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14th Aug 2022

Investigation

How MEPs serve Russia via fake election-monitoring

  • Russia realised the power of foreign election-monitoring missions in Ukraine in 2004 (Photo: secretlondon123)
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When the European Parliament (EP) considered, on 1 March 2022, a resolution that condemned "in the strongest possible terms the Russian Federation's illegal, unprovoked and unjustified military aggression against and invasion of Ukraine", only 13 out of 676 MEPs who took part in the vote declined to support the motion.

Of all the recent EP resolutions that criticised the behaviour of president Vladimir Putin's Russia, the "Resolution on the Russian aggression against Ukraine" elicited the most support from MEPs — such was the overall shock in the EP from the early-morning news on 24 February 2022.

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  • French MEP Thierry Mariani - staunch supporter of Russia before and after the Ukraine war (Photo: ep.eruopa.eu)

Even the overwhelming majority of MEPs from the far-right Identity & Democracy group, which usually provides the largest support for the Kremlin and its policies, decided to change — albeit perhaps tactically — its tune.

The devil's dozen of the EP's staunchest supporters of the Putin regime who voted against the resolution on the Russian aggression featured Latvian MEP Tatjana Ždanoka.

A former member of the Communist Party of Latvia, Ždanoka was for a very long time an embarrassment for the Greens/European Free Alliance (EFA) to which she had belonged since 2004 when she was first elected to the EP.

The EFA's embarrassment was caused by her consistent support for dictators such as Vladimir Putin and Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, as well as activities such as "observing" the illegitimate referendum in Ukraine's Crimea that was used by Russia as a justification of its annexation in March 2014.

At that time, Rebecca Harms, the co-chairwoman of the Greens/EFA, asked her EFA colleagues to expel Ždanoka, but the controversial Latvian MEP survived.

The failure to condemn the Russian aggression against Ukraine in 2022, however, was the last straw, and Ždanoka was effectively expelled from the Greens/EFA group in the beginning of April 2022.

Ždanoka was not the only MEP who "observed" the "referendum" in Crimea in March 2014. Out of more than 30 "international observers" of the illegitimate referendum, four were MEPs.

In addition to Ždanoka, those were Fabrizio Bertot of Silvio Berlusconi's right-wing People of Freedom party in Italy (he would later join the far-right Brothers of Italy party), Ewald Stadler of the Austrian, miniscule right-wing populist Reform Conservatives party, and Béla Kovács of the Hungarian Jobbik party that could, at that time, be described as "far right" but has moved closer to the centre right since then.

Russia used controlled "election monitors" to cover electoral fraud previously in the 1990s, but those were Russian "observers".

Latvian MEP Tatjana Ždanoka — effectively expelled from Green group (Photo: europarl.europa.eu)

Orange Revolution

Various Russian structures started using international — primarily European — "observers" after the 2004 presidential elections in Ukraine.

Established election-monitoring organisations concluded that the results of the second round of the elections, in which a pro-Russian candidate allegedly won, had been manipulated.

Their conclusions brought about what became known as the "Orange Revolution" — a successful protest against the electoral fraud that led to a re-run of the second round of the elections — the re-run resulted in the victory for a pro-Western candidate.

Moscow realised the power of independent international election monitoring organisations and decided to take countermeasures.

On the one hand, the Kremlin and its media started pushing the idea that established international election observation organisations, such as the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, employed double standards to help pro-Western candidates.

On the other hand, various Russian structures started building networks of friendly international "observers" who would be ready to follow the Kremlin's line in endorsing the democratic character of any plebiscite, and challenge the OSCE's conclusions, when required.

What Russia created was not an imperfect version of credible election-monitoring. It was not election-monitoring at all, it was a form of political activity performed by international actors and aimed at advancing the Kremlin's interests by imitating credible election monitoring during electoral processes.

In some cases, Russia would encourage creating NGOs in European countries that would function effectively as Russian front organisations.

In Belgium, such an organisation — called the Eurasian Observatory for Democracy and Elections — was created by a fringe far-right activist Luc Michel, who, in recent years, has been taking part in Russian influence operations in Africa supervised by Yevgeny Prigozhin, the EU- and US-sanctioned funder of the notorious Wagner Group.

In Poland, a fringe far-right politician Mateusz Piskorski, who worked closely with Russian officials, created the European Centre of Geopolitical Analysis.

Coordinated by Russian MP Leonid Slutsky, Piskorski was one of the main organisers of "international observation missions" at the "referendum" in Crimea and "parliamentary elections" in Russia-occupied parts of the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine.

In 2016, the Polish Internal Security Agency charged Piskorski — who was then a close political ally of Ždanoka and right-wing Polish MEP Janusz Korwin-Mikke — with the offence of taking part in the operations of Russia's intelligence services against Poland.

Piskorski spent three years under arrest, and, during his absence, his associate Janusz Niedźwiecki, founded the so-called European Council on Democracy and Human Rights to keep providing Russian and Ukrainian pro-Russian politicians with services of friendly "international election observation".

French MEP Hervé Juvin — sanctioned by EU Parliament (Photo: europarl.europa.eu)

Janusz Niedźwiecki

From the Russian side, Niedźwiecki's activities were funded by Slutsky and handled by Sargis Mirzakhanian, who had previously been one of Piskorski's many Russian handlers.

