How Russia Meddles Abroad for Profit: Cash, Trolls and a Cult Leader - The New York Times
ANTANANARIVO, Madagascar — The Russians were hard to miss. They appeared suddenly last year in Madagascar’s traffic-snarled capital, carrying backpacks stuffed with cash and campaign swag decorated with the name of Madagascar’s president.
It was one of Russia’s most overt attempts at election interference to date. Working from their headquarters in a resort hotel, the Russians published their own newspaper in the local language and hired students to write fawning articles about the president to help him win another term. Skirting electoral laws, they bought airtime on television stations and blanketed the country with billboards.
They paid young people to attend rallies and journalists to cover them. They showed up with armed bodyguards at campaign offices to bribe challengers to drop out of the race to clear their candidate’s path.
At Madagascar’s election commission, officials were alarmed.
In some vital ways, the Madagascar operation mimicked the one in the United States. There was a disinformation campaign on social media and an attempt to bolster so-called spoiler candidates. The Russians even recruited an apocalyptic cult leader in a strategy to split the opposition vote and sink its chances.
“What surprised me is that it was the Russians who came over to my house without me contacting them,” said the cult leader, known as Pastor Mailhol. “They said, ‘If you ever need money, we are going to pay all the expenses.’”
But while Russia’s efforts in the United States fit Moscow’s campaign to upend Western democracy and rattle Mr. Putin’s geopolitical rivals, the undertaking in Madagascar often seemed to have a much simpler objective: profit.
Before the election, a Russian company that local officials and foreign diplomats say is controlled by Mr. Prigozhin acquired a major stake in a government-run company that mines #chromium, a mineral valued for its use in stainless steel. The acquisition set off protests by workers complaining of unpaid wages, canceled benefits and foreign intrusion into a sector that had been a source of national pride for #Madagascar.