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Russiagate hits German far right

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Europe’s Russiagate scandal may be about to claim its first political victim.

In a letter obtained by POLITICO, leaders of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party pile pressure on a lawmaker to come clean regarding Czech media reports that he accepted €25,000 from a pro-Russian network that’s trying to influence European public opinion ahead the June EU election.

The letter urges the lawmaker, Petr Bystron, who is the AfD’s foreign policy spokesman in the German Bundestag, to send a written statement to party leadership by 2 p.m. on Thursday detailing any involvement in the scheme.

While the letter doesn’t spell out consequences in the event that Bystron says he took the money, AfD lawmaker Maximilian Krah told Germany’s Welt newspaper that Bystron wouldn’t be allowed to appear at party rallies until the “allegations in question have been clarified.”

Bystron told local Funke Group newspapers that he “did not accept any money to advocate pro-Russian positions” and asked for Czech security officials to provide evidence.

The letter to Bystron is the first sign of significant political fallout from the so-called Russiagate scandal in which politicians from several European countries — none of whom have been named by authorities — stand accused of having received payments from a pro-Russian media network named Voice of Europe to spout Kremlin talking points, including about Russia’s war on Ukraine.

The allegations about payments to EU politicians, first made public by Czechia’s foreign ministry last week and since corroborated by Belgium’s prime minister, citing intelligence findings, appear to confirm fears that Moscow is deploying sophisticated means to sway EU public opinion ahead of the European Parliament election coming up in less than three months’ time.

“Europe is very vulnerable to Russian influence so we need to work harder on our resilience,” Jan Lipavský, the Czech foreign affairs minister, told reporters in Brussels on Wednesday.

EU politicians including the head of the liberal Renew bloc in the European Parliament have called for an immediate probe into the activities of Voice of Europe, a Russian-backed venture which previously filmed a talk show inside the European Parliament building that featured far-right and Euroskeptic guests.

Voice of Europe’s Facebook page became unavailable on March 31 and its YouTube channel became unavailable on April 3. However its X account, which is marked with a gold tick reserved for “official organizations,” came out swinging on April 1 with a statement that decried “smears” by “Soros-funded NGOs,” among others.

According to a draft document seen by POLITICO, the Renew group linked to French President Emmanuel Macron will next week present legal amendments in Parliament that, among other measures, propose barring the use of the chamber’s facilities for the purpose of undermining “EU values or for the purposes of disseminating hostile information by authoritarian regimes.”

Russia steps it up

So far, Bystron is the only EU politician who’s been linked by name to the allegations. According to media reports, which cite briefings by Czech counterintelligence officials, Czech officials are in possession of an audio recording where Bystron can be heard accepting payment in exchange for rendering services to Voice of Europe. As of Wednesday evening, Bystron didn’t respond to POLITICO’s request for comment.

Czech officials are in possession of an audio recording where Bystron can be heard accepting payment in exchange for rendering services to Voice of Europe. | Odd Andersen/AFP via Getty Images

Speaking to German media, Bystron demanded Czech security services present the “alleged audio recording.”

Bystron’s AfD party, which according to POLITICO’s Poll of polls is polling at 18 percent, is known for its hardline anti-immigration, anti-EU and pro-Kremlin viewpoints. For example, it has criticized Western support for Ukraine in its war with Russia.

Hundreds of thousands of Germans took to the streets in protest against the far right in February after reports surfaced the AfD was planning to pitch a “remigration” plan under which foreigners would be sent back en masse to their home countries.

The AfD is just one of several parties in Europe with pro-Russian views. Others include Hungary’s Fidesz, France’s National Rally, Italy’s League and Slovakia’s Smer.

In the run-up to the EU-wide election in June, Russia is ramping up its attempts to sway opinion and, where possible, infiltrate the bloc’s institutions. A Serbian national linked to Russia’s FSB intelligence agency visited the European Parliament last October as part of such efforts, according to a Western intelligence briefing seen by POLITICO.

EU sanctions in the works

Following Prague’s move to sanction Voice of Europe, EU politicians are working on the idea of a bloc-wide sanction against the group — possibly as part of a 14th EU package of measures against Russia, Lipavský said, adding a Czech proposal would be “accompanied by the file which give[s] evidence.”

“In this cyber war with Russia, we need to act as one,” said Dita Charanzová, Parliament vice president for cybersecurity. | Alexis Haulot /EP

While several EU diplomats said they were in favor of sanctioning Voice of Europe, a formal proposal to do so has not yet been submitted to national representations. Any capital can propose national sanctions be extended at the EU level, but proceedings are not public. Issuing an EU-wide sanction can take anywhere from two weeks in some exceptional cases to several months.

“In this cyber war with Russia, we need to act as one,” said Dita Charanzová, EU Parliament vice president for cybersecurity. “It’s clearly a bad signal if one Member State sanctions an organization for disinformation and we as the EU are not able to follow up.”

Peter Stano, spokesperson for the European External Action Service, which drafts EU-wide sanctions at member countries’ requests, said such processes are “confidential and not for us to comment or pre-empt publicly.”

Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022, the EU moved to ban Russian state-owed media RT and Sputnik in a matter of a few days. In the past two years the bloc has also imposed sanctions on Kremlin-backed organizations behind disinformation campaigns like InfoRos, the Institute of the Russian Diaspora and the ANO Dialog nonprofit.

French Foreign Minister Stephane Sejourné on Tuesday said France will push for European sanctions on those peddling disinformation to counter a growing Russian online threat to elections.

“Russia resorts … to lies and manipulation of our public opinions, in particular by financing interference, promoting false media, and accusing Ukraine,” Sejourné said at a press conference in Paris Tuesday.

Pieter Haeck and Ketrin Jochecová contributed reporting from Brussels. Hans von der Burchard contributed reporting from Berlin. Clea Caulcutt contributed reporting from Paris.

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