Saturday

8th May 2021

Investigation

Moscow using far right to infiltrate EU parliament

  • French MEPs in Crimea

On the warm evening of 30 June 2020, a chartered plane operated by the Russian Severstal Air Company landed in Simferopol, the capital of Crimea annexed by Russia in March 2014.

Around half of the passengers travelling to Crimea on the special flight from Moscow were European politicians, but there were politicians and activists from other countries, such as Afghanistan, Chile, and Venezuela, too.

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  • Tamara Volokhova

Politicians were escorted by interpreters – predominantly Russian women in their 20s and 30s, some of them with the background of working for the Russian state-controlled RT television network and Russia's foreign ministry.

The purpose of the politicians' trip to Crimea was to "observe" the vote on the changes to the constitution of the Russian Federation – changes that president Vladimir Putin introduced in January 2020, in order to have the possibility of staying in power until 2036.

Russia's Central Election Committee treated the vote differently than Russian parliamentary or presidential elections, and did not invite official observers from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) or Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) - as it usually does for nationwide plebiscites.

However, following a long Russian tradition of using alternative mechanisms of international endorsement of dubious elections, Moscow invited dozens of foreign politicians, journalists, and activists, who were ready to praise any electoral process in Russia as democratic, open, free and fair whatever their actual conduct.

Some of them "observed" the vote only in Russia, while the passengers of the Severstal plane were also brought to do the same in Crimea.

The largest part of the delegation was a group of French MEPs, featuring Virginie Joron, Hervé Juvin, Jean-Lin Lacapelle, Philippe Olivier, and Thierry Mariani – all members of the French far-right National Rally party led by Marine Le Pen, and all members of the Identity and Democracy far-right group in the European Parliament.

Le Pen is a staunch supporter of the Kremlin, and was Moscow's favourite in the 2017 French presidential elections.

Other European politicians and activists who arrived in Simferopol were no less remarkable.

The guest list

Former Swedish MP Erik Almqvist, who was a member of the far-right Sweden Democrats and now runs an "alternative media" enterprise Exakt24.

Finnish activist Johan Bäckman, who was declared persona non grata in Estonia and Moldova for his pro-Kremlin activities, and who received, in 2018, a 12-month suspended jail sentence for aggravated defamation and stalking of Finnish journalist Jessikka Aro who investigated the Russian troll factory.

Montenegrin anti-Nato activist Igor Damjanović, writing for the IN4S website and regularly commenting for Russian state-aligned media.

Volker Tschapke, a German functionary of Afric, a network of agents of Russian influence in Africa and Europe created by the structures of Russian US-sanctioned businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin.

A former member of the Election Commission of Bulgaria, Martin Raykov, and a vice chairman of the Bulgarian centre-left party Alternative for Bulgarian Revival, Lyubomira Gancheva.

While in Crimea, the passengers of the Severstal plane were joined by yet another European "observer", Jevgenijs Korols, one of the leaders of the Latvian anti-immigrant, eurosceptic, and openly pro-Russian Action party.

The French part of the delegation was led by Thierry Mariani, the former centre-right MP (2012-2017) and, earlier, minister of transport (2010-2012), who joined the far-right National Rally in 2019 and was elected as an MEP that year.

Mariani had been engaged in various types of pro-Kremlin activities for many years, and, in particular, illegally travelled to annexed Crimea several times since 2015.

Mariani was accompanied by a 30-year old woman, his policy advisor in the European Parliament.

Meet Tamara Volokhova

She was perhaps the most intriguing passenger of the Severstal plane: a Russian citizen, but another manifestation of how Russia keeps infiltrating the European Parliament with the use of the European far right.

Her name is Tamara Volokhova. Hailing from Rostov-on-Don in southern Russia, she moved to Strasbourg at the end of the 2000s to study communication and public relations at the European Communication School.

A model, Volokhova undertook an internship at the European audiovisual observatory of the Council of Europe in 2012, before moving to an internship at the directorate-general for communication at the European Parliament in 2013.

The following year she was a parliamentary attaché intern with the right-wing, eurosceptic Europe of Freedom and Democracy group, co-chaired by then Ukip leader Nigel Farage and Italian far-right League party member Francesco Speroni.

In 2014, after the May European parliamentary elections, Volokhova got an employment contract as a parliamentary attaché to work with Aymeric Chauprade, then a member of the French far-right National Front (FN), Le Pen's advisor on international relations, and a darling of the Russian state-controlled media.

On 16 March that year, at the invitation of the Russian presidential administration, Chauprade was one of the "observers" of the illegitimate referendum in Crimea that was quickly followed by Russia's annexation of this Ukrainian territory.

The very same year, Chauprade took part in the negotiations between Jean-Marie Le Pen's political funding association Cotelec, which was used to lend funding for electoral campaigns of FN members, on the one hand, and Russian contacts, who eventually provided Cotelec with €2m through the Cyprus-registered Vernonsia Holdings, on the other.

