By Jessica Reed
The role which Russia has and continues to play in shaping political events around the world through campaign financing has been in the headlines recently. With Putin’s regime accused of trying to influence the past two rounds of American elections, Russian efforts in the western world are well known. What many are less familiar with are Russian attempts to shape election outcomes in the developing world, particularly in places that it assesses as important for its own tactical and strategic interests.
According to a recent review conducted by American intelligence officials, Russia has, since 2014, invested over $300 million in such efforts. In many cases, such efforts take the shape of covert support, including spreading fake news against candidates which Russia deems to not serve its interests. In other cases, the support comes in the form of hard cash provided to a candidate with the aim of strengthening their election prospects.
A recent New York Times article noted an unnamed country in which financing in the amount of millions of dollars was provided by the Russian ambassador to a presidential candidate. Despite attempts to keep this anonymous, sources close to the matter have identified the country as Seychelles and the presidential candidate as Wavel Ramkalawan.
Elected in October of 2020, Ramkalawan, then an opposition candidate, took the world by surprise when he unseated the long ruling United Seychelles Party. It was unclear to many how Ramkalawan and his Linen Demokratik Seselwa managed to accomplish this, although now reports over reported Russian funding and most probable covert support are making this clearer. Although it is unclear what support, aside from financing, was provided, past instances of Russian support in foreign political campaigns have included social media efforts to generate an appearance of support, the spreading of fake news and even assassinating detractors.
What interest, one might ask, might a global superpower like Russia have in influencing an election campaign in an East African archipelago nation with less than 100,000 citizens? The answer lies in both the offshore nature of the Seychellois banking system as well as President Ramkalawan’s personal relationships. The Seychelles is one of the world’s premier offshore destinations for Russian dirty money. Covered in a comprehensive well-known ICIJ report, the country has provided a haven for oligarch money seeking to fly under the radar of the West. How important this is for exactly the kind of operations which got Ramkalawan elected have been evident from recent sanctions levied against Putin and his associates in the wake of the ongoing war in Ukraine. An offshore entity in a country with a president sympathetic to Russian national interests is a priceless investment, which has and continues to pay dividends significantly in excess of funding received.
The second component of this unlikely relationship is a personal connection the now president has to Russian oligarchs. Interestingly and not coincidentally, in and around Ramkalawan’s election, a position was created for the son, Dmitry, of one of Ramkalawan’s closest Russian backers, Sergei Kislov. Sergei hails from a family of teachers from in Rostov-on-Don in Russia’s south but made his fortune in cooking oil with the help of his close connections to the Kremlin. He is a known financial associate of the Kremlin through pro-Russia Ukrainian politician Viktor Medvedchuk, who along with his business partner, member of parliament Taras Kozak, secured a stake in Kislov’s company for a mere USD 40,000 a cording to an OCCRP investigation from 2021. Kislov maintains relations with the highest levels of Kremlin officials, even hosting President Medvedev at his company’s production facilities several years ago.
Ramkalawan’s close relationship with the senior Kislov was an obvious catalyst for the creation of this superfluous diplomatic sinecure. It only makes sense to push favours for those supporting your election campaign at the time of your election in order to underscore your loyalty. Sergei Kislov, a billionaire, is the owner of Agroholding Yug Rusi which controls approximately a third of the sunflower oil market in Russia and is a major land holder on Cerf Island, 4 km off the northeast coast of Mahé.
The conflict in Ukraine has only shown the West why combating insidious Russian political influence is important everywhere, no matter how small the country. Identifying potentially at risk countries and doing everything within the Wests abilities to counter this is more important today than ever.