Operation claiming Russia backed the Catalan 2017 Referendum derails
Toni Strubell is a former MP in the Catalan Parliament, journalist, and author of What Catalans Want
Núria Bassa Camps is a Catalan writer and photographer
Llegeix en català aquí.
No, this was not Putin’s handiwork, but that of the Spanish government with the blessings of the EU
The Catalan issue may well have evaporated from the headlines of mainstream media worldwide, but one cannot overlook the fact that some of the more widely publicised accusations made against Catalan independentists some years back have recently been proved to be sheer acts of lawfare, despite the devastating and permanent effects they often wreaked on those accused. Incidentally, little wonder that Spain has just readjusted its Official Secrets Act, in force since Franco’s day. Wouldn’t that be to ensure that the huge amount of illicit criminalization performed, and the malicious methods involved, will remain a state secret for a further 50 or 60 years? Anything to avoid EU leaders any embarrassment when Spain’s conduct in treating its “internal affairs” hits the ventilator.
One such development occurred this week when Barcelona special court judge, Joaquin Aguirre, ruled that he saw no links between Josep Lluís Alay –one of president Puigdemon’t closest collaborators– and Russian oil oligarchs allegedly willing to fund the Catalan 2017 independence movement. The judge insisted that those “contacts” could have in no way affected the Referendum. That this should have been ruled by a court tradicionally obsessed with proving heinous Catalan-Russian links, in the context of what is known as the Volkhov1 case, would in normal democratic circumstances have had consequences. For instance, it should make the European Parliament blush for last March’s arbitrary decision to investigate those alleged Catalan-Russian “links”, as gleefully heralded by Madrid paper El País (see: https://elpais.com/espana/2022-03-09/el-parlamento-europeo-cree-necesario-investigar-los-lazos-entre-rusia-y-el-independentismo-catalan.html), a newspaper which, as we shall see, had a key role in the constant disclosure of fake news to counter and discredit Puigdemont’s government.
Now, five years after the Referendum and at a time when this issue has largely fizzled out (despite attempts to revive it in the wake of the Ukraine-Russia war), it is worth delving into the mechanisms employed to manufacture those accusations, the sole aim of which was to work up public opinion against the Catalan Procés. To perceive the sinister nature of this “successful” operation, it is instructive to take a fresh look at the research carried out by an independent media group called Octuvre and made available in a video they brought out last year in Spanish: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O0wO65AYb-I. Though it is neither likely to change matters nor stir too many consciences, its close viewing today would under normal circumstances prove devastating for El País’ prestige as Spain’s “most serious progressive newspaper”.
Octuvre points to the role played by El País co-editor David Alandete, in the weeks prior to the Referendum, as instigator of an editorial line designed to show up the Catalan Referendum as a Russia-backed move to destabilise the European Union no less. In so doing, the operation obvioulsy aimed to kill two birds with one stone. Firstly, to discredit the Catalan Referendum itself; and secondly, to cause alarm in Europe about the “allies” Catalonia was banking on reach independence. One consequence of the unrest caused by his first article –El País boasted over 100 million readers– was the fact that two months later, a British parliamentary group called Alandete to Westminster to fathom out the soundness of his startling “discoveries”. He came accompanied by what were presented as two impartial experts but whom some members of the parliamentary group were quick to identify as shady agents with a particular agenda. For these “experts” were none other that Mira Milosevich, a leading member of the Spanish nationalist think tank Real Instituto Elcano, and Javier Lesaca, who was no “independent researcher at George Washington University”, as presented, but a former spokesman for the PP government party in Navarre and active member of the FAES, a far right think tank presided over by former PM, José María Aznar. At one statge of the session, Labour MP Paul Farrelly actually interrupted the visitors’ discourse by asking if they actually had any “real evidence” that Russia was behind the Referendum to which Mira Milosevichs’s answer was a rather meek “no”.
Unfortunately this London session was not to be the last of Madrid and El País’s attempts to discredit the Catalans internationally. In the days after the London meeting, an apparently neutral organization with the highfalutin name of “Digital Forensic Research Lab” (DFRL) came out in rescue of Alandete’s momentary floundering. But this initiative too was termed a hoax by another research group called The Intercept,2 whose leading researcher M.C. MacGrath, along with journalist Glenn Greenwald, shot down in flames DFRL’s arguments one at a time. Again the Westminster group rightly claimed that at the London meeting, Alandete’s accusations against Catalonia had been made without any form of documenatary support. They denounced that deceptive methodology had been used to reach false conclusions about the alleged Catalonia-Russia link. MacGrath and Greenwald based their conclusions on research carried out at Cambridge University, France’s Institut Mines Télécom and Catalonia’s Polytechnical University. In opposition to Alandete’s claims, they were able to prove that Julian Assange’s twitter activity had been quite regular and free of Russian robot interference, as Alandete had suggested. Octuvre added that El País generally presented an image of DFRL as a trustworthy group of experts, concealing the fact that it was really a lobby controlled by the Atlantic Council, an agency run by hawks such as Condolezza Rice, Colin Powell, Rupert Murdoch and José María Aznar. It must be rememberd that this was the very clique that fooled the world in 2003 by claiming that Irak held arms of mass destruction. What informed reader could believe Alandete and DFRL’s lies about the Catalan-Russia links in the independence drive? Octuvre also found it significant that in its crusade to show up Assange’s part in the Catalan-Russian link, El País and Alandete should give credit to the opinion of another body of “experts”, the Alliance for Securing Democracy (ASD). Octuvre revealed that ASD, far from being a democratic group, was a powerful lobby founded and run by Michael Chertoff, National Security Secretary in the Bush administration. On its board they also pointed to the suspicious presence of Michael Morell, former deputy director of the CIA, far right writer Bill Kristol and Spain’s ex Foreign Minister Ana Palacio, all of whom had been active in spreading the lie about Saddam Hussein’s arms of mass destruction. With regard to the Real Instituto Elcano, where Mira Milosevich was employed, the fact that the body was presided over by king Felipe VI and backed by key Ibex 35 companies (8 of which funded a series of international talks to sustain the claim that Russia was behind the Catalans) also gives an idea of the desperate effort Spain was making to smear the legitimate Catalan self-determination movement at any cost . Needless to say, all these facts were carefully screened from readers of El País, a newspaper which had once claimed to be Spain’s most progressive and left-wing paper, but which today shares strategies with Spain’s far-right and corrupt judges in its crusade to deny basic rights and seek the international condemnation of the Catalans.
