Pro-Russia oligarch accused of running influence operation in EU

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European officials have accused an oligarch close to Vladimir Putin of bribing EU lawmakers as part of a Russian influence operation in the run-up to bloc-wide elections in June.

Ukrainian oligarch and longtime political operative Viktor Medvedchuk, who is godfather to one of the Russian president’s daughters, was allegedly running a scheme that was paying politicians to peddle Kremlin propaganda, according to Belgian and Czech authorities.

Belgium’s Prime Minister Alexander De Croo told his nation’s parliament on Thursday that “Russia had approached EU parliamentarians and also paid them to promote Russian propaganda here”, a day after Czech authorities sanctioned Medvedchuk and an associate of his, as well as a Prague-based news website called Voice of Europe.

The Czech ministry of foreign affairs said Medvedchuk “runs a Russian influence operation” on Czech territory whose aim was to “undermine the territorial integrity, sovereignty and independence of Ukraine”. The ministry said he “acted through the company Voice of Europe” to carry out the operation.

Prague’s decision to impose a national travel ban and an asset freeze was “in the security interest of the Czech Republic, as well as contributing to the protection of the democratic processes in relation to the forthcoming elections to the European parliament”, the ministry said.

Medvedchuk has not yet been sanctioned by the EU, but the Czech ministry said it would push for his name to be added to the bloc’s blacklist. He could not be reached for comment on Friday.

A pro-Russia oligarch from Ukraine who had owned television channels and founded a pro-Moscow political party there, Medvedchuk is now in Russia after being exchanged in a prisoner swap in September 2022.

Medvedchuk, who trained as a lawyer before becoming a media mogul, entered politics in the early 2000s, when he served as chief of staff for Ukraine’s president at the time, Leonid Kuchma. Critics often referred to him as the president’s “grey cardinal” and Ukraine’s “prince of darkness” because of the power and influence he wielded in Kyiv.

It is not the first time Medvedchuk has been accused of running a disinformation campaign. In 2013, he was heavily involved in pushing pro-Russian views against the country’s plans to sign a closer association deal with the EU. In 2021, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy ordered Medvedchuk’s TV stations to be shut down after the National Security and Defense Council said they were spreading Kremlin propaganda.

Ukrainian authorities arrested Medvedchuk in April 2022 on charges of state treason, two months after Putin ordered the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. He was exchanged for soldiers who had been captured by Russian forces during the siege of Mariupol.

Last year, Medvedchuk told the Russian state broadcaster that he had “no choice but to live in Moscow”.

A close associate of Medvedchuk, Artem Marchevskyi, has also been placed on the Czech sanctions list. Marchevskyi was a producer at Medvedchuk’s TV channel and served as head of the young wing of his pro-Russian political party. Marchevskyi could not be reached for comment.

Voice of Europe’s website has been taken offline and did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Fears of Russia meddling have increased ahead of the European parliament elections in June, in which polls show a swing towards far-right parties that take a more sceptical line on support for Ukraine against Russia’s full-scale invasion.

Some of the politicians linked to Voice of Europe and who appear in interviews on the outlet’s YouTube page are from far-right parties in Germany, France, Italy, Belgium and the Netherlands.

The page also displays several panel discussions, including one posted earlier this month titled “Peace negotiations should also respect Russian interests”.

According to a person briefed on the investigations, the Russian payments were mostly for social functions such as dinner speeches or for appearing at discussion forums, rather than directly linked to voting on certain issues or making parliamentary remarks.

“What we are dealing with is disinformation, not espionage,” said the person, who declined to be named as they were not permitted to discuss the probes.

Czech officials said the investigation had been undertaken in collaboration with security services in Belgium, the Netherlands, Hungary, Germany and Poland.

Polish authorities confirmed they had carried out raids and seized tens of thousands of euros and dollars in cash in Warsaw and another Polish city on Wednesday as part of the operation.

Roberta Metsola, president of the EU parliament, warned leaders at a summit last week that “we are seeing attempts in many states to push disinformation, misinformation and propaganda which come from actors hostile to the European project. It is a threat that we must be ready for”.

Parliament officials said they were looking into the allegations but that any investigation could take months to complete.

The latest allegations follow a high-profile scandal in the European parliament that was uncovered by Belgian authorities in December 2022. Several MEPs have been accused of taking bribes in exchange for promoting the interests of Qatar.

In January, the parliament also launched an investigation into the Latvian MEP Tatjana Ždanoka who is alleged to have spied for Russian security services.

Additional reporting by Barbara Erling in Warsaw


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