The FN itself obtained a €9.4m loan from a Russian bank in September 2014.

As Chauprade's attaché, Volokhova coordinated his trip to the 'pro-family' conference called Large Family and Future of Humanity, in Moscow where Chauprade had the privilege to take part in the plenary session sitting at one table with patriarch of Moscow and All Russia, Vladimir (Kirill) Gundyaev, chief rabbi of Russia Berel Lazar, supreme mufti of Russia Talgat Tajuddin, as well as major operators of Russian malign influence in Europe - Vladimir Yakunin and Konstantin Malofeev.

Volokhova also authored three articles for Chauprade's website - all written from the Kremlin's perspective on Nato, US, and Russia's war on Ukraine.

In 2015, Chauprade quit the FN but Volokhova remained his attaché.

The following year, at Chauprade's request, she reached out to Yakunin and suggested making Chauprade's Multipolar World Institute, which had been founded in 2014, an important element of Yakunin's Dialogue of Civilisations project.

Although Chauprade and Yakunin met in St Petersburg in January 2016, Chauprade's initiative, however, seemed to have failed.

Despite his move away from the far right, he might still appear too toxic to Yakunin who had suffered bad publicity following his participation in a 2014 meeting, that was also attended by German far-right politicians.

Volokhova then received promotion in 2017, as she became a policy advisor directly employed by the far-right Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF) group in the European Parliament.

As a member of the ENF's secretariat, Volokhova received access to the workings of the European Parliament's committee on constitutional affairs, budgetary control committee, commission for women's rights and gender equality, and the delegation of the European Union to Russia.

Arranging visas

Serving as a policy advisor to the ENF, Volokhova helped strengthen the ties between far-right politicians and Russian actors.

In 2017, she was involved in the process of arranging Russian visas for a number of ENF MEPs, including the FN's Nicolas Bay, Edouard Ferrand, Dominique Martin, Joëlle Méllin, Mireille d'Ornano, and Mylène Troszczynski; Janice Atkinson who had been by that time expelled from Ukip; Harald Vilimsky of the Austrian Freedom Party; and Marco Zanni, a former member of the Five Star Movement.

Volokhova also asked to arrange Russian visas for advisors to ENF MEPs and other ENF policy advisors.

To claim Russian visas for them, Volokhova was in contact with Leonid Slutsky, the chair of the committee on international affairs of the Russian parliament.

Slutsky had long been involved in advancing Russian foreign policy interests in Europe, and he was particularly active in recruiting European politicians for the Kremlin's cause, organising fake election-monitoring missions, and coordinating efforts aimed at legitimising Russia's annexation of Crimea.

To avoid any suspicions, Slutsky used his organisation Russian Peace Foundation (RPF) to facilitate processing the Russian visas for the ENF MEPs selected by Volokhova.

ENF MEPs used their Russian visas for a number of purposes.

For example, in September 2017, the Russian oil company Lukoil-Nizhnevolzhskneft organised a visit to the Astrakhan region for MEP Zanni, in order to discuss investment cooperation between Astrakhan and Italy.

Another example is a visit of Troszczynski and Atkinson to Russia to perform a role of "independent observers", praising the Russian presidential elections in March 2018.

With the re-organisation of the ENF group into the Identity and Democracy (ID) group in summer 2019, Volokhova joined the ID's secretariat and started working with pro-Moscow MEP Thierry Mariani.

Even more conveniently for Moscow, Volokhova received access to the European Parliament's committee on foreign affairs, as well as its security and defence sub-committee.

Curiously, when Chauprade was still an MEP and sat on these two committees, he had, for a few months, a different Russian intern: Elizaveta Peskova, a daughter of Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov.

As an intern, Peskova did not have access to any sensitive information, at least officially.

However, as a policy advisor, Volokhova received full access to everything related to the workings of the two above-mentioned committees and other offices in the European Parliament.

By 2020, Volokhova, who describes herself as an "anti-Eurocrat" on one of her social networks, had already been granted French citizenship - while keeping her Russian one.

The French citizenship allowed her to run in the 2020 municipal elections in the Bas-Rhin department in Alsace. Expectedly, she ran on the list of the National Rally. She was fifth on the list of 65 National Rally candidates, but the party was unsuccessful in those elections.

Despite the failure in the municipal elections, Volokhova remains an important Russian functionary of the National Rally in the European Parliament, both in Strasbourg and Brussels.

Her access to the proceedings of the European Parliament's committees that help shape European foreign and defence policies, combined with her boss' Mariani seat on the special committee on foreign interference - an office created, in particular, to investigate Russian meddling in the EU's affairs - is a clear security threat for the European Parliament that needs to be urgently addressed.

Author bio

Anton Shekhovtsov is author of Russia and the Western Far Right, and co-founder of the Vienna-based Centre for Democratic Integrity. The piece was written in cooperation with the UK-based Khodorkovsky Dossier Center.

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