The Platform

Photo illustration by John Lyman

Russian political influence campaigns have posed a problem for Western democracies since before the modern state of Russia was created. Previously referred to as “active measures,” the essence of insidious Russian political influence campaigns has not changed. These include disinformation aimed at dividing populations, exploiting minority populations to sow hatred, and reconstructing reality to legitimize its ideology, all promoted through front organizations and shell companies.

Such campaigns have played a prominent role in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The most famous of Russian disinformation campaigns was the Russian troll farm which supported the Kremlin’s annexation of Crimea and its war in the Donbas in 2014. Operated through its Internet Research Agency, stories were spread about concocted issues such as war crimes and even zombie attacks. Russian disinformation has also been more overt at times, with official diplomatic accounts going so far as to seek to rewrite the history of the Second World War.

Considering the exposure of Russian disinformation efforts in both 2016 and 2020, more recent Russian efforts have moved underground, hiding behind corporate secrecy veils in offshore jurisdictions. Although the use of such companies has cost African countries more than others relative to the size of their economies, political elites of African countries have benefited directly, making the loss of national revenue negligible in relation to their own personal profit.

These benefits take the form of both stashing their own ill-gotten wealth in offshore havens, alongside payoffs undoubtedly received for hosting offshore accounts in their jurisdictions and not asking too many questions. Nowhere is this more prevalent than in Seychelles, an East African archipelago notorious for providing accounts to those seeking to stash dirty money.

The most recent in a series of exposes was a trove of 800-politically connected Russians masking their wealth behind opaque businesses as a means of evading global sanctions. The connection between the Russian political echelon and the Seychelles government was further underscored when during the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the government of Seychelles received a Russian delegation.

One such company is the innocuously named Intershore Consult Group. Founded in 1994 by Philippe Boullé, the company markets itself as a firm focused on tax planning, setting up offshore entities and virtual offices, as well as wealth management. As with many such companies, however, the companies it helps set up are engaged in a wide range of questionable activities. For example, Intershore was alleged to have set up a “smoke and mirrors” company in 2019 with the aim of selling government-owned mining licenses to members of the government, masking the beneficiary of the sale as a corporate entity.

More concerning than facilitating financial crimes, however, is Intershore’s involvement in corrupting Seychelles’ political system. Indeed, ICIJ investigations identified Boullé as having colluded with Ahmed Afif, the now vice-president, to change laws so that the government does not record the owners of offshore accounts. This protects the identities of those using offshore accounts for illicit purposes, creating a scenario where when subpoenaed by international agencies, the disclosure of account owner identities would be next to impossible.

Such was the case when the identities of Malaysian nationals, who employed Seychelles offshore companies to conceal their theft of billions of dollars from the 1MDB fund, were requested.

In fact, Ahmed Afif has been trying to facilitate business ties with Moscow from as early as 2005, when as Chief Executive of the Seychelles International Business Authority, he attended a conference “Seychelles and Malta” in Moscow which allowed him to deepen ties with the Kremlin. It was there that he discussed the practical aspects of the registration and use of non-residential companies first-hand in Moscow companies which would later serve to stash Russian dirty money and assist in sanctions evasion.

More concrete instances of political influence, alongside supporting organized crime, were seen in 2019, when Intershore Consult Group, under Boullé’s leadership, used companies to influence the 2018 presidential campaign in Madagascar, the most closely fought in the country’s 60-year post-independence history. This shady influence campaign was corroborated in a BBC investigation which showed how six candidates were offered money in the lead up to the presidential elections, through companies set up by Intershore. Funding for this campaign reportedly came from Yevgeny Prigozhin, a businessman accused of orchestrating Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Russian political influence operating vis-a-vis Seychelles undoubtedly have the government’s backing, who are benefitting from the millions drawn to the island, now a convenient home base for illicit financing activities. On an island with a population of under 100,000 inhabitants, nothing takes place without the approval of the political elites who have been running the country’s economy directly or indirectly for years.

Corruption accusations against incumbents and specifically, Ahmed Afif, go back years to past positions held. One such example is the sale of the island’s historic Plantation Club Hotel & Casino in 2008 when Afif was Principal Secretary for Finance. $5.7 million which went missing after the sale was explained as due to the exchange rate, however, local investigations reported the funds to have been pilfered by Afif and his colleagues, who had only a few years earlier done the same with the still missing $50 million.

The international community must take note of the current precarious state of affairs in Seychelles. With companies like Intershore facilitating the creation and operation of entities negatively impacting democratic development and influencing the outcome of elections in Russia’s favor, all with local government support, the possibility of continued Russian influence to the detriment of Western interests is very real. Understanding and addressing the intricate network of entities which companies such as Intershore continue to create with Moscow’s support must be the top of the international community’s agenda if democratic development in Africa and the developing world more broadly is to be preserved.

Kate Flask is an American freelance writer and digital nomad who studied creative writing in the UK. She has a personal and professional interest in East Africa and Indian Ocean Islands and Runs Seychelles Watch.