Californians are calling for a split from the US — but one secessionist group has odd ties to Russia

Californian national party website screenshot
The Yes California Independence Campaign recently launched a political party, whose website is shown above. Californian National Party screenshot

The tweets began within hours of President Trump’s victory on November 8.

“We’ll just take our avocados and legal weed and go#CalExit,” one person tweeted.

“#Calexit I’m all in for this! We’re basically in our own little world anyway. And let’s elect #BernieSanders as our supreme leader!” another wrote.

Since the election, the Calexit movement has grown from a hashtag to a legitimate campaign for California’s independence. Secession backers are now collecting voter signatures to get a measure on the 2018 state ballot which, if passed, would help clear a path for legal secession.

One in three Californians surveyed by
Reuters/Ipsos in a recent poll want the state to leave the US. But support for California’s secession has been growing long before Trump took the White House.

There are two fringe political groups fighting for the Golden State’s breakaway: The Yes California Independence Campaign and the California National Party (CNP). Though the groups are both working toward Calexit, they have different ideas on how to get there.

Now the two groups are duking it out for California’s support, with the groups’ respective leadership picking fights on social media and in press releases in an effort to mar each others’ reputation.

Yes California, a political action committee founded in 2014, wants to pass a constitutional amendment in California that would make secession possible. It’s currently collecting voter signatures in the state. The CNP, a year-old political party, wants to take the long way around to the same end, by establishing a political party, registering voters, and seeking representation in Congress first.

On January 21, the CNP released a statement calling Yes California a “Russian puppet organisation,” whose ties to the country and President Vladimir Putin are “alarming.”

Vladimir Putin
Russian President Vladimir Putin smiles during a multinational summit in Ufa, Russia. Alexei Druzhinin/RIA Novosti, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP

Yes California’s links to Russia have been well documented. Before Calexit started trending in the US, the PAC began gaining favourable attention from news outlets backed by the Russian government. The group’s leadership attended a conference in Moscow dedicated to the right of secession last September, and later opened an unofficial “embassy” in the capital.

Some argue that the Kremlin’s endorsement stems from a Russian tradition of fostering US secession efforts in order to spread disinformation and exploit tensions in the West.

“Yes California isn’t a Californian movement,” Jed Wheeler, the general secretary of the CNP, told Politico Magazine. “Yes California is a movement whose optics are all designed for a Russian audience to reinforce Putin, by talking about … how terrible America is, and reinforcing [the idea that] Putin is this great guy who is admired all over the world.”

Yes california moscow
The Yes California Independence Campaign holds a press conference at its new ’embassy’ in Moscow, Russia. Screenshot/YouTube

Yes California denies accepting any financial support from Russian government officials in a statement on its website. It has, however, received free press from Kremlin-backed media.

But Louis Marinelli, president of Yes California, told Business Insider in November that he’s not embarrassed by the group’s links to Russia. He said Yes California will work with any group that supports the right of self-government.

“It sounds kind of controversial,” Marinelli said, “but we want California to become an independent country and we’re not going to hold any punches to make that happen.”

Marinelli and his Russian wife currently live in Yekaterinburg, a city outside Moscow, where he is waging California’s secession battle 5,900 miles away from the state. Marinelli, a former English teacher in Russia, has lived there almost as long as he called California home.

Yes California also appears to have co-opted the CNP’s identity.

On January 16, Yes California sent a newsletter to subscribers encouraging them to register with the Californian National Party, which it called, “the only officially-sanctioned pro-independence #Calexit political party in California.”

Logos california secession groups
Logos for the California National Party (CNP) and the Californian National Party appear on their respective websites. California National Party and Californian National Party

The letter did not mention the CNP, which formed in August 2015 — about one year after Yes California organised — and filed a letter with the Secretary of State’s office last year to become a recognised political party. While the two groups are unaffiliated, Marinelli has ties to both.

He tweeted in January that the new party was a sort of spinoff of the CNP.

Natalie Blake, who serves as co-chair of the CNP’s Los Angeles chapter in addition to serving as the party’s attorney, told Business Insider that Marinelli served as an interim officer of the CNP in June 2016. The party held an informal convention that elected a new chair last summer.

Marinelli has not been involved with the CNP since his move to Russia last year, Blake said.

Blake said she has “no ill will against these folks,” but is worried that Californians who support independence will no longer be able to tell apart the groups because of similar branding.

Meanwhile, Marinelli maintains that the CNP is ripping off his party, not vice versa. His Twitter feed reads like a never-ending rant against his political adversaries.

It’s highly unlikely that either group gets its way in the pursuit of California independence. The last time a state seceded from the US, it was the 1860s and a civil war broke out.

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