The dangerous influence of expats
Volodymyr Zelenskiy celebrates his victory in Ukraine's presidential race. Credit: Brendan Hoffman / Getty   

In last month’s Ukrainian presidential election – won by a comedian who plays a fictional president on television – an unexpected voting pattern emerged. While 73% of those who voted chose the political outsider, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, over the sitting president, three distinct groups bucked that trend.

One comprised voters in and connected to the military, who supported President Petro Poroshenko in his determination to pursue the conflict with pro-Russian rebels. A second group was concentrated around the westernmost city of Lviv, a region long-distinguished by its Ukrainian nationalism. The surprise was the third group. Ukraine’s diaspora in western countries, including the US and the UK, expressed a marked preference – albeit on a turnout of less than 1% – for Poroshenko both in the first round, where Zelenskiy topped a list of more than 40 candidates, and in the second-round run-off.

Several reasons can be hazarded as to why. As a group, Ukrainian nationals abroad are among those who benefited most from Ukraine’s decisive westward orientation under Poroshenko, and from his achievement in negotiating visa-free travel with the European Union. This formed a prominent plank of his campaign, even though it was of little relevance to those many Ukrainians who cannot afford to travel.

Expats may also have found Poroshenko’s vision of a monocultural Ukraine, summed up in his slogan “army, language, faith”, more compelling than it was for those living with Ukraine’s rather grittier day-to-day reality.

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There may also have been a class element. At a gathering of Ukrainian expats in London to watch the first-round results come in, there was a distinct wariness about Zelenskiy, bordering on condescension. Their fear was that their (lesser educated) compatriots had fallen under the spell of a political ingenue and showman. They knew better. Here was quite a recent diaspora – recent enough to have retained the right to vote – that was demonstrably out of touch with the mood back home.

It could be argued that such a gap in itself might not matter; after all, the diaspora electorate makes up a tiny minority (around 3% in this case) of the whole. But that is only one side of the story. The other is that expats – who tend to be cosmopolitan, articulate, and to hold very decided political views about their homeland – can determine how the interests of their stay-at-home compatriots are viewed abroad, and may come to influence, even dictate, how they are addressed.

The lobbying power of a diaspora to sway a particular aspect of another country’s foreign policy should not be underestimated. Nor does it tend to end well. Recent – and not so recent – experience would suggest that when a government comes to rely disproportionately on diaspora voices, it can badly misjudge the situation and fall into costly mistakes.

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How, for instance, did President George W. Bush and the neo-cons in his administration come to be convinced that toppling Saddam Hussein in Iraq would be a “cakewalk” (the term used by Donald Rumsfeld’s associate, the former US diplomat Kenneth Adelman) and that Iraqis would throng the streets to welcome allied Western troops in something akin to a replay of the liberation of Paris? A large part of the answer boils down to one name: Ahmad Chalabi, the well-to-do émigré Iraqi who fronted the grandly-named Iraqi National Congress spearheading opposition to Saddam Hussein.

Chalabi had the ear of influential members of the US Congress; his group received generous funding from the US administration, and Chalabi himself was ubiquitous in the run-up to the Iraq war, when he was seen by the US and the UK as the person to lead post-Saddam Iraq. The informer known as “Curveball”, who supplied the crucial last-minute (and wrong) intelligence on Iraq’s biological weapons was related to a Chalabi aide.

How come, it might be asked, did the views of a group of exiles come to enjoy so much more credibility in the corridors of power in Washington and London than, for instance, the assessments of UN weapons inspectors or western diplomats or experts on Iraq? The answer in part comes down to wishful thinking in the Bush administration. But recent diasporas can also be very seductive: they seem plugged into their home country, they have a mission, they tend to speak our language, and they have figured out how to get heard.

Something similar applies to the Syrian exile groups who lobbied for direct US and UK military intervention to remove Bashar al-Assad from power. Their efforts to secure direct UK military intervention were thwarted when MPs narrowly rejected the Cameron government’s call for military action in August 2013 – and this had a knock-on effect in Paris and Washington. But they carried on their lobbying undeterred, and they were hardly left empty-handed.

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The UK might not have launched air raids or deploy regular troops, but it did send special forces and it did supply funds, including to the White Helmets rescue service. The opposition exiles also dominated the media space with the help of an initially tiny operation with an authoritative name – the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights – which also received taxpayers’ money. Until very recently, theirs was the view of the Syria conflict that prevailed in the UK and the US.

UK-Russia relations are another area where opposition exiles have made an impact. Through the early 2000s, wealthy Russian exiles in the UK waged a highly effective propaganda war against the new President, Vladimir Putin. A leading light was Boris Berezovsky, who used much of his money and his serpentine charm to wheedle his way into the corridors of power. He bought in the expert services of the Bell Pottinger PR agency, and underwrote the Chechen separatist cause, which gained a following from Vanessa Redgrave and other luminaries of the left-wing arts world.

He has been followed, rather more discreetly, by Mikhail Khodorkovsky, with his astutely named foundation, Open Russia. It is easy to blame the frosty relations between the UK and Russia over the best part of 20 years on Kremlin-ordered crimes on British soil. But the creation of such a generally hostile climate owes much to the activities of these moneyed exiles.

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There are good reasons – and bad – why individual exiles and diaspora groups come to wield influence in their new countries. They tend to be highly articulate; they have a cause and they can claim direct knowledge of countries and situations that governments and politicians know they lack. How accurate or up-to-date a grasp they have of the sentiment in their homeland, however, may be another matter, as the breakdown of the Ukraine vote shows.

It may also help to explain something else. Given that Ukraine had just held an election that was the model of probity and a vindication of the values the West claims to represent, the congratulations sent to the victor by the UK and other EU countries seemed inexplicably lukewarm. Was this, in part, because these governments had been influenced by the wariness among their elite expat friends, rather than the sense of hope on the ground?

Zelenskiy has not yet been inaugurated, so it is far too early for any assessment of his merits. But the divergence in the vote should serve as a warning. What happens in Ukraine, as anywhere else, needs to be seen by foreign governments in the light of their own judgement and their own evidence, not filtered through a diaspora lens. Of course expats deserve a voice in their new country. Just because their voice may be louder and more impassioned, however, does not mean it should be allowed to drown out the rest.