In April 2019, the BBC released a report claiming that several Russian agents were deployed by Moscow to influence the 2018 presidential election in Madagascar. In the guise of tourists, the Russian agents were believed to have offered support to at least six presidential candidates, in what was a systematic and co-ordinated operation involving dozens of Russian agents who had been based in Madagascar for nearly a year. Among those approached were former Prime Minister Jean-Omer Beriziky and influential Pastor André Mailhol; both were presidential chances at the beginning of the campaign. As well as influencing the electoral process, the operation included appearances at anti-Western events across the country. Since 2014, there has been a foreign policy pivot by Moscow towards Africa, as Russia seeks fresh alliances as the sanctions imposed by the West for its annexation of Crimea take effect.
Since 2014, Russia has greatly enhanced its influence in Africa. It has sought to use its military exports, security apparatus and state-controlled natural resources companies, to gain footholds across the continent. This has occurred in several countries, including the Central African Republic, Libya and, more recently, Madagascar. Moscow, by reaching out to countries where previously it had shown little interest, is aiming to both increase its sway in the region and unsettle the region’s traditional allies and former colonisers, the United States, Britain and France. While the Russian outreach has come from a need to try and counter the sanctions imposed on it by the West, it also has geopolitical utility in enhancing Russia’s influence on the continent.
One of the main strategists of Russia’s offensive in Africa is President Vladimir Putin’s close friend and personal “chef” Evgenу Prigozhin, who is believed to have been financing teams of Russian political technologists to work in several African countries with upcoming elections. While a spokesperson for his team stated that he had nothing to do with political strategists or their projects in Africa, there are grounds for scepticism, because Prigozhin was indicted by the US for alleged criminal interference in its 2016 presidential election.
Madagascar places few limits on election campaign funding received from abroad, so the door is potentially wide open for foreign interference. Maxim Shugaley is a well-known Russian political spin doctor, who has been described as a “gun-for-hire” and, according to BBC Russian correspondent, Andrew Soshnikov, will do exactly what he is paid to do. The Russian agents offered cash and “technical support” to Mailhol, under the condition that, if a front runner emerged from the eight or nine candidates Russia was supporting, he would give his full support to that candidate. Mailhol’s campaign manager said that, ‘it’s like they decided what we should do and we just had to do it.’
It could be argued that Russia’s foray into Madagascar is for economic reasons, because the country, which is the world’s largest producer of vanilla, also holds large deposits of cobalt, nickel and uranium. Acquiring access to those resources may well be desirable for Moscow, but it could also be argued that the movement into the region is mainly due to the desire to deepen its presence across Africa and that the resources are just a bonus.
While the BBC’s claims have created a media storm surrounding the allegations, the extent of Russia’s success in the process should be questioned. Originally, the Prigozhin-backed candidates performed poorly in the first round of voting, with Jean-Omer Beriziky receiving less than one per cent of the preferred vote and Mailhol receiving just 1.27 per cent. While the strategy later moved towards supporting the eventual winner, Andry Rajoelina, his victory can hardly be attributed to Russian involvement; he had already received backing from both the US and China. Rajoelina has also denied taking any money from the Russians and there is no evidence to suggest otherwise.
The Russian attempt to influence the election has not been lost on the Malagasy people, however. Russian company Ferrum Mining recently acquired a 70 per cent share in the state-owned chromite mining firm, Kraoma. Soon afterwards, the employees of Kraoma went on strike, putting up banners demanding “Russians out”. As a result, wages have not been paid, workers are struggling to feed their families and social benefits have been lost.
While Russia’s efforts may not have achieved the desired outcome, there is much that Moscow can learn from the process. Russia’s attempt to secure influence was hindered in no small way by the fact that it backed several candidates, none of whom ended up winning, or even performing strongly. With elections due in South Africa, Mozambique and Mauritania later in 2019, Western observers are likely to be watching more closely for any signs of Russian involvement. If Moscow were to back the winning candidate earlier in the electoral process, it may find its efforts rewarded in those countries.