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Russia allegedly meddled in Bolivia’s controversial election

Bolivian president Evo Morales points and smiles at a meeting with Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in Moscow in July.
Kirill Kudryavtsev/Pool via Reuters
Bolivian president Evo Morales visited Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in Moscow in July.
  • Max de Haldevang
By Max de Haldevang

Geopolitics reporter

Published Last updated on

A Russian state company sent around 10 spin doctors to Bolivia beginning in mid-2019 to help the incumbent president Evo Morales win last month’s allegedly rigged election, according to an investigation by independent Russian publication Proekt.

Bolivia has been thrown into chaos in recent weeks amid allegations that Morales, who has been in office since 2006, fixed the election. After weeks of protests, the military “suggested” Morales step down on Nov. 10—he did so hours later. A conservative opposition senator declared herself president two days later, in what Morales and his allies around the world, including Russia, are calling a coup.

Rosatom, Russia’s state nuclear energy company, and the Bolivian government have agreed to build a $300 million nuclear complex and are in talks about working to mine Bolivia’s enormous lithium reserves. The company intervened in the election due to fears that defeat for the socialist Morales to a candidate more closely aligned with the United States could damage the lucrative relationship, Proekt reported in the investigation published on Oct. 23.

Beginning in January, Rosatom recruited social media experts—ones who had helped politicians in Russian regions to electoral victory—to help Morales’ online campaign, Proekt reports. They landed in Bolivia as early as June, and were allegedly tasked with attacking Morales’ opponents and gaining attention for posts relating to his slogan “Bolivia for Everyone.” The main strategists returned to Moscow in October, before the election, and prepared a report on their mission, which they told a colleague would be sent to the Kremlin, Proekt reports.

It’s unclear if their efforts had any effect on the vote, whose result is bitterly disputed. An audit (pdf) by the Organization for American States, which monitored the election, found “serious” irregularities across the board and “clear manipulation” of the technological infrastructure. But statistical analyses by left-leaning US think tank the Center for Economic and Policy Research and by University of Michigan professor Walter Mebane both argued that Morales was set to win even without the alleged fraud.

Moscow has allegedly meddled in numerous elections around the world in recent years. Most notoriously, US intelligence agencies found that Russian state actors hacked the Democratic National Committee in the 2016 US presidential election and used that information to favor now-president Donald Trump. Russian president Vladimir Putin has cultivated a useful relationship with Morales. State energy giant Gazprom began working with Bolivia in 2007, and Putin has been trying to sell Bolivia helicopters.

Proekt, an investigative website founded by several of Russia’s leading independent journalists, bases its story on anonymous interviews with sources close to the government, to Rosatom, and to the spin doctors themselves. Proekt’s previous investigations include a series on alleged Russian meddling in 20 African elections.

One of the strategists regularly posted pictures of La Paz, Bolivia’s capital, on Facebook between June 4 and Sept. 25, according to Proekt’s report, which includes a screenshot of one such post. When asked about his presence there, he told the publication he had been in Latin America on vacation. Another of the consultants said he was there with a corporate client. The remaining alleged participants declined to comment to Proekt.

Screenshot taken by Proekt
Political consultant Vladimir Ryabinin posts Facebook pictures of Bolivian capital La Paz.

Quartz was unable to contact a representative for MAS, Morales’ political party, whose website was down at time of publication.

Update (11/18): Rosatom denied the allegations, saying they “bear all the hallmarks of a smear campaign.” “Rosatom has never conducted or authorized on its behalf any activity which could be reasonably considered ‘influence’ in local elections or domestic politics in any country,” it said in an emailed statement.

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