IStories: Kremlin-connected political strategists spent dozens of thousands of dollars to persuade EU MPs to support Crimea annexation

Russian political strategists connected with the Kremlin had been spending dozens of thousands of dollars on a campaign in support of Crimea’s annexation among European MPs for at least three years between 2014 and 2017. This was revealed in a joint investigation by IStories, Eesti Ekspress, OCCRP, Italia’s IRPI and Austria’s Profil.

Journalists have studied the leaked emails of Sargis Mirzakhanyan, a PR expert employed by Russia’s State Duma, published by Ukrainian hackers. The archive includes around 20,000 emails sent and received between 2007 and 2017. Mirzakhanyan worked as an assistant to Igor Zotov, a Russian MP, and helped coordinate work with European politicians.

Photo: Mirzakhanyan’s Facebook

Photo: Mirzakhanyan’s Facebook

According to IStories, Mirzakhanyan’s key contact was an employee of the presidential administration, Inal Ardzinba, who worked under Vladislav Surkov. The PR expert mainly discussed Ukraine with him: “paying for publications in Ukrainian and Russian media, hiring bloggers and Internet provocateurs, as well as setting up pro-Russian rallies”.

Initially, IStories says, Mirzakhanyan and his employees acted under the unregistered brand titled International Agency for Contemporary Politics, however, in 2017, a company called Hemingway Partners was established by Satenik Markaryan, the PR expert’s mother. In the presentations by the Hemingway Partners group, which are cited by the investigators, it is said that one of the goals of the association was to set up rallies in the EU countries against anti-Russian sanctions, as well as “in support of the will of the Crimeans and the foreign policy of the Russian Federation”.

In particular, a resolution by the Council of the Italian Region of Veneto, introduced by one of its deputies, Stefano Valdegamberi, was mentioned by Hemingway Partners as one of its international projects. The resolution recognised Russia’s annexation of Crimea and condemned anti-Russian sanctions.

Screenshot by IStories from a presentation by Hemingway Partners

Screenshot by IStories from a presentation by Hemingway Partners

“It was fire,”

Mirzakhanyan wrote to one of his employees in April 2016 about the resolution.

Following Veneto, similar pro-Russian resolutions were adopted by two more Italian regions, Liguria and Lombardy, the IStories notes. However, it was rejected by the Italian Parliament. One of the emails mentions rewards for submitting a similar resolution to the Austrian parliament: “€20,000, and € 15,000 more should the vote be successful.” The MPs who introduced the resolutions deny that they received money for it.

Mirzakhanyan also sent emails regarding similar activities in Latvia, Greece, and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.

The investigation also says Mirzakhanyan’s team used to set up trips to Crimea for “allied” European MPs, for instance, to the Yalta International Economic Forum, established in 2015.

Additionally, Mirzakhanyan used to communicate with Leonid Slutsky, the Chairman of the Committee on International Affairs within Russia’s State Duma. The emails indicate that the two worked together to bring “international observers” to Russia’s 2018 presidential elections, mainly the same right-wing European MPs.

Mirzakhanyan refused to speak with IStories.

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