Moscow is watching. At least, that’s the task of two of its emissaries.
Members of Russia’s lower house of parliament, the State Duma, will be in the United States this week to help certify the integrity of the midterm election, ensuring that the crucial vote on Tuesday lives up to international democratic standards.
It may seem like a curious portfolio for parliamentarians from a country that, two years ago, used cyberwarfare to undermine faith in the democratic process. Russia’s own elections are hardly models of integrity.
But Artyom Turov, a member of the ruling United Russia party, and Alexei Korniyenko of the Communist Party, are serving as election observers with the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, the Russian news agency Tass reported. They will examine cybersecurity, gerrymandering, voting rights and campaign financing — in a divisive contest that serves, in part, as a rematch of the bitter 2016 battle.
The issue of Russian interference has been on the back burner this fall, as special counsel Robert S. Mueller III lays low and as Kremlin-aligned operations seem to shun outright hacking in favor of more run-of-the-mill efforts to inflame debate on social media.
But President Trump himself — notoriously skeptical of the determinations of his own intelligence community on Russian interference — has brought the issue back into public focus in the final days before the election, widely seen as a referendum on his first two years in the White House. Stumping on Saturday in Montana, he promised that the health of the economy would underwrite GOP gains and warned that Democrats would again seize on an outlandish theory to justify their losses.
“They’ll think of something like, uh, Russia,” he said, as if imitating Democratic deliberations and suggesting contrary to evidence that concerns about foreign interference had been cooked up to explain Hillary Clinton’s loss. “We won’t say that she was a lousy candidate, and we won’t say, certainly, that he was a very good candidate."
The same day, Trump attacked Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly of Indiana for running ads touting the record of his Libertarian opponent, apparently as a means of siphoning votes away from his Republican challenger, Mike Braun. Accusing the first-term Democrat of “trying to steal the election,” the president added, “Isn’t that what Russia did!?”
The president’s tongue-in-cheek affirmation that Russia tried to “steal” the 2016 election is a distinctly awkward backdrop for the visit by the two Russian parliamentarians, given their mandate to assess the legitimacy of the American vote. The midterm campaign has been marked by concerns of voter suppression, from North Dakota to Georgia.
Turov and Korniyenko are among 71 parliamentarians deployed nationwide on Election Day, according to the assembly’s leaders. Korniyenko told Tass that he and his Russian colleague would be working in the District and Maryland.
Observers evaluate the election for its adherence to democratic norms outlined in the OSCE’s Copenhagen Document of 1990. The document requires a political climate free of “violence” and “intimidation” and enshrines principles such as “universal and equal suffrage."
The affiliations of the two Russian lawmakers, as well as prior statements that they have made, raise questions about their faith in OSCE’s mission.
Turov has previously called the intergovernmental organization, founded in Helsinki in 1973, a “political farce” and threatened to suspend Russia’s participation. He has lent support to the right-wing Democratic Party of Serbia, and he has been a leader in the pro-Kremlin youth wing of United Russia, known as the Young Guard.
He sponsored a Young Guard mobilization effort in 2011 that elevated to national prominence Maria Butina, the young woman charged this summer with acting as a covert Russian agent. “Together we can make the world better for the profit of all,” Butina wrote as part of the youth contest coordinated by Turov, according to the news website Russia Beyond.
Korniyenko has been hailed by Russian President Vladimir Putin as an expert on youth issues, and he was a moving force behind the Communist youth group’s suit against OSCE for $40 trillion in 2009. At issue in the dispute, before the European Court of Human Rights, was an OSCE resolution that appeared to draw a parallel between Nazism and Stalinism. Korniyenko said his aim was to defend “patriotic upbringings."
The parliamentary assembly’s first mission was in Russia in 1993, when 40 legislators from 20 countries monitored the federation’s first genuine, multiparty elections and the referendum on the constitution. “They met with authorities, many candidates, the media and voters and visited about two hundred polling-stations,” according to a news release from the time. On the whole, the election was free and fair, the observers concluded.
The 2018 U.S. election presents unique challenges, acknowledged leaders of the delegation in an op-ed in the Hill.
“In one sense, the mission is routine for us — having observed elections in the U.S. a half-dozen times since 2004 — but we are also keenly aware that this election is taking place in a context of deep polarization, concerns over election security, and an ongoing investigation into foreign interference in the 2016 presidential contest,” observed George Tsereteli of Georgia and Isabel Santos of Portugal.
They also acknowledged the tension between Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. election and the inclusion of Russian representatives in safeguarding the very next nationwide vote.
“We understand that in a political climate that for the past two years has been dominated by news of alleged Russian meddling, it might come as a surprise to Americans that Russians are involved in monitoring U.S. elections,” the authors wrote. “It should be understood, however, that as members of the OSCE, both the Russian Federation and the United States have for decades welcomed each other’s citizens into their countries as international observers.”
In fact, however, Russia declined to send observers to the United States as part of the OSCE mission in 2016. The Russian Embassy said in a statement at the time that it was “obvious that . . . our American colleagues are lacking transparency for this kind of work.” And when Russia offered to send poll monitors to individual states, American officials declined.
Josh Earnest, then-White House press secretary under President Barack Obama, said skepticism on the part of states was well placed.
“It’s appropriate that people might be suspicious of their motives or at least their motives might be different than what they have publicly stated, given the nefarious activities that they’ve engaged in in cyberspace,” he told reporters at the time.
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