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Did Russia meddle in 2016 Brexit vote? In election season, dismay over delayed report

Laura King, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

LONDON -- As a historic impeachment drama plays out in Washington, a political saga with some odd parallels is taking place across the Atlantic.

Britain is in the midst of a divisive national election campaign that is roiled by questions about Russian interference in the 2016 Brexit referendum, with potentially inflammatory implications for the upcoming balloting Dec. 12.

A cross-party British parliamentary committee spent months investigating purported malign actions by Moscow in connection with the June 2016 referendum in which Britons narrowly voted to leave the European Union.

With Brexit again the key issue in December's parliamentary elections, the government of Prime Minister Boris Johnson triggered an outcry this month when it put off the release of the committee's wide-ranging Russia report, citing the need for further security vetting.

Then as now, Johnson has been a driving force behind the move for Britain to exit the 28-nation EU. For more than three years, Britain has been consumed by infighting over how and whether to implement the referendum result, and the prime minister is leading his Conservative Party into next month's vote with promises of a swift Brexit as his rallying cry.

Johnson's rivals say that before the election, British voters should have an opportunity to learn more about Moscow's purported role in the 2016 referendum -- especially in light of the close outcome in which 52% of voters favored the split and 48% opposed it.

 

Moscow has shown itself willing to use the bluntest of blunt force to press its interests on British soil, exemplified by last year's dispatch of Russian operatives to the quiet English town of Salisbury, where they tried to kill a turncoat spy, Sergei Skripal, with a deadly nerve agent.

American-born British financier William Browder, who has crusaded for vastly tightened international financial oversight of Russian oligarchs and testified in the parliamentary inquiry, said he had expected it would be part of the public record by the time voters were preparing to go to the polls.

"It should have been out a long time ago," he said of the document.

Browder, in a telephone interview, said entrenched practices such as Russian money laundering via high-end London real estate might have had as much or even more of a distorting effect on British politics than overt acts of interference by the Russian state.

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