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Russia wants to mar U.S. elections. Why target St. Petersburg’s Uhurus?

The group’s racial politics and Florida base would appeal to Russian disinformation agents, experts say.
Uhuru Chairman Omali Yeshitela, on left, speaks alongside Uhuru Movement members on the steps of St. Petersburg City Hall on June 15, 2020. The FBI is investigating ties between the St. Petersburg-based Uhurus and a Russian campaign to undermine and interfere with U.S. elections.
Uhuru Chairman Omali Yeshitela, on left, speaks alongside Uhuru Movement members on the steps of St. Petersburg City Hall on June 15, 2020. The FBI is investigating ties between the St. Petersburg-based Uhurus and a Russian campaign to undermine and interfere with U.S. elections. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Aug. 2

It shook up local political circles when the FBI last week searched the St. Petersburg headquarters of the Uhuru Movement over alleged ties to a Russian campaign to interfere in U.S. elections.

Why would Russia, a nation of 144 million, care who wins a mayor’s race or a seat on City Council in a Florida city of 260,000? Why would Russia throw its weight behind the Uhurus, a relatively small socialist organization arguably as known for selling homemade pies as for campaigning against racism?

But scale back, experts say, and the connection makes more sense. In some ways, it’s ripped straight from the Russian disinformation playbook.

“This is exactly what they try to do,” said Golfo Alexopoulos, director of the Institute on Russia at the University of South Florida.

Related: FBI investigating Russian interference possibly linked to St. Petersburg Uhuru Movement

The Uhurus’ radical racial politics and Tampa Bay’s national political relevance may have been factors in what authorities say was a targeted propaganda effort designed to weaken democratic institutions, including the electoral process.

“They get a lot of bang for their buck with these influence operations, just bribing officials and infiltrating governments in the west and trying to sow discord,” Alexopoulos said. “It really suits them.”

No members of the Uhuru Movement or its umbrella organization, the African People’s Socialist Party, have been charged with wrongdoing. In a federal indictment unsealed July 29, a group that is not identified by name, but which members and local officials indicated is the Uhuru Movement, is alleged to have accepted money and overseas trips from a Russian official named Aleksandr Viktorovich Ionov. Prosectors say Ionov backed and consulted for Uhuru-backed candidates for St. Petersburg mayor and City Council in 2017 and 2019.

In a press conference streamed on Facebook Tuesday, Uhuru leader Omali Yeshitela called allegations of a Russian influence on his group “madness.”

“Everything they’ve said is a lie,” he said. “It’s a total fabrication.”

Related: Who are the Uhurus, the St. Petersburg group probed by FBI for Russian ties?

The goal of any Russian disinformation campaign, experts say, is to foment distrust in democratic institutions. In the Uhurus, Russia would have found a group that’s already there.

The Uhurus’ official platform supports reparations, amnesty, an end to taxation and the right to form new nations for “African people forcibly dispersed throughout the world.” For the last 30 years, the Uhurus have been vocal critics of the city and St. Petersburg Police, staging protests and demanding public recognition for Black people killed or victimized by police.

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There’s a long history of Russian propaganda tied to civil rights movements, said William Aceves, a professor at the California Western School of Law in San Diego who specializes in international human rights and civil rights law.

A century ago, the Soviet Union distributed pamphlets arguing that America’s historic treatment of minorities reflected a failing of U.S. democracy. In the 1950s, the U.S. Department of State acknowledged that segregation could be held up as a national embarrassment in Cold War propaganda. In recent years, Russians have created fake social media accounts both supporting and denouncing Black, Muslim and LGBTQ causes.

“They recognize that race is a significant issue in this country, and so they will use racial inequality and discrimination to further undermine the legitimacy of the U.S. legal system and U.S. democracy,” Aceves said.

The FBI and St. Petersburg Police Department investigate the Uhuru House at 1245 18th Ave S on July 29 in St. Petersburg.
The FBI and St. Petersburg Police Department investigate the Uhuru House at 1245 18th Ave S on July 29 in St. Petersburg. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Related: What to know about possible Russian ties to St. Petersburg's Uhurus

To the Russians, what matters most isn’t politics, but polarization. Disinformation campaigns have targeted both the far left and far right, recognizing that both sides have the power to stir animosity.

Six years ago, during the 2016 presidential election, Russian-backed operatives targeted Florida’s elections on multiple fronts in support of Donald Trump, according to federal intelligence reports, including one led by former FBI director Robert Mueller. According to one report, operatives organized rallies, flash mobs and Facebook groups (including one called “Being Patriotic”), drawing the attention of the Trump campaign, which amplified those efforts on social media.

Florida, and Tampa Bay in particular, are appealing targets, Alexopoulos said. This is a big military town, with MacDill Air Force Base and U.S. Special Operations Command in Tampa. The region is also an electoral bellwether in a traditionally purple state whose governor is seen as a presidential contender.

Florida also has a high proportion of nonwhite voters, which represents another opportunity for Russians to try to break traditional coalitions — like Black or Hispanic voters and Democratic candidates — during election years, said Young Mie Kim, a professor and expert on digital media and political communication at the University of Wisconsin.

“They are taking advantage of a political opportunity, where the tensions between racial groups — white and nonwhite groups, nonwhite and white voters — are high,” said Kim, who has analyzed thousands of Russian social media ads since 2016. “That’s why battleground states are their primary targets.”

Days before the 2016 election, Russian hackers attempted to access the computer systems of at least five local elections offices, according to a National Security Agency document leaked to online news site The Intercept, including those in Hillsborough, Pasco and Citrus counties. Gov. Ron DeSantis said in 2019 that Russian operatives managed to hack into two Florida county elections offices in 2016; a Senate intelligence report later indicated four counties were targeted.

Another Russian campaign from 2016 also has a direct St. Petersburg connection. Posing as a gun rights activist, a Russian spy named Maria Butina made panel appearances at that year’s St. Petersburg Conference on World Affairs at the University of South Florida-St. Petersburg. At the time, she was trying to infiltrate the National Rifle Association and broker a meeting between Trump and Vladimir Putin. Ionov, the Russian agent accused of backing the Uhurus, paid for defense funding for Butina after her 2018 arrest.

That’s twice in six years that St. Petersburg has been party to a major Russian subterfuge story, “which is really kind of alarming,” Alexopoulos said.

“Before 2000, nobody would ever imagine that Tampa Bay would be in the spotlight, or that it would draw the attention of a global power,” she said. “Maybe it’s kind of a wakeup call. It’s not just about St. Pete. Our region is really important nationally and globally, and people are paying attention to us. Maybe that’s the lesson to draw.”

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