Euro elections: Respect for Putin in Bulgaria

Ataka activists in Sofia, Image copyright AFP
Image caption Ultra-nationalist party Ataka supports Russia in its dispute with the EU

One of the things this election campaign will be remembered for is the surge in support for anti-establishment parties across the continent.

And one of the things many of those parties have in common is sympathy for the policies of Vladimir Putin in Crimea and eastern Ukraine.

"We don't understand why this Russophobia has turned into an official policy in Brussels," says Magdalena Tasheva, MP from the far-right Bulgarian party, Ataka.

To emphasise its point, Ataka actually started its European election campaign in Moscow.

"Vladimir Putin has restored the dignity of the Russian people," Ms Tasheva adds.

Ataka may fall short of winning a seat in the European Parliament, but support for Russia can be found across the political spectrum here.

Part of it is anti-EU, part of it anti-American, anti-Nato - but whatever the cause, it raises some awkward questions for EU policymakers who want to present a united front.

"Opinion polls show many pro-Russian feelings in the context of the crisis with Ukraine," says Nikola Mladinov, correspondent at Bulgarian National Radio.

"Many people are against economic sanctions and confrontation with Russia."

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Flags show solidarity with Russia on this World War Two memorial in Sofia

Respect for Putin

Such political sentiments are not limited to countries that have historic ties to Moscow either.

Marine Le Pen in France and Nigel Farage in the UK have both voiced criticism of EU policy in Ukraine, and spoken of their admiration for Mr Putin.

Many populist parties in Europe like the Russian president's mix of nationalism and moral conservatism, and his efforts to undermine EU unity.

So the prospect that a sizeable minority of new MEPs will be willing to defend Vladimir Putin during debates in the next European Parliament will have officials in Moscow smiling with satisfaction.

"I think it will be another tool in the Russian tool kit," says Amanda Paul of the European Policy Centre in Brussels.

"Ultimately I don't think it will have a massive impact in EU policies towards Russia," she argues, "but it could be something of an irritant".

National governments in the EU will still take the lead in deciding policy towards Russia, including the use of sanctions. But there's little unanimity there.

And the populist embrace of Mr Putin and what he represents is another - perhaps unexpected - sign of dissatisfaction with the status quo.