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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Jennifer Rankin and Lili Bayer in Brussels

Belgian police search EU parliament office over Russian interference

A police officer stands next to a police van outside the EU parliament.
Police stand guard outside the European parliament building as a searches are carried out at offices in Brussels and Strasbourg. Photograph: Laurie Dieffembacq/Belga/AFP/Getty

Belgian police have searched the European parliament office and Brussels home of a parliamentary staffer who is believed to have played “a significant role” in a Russian interference operation, the national prosecutor has said.

French authorities also carried out a search of the employee’s European parliament office in Strasbourg at the request of the Belgian examining magistrate overseeing the inquiry into corruption and Russian interference.

The case is part of a Belgian investigation announced last month into alleged payments to MEPs to promote Russian propaganda on the Voice of Europe website. The searches come just over a week before elections to the European parliament.

After a Czech investigation into the Prague-based website, Belgium’s prime minister, Alexander De Croo, said last month a pro-Russian interference network was active in several European countries, including Belgium. The objective, he added, was to help elect more pro-Russian candidates to the European parliament in next week’s elections and reinforce “a certain pro-Russian narrative in that institution”.

In a statement on Wednesday, Belgium’s federal public prosecutor’s office said the searches were part of “a case of interference, passive corruption and membership of a criminal organisation and relates to indications of Russian interference”.

A spokesperson for the prosecutor’s office declined to name the suspect, citing the standard practice of secrecy.

Citing sources close to the inquiry, Belgian media named the suspect as Guillaume Pradoura, who they said was the former assistant of Maximilian Krah, the lead candidate for Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland party who recently resigned from the far-right party’s leadership over comments about the SS.

He has also been accused of accepting payments for interviews on Voice of Europe, allegations he strongly denies. One of his assistants, Jian Guo, has also been arrested over suspected espionage for China.

Pradoura is listed as working for Marcel de Graaff, a Dutch MEP for the far-right Forum for Democracy party.

Pradoura and de Graaff did not immediately respond to a request by the Guardian for comment.

But in a post on X, de Graaff said he learned of the searches through the media, adding: “I spoke to my employee and he appeared not to be aware of this. The authorities have not contacted me or him. To me this all comes as a complete surprise.” De Graaff added that he personally had no involvement “in any so-called Russian disinformation operation”.

Krah has been contacted for comment.

After an earlier decision to ban the Voice of Europe from broadcasting, the EU on Monday imposed sanctions on the website, which it said had “engaged in a systematic, international campaign of media manipulation and distortion of facts to destabilise Ukraine, the EU and its member states”. Asset freezes and travel bans were also imposed on two businessmen connected to the site, Artem Marchevskyand Viktor Medvedchuk. Medvedchuk led a pro-Russian political party in Ukraine for years.

One senior central European official told the Guardian the Russians were “definitely increas[ing] pressure on many fronts” before the European elections.

The Voice of Europe was “a kind of instrument through which they have leveraged the influence”, the official said, noting that the operation was “sophisticated” and different from usual forms of disinformation.

Voice of Europe was used to “organise meetings, or conferences or workshops. So this is quite an elaborate scheme. And it’s not classical disinformation,” the person said.

Russia’s goal with these kinds of operations, the official said, was to divide and weaken Europe: “They need to break the unity around Ukraine, I think that’s something which they are really focused on.

“I think their overall goal is basically to split the EU, to create a mess … because in the mess you can always further your interest more easily.”

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