Russian Interference Suspected in Madagascar Elections

Former President Rajaonarimampianina attempted to shut down protests while in office. (Ispi)

Former President Rajaonarimampianina attempted to shut down protests while in office. (Ispi)

Russian meddling in foreign elections may extend far beyond its historical area of control and even beyond the Democratic National Convention. A BBC investigation revealed that Russians offered money to at least six candidates in Madagascar’s 2018 presidential elections in what BBC reporter Gaelle Borgia called a “systematic and coordinated operation by dozens of Russians.”

The scandal raises doubts about the stability of the east African nation’s democracy. Madagascar held its first multiparty elections in 1991, and despite political turmoil between 2009 and 2014 following former President Ravalomanana’s abrupt cessation of power and flight to South Africa, the country has remained a multiparty state with regular elections.

The suspected Russian interference was not the only complication involved in the recent election. In April 2018, Madagascar’s opposition organized a rally against proposed electoral laws. The protests were also fueled by complaints about corruption and poverty. Police opened fired on the protesters, killing two people and injuring several others. The president at the time, Hery Rajaonarimampianina, even claimed the demonstrations were a coup attempt.

Though Madagascar is imperfect—Washington Post columnist Washington Klaas referred to Madagascar as a “counterfeit democracy” in a 2016 Foreign Policy article due to its admittedly powerful and corrupt cadre of elites—its political institutions since the 2014 democratic re-consolidation make it far from an authoritarian regime. Russia’s interference in the country’s most recent election, however, threatens to undermine popular faith in Madagascar’s democracy and to reduce support for the current regime.

The BBC report identified the Russians involved in the scandal as Andrei Kamar, who is described as having strong “political connections,” businessman Roman Pozdnyakov, and Vladimir Boyarishchev, who reportedly has a history in the diamond trade.

Among the Malagasy targets was presidential candidate Pastor Mailhol, who was given suitcases of cash amounting to ten of thousands of euros. In exchange for the money, the recipients were required to sign a contract promising to support whichever Russia-backed candidate won the first round.

The campaign manager for another former presidential candidate, Omer Beriziky, corroborated the claims that Russian “visitors” offered $2 million of financial assistance. In return, the Russians asked if he would be open to reassessing Madagascar’s historically western-oriented foreign policy.

As for the actual president, Andry Rajoelina, no evidence exists that he received financial support from Russians, and he denies any foreign involvement in his campaign. International observers sent to monitor the elections found the election to be fraud-free, according to Reuters.

Madagascar might have been an “easy target” for foreign meddlers, as the country has no limit on campaign spending or financial contributions from abroad. Additionally, despite the country’s high poverty rate, electoral campaigns are extraordinarily expensive to run, making candidates desperate for cash.

Madagascar is not the first African country to be targeted by Russian political analysts. In recent months, there have been reports of growing Russian presence and influence in the region. According to Al Jazeera, President Touadera of the Central African Republic called on the Russian government to send military instructors to train its domestic forces in the wake of internal chaos. Additionally, Russia has allied with Algerian strongman and former president Abdelaziz Bouteflika and has vowed to assist Uganda in building up its nuclear power capabilities.

These developments are likely part of Vladimir Putin’s attempt to unseat democratic western rivals in the region and project Russian power across the globe. Consequently, processes of growth and democratization in Africa could be destabilized or reversed.