The term “political technology” prevalent across the former Soviet space, might perhaps be best described as “a euphemism for what is by now a highly developed industry of political manipulation.” The Kremlin has used this tool widely in Russia as well as in other former Soviet republics since the 1990s (Andrew Wilson, Virtual Democracy, Yale UP, 2005; Ekho Kavkaza, May 18, 2018; Fedpress.ru, September 18, 2019). And since then, it has become a major Russian export even further afield. Moscow has dispatched adepts of this dark art to help Russia-friendly authoritarian regimes around the world stay in power or to assist authoritarian-leaning opposition parties in more liberal countries to win elections. Sometimes, Russian political technologists have been successful and other times not (see EDM, April 16). But this form of Russian soft power deserves to be better known because it has now spread not only to Africa but also to Europe and the wider West.
Many Russian political technologists take credit for arranging the victory of some Russian and non-Russian candidates in elections at home and in the former Soviet republics; even more often, they claim credit for arranging the defeat of their opponents. Typically, however, they assert that it is their opponents who are engaging in “political technology.” As a result, the term itself remains poorly defined, being both larger and smaller than the so-called “influence campaigns” that governments and other political factions routinely carry out. It is larger in the sense that its practitioners do not deny they are working to ensure the electoral victory of those who might lose if the vote were truly free and fair. At the same time, it is smaller in that it does not include official Russian government statements and actions in support of specific candidates; rather, it is the work of people whose status allows the Kremlin to assert deniability when necessary. Some analysts would include Moscow’s use of social media within this category, while others do not (Polittechnolog.ru, May 2017).
Lately, the most frequently covered (though far from the most important) Russian export of political technology involves the support Moscow has covertly provided via professional political technologists to more than 20 countries in Africa. As reported on by investigative journalists for Project Media, a series of documents leaked last spring from the offices of Yeveny Prigozhin (widely known as “the chef” for his close relationship with Vladimir Putin) provide the most detailed description of just what Russian political technologists have been doing there (Proekt.media, April 11, 2019). Specifically, they show that Russian political technologists are simultaneously involved in supporting authoritarian leaders Moscow wants to keep in power and in backing opposition groups against those it dislikes. Furthermore, they indicate that the Russians have been recruiting Africans, often from radical and extremist groups, in one country and deploying them in others; that political technologists, although ostensibly acting on their own, are typically protected by private military companies Moscow finances; and that the number of political technologists in Africa has been going up rapidly over the last several years.
The authors of the Project Media report say there is no doubt that the work of the Russian political technologists in Africa is personally approved by President Putin, despite his press spokesperson Dmitry Peskov claiming that the Kremlin leader had never heard of them. They simply have too much money to be private operators, and their actions have had consequences—including the conclusion of numerous inter-governmental agreements and investment arrangements—that Moscow had sought. Despite this, the investigative journalists insist that “the effectiveness of the entire campaign” by Russian political technologists in Africa has been “low” as a result, they say, of “poor coordination” between the people in the field and Prigozhin’s office in Russia, “embezzlement of allocated funds, and the low qualification of employees who have been recruited primarily from former members of the Nashi movement,” with which Putin’s “chef” was earlier associated (Proekt.media, April 11).
That dismissive conclusion, combined with Russia’s signal failure to protect the Omar al-Bashir regime in Sudan earlier this year (see EDM, April 16), has had two unfortunate consequences. First, it led many observers to conclude (as the report does) that the political technologists are marginal figures and are unimportant either practically or ideologically. More seriously, it has prompted them to see this Russian export of political technology as something restricted to Africa. In fact, although this has attracted far less attention, Moscow has also been using most of the same tactics in Western European countries, providing authoritarian leaders, as well as authoritarian-leaning opposition politicians in liberal democracies, with the support of Russian political technologists.
Since at least 2015, Moscow has been organizing conferences with right-wing and secessionist leaders in European countries, identifying those with whom its political technologists can work and then providing them with assistance, just as in Africa (Rosbalt, March 20, 2015; Ekho Moskvy, Novaya Gazeta, March 19, 2015; Windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com, September 25, 2016). In Europe, Russian political technologists find the working environment, for multiple reasons, both easier and more difficult. On the one hand, there are many Russians living in Europe who are ready to work with them. Moreover, Russians from Moscow who come to Europe do not stand out as they do in Africa; they fit in more easily and are harder to track. But on the other hand, the Russian political technologists’ opponents typically are better organized and are capable of wielding variants of “political technologies” themselves. Furthermore, democracy in Europe is more institutionalized and, except in rare cases, Moscow cannot provide police protection for its agents.
Consequently, just as in Africa, Russian political technologists have had some public successes in supporting the Hungarian government and certain Italian opposition groups. At the same time, however, they have suffered conspicuous defeats elsewhere, either because they have overplayed their hand as a result of Moscow’s overconfidence or because other political groups have learned to cope with them (Novaya Gazeta, May 17, 2014). That said, Moscow’s political technologists have had enough successes in Europe (just as in Africa) that there is every indication the Kremlin will continue to make use of them to defend those who support its line and punish those willing to oppose it in the future.