• Elise Thomas

Explainer: The foreign observers behind Ukraine’s sham referenda

By Elise Thomas


REUTERS/Alexander Ermochenko


Last week, Russian forces in occupied Ukraine and their local collaborators put on a pantomime of a democratic process as a pretext for the formal annexation of the regions of occupied Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia, and Kherson by Russia. The annexation of the four regions was announced on 30 September 2022.[1]


The stage-managed “referenda” took place amid circumstances of intense coercion. Centre for Information Resilience’s ‘Life Under Occupation’[2] series has highlighted the multifaceted repression that Russian forces have imposed on the remaining Ukrainian civilians living in the occupied territories.


The occupation regimes blend violence, fear, and enforced disappearances with the power of state bureaucracy. These mechanisms are aimed at compelling residents to participate in the occupation – by getting Russian passports, driving licenses, signing up for utility contracts and Russian bank accounts, and more – or risk being cut off from the necessities for daily life.


During the voting period, from 23 to 27 September, some people and some residential buildings were selected for "home voting”. Some of these individuals may have been chosen on basis of data collected over the previous months through several mass data collection exercises, like applications for Russian citizenship or individuals who accepted Russian humanitarian aid.


In this process, voting booths were set up in the hallways of residential buildings, and all residents were expected to come and cast a vote. The voting booths, and therefore the residential buildings, were patrolled by armed Russian soldiers. On 27 September, general polling places were also opened in public buildings (for example, schools) for voting.


In some “home voting” cases, referendum representatives accompanied by armed Russian soldiers went door to door.[3] In a context in which unknown numbers of civilians continue to “disappear” without warning, opening the door to be faced with heavily armed Russian soldiers[4] would be a terrifying experience for any person.[5] It is impossible for free and fair votes to be cast under such circumstances.




Figure 1: Video of an armed Russian soldier taking part in the “home voting” process on 23 September 2022.[6]


The referendums were likely in part about forcing the physical participation of civilians in the annexation as a tool of psychological control.[7] However, they were also a theatre show for Russians and the outside world – and like all theatre, they required an audience.


The presence of so-called “international observers” has been presented in statements by Russian officials, Russia’s Ukrainian collaborators, and by Russian propaganda both in occupied Ukraine and in Russia as evidence that the “votes” were legitimate and fair. Despite having been roundly condemned[8] by experts as a violation of the principles of election observation, these individuals play a key role in Russia’s strategy to attempt to build a façade of legitimacy over its invasion and occupation.


In the handful of days between the announcement of the referendums and the commencement of voting on 23 September, at least several dozen citizens of foreign countries appear to have been brought into the occupied territories from Moscow and elsewhere. It is unclear exactly how many, as the counts of “foreign observers” released by the occupation administrations include significant numbers of Russian politicians and other Russian observers.


A forthcoming report from CIR’s ‘Life Under Occupation’ series will provide a more comprehensive picture of those collaborators and enablers of the occupation sent from Russia to occupied areas, specifically, to the Kherson region.


On their arrival, these observers were feted by the occupation administration. In some cases, they were personally chaperoned around polling stations by leaders of the occupation and were trotted out for Russian state media to pronounce how fairly and transparently the referendums were being run.


So who exactly were these people?


The short answer appears to be, anyone who would come.


It appears likely that the sudden decision to hold the referendums prompted a mad scramble through the proverbial Rolodexes of past contacts to find people willing to get on a plane the following day, in some cases literally.


There is a notable absence of foreign politicians, active diplomats or officials, or significant public figures. This appears to be very much the C-team of election observers, even compared to the calibre of observers at previous Russian elections.




Figure 2: Observers covered in this piece.


There are, loosely, a handful of categories which observers can be grouped into. The individuals listed below are intended as examples and are not an exhaustive list of observers present at the referendums:


Far-right and far-left European political figures


The Kremlin has traditionally cultivated links both in the far right and the far left of European politics. These take part as observers in Russian elections or are part of alliances to build tights between Russia and European countries.


Emmanuel Marc André Leroy (French), observer in Zaporizhzhia.


