Secessionists in California are making a second attempt to win support for a ballot initiative that, they hope, could pave the way for the state to leave the union. And it appears the movement retains a connection to Russia.

California
By Huebi [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0, CC BY 2.0, CC BY-SA 1.0 or CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
California’s attorney general in late July gave leaders of the secessionist movement, dubbed Calexit, permission to start gathering signatures to place a question on the 2018 state ballot. The decision marked a revival of sorts for Calexiters: initial efforts at winning support for a ballot initiative collapsed in the spring after it was discovered that a prominent figure in the movement, Louis Marinelli, head of an organization called YesCalifornia, was living in Russia, and maintained close ties to a Kremlin-funded group. Amid the controversy, Marinelli, announced that he would no longer lead YesCalifornia.

But now, it seems, he is back in a position of influence.

Marinelli, who still resides in the Russian city of Yekaterinburg, quietly rejoined the YesCalifornia group in July, serving as a permanent member of the group’s board.

In April, current YesCalifornia head Marcus Ruiz Evans described Marinelli’s decision to move permanently to Russia as a “death blow” to his participation in the organization. But Evans is now adopting a different stance.

Evans told EurasiaNet.org via email that his decision to welcome Marinelli back into the organization stemmed from the latter’s willingness to remain in the background. “Lewis [sic] isn’t going to be seen on the Yes California page and he’s not directing policy, and we’re not going to have any mentions of anything from Russia anymore,” Evans wrote. “That ends with me.”

Originally from New York, Marinelli has stated that he moved to Russia because, among other things, his rent in California was too high.

In 2016, Marinelli represented California’s secession movement at a “Dialog of Nations” conference in Moscow, organized by the Anti-Globalization Movement of Russia (AGMR). Funding for the meeting came primarily from a sizeable grant from the Kremlin. Russian President Vladimir Putin has lauded AGMR’s leader, Alexander Ionov, for his “work to strengthen friendship between people.”

In addition to representation from California, the 2016 conference also featured secessionists from Spain and Italy, although none from Russia.

No evidence has emerged of direct Kremlin funding for the Calexit initiative, or similar endeavors in the United States. But the Kremlin-supported AGMR has provided backing for secession-minded Americans. In December last year, for example, Marinelli unveiled the first “California Embassy” abroad, located in a rent-free office in Moscow provided by AGMR. Meanwhile, AGMR reportedly helped cover travel costs of a Texas contingent that attended the 2016 conference in Moscow.

Calexiters need to gather over 500,000 signatures to place a question on the 2018 ballot. Even if they succeed in that, secession is a long shot. For one, the US Supreme Court has ruled the unilateral withdrawal of a state from the union to be unconstitutional. Thus, the Constitution would have to be amended to provide a legal way for California, or any other state, to establish its own independence.

But even if the Calexiters fall short of their stated goal, they can, wittingly or unwittingly, help advance one of Russia’s top foreign policy priorities: sowing discord and fostering disruption in Western democratic systems.