The European Platform for Democratic Elections (EPDE) together with MEP Ms Viola von Cramon-Taubadel hosted an online briefing on how “fake election observation” is being used by authoritarian regimes to recruit allies in key institutions of European democracies to become engaged in networks of malign influence which threaten the integrity of European institutions. As a case study of this, EPDE expert Anton Shekhovtsov presented his newest report describing a network established by Polish individual Janusz Niedźwiecki who organized and coordinated fake election observation on behalf of prominent Ukrainian pro-Kremlin and Russian politicians close to the Kremlin. The report shows how networks of Kremlin influence engaged European politicians, including Members of the European Parliament.
- Viola von Cramon-Taubadel, Member of the European Parliament, Group of the Greens/European Free Alliance, Member of the Democracy Support and Election Coordination Group
- Anton Shekhovtsov, Director, Centre for Democratic Integrity
- Stefanie Schiffer, Chair of Board, European Platform for Democratic Elections (EPDE)
Watch a recording of the briefing here.
‘Fake’ election observation and façade of democracy
Before diving deep into the topic of politically biased election observation, or in short ‘fake’ election observation, it is important to understand why authoritarian regimes employ this tactic. They have a desire to present themselves as democracies as this has become a global model or standard, which then allows them to participate in foreign policy.
When holding obviously rigged elections, authoritarian regimes create a façade of democracy in order to show that they comply with certain international rules, such as inviting international election observers. Established official international election observation missions such as the OSCE-ODIHR missions usually are very critical of elections conducted by the regimes in Russia and Azerbaijan, for instance. Since it would be more costly to not invite observers than to invite them and face their criticism, these regimes create an alternative mechanism of ‘international observation’ by inviting and paying international politicians, experts, and journalists to ‘observe’ their elections and to cover up the election fraud.
EPDE expert Anton Shekhovtsov emphasizes that fake election observation should not be defined as a form of election observation at all, but rather as a political activity that presents itself as observation but in fact only aims to legitimize manipulated elections by international actors. EPDE Chair of Board Stefanie Schiffer also notes that fake election observation undermines the work of real observers, international and domestic, as fake observation aims to discredit their findings. By undermining the credibility of international missions such as the OSCE-ODIHR, such politically biased election observation also discredits European institutions.
Throughout the years of tracing individuals who participate in fake election observation, EPDE has observed that some individuals then also become involved in other activities that promote the interests of the regime for which they observed elections. It thus is a form of recruitment tool for authoritarian regimes.
A case study: Janusz Niedźwiecki
Despite being in the center of a new report by Anton Shekhovtsov, Janusz Niedźwiecki is not the main protagonist of the story. He is a person of interest because of the clients he worked for. This started in 2015, when he was invited by Ukrainian pro-Kremlin politicians to observe local elections in Ukraine. Here, he also helped organize a delegation of several European politicians to come and observe, including members of the German far-right party Alternative for Germany (AfD) or Hungarian party Jobbik, at that time also defined as far-right. They were invited not to observe the elections, but to issue positive statements about their pro-Kremlin clients and pro-Russian political forces in Ukraine. He quickly became the go-to person when it came to engaging European politicians to make pro-Kremlin statements. He would organize European politicians to come to Russia, Ukraine or even Moldova to speak positively about pro-Russian forces in Ukraine or Moldova or to promote the Russian narrative.
As he developed his career as a “go-to-guy”, he cooperated more and more with Kremlin activists. In 2016, for instance, Niedźwiecki accompanied the far-right Polish former MEP Janusz Korwin-Mikke to Russia to meet with people close to Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, under whose leadership massive human rights violations have been carried out in Chechnya. This delegation included other far-right and far-left activists and journalists from the Polish scene as well as now late German journalist Manuel Ochsenreiter, who had his own history of pro-Kremlin activities. Niedźwiecki therefore became deeply involved in networks of the far-right and -left in Europe involved in pro-Kremlin activities.
Niedźwiecki also recruited many European politicians into pro-Kremlin networks, such as Slovak politician and former minister of health Marek Krajčí, who participated in fake election observation and later became a lobbyist for the Sputnik vaccine to be allowed in Slovakia. This story demonstrates that Krajčí was recruited via fake election observation to later promote the Kremlin’s interests in Europe.
Niedźwiecki was arrested in Poland earlier this year and charged with collaboration with Russian secret services. EPDE research does not focus on this charge as such but rather shows that Niedźwiecki’s entry point into the Kremlin network of influence was fake election observation. His case shows also that by inviting European politicians to participate in fake election observation, he recruited them for pro-Kremlin operatives in Ukraine and Russia, therefore widening the circle of pro-Kremlin allies in European institutions.
Such networks of fake election observation and pro-Kremlin activists of course not only exist in Europe, and EPDE has been following this as a global phenomenon. Previous research on the fake election observation missions conducted by AFRIC, an organization of the Putin’s confidant Yevgeniy Prigozhin, showed how far-reaching Kremlin influence can be. In this case, research by EPDE and other organizations helped deactivate the operations of this organization. Similar structures as those identified in the Niedźwiecki and AFRIC cases can also be found in missions conducted by the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation or the Commonwealth of Independent States, through which the Kremlin (as well as China in the former) also exerts its influence.
A trend in these missions concerning participation by European politicians is that they most often come from extreme parties, the far-right or far-left. While fewer politicians from center parties tend to participate in fake election observation, EPDE research shows that such cases also exist. EPDE’s research aims to raise awareness among European politicians that participation in such ‘dodgy’ missions could ruin their reputation and harm their career.
The European influence and need for resilience
Ms von Cramon-Taubadel goes beyond this idea of fake observation being a recruitment tool for European allies and states that it has become one of the pillars with which foreign actors try to interfere in European institutions and exert their influence, which is why institutions must increase their resilience towards such malign influence.
Steps that European institutions must take to increase their resilience could be to:
Aggressive attitude of authoritarian regimes such as of the Kremlin is increasing, including military threats, therefore efforts in Europe must be increased to defend its institutions. A coordinated approach is also necessary, as otherwise the Kremlin and other authoritarian regimes will always be able to single out individual countries where allies can easily be found, which can be used to exert influence on a European level.
 Ochsenreiter was identified as financing a conspiracy plot in Ukraine to stoke up conflict between the Hungarian minority and Ukrainians. Two Polish far-right activists went to Ukraine to throw Molotov cocktails at a Hungarian cultural center, making it look like Ukrainian nationalists wanted the Hungarian monitory removed. The Kremlin narrative often refers to ‘fascist Ukrainian nationalists’ to justify its aggression in Ukraine.