The Russians were hard to miss. They appeared suddenly last year in Madagascar’s traffic-snarled capital, carrying backpacks stuffed with cash and campaign swag decorated with the name of Madagascar’s president.
It was one of Russia’s most overt attempts at election interference to date. Working from their headquarters in a resort hotel, the Russians published their own newspaper in the local language and hired students to write fawning articles about the president to help him win another term. Skirting electoral laws, they bought airtime on television stations and blanketed the country with billboards.
They paid young people to attend rallies and journalists to cover them. They showed up with armed bodyguards at campaign offices to bribe challengers to drop out of the race to clear their candidate’s path.
At Madagascar’s election commission, officials were alarmed.
“We all recall what the Russians did in the United States during the election,” said Thierry Rakotonarivo, the commission’s vice president. “We were truly afraid.”
Of all the places for Russia to try to swing a presidential election, Madagascar is perhaps one of the least expected. The island nation off the coast of southeastern Africa is thousands of miles away from Moscow and has little obvious strategic value for the Kremlin or the global balance of power.
But two years after the Russians’ aggressive interference in the United States, here they were, determined to expand their clout and apply their special brand of election meddling to a distant political battleground. [Continue reading…]