How to Stop Russia From Bribing European Politicians

After years of turning a blind eye to Russia’s targeted bribes to high-level politicians the EU must act now

21 September 2022

Bohdan Bernatskyi

Future of Ukraine Fellow

The European political space must install a clear ban on receiving any direct or indirect benefits from Kremlin.

According to recent US Intelligence records, Russia has spent more than 300 million dollars since 2014 corrupting foreign politicians, pushing forward Russian narratives and performing malign activities throughout political parties abroad. 

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These funds have strengthened Russian influence in domestic political markets. The US Intelligence community has pointed out that the main channels of money flowing are Russian state-owned enterprises and nominal experts’ organisations or analytical think tanks. 

According to US findings, there have even been incidents of Russian embassies paying cash to candidates in elections. Despite this fact, Russia is still a member of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), and many oligarchs are not sanctioned in the EU. 

With elections coming up in Italy, Bulgaria, and other parts of the EU, tackling dark Russian money in domestic politics is crucial to safeguard democracies and keep up their resolve to help Ukraine.

The Kremlin’s Network Already Bearing Fruit

Anti-establishment political parties in Europe and propaganda from the main Russian mouthpiece RT have been advancing the very same messages, i.e., disinformation about COVID, conspiracy theories, distrust in a democratic government, rhetoric about the migration crisis, xenophobia, chauvinism and so on. 

While the EU focuses on seeking ways to respond to fake Russian news and combat cyber threats to elections, bribed politicians continue to enjoy the kleptocratic flow of money to their wallets.

One does not have to go far to see how Orban’s Fidesz party (the ruling party in Hungary) echoes Kremlin narratives about the ineffectiveness of sanctions and the necessity of doing business with Putin as usual. What may be a greater cause for concern in the future is that Budapest officials’ dependency on Russia is only set to increase. 

New arrangements to secure cheap gas prices are only the tip of the iceberg mentioned above. The latest proposal of the EU Commission to cut off Hungary from its 7.5 billion euro allocation only confirms that problems with the democratic accountability of the Budapest authorities can no longer be ignored.

Surely, parts of the 300 million dollars have found a home in Budapest, other EU capitals, and, unfortunately, in Kyiv before 24 February. 

This raises a question: what is the price of responsibility for politicians who are taking blood money from Russia? Are efforts to minimise Russian influence on European political actors well-designed and enforceable? The answers are unsatisfying. Some of the wealthiest people from Russia, more commonly known as oligarchs, are still not under sanctions. 

Orban goes even further, undermining the integrity of EU sanctions by demanding the unfreezing of the assets of Alisher Usmanov — an Uzbek-Russian who became rich through mining and investments — and several others.

Tackling the Kremlin’s Dark Money

Exposing Russian-backed politicians in the EU is the best strategy. However, this cannot be done without a clear and pragmatic vision that receiving kleptocratic money from the Kremlin is subject to political and legal consequences. 

The European political space, including Ukraine, must install a clear ban on receiving any benefits or donations from Russia or organisations and people connected to Russia. Secondly, a lack of willingness to combat money laundering from Russia to major European parties is evident. The cleansing of Russian agents who have infiltrated key European parties is of the utmost concern. 

An even more complex issue is that Russia is directly supporting entire political movements, such as in the case of Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National (RN) party. The French far-right leader even visited Moscow after 24 February to seek public support from Putin.

Former German chancellor Gerhard Schröder is still playing the role of negotiator despite the fact that he has been paid millions of euros from Putin’s pocket in recent decades. 

While still corrupting foreign politicians, Russia enjoys membership status in the FATF, an organisation which is principally focused on combating money laundering. This raises doubts about the genuine ideals the Task Force is pursuing. 

The US Intelligence report was published a week ago, despite which the EU remains silent in that regard and has not opened its eyes to the spread of bloody money in Europe. 

EU Democracy Can Finally Free Itself From Russian Capital

EU domestic politics has had a Russian capital problem for many years. By targeting high-ranking politicians inside the EU, Russia has created a vast network over the years. 

It is now trying to use this network to hinder the West’s united response against the Russian war in Ukraine. Many countries, such as Bulgaria and Italy, are now vulnerable ahead of elections. 

Europe must act fast to expose and rectify this deep corruption before pro-Russian forces achieve more influence than just in Budapest.

Once toxic Russian funds are stopped from flowing into the EU political landscape, the decision to help Ukraine with arms would be adopted much more eagerly.

Free to read as part of our Future of Ukraine Fellowship programme. Learn more about it here and contribute for more free content.

Picture: Canva Pro

Bohdan Bernatskyi

Future of Ukraine Fellow

Bohdan Bernatskyi is a Visegrad Insight Fellow as of 2022. He is also a Senior Lecturer in International Law at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy and Ostroh Academy. He is a legal practitioner and helps the Ukrainian government and Members of Parliament in the fields of sanctions and transitional justice reforms. His academic interests include human rights, functioning of political parties and countermeasures in international relations.

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