptic Freedom Party (PVV) in the Netherlands’ 15 March parliamentary elections. The PVV came in a distant second place behind the Liberals of Prime Minister Mark Rutte, with 13 percent of the vote and 13 seats. Kremlin-funded RT blamed the Dutch establishment for “quarantining” Wilders and claimed that his party had improved its numbers in parliament compared to the past. The Russian news agency Sputnik, another Kremlin mouthpiece, noted that Wilders—who was recently found guilty of hate speech—was still willing to enter coalition talks, even though mainstream politicians are shunning him. The Russian media also favorably covered Wilders throughout the campaign.  

Moscow also has repeatedly hacked Dutch government operations. After a warning by the Dutch security service that Russia and China tried to hack into government departments “hundreds of times,” the media reported in January that Russian hackers used 70 Dutch IP addresses—mostly from servers in Amsterdam and Rotterdam—to attack the U.S. Democratic National Committee. Home Affairs Minister Ronald Plasterk announced on 3 February that ballots in the March general election would be counted by hand. 

The country’s complex relations with Russia in recent years reflect those between the EU and Moscow. Ties were strained after Russia’s 2014 Ukraine invasion and the subsequent shootdown of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17—which killed nearly 200 Dutch passengers—during the fighting in Donbas. Dutch prosecutors believe the missile that brought down the plane was brought into Ukraine by Russia. Spreading disinformation about the investigation, moreover, is a favorite activity of Russia’s propaganda machine. Last December, Russian media gave heavy coverage to NATO’s decision to store “1,600 [battle] tanks” in a Dutch facility in a “clear message to Russia.” In fact, the story was wildly exaggerated, as many of the “tanks” were support vehicles.

Despite these complications, economic relations between the two countries are substantial. Dutch firms Shell, Unilever, Philips and DSM are in the Russian market. The Netherlands is one of Russia’s key EU investment partners. In April 2016, the Dutch voted “no” to an EU-Ukraine Association Agreement in a referendum—a result some saw as a vote for Russian President Vladimir Putin and against Kyiv’s future, though it more likely was the result of a Euroskeptic mood among the electorate, which then heightened concerns about Wilders’ electoral chances. 

Dutch political prospects in the election’s aftermath are heading towards a period of uncertainty and instability. Forming a new government could take months; the formerly powerful, center-left Labor party is a shell of its former self, and parties of the more extreme left, such as the liberal D66 party, are stronger. The eventual coalition, therefore, may be united by little more than opposition to Wilders. Even out of power, however, the PVV leader will remain influential and shape political discourse. Rutte held Wilders off, for example, in part because he used some of his rhetoric, and some mainstream parties have called for clamping down on immigration. The Kremlin will thus have lots of opportunities to exploit social tensions. Despite its disappointment about Wilders’ performance, on March 17 Sputnik highlighted a prominent Austrian politician’s call to “take right-wing parties into account and treat them seriously.”