A pair of notorious Russian pranksters posing as leading Belarusian opposition figures have duped the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) into revealing the extent of US involvement in Eastern European political movements.
In a video call posted on the online channel of pranksters Vovan and Lexus, senior representatives of the American agency disclosed that they have actively financed and supported anti-government campaigns in the region. The officials from the NED, which is funded by Congress and describes its role as “supporting freedom around the world,” also revealed that they are coordinating efforts with prominent political activists in a range of countries, including Russia.
The officials believed they were talking to Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the figurehead of Belarus’ opposition movement, and one of her advisors.
During the call, Nina Ognianova, who oversees the NED’s work with local groups in Belarus, outlined the wide-ranging programs the agency bankrolls in the country, insisting that “a lot of the people who have been trained by these hubs, who have been in touch with them and being educated, being involved in their work, have now taken the flag and started to lead in community organizing.”
Ognianova claimed that, through this work, the NED played a role in igniting the colossal street protests that rocked Belarus after long-time leader Alexander Lukashenko declared victory in the country’s presidential election last August. The opposition and many international observers say the vote was rigged in his favor, and tens of thousands took to the streets for demonstrations each weekend after the election.
“We believe that this long-term trust-building that we have had with partners in Belarus has indeed brought the events, or the build-up to the events, of last summer,” Ognianova stated.
“We don’t think that this movement that is so impressive and so inspiring came out of nowhere – that it just happened overnight,” she added, “but it has been developing and we have our modest but significant contribution in that by empowering the local actors to do the important work.”
Carl Gershman, the president of the US state-backed agency, told the pranksters that Washington-based funding and policy groups were already working with Tikhanovskaya and her team “very, very closely.” He then asked the opposition figure, who fled to neighboring Lithuania after the election, to set out her thinking on the situation “so we can understand what your strategy is… and how we can be helpful.”
The comments are likely to add fuel to Lukashenko’s previous controversial claims that the widespread domestic opposition to his government is being stoked from abroad.
The pranksters also pushed the NED’s top team to outline their current activity in Russia, asking what they were doing to support anti-Kremlin activists. Gershman replied that such initiatives are “obviously incredibly important and we’ve emphasized this, going back to the election in August when the demonstrations were taking place in the Russian Far East, and people were connecting with each other and saying we share the same ideals, so we’re very committed to helping on that, and we will – working with our networks and our institutes.”
One of the duo, claiming to be Tikhanovskaya’s assistant, questioned this, saying, “I know that NED is prohibited in Russia now,” referencing a 2015 government decision declaring it to be an “undesirable NGO.” A number of the group’s senior leadership team began to laugh, with Gershman insisting “that doesn’t matter. We don’t have offices, we’re not like Freedom House or NDI [the National Democratic Institute] and the IRI [International Republican Institute], we don’t have offices. So if we’re not there, they can’t kick us out.”
“But we support many, many groups and we have a very, very active program throughout the country, and many of the groups obviously have their partners in exile,” the fund’s president added. “So we are very active and we can be very helpful on this issue.” He added that they were “of course” in touch with Leonid Volkov, a Lithuanian-based activist frequently described as the chief of staff of jailed Russian opposition figure Alexey Navalny.
Barbara Haig, the deputy to the NED’s president for policy and strategy, also hinted at the potential scale of US funding for political groups, saying, “we have a very ample program in Russia” which “goes even down to the grassroots in provinces – oblasts – outside of Moscow. It is very deep and it is very broad.”
Both she and Gershman expressed concern about Russian military exercises billed to take place alongside Belarusian troops later this year, with Haig asking if the group should be “looking at the deployment of Russian military in the country and how that might be changing over time, and whether we should be raising this with some of our contacts.”
Somewhat ironically, Haig also insisted that opposition groups in Russia are concerned about purported efforts to infiltrate and monitor their activity, saying that “security is a huge issue.” How the NED’s most senior figures came to speak with the pranksters, who kept their cameras turned off and spoke in an unconvincing imitation of Tikhanovskaya’s voice, is unclear.
The pair, whose real names are Vladimir Kuznetsov and Alexey Stolyarov, have previously blagged their way into calls with the likes of Prince Harry, Amnesty International and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. However, they have been accused by some Western commentators of disproportionately targeting opponents of the Kremlin, with their comedy gotchas frequently seeking to generate political controversy.
The NED describes itself as a “private, non-profit, grant-making organization that receives an annual appropriation from the US Congress through the Department of State.” It acknowledges that its “continued funding is dependent on the continued support of the White House and Congress,” but states that its own “independent Board of Directors” is in charge of how the funds are spent. The agency insists that its “independence… also allows it to work with many groups abroad who would hesitate to take funds from the US Government.” Representatives of the NED have been approached for comment.
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