12 Apr 2024, 22:40

Belgium probes Russian 'interference' in European Parliament

BRUSSELS, Belgium, April  12, 2024 (BSS/AFP) - Belgium on Friday announced
it is probing Russian "interference" in the European Parliament following
allegations that lawmakers took money to spread Kremlin propaganda ahead of the
June EU elections.

The Czech Republic last month said its intelligence service had discovered
a network that used EU lawmakers to spread Russian propaganda through the
Prague-based Voice of Europe news site.

Belgium says it has determined that some of the lawmakers had been paid to
promote Moscow's propaganda.

"The cash payments did not take place in Belgium, but the interference
does. As Belgium is the seat of the EU institutions, we have a responsibility
to uphold every citizen's right to a free and safe vote," Belgian Prime
Minister Alexander De Croo said.

A summit of EU leaders next week will discuss the allegations, raised two
months ahead of the June 6-9 bloc-wide elections to vote in a new European

De Croo said Moscow's "clear" objectives were to "help elect more
pro-Russian candidates to the legislature and reinforce the pro-Russian
narrative in that institution".

Belgium's federal prosecutor's office confirmed to AFP that the probe into
foreign individuals or organisations suspected of giving "donations, loans or
advantages" to gain influence started on Thursday.

The crime carries penalties ranging from six months to five years in prison
and a fine of between 1,000 and 20,000 euros ($1,050-$21,250).

"If there would be a type of bribery -- and our services indicate that
payments have taken place -- while you need two sides for that to happen, you
have people who organise it, but you also have people to receive it," De Croo

- Russian disinformation -

The European Commission has issued repeated warnings about Moscow spreading
disinformation and misinformation ahead of the EU polls, and seeking to weaken
European public support for Ukraine as it fights off Russia's invasion.

Tactics go beyond publishing outright false information, EU officials have
said. Mixing in nuggets of facts into false stories can confuse or mislead
readers so that they distrust all news sources -- including reputable ones.

Voice of Europe, whose internet site is still accessible, is known for
publishing stories repeating Russian messaging and giving airtime to guests who
do so.

One of its top executives is a Ukrainian oligarch, Viktor Medvedchuk, who
is close to Russian President Vladimir Putin and who has been sanctioned by the
Czech government along with the outlet itself.

On Friday, Voice of Europe put a statement on its site saying it was being
"unfairly and ruthlessly stigmatised" along with "European farmers, politically
rising anti-globalist parties, supporters of these parties, former US president
Donald Trump (and) Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban".

It blamed "unpopular globalist 'elites', their discredited lackeys in the
lying mainstream press, and those financed by (US financier and philanthropist
George) Soros," who is a bete noire of Orban's.

Trump and Orban have sent chills down spines in Brussels for their stances
more in favour of Moscow than supporting Ukraine.

- Far-right politicians -

The Greens grouping in the European Parliament and a Czech daily said the
lawmakers under suspicion of voicing Russian propaganda on Voice of Europe came
from Belgium, France, Germany, Hungary, the Netherlands and Poland.

EU lawmakers face strict rules regarding independence and ethics and can
face penalties -- financial and otherwise -- if they violate them.

The political news website Politico said it identified 16 EU lawmakers who
had appeared on Voice of Europe, all of them far-right politicians.

The Czech newspaper Denik N and Germany's Der Spiegel magazine named two
top German candidates from the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party,
Petr Bystron and Maximilian Krah, as politicians suspected of receiving Russian
funds to spread the Kremlin talking points.

Denik N reported that Czech secret services had an audio recording
implicating Bystron, and that some politicians were paid to fund their EU
election campaigns.

Bystron and Krah have denied receiving any payments.

The European Parliament's main political groups have called for the
legislature to also probe the alleged propaganda-peddling.

The revelation comes a year after the "Qatargate" bribery scandal, in which
a number of EU lawmakers were accused of being paid to promote the interests of
Qatar and Morocco.

Both states deny the accusations.


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