But these dark strategies based on fake news are not limited to the Spanish territory and the iniciatives of El País and the Spanish Deep State. Sadly, Europe too has all too often participated in this strategy based on spurious sources and fake news. In this sense it is interesting to note that the organization EUvsDISINFO, which claims to have the objective of countering Russian anti-EU campaigns in Europe, should have reported on its web page that on October 2nd 2017 a Russia TV reporter had said that there was an “atmosphere of civil war” in Catalonia. Signs of that famous Russian “destabilzation”? Oddly enough, Russia TV had spoken of “civil war” just a week after Alandete’s own paper El País had done just that! But Alandete was similarly belligerent against Russia TV for having denounced the October 1st 2017 police attacks on Catalan voters as if many papers worldwide had not done exactly the same. EUvsDiSiNFO also attacked the Russian media Sputnik for announcing a self-determination campaign in 2030 in Mallorca, as if inventing new elements of destabilization. However, not only was this news true but El País had actually published this news just a few days before. What finally enables us to explain EUvsDiSiNFO partisan role in the whole Catalan issue (with regular articles by Alandrete and Milosevich) is to know who really pulls the strings there. As its web page clearly announces, EUvsDiSiNFO is the “star project” of an agency called East StratCom, which belongs to the European Foreign Action Service. This agency is in its turn controlled by star anti-Referendum campaigner Josep Borrell, head of the foreign affairs department of the EU. Does that clarify things as regards the real role played by seemingly “independent” and democratic European media in falsely associating Catalonia with Putin. The tragedy for Catalonia and democracy is that media as prestigious as New York Times should have at times played into the hands of this malicious strategy rigged up by El País and other governmental agencies with poor democratic records. To this one must add the shocking fact no end has been put to all this dishonest manoeuvring. Alandete continues to be present on the media and on the boards of agencies whose lack of scrupples continue to go by largely unnoticed to the public at large. Bashing Catalans and smearing their public image is certainly a cheap exercise in today’s manipulated Europe. As Puigdemont’s right-hand-man Alay claims, “the damage done to us can never by righted”.
No holds barred against independentists
The Volkov case, though not over, is yet another of the multiple cases where fake news and false police evidence has been used to frame and convict Catalan activists. Nine members of the Committees for the Defense of the Republic (CDRs) were arrested in 2019 by the Guardia Civil and accused of “terrorism” although they had only participated in legitimate protests. Several of them were held for three months in Madrid jails charged with holding explosives that were neve found. Something similar happened to activist Tamara Carrasco who was to be a victim of a large scale judicial and media operation. The Civil Guard and the Prosecutor’s Office, together with the National Court, were bent on turning the legitimate and legal exercise of the right to protest and assemble into a case of terrorism and public disorders similar to those that had persecuted in the Basque Country in the ETA era. Tamara was imprisoned, deprived of her passport and freedom of movement, and the National Court prevented her from leaving her home town for 13 months. A similar operation against activist Adrià Carrasco had led him to jump from his flat’s balcony to escape capture by the Civil Guard who had turned his barrier-raising protest on a toll motorway into a “terrorist act of sabotage”. He went into exile for two and a half years. The current Spanish courts are geared to persecuting Catalan activists with a clear view to discourage further protests. Yet their disinterest in the multiple cases of abuse of authority and the application of lawfare and false accusations leads to little legal action by the prcosectors if any. Thus a huge police-orchestrated smear campaign against Barcelona independentist mayor Xavier Trias saw him out of the post in 2015, damage that he has never been compensated for despite clear evidence he had committed no financial offences. The damage was done.
From Judas to James Bond, the cleft amonst independentists
Yet perhaps the saddest collateral damage to all this immense plan to condemn Catalonia’s Process comes in the form of inexplicable developments at the heart of the independence movement itself. On October 26, 2017, in the midst of turmoil after 1 October, ERC MP Gabriel Rufián wrote on Twitter: “155 silver coins.” This clear biblical reference to the 30 silver coins with which Judas sold out Jesus, was a direct insinuation that president Carles Puigdemont was acting as a traitor if he finally called elections and desisted from declaring unilateral secession in line with the Referendum result (90% yes, 43% turnout). But Puigdemont did not take this step, quite the opposite. Since then, the ERC spokesman has not refrained from making controversial statements against fellow independentists which his own party inexplicably never reprimand him for. In mid-March, Rufián had given credit to police accusations that Puigdemont’s aide Alay’s had held meetings with Russian emissaries, accusing Puigdemont’s entourage of being made up of “young gentlemen who strut around Europe meeting the wrong people just because for a while they thought they were James Bond,” a particularly serious accusation in the light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its threats to the European Union as a whole. And although Rufián has at times apologized for his outbursts, his party’s lenience with his behaviour is a clear sign that the deep strategy fracture that has appeared between independentists will need a good while to heal. Their split position over the Volkhov case being the epitomy of this syndrome.
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