Leroy is a former advisor to far-right French politician Marine Le Pen[9] and seemingly has his own longstanding connections to other far-right and white supremacist groups. For example, featuring as a speaker in 2007 in Moscow at a conference titled the “White Forum" and headlined by former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke. French media describes him as part of a pro-Russian lobby within Front National.[10]


His connection to the Russian-occupied territories in the Donbass dates back to 2015, and in 2018 he told Russian media[11] that he had travelled to the Donbass six times in his role as president of the organisation "Urgence Enfants du Donbass" (Urgent Help for the Children of Donbass). Leroy is also a repeat observer[12] of Russian elections[13]and a contributor to Russia’s Valdai Club.[14] In the 2022 referendums, declaring himself an "expert and representative of France”,[15] Leroy claimed that the voting took place in accordance with all norms of international law and everything followed the protocol.


André Michel Claude Chanclu (French), observer in Kherson.


Chanclu is president of Collectif France-Russie[16] and co-founder of the France-Donbass Committee[17] (although it is unclear how far either of these groups extends beyond Facebook pages).


On the day of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Chanclu posted on Facebook[18] that it was “a great day for our community” and “our support is total.” Change is also reportedly a former member of the Groupe Union Défense,[19] a far-right group associated with Front National, and has extensive ties to French far-right politics stretching back decades.[20]


In the 2022 referendums he and longtime French propagandist in the Donbass, Christelle Néant, were personally greeted and shown around Kherson[21] by occupation deputy leader Kirill Stremousov (with Néant translating, as it appears Chanclu does not speak Russian). “These referendums are referendums on the freedom of the people,” he told Russian media.[22]


Xavier Moreau (French-Russian), observer in DNR.


Moreau, who has lived in Moscow for decades, runs the website[23] and YouTube channel,[24] Centre d’analyses politico-statégiques (Stratpol), promoting pro-Russian geopolitical content to primarily French audiences. He also runs a consulting company, Sokol, which the Atlantic Council has claimed: "played a central role in forming contacts between [Front National]-friendly business circles and their Russian counterparts.”[25]


Moreau, who moves in the same circles as Leroy and Chanclu discussed above, is also alleged to have personally paid a part in building connections between the French far right,[26] including Front National, and Russia. Moreau was an observer in the DNR’s 2018 elections.[27] In 2022 he praised the organisation of the referendums and reinforced the message that people in the occupied territories are joyful at the prospect of joining Russia.[28]


Artur Leier (German), observer in DNR.


Artur Leier (German, observer in the DNR). Leier is the executive director of Weltnetz TV,[29] which he co-founded with far-left politician Diether Dehm, who was a member of the Bundestag until 2021. Leier also has a background in left-wing German politics and reportedly maintains some political connections.[30]


Leier’s connections to the DNR date back to 2015 when he visited just after the battle for Debaltseve, according to an interview he gave during the 2022 referendums.[31] The Biased Observers database lists Leier as having been an observer for the 2018 elections in the DNR,[32] and in 2021 he was an observer for elections in Omsk, Russia.[33] In the 2022 referendums, Leier has given multiple comments to Russian media (for example, on Solovyov Live[34]) stating that he saw no violations and that the “votes” were free and fair.


Pro-Russian bloggers, public commentators, social media figures, and journalists with a history of working for Russian media


Wyatt Reed (American), observer in the DNR.


Reed is a journalist for Russian state media Sputnik.[35] In the 2022 referendums, he interviewed deputy head of the Kherson occupation administration Kirill Stremousov (using French pro-Russian journalist Christelle Néant[36] as a translator)[37] and has since appeared on Russian media, including RT’s CrossTalk panel show,[38] talking about the success of the referendums.


