During Russia’s constitutional plebiscite last summer, a group of “international experts” were flown in to observe the vote. According to a new investigation from Novaya Gazeta and the Dossier Center, these foreign representatives arrived in Moscow on a charter flight and their visit was carefully planned by the Russian Civic Chamber. As it turns out, some of the visiting “experts” are members of European far-right parties. What’s more, it remains unclear who financed their trip.
Last summer, a group of “international experts” came to Russia to monitor voting in the nationwide plebiscite on constitutional amendments. According to a new investigation from the independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta and the Dossier Center (an investigative journalism nonprofit founded by former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky), these “experts” flew into Moscow on a charter flight and were sent back home in the same, organized fashion. The sources of funding behind their stay in Russia remain unknown.
Russia’s Civic Chamber organized the events involving these international visitors — the Central Election Commision couldn’t invite observers from from abroad, since the “nationwide vote” on constitutional changes didn’t meet the criteria of a referendum or an election (as a result, the plebiscite wasn’t regulated by the corresponding voting laws). State television channels ran segments on these international “observers” visiting polling stations; in interviews, they expressed the “unanimous opinion” that everything “went great,” adding that if there were any violations they were “insignificant ones” that “did not and could not have any influence on the expression of the will of the voters,” Novaya Gazeta wrote.
about Russia’s nationwide vote
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The newspaper’s journalists asked the Civic Chamber to provide the names of the “experts” who came to Russia and to explain how they put together this list. The Civic Chamber replied that “the proposals on the participation of foreign guests […] came directly from interested persons, as well as various public associations and nonprofit organizations.” They didn’t specify which ones. The Civic Chamber also declined to give any names, saying that the “experts publicly and openly interacted with all of the media representatives who addressed them, their surnames and first names were cited in the press.”
One of the “experts” whose name did in fact appear in the media was French politician Thierry Mariani, a member of the European Parliament (MEP) from France’s far-right National Rally party. According to the rules of the European Parliament, Mariani is required to report on any events he attends that are paid for by a third party. The politician’s declarations revealed a Ural Airlines charter flight from Moscow to Minsk dated July 3, 2020 (Russia’s nationwide vote ended on July 1). The Dossier Center obtained a list of passengers on the charter flight, which included about 60 people in total.
Judging by the passenger list, the largest delegation came from France — it was made up of 16 people, all from Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally party. In addition, there were six people from Serbia, five from Afghanistan, and three from Germany (also representatives of the far-right). Other countries were represented by one or two “experts.”
As Novaya Gazeta revealed, the visits to polling stations took place according to pre-arranged, minute-by-minute itineraries. The experts’ schedules were sent along ahead of their arrival, defeating the purpose of a monitoring mission. “The effectiveness of an ‘expert assessment’ of voting procedures at pre-arrange polling stations at previously agreed upon times is predictable,” the newspaper’s journalists wrote.
Who paid for these foreign representatives to visit in Russia remains unclear. Declarations from MEPs list the Russian Civic Chamber as the party footing bill. However, Civic Chamber spokesman Maxim Grigoriev stated that “the issue of financing the experts’ visit wasn’t discussed in the Civic Chamber of the Russian Federation.”
The Russian Foreign Ministry told reporters that they didn’t have any information about the financing of the visit or about how this list of “experts” was put together. The head of the State Duma Committee on International Affairs, Leonid Slutsky, who gave a speech before the foreign guests during their visit to Russia, didn’t respond to Novaya Gazeta’s questions about who covered the expenses. The foreign “experts” didn’t reply to the newspapers requests for comment either.
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Translated by Eilish Hart