OTTAWA — Canada is committing up to $24 million to support “elections and democracy” in Ukraine, including money to counter Russian disinformation, as tensions between Russia and the West continue to rise.
Up to $2.5 million is going towards “countering disinformation,” specifically from Russia. A background document provided by Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland’s office expresses Canada’s position bluntly: “Russia’s objective is to disrupt the stability of the Ukrainian state and throw into question the very legitimacy of democracy in the eyes of Ukrainian citizens.”
Freeland made the funding announcement in Milan, Italy on Thursday at a conference of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. It comes as a naval standoff between Russia and Ukraine continues in the waters off Crimea, the territory Russia annexed in 2014 — and as democracies continue to grapple with foreign attempts to influence voters via social media.
This week the European Commission, the executive branch of the European Union, unveiled plans to combat disinformation before EU elections next May. And U.S. officials confirmed that Russians had tried to interfere in the American mid-term elections in November. Canadian parliamentarians have meanwhile been working with counterparts in the United Kingdom to get to the bottom of how tech giants such as Facebook facilitate nefarious activities.
The OSCE is the world’s biggest organizer of election observation missions, which see countries sending groups of citizens to watch over other nations’ electoral proceedings. Canada plans to send 500 observers to Ukraine for its presidential election next March, an official said, pending the organization’s requirements. It’s expected to cost about $11 million.
In addition, $6.2 million in development assistance is being directed to the International Foundation for Electoral Systems to help “civil society, lawmakers, media, government, and academic institutions” to undertake “structural reforms” promoting inclusivity and gender equality. And $4.8 million is going to the National Democratic Institute to help empower female candidates running for office.
For $78,000 Canada is also funding a United Nations Development Programme study “identifying the constraints and limitations to the integrity of the democratic process and electoral system in Ukraine.”
The National Post reported in May that Freeland was taking a personal interest in renewing Canada’s election observation programs after several years of decline.
It is no surprise that Canada would send such a large number of election observers to Ukraine, since Canada has a long history of support for that country and a large Ukrainian-Canadian diaspora community.
Still, the proposed group of 500 sharply contrasts Canada’s last election observation effort, which saw just two people watching the Russian presidential elections early this year — something experts said most embassies would do anyway. The $11-million price tag to observe one election alone also eclipses what Canada has spent in any of the last four years. Funding had gone down to $700,000 in the 2016-17 financial year.
In the spring, Freeland’s press secretary Adam Austen said his boss was “personally seized” with reversing the downward trend, so Canada could “restore its meaningful role in election observation around the world.”
On Thursday morning Austen confirmed more announcements are coming. “This is for Ukraine only, but we are actively working on a broader package of elections observation support in other countries.”