Sonja Van den Ende (Dutch),[39] Vanessa Beeley (British),[40] Eva Bartlett (Canadian).[41]


All three have built their profiles as bloggers and ‘independent journalists’ (including occasionally writing for Russian state media) promoting a pro-Russian view of first the conflict in Syria and then the invasion of Ukraine. They have been repeatedly accused of spreading Russian disinformation, for example promoting conspiracy theories[42] about the White Helmets in Syria.[43]


Since the beginning of Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, both Van den Ende[44] and Bartlett have taken part in “press tours” organised by the Russian army in the occupied Ukrainian territories. They, along with Beeley, form part of a cohort of Western social media influencers (many of whom now live in Russia) promoting Russian propaganda and disinformation about the Ukrainian invasion.[45]


Bartlett is also a member of the Russia’s sham human rights tribunal targeting Ukraine.[46] In the 2022 referendums, they gave approving interviews to Russian media, and created positive content about the referendum to promote to their online audiences.


Thomas Röper (German), observer in Kherson.


Röper has lived in Russia for decades, and since 2018 he has been the editor of Anti-Spiegel.ru, a website and Telegram channel which have been accused of promoting pro-Russian propaganda and disinformation,[47] as well as Covid-19 conspiracy theories. Röper and other observers were personally shown around Kherson by Stremousov in the 2022 referendums.[48] He told Russian media that the only “violations” he saw were threats from Ukraine to disrupt the referendums.[49]

Konstantinos Andronikou (Greek), observer in the LNR and DNR.


Andronikou’s LinkedIn profile[50] lists him as an advisor to the Mayor of Almopia until August 2022. Prior to this, he was a ‘freelance Government Relations manager’ in Moscow, a research fellow at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, and a ‘partner’ at Russian state media outlet Russia Beyond The Headlines.[51] Andronikou told Russian media that the referendums were professionally prepared and run.[52]


Former and fringe diplomatic figures and failed politicians


Vito Grittani (Italian linked to Abkhazia), observer in the DNR.


Despite being credited in Russian media as an “Italian diplomat”, Grittani is nothing of the sort. Grittani is Italian-born, but since 2016 he has been an Ambassador-at-large for the breakaway region of Abkhazia.[53] He is also the founder of a group called the International Diplomatic Observatory. It appears that he was already present in Luhansk in August 2022, where he joined a highly publicised tour for “foreign journalists” including Steven Seagal.[54] At a press conference for the referendum, Grittani heaped praise upon the DNR’s organisation for the voting process.[55]


Dia Nader de El Andari (Lebanese-Venezuelan), observer in Zaporizhzhia.


El Andari is a former Ambassador of Venezuela to Syria and former Chargé d'Affaires of Venezuela in Serbia. At 72 years old, she told Russian media Ria Novosti that her children had been concerned for her safety travelling to occupied Ukraine, but that she had found security to be of the “highest level.” She said that she hoped her native country of Lebanon could learn from the occupied territories as an example of how to build a state.[56]


Gianfranco Vestuto (Italian), observer in the DNR.


Vestuto is the leader of a minor right-wing political party, Lega Sud Ausonia,[57] which was founded as a sister party to Lega Nord before splitting.[58] In addition, since 2013 he has been the editor of a pro-Russian news site,[59]Russia News.[60] He also has a registered company[61] in the UK, which appears to be associated with a website through which buyers can purchase social media engagement.[62] In 2022 Vestuto told Russian media that the referendums were going well and that he had seen no violations.[63]


Christoph Hörstel (German), observer in polling stations in Moscow.


Hörstel is the founder of the allegedly anti-Semitic party Neue Mitte.[64] He is an alleged conspiracy theorist[65] and an alleged Holocaust denier.[66] In 2017, he travelled to annexed Crimea and was photographed with Putin.[67]During the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020-1, he advocated against taking the Covid-19 vaccinations.[68] Since the beginning of Russia’s 2022 war in Ukraine, he has advocated a consistently pro-Russian position and criticised[69]the German government’s support for Ukraine.


German media T-Online claims[70] that he is linked to a bizarre campaign involving a plane flying over Berlin with a banner demanding the opening of Nord Stream 2. In the referendums, he told Russian media that the “procedures looked correct, often more correct than in Germany” and that it was important to “respect the will of the people.”[71]

African National Congress Youth League


Four members of the African National Congress Youth League appear to have been flown commercially from South Africa to Moscow on 22 September, and then via a Russian Air Force jet to Crimea on 23 September.[72] As “referendum observers”, they were accompanied by Russian special forces.[73]


Khulekani Mondli Skosana (South Africa), observer in Crimea, the DNR, and Zaporizhzia.


