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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

FEATURE

Kiev, Ukraine

It looked like an election day anywhere, as footage rolled of people bundled up in winter layers registering at a polling station, and then entering voting booths to cast their ballots. The report, running on the only local television channel, then cut to shots of a bald-headed man in a colorful coat, with the commentary explaining that he was a foreign election monitor.

“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.”

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.

The media in the two breakaway territories gave the outside observers extensive coverage. They reciprocated with lavish praise for the conduct of the elections and the level of participation.

Jan Penris, a Belgian member of parliament from the Flemish nationalist Vlaams Belang party, highlighted the “happy faces” he saw at polling stations. Being in Donetsk made him jealous, he said, because “we Flemish want to have our own republic too.”

Elections in Donetsk. Photo by Andrew Butko.

Some may wonder why the Kremlin bothers, as these observers are unlikely to sway foreign audiences. But it is not interested in winning new converts, argues Shekhovtsov. “If you look for mentions of them [the observers] in Russia’s international media, like RT or Sputnik, you won’t find many,” he said. “It’s not the international audience they are aiming for.”

The goal, he believes, is to buttress Russia’s worldview with the illusion of support from outside. Though the result may be a forgone conclusion, the Kremlin and its supporters care deeply how these votes look for home audiences, explained Shekhovtsov. “Even these pseudo-republics need foreign observation,” he said, because people have come to see this “as part of the normal process.”

But, he said, “It’s Potemkin observation.”

“It’s Potemkin observation.” Political analyst Anton Shekhovtsov

In fact, at a news conference after the vote, one French observer admitted they were only able to make brief visits to a few polling stations. And they ignored questionable actions by the authorities witnessed by other eyes on the ground. Although the OSCE did not officially monitor the elections, it had mission staff on the ground carrying out routine street patrols and they reported seeing “two to four people in full combat gear and with assault rifles” outside most polling stations.

Candidates who posed a challenge to the Kremlin-backed incumbents were blocked from running. With no real choice on the ballot, voters were lured in with gimmicks like free phone cards and discounted vegetables being given out at polling stations. It emerged that some voters had written in candidates, ranging from barred separatist fighters to the action star and internet hero Chuck Norris.

With no real choice on the ballot, voters in Donetsk were lured in with gimmicks like free phone cards and discounted vegetables

Many outsiders who participate in these “observation” missions for Kremlin-backed votes are often subjected to scrutiny and ridicule at home, raising the question as to why they do it. For people like Roman, it gives them a profile they can never hope to achieve on their home turf.

He now spends at least six months a year in Moscow, where he makes regular appearances on Russian television — where he is variously introduced as an influential European politician, a political scientist or, for the Donetsk elections, as an international election observer.

His Russian is good enough to deliver a steady flow of messages that the Kremlin likes to hear. “Only idiots believe the lies of the West,” he told one channel earlier this year.

Not just a Stalin fan

Roman has also enthusiastically repeated Russia’s denials that its troops are in eastern Ukraine. In one appearance in 2016, he tried to stir racist reactions by claiming that there were African-American soldiers fighting on the Ukrainian side — a statement that left even his Russian host slightly bemused.

“People often ask me why I love Russia so much,” he said in an interview with the Russian site Geopolitica. “My answer has two parts. The objective part is what this interview is about: Europe and Russia both have the same interests and the same problems. We need each other. The other part of the answer is subjective. If a man loves a woman, he doesn’t necessarily ‘know’ why he loves her. He simply loves her. It’s not the mind but the heart that’s in charge of these feelings.”

Earlier this year, a Belgian journalist visited Roman at his home in Belgium, near the Flemish city of Dendermonde. In his article, Jeroen Zuallaert likened it to a “Red Square gift shop.” There was a Christmas tree that lights up with the colors of the Russian flag, and even a set of toy soldiers without insignia known as “little green men” — the Russian special forces who occupied Crimea four years ago.

His thinking had evolved over the years, he told the Belgian journalist. Roman had previously sympathized with Hitler, but had then switched his admiration to Stalin “because he won the Second World War.”

In his interview with Geopolitica, Kris Roman said he had now become an admirer of Putin too, and “his fight against the anti-Russian policies of the US.”