From the Ukrainian side, Niedźwiecki was funded and handled by a pro-Russian politician Oleh Voloshyn and his wife Nadia Borodi — both fled Ukraine (apparently to Russia) right after the start of the Russian full-fledged invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

Working for the Kremlin and Ukrainian pro-Kremlin politicians, Niedźwiecki actively thought to engage with MEPs to advance Moscow's interests.

For example, Niedźwiecki recruited independent French MEP Joëlle Bergeron from the (now defunct) Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD) group to "observe" Russian presidential elections illegitimately held in Russia-annexed Crimea in March 2018.

The EFDD was Niedźwiecki's main recruitment field.

Often he would involve EFDD's British MEPs Nathan Gill, Jonathan Arnott and David Coburn in a wide range of activities in Ukraine linked to the resistance to Kyiv's crackdown on pro-Russian propaganda channels controlled by major pro-Kremlin Ukrainian politician and businessman Viktor Medvedchuk (Putin happens to be the godfather of Medvedchuk's daughter).

But the EFDD was not the only group that Niedźwiecki reached out to.

When he organised, in December 2019, an event at the EP in Strasbourg in one of many bids to discredit Ukraine's pro-Western leadership on the orders of Oleh Voloshyn and his boss Medvedchuk, Niedźwiecki would get to participate in the event not only Gill, but also Ždanoka, Shaffaq Mohammed from the liberal Renew Europe group and a non-attached British Eurosceptic MEP James Wells.

A year later, when he was no longer a MEP, Gill — accompanied by an independent Slovak MEP Miroslav Radačovský — would "observe" elections in the Ukrainian city of Kryvyi Rih providing information support for a pro-Russian mayoral candidate.

The EP has a limited number of options to keep in check those MEPs who participate in fake election observation missions.

The Special Committee on Foreign Interference in all Democratic Processes in the EU (INGE), which was set up in June 2020, does deal with attempts to influence elections, but — as the name of the committee suggests — only in the case of foreign actors interfering in elections in EU member states.

Not the other way around: MEPs collaborating with authoritarian regimes such as Putin's Russia with the aim to whitewash electoral fraud, legitimise electoral processes considered illegitimate by the international community, delegitimise and weaken the institution of free and fair elections, and subvert findings of credible election observation are outside of the INGE's area of interest.

The EP, however, can sanction individual MEPs for participating in fake election-observation missions.

In June 2021, the EP — upon the recommendations from the Democracy Support and Election Coordination Group (DEG) — barred from doing official election-monitoring until the end of 2021 eight far-right and far-left MEPs, namely: Thierry Mariani, Hervé Juvin, Philippe Olivier, Jean-Lin Lacapelle, Virginie Joron, Clare Daly, Mick Wallace and Manu Pineda, for taking part in bogus election monitoring.

In March 2022, the EP — again, upon the DEG's recommendations — blacklisted until the end of the EP's ninth term Mariani, Juvin and Lacapelle, as well as, Radačovský, Nicolas Bay, and Gunnar Beck for observing Russian elections in September 2021 without an official mandate.

The Committee on Foreign Affairs (AFET) can also offer a different form of sanctions.

For example, Tamara Volokhova, a member of the secretariat of the far-right Identity and Democracy (ID) group, was excluded from a number of sensitive meetings during the AFET's visit — in which she took part together with Mariani — to Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Armenia on 17-22 July 2022.

Volokhova, a dual Russian-French citizen with links to Russian actors involved in malign influence operations, accompanied Mariani and other ID members on their illegal trip to Russia-annexed Crimea in summer 2020 to "observe" the vote on amendments to the Constitution of the Russian Federation.

French MEP Jean-Lin Lacapelle — also sanctioned for fake election-monitoring (Photo: europarl.europa.eu)

Taking action

It is commendable that the EP — with the creation of the INGE Special Committee — has finally directed serious attention to the attempts of authoritarian regimes to interfere in European politics.

However, it would also be wise to offer a strategic approach to dealing with those MEPs who strive to undermine democratic procedures in non-EU member states on the orders of authoritarian regimes.

In particular, the EP could update its Code of Conduct for MEPs to include special provisions for the participation in international election observation missions outside of the EP's official missions.

The Declaration of Principles for International Election Observation and Code of Conduct for International Election Observers commemorated at the United Nations in 2005 should be a guiding framework for such provisions.

The EP can also suggest to national parliaments to introduce the same provisions to national codes of conduct of parliamentarians.

After all, in many cases, national efforts to secure and protect democratic procedures happen to be more efficient — and swifter — than those introduced by international institutions.

This, in particular, has been demonstrated by the expulsions of 40 'diplomats' on grounds of espionage from Russia's embassies and consulates to Belgium in April this year, as detailed by EUobserver's recent investigations.

Nevertheless, the EP should take the initiative and lead by example.

Author bio

Anton Shekhovtsov is director of Vienna-based NGO Centre for Democratic Integrity. This article is the fourth in a series of stories on Russian espionage in Belgium and the EU institutions in a project supported by journalismfund.eu, a Brussels-based NGO.

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