Democracy tanks: pro-Russian troops in Donetsk this year. Photo by Andrew Butko
How Kremlin Democracy Gets Foreign Approval
Among Russia’s growing band of loyal “election observers” is a German politician convicted of voter fraud and a Belgian who used to like Hitler but now prefers Stalin
“Watching how inhabitants of the republic vote, the observer from Belgium, Kris Roman, was surprised that elections in our state were completely transparent,” said the female voice. “According to him, It is very different in the European Union in the European Union.”
Belgian election “observer” Kris Roman also wears his colors
But this was an election with just one real candidate in the unrecognized Donetsk People’s Republic, one of two breakaway regions of Ukraine’s Donbass region run by Russian-backed separatists. The US and European governments have dismissed these so-called elections as an illegal “sham.” And strikingly, Kris Roman, the Belgian election observer, was wearing a coat emblazoned with the word “Russia” as he did his rounds.
“I see that it is absolutely clean and open, even more serious than how we vote in the European Union because in Europe we vote via a computer and no one knows who they vote for,” Roman told the television channel.Kris Roman was wearing a coat emblazoned with the word “Russia” as he did his rounds
It was the kind of endorsement the separatist authorities were hoping for, from Roman and the nearly 100 other foreigners they invited to “observe” the elections in Donetsk and the other breakaway region of Luhansk on November 11.
No matter how much they rig the result, the Kremlin and its allies crave the veneer of legitimacy they can achieve by holding elections — and having outside monitors helps create the desired look. But international organizations, such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), refused to send monitors for the votes in the two breakaway regions in the Donbass. They took the same position for the widely-condemned referendum that Russia organized in Crimea, following its annexation of the peninsula in 2014. Both violated Ukrainian law.
Love from Moscow
To deal with this, Moscow has cultivated its own, alternative group of international “observers” to provide a stamp of approval, with the added benefit that their presence can be used by Kremlin information campaigns.
Kris Roman is one of the more outspoken of these pro-Moscow monitors. “On my way to Donetsk!” Donbass is Russia! Crimea is Russia!,” he declared on his social media page, before leaving for his mission in the breakaway territories — from Moscow.
A former Belgian politician — and an electrician before that — Roman runs his own pro-Russian think tank with the stated aim of creating a “white Europe” from Spain to Vladivostok.
He outdoes even the most nationalist of Russian politicians. “If a man loves a woman, he doesn’t necessarily ‘know’ why he loves her,” Roman told one Russian interviewer, when asked why he was so supportive of the country. “He simply loves her.”
As the recent election exercises in the Donbass made clear, observing these Russian-organized “votes” has become a rallying cause for an expanding group of anti-establishment figures from around the world. It has led to some unlikely partnerships too.
During the most recent elections in Donetsk, members of Germany’s “The Left” party and Brazilian communists worked alongside representatives of Germany’s far-right “Alternative for Deutschland” (AfD), as well as Belgium’s right-wing Flemish nationalist “Vlaams Belang” party and the “Lega Norda” party of Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini.“If a man loves a woman, he doesn’t ‘know’ why he loves her. He simply loves her.” Belgian election “observer” Kris Roman, on why he loves Russia
Among those invited were two men convicted of offenses in their home countries — including one for election fraud. German Left party member Andreas Maurer, an outspoken advocate of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, was found guilty this summer of filling in voters’ postal ballots. Johan Bäckman, a pro-Kremlin Finnish activist, was convicted of defaming and harassing Finnish journalist Jessika Aro in response to her reporting of Russian disinformation activities in the country.
Given their ideological differences, it might seem hard to imagine how these “observers” can work together. They are united, though, by their position on Russia, according to Anton Shekhovtsov, a Ukrainian political analyst who authored a report on the observers for the European Platform for Democratic Elections, an umbrella group of civil society organizations from Europe and the former Soviet Union. “What they all have in common is anti-establishment and pro-Kremlin sentiment,” Shekhovtsov said.
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