Skosana has been credited as the head of the International Liaison office for the African National Congress Youth League. In 2021 he travelled to Russia to participate in the International BRICS Youth Camp and appears to have personally met Russian President Vladimir Putin.[74]


In March 2022, he and other ANC Youth League members participated in a roundtable on the Ukraine crisis hosted by the Russian Embassy in South Africa,[75] in which “H.E Ambassador Ilya Igorevich Rogachev through a 5-hour-long conversation with the YL explained the sequence of events that lead to the Russian federation’s military operation in Donbas” [sic].


In July he appeared on Russian state media RT,[76] claiming that the food crisis affecting Africa was the fault of Western sanctions on Russia, as opposed to Russia’s aggression towards Ukraine, and that Russia’s invasion had been “caused by NATO expansion towards the east, threatening the sovereignty of the Russian people.” During and following the referendum vote Skosana has made multiple Russian media appearances, heaping praise on the vote and the new ‘freedom’ of the people of occupied Ukraine.

Venus Lorato Blennies (South Africa), observer in Crimea, the DNR, and Zaporizhzia.


Blennies is a provincial chairperson for the ANC’s Youth League. She, along with Skosana, is part of a group of people tasked in April 2021 with reinvigorating the Youth League after a period of stagnation.[77] Blennies told Russian state-owned TASS that 80% of South Africans supported Russia’s referendums in the occupied territories (based on no apparent evidence).[78]


Ziyanda Ncuru (South Africa), observer in Crimea, the DNR, and Zaporizhzia.


Ncuru has been billed by Russian media as a member of the regional executive committee of the Communist League Youth of South Africa.[79] Based on her social media profiles and the shirts she wore during the referendum emblazoned with the African National Congress Youth League logo, however, it appears her primary connection may be to the ANC’s Youth League. She, along with other members of ANC’s Youth League, appear to have been flown into Moscow on 22 September.


Stella Leboang Mondlane (South Africa), observer in Crimea, the DNR, and Zaporizhzia.


Mondlane is the speaker of the Matlosana City Council.[80] In interviews during the referendums,[81] she wore a hoodie bearing the ANC Youth League’s logo and her social media profiles appear to reflect active participation in the ANC and the Youth League. Speaking to Russian media, she compared the referendums in occupied Ukraine to South Africa’s struggle for freedom and claimed that the people she had spoken to were excited and happy to be joining Russia.[82]


Conclusion


There is enough open source evidence to suggest that this was, in no way, a credible or independent observer mission. “Observers” appear to have been brought in by Russian forces, shepherded from place to place by Russian occupation administrators, and accompanied by Russian special forces. Few, if any, seem to have no experience observing elections outside of Russia and the occupied territories. Many do not appear to speak either Russian or Ukrainian and, therefore, were likely only able to communicate with locals via a translator, who was undoubtedly appointed by Russian or occupation administrators.


It seems highly likely that the observers genuinely did only meet with people who told them how happy they were to be joining Russia – standing in front of a heavily armed Russian Spetsnaz soldier, few people would say otherwise.


The calibre of people that the Russians and their collaborators were able to attract reflects both the hastily assembled nature of the referendums and their lack of legitimacy in the eyes of the world. The mishmash of fringe and failed political figures, conspiracy theorists and ambitious student politicians seems in many ways a fitting audience for this latest gamble in Russia’s invasion.


FOOTNOTES


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[8] Krever, Voitovych, Pennington, Allen, and Halasz (27 September 2022). Available at: https://edition.cnn.com/2022/09/27/europe/russia-ukraine-referendum-intl/index.html [9]Vaux (14 April 2017). Available at: https://www.thedailybeast.com/marine-le-pens-closest-advisor-comes-out-of-the-shadows-in-donetsk

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