Paul DeGregorio works at A-WEB and OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR)
BREAKING NEWS: I have met Vladimir Putin. Twice, in fact. Now that there seems to be a revelation every day (and hour) about who has or has not met with Russians, let me tell you my own story, and my own thoughts on the media frenzy that seems to be going on.
First, my meetings with Putin. 1st time was in September 1999, when I was in St. Petersburg, Russia to assess local elections. I was staying at the Angleterre Hotel and in an elevator going to breakfast. The door opens and in walks Vladimir Putin and a bodyguard. Putin had just been named prime minister a month before and, because I was heavily into Russian politics at the time, I recognized him and extended my hand and said, “Hello. Nice to meet you. How are you?” in Russian. He responded in kind. The door opened on the lobby floor and Putin went jogging and I went to breakfast. The second time was in 2002, when Putin was Russian President and the keynote speaker at an international conference of election officials in Moscow. I was on the program to speak immediately after Putin. We met 1/1 in for a few minutes in a private room beforehand, and he thanked me for the election work I had done in the Russian Federation. Putin was supposed to leave after his remarks but he stayed for my speech. Since he stayed, during my remarks I pointed out to Putin that he and I and the other person at the speakers table, Alexander Veshnyakov, who was then Chairman of the Russian Central Election Commission, that we were all born in 1952 and all turning 50 years old in a few months. I told Putin and the audience that the three of us had experienced quite a bit of history in our lifetimes, and especially in the past 10 years in the field of elections and democracy (I made note of the close U.S. election in 2000; and the contested Russian elections in the 90s). After my remarks, Putin came over to thank me and then departed. Just a few years later my friend Chairman Veshnyakov was ousted by Putin for publicly criticizing the Kremlin for election law changes that undermined democratic values.
My first trip to the Russian Federation was in the summer of 1993, when I was part of an international team of 8 people to determine what the Russian Federation needed to do to have their first Duma (parliament) elections since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991. We interviewed quite a few people and produced a 70-page report. I was then asked to return to Moscow in the fall to help advise and assist the first Russian Central Election Commission in conducting the December 12, 1993 Duma election. The biggest challenge was that they were going from having just one political party on the ballot for decades (Communist) to a contested election with 19 political parties. I focused on transparency and getting results in quickly (to prevent fraud), and my job was to secure donated fax machines and other equipment from the international community to get that accomplished. Needless to say, it was a life-changing experience for me and whet my appetite for working globally in the field of elections. I’ve now worked in 36 countries.
From 1993-2000 I went to Russia quite often to serve as a technical advisor on various election projects. I helped draft election laws and regulations, conducted election assessments and observations, and did considerable training. Along the way I worked with some fantastic people, including honorable Russians who believed in what we were doing to bring democratic values to their country.
When Putin became prime minister in 1999, many of us—including many Russians who believed in democracy—had high hopes for him. At the time, he was considered a reformer and even made pronouncements that many in the West applauded. However, Putin, like many politicians and folks who let power go to their head, changed. And he changed in a very ugly way, especially in the last decade or so. Some have argued that part of it was the West’s own doing for ignoring the enormous economic hardship endured by the Russian people after the breakup of the Soviet Union.
What bothers me regarding the current media frenzy about possible Russians interference in the U.S. election is that they don’t tend to tell the whole story. The fact is that there was a time in the early 2000s when U.S. taxpayers heavily funded many civic and “non-partisan” groups in the Russian Federation who were opposed to Vladimir Putin and his policies. Was I OK with that? Yes, because these groups were promoting democratic values, including freedom of speech, rule of law, elections and transparency, and exposing serious corruption. Putin caught on to this and in recent years he kicked out U.S. and other foreign-sponsored entities who were providing funding to these organizations. He also cracked down in a big way on Russian domestic groups and people who opposed his growing dictatorial and anti-democratic policies. Now, can you imagine the uproar if the Russians had directly funded and provided technical advisors to organizations in the U.S. who were opposed to those in power? In my view, we are seeing an uproar now mainly for some politicians and media folks to score political points. Do I think there should be a thorough bipartisan investigation on whether the Russians were involved in manipulating our election? Yes, of course. Do I think (based on what I’ve read so far) that the Russians threw the election to Trump? No. Don’t get me wrong, Putin is a bad guy, and what he has gotten away just with in just his activity in Ukraine and Syria deserve strong responses (and not just words).
I do want to point out that the Russians are not the only bad actors on this espionage stage. I believe cybersecurity threats and interference by the Chinese government in our economic interests are actually a greater threat. And it seems that gets a lot less attention by the media, most of whom are owned by big corporations that are afraid to challenge the Chinese government. What China is doing with cyberwarfare and stealing our patents and intellectual property undermines our economy. And let’s not kid ourselves: it is the Chinese government that is letting North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un get on the verge of launching nuclear weapons. In my view, that is a much larger issue than what is getting all the major news coverage these days.