The Spanish region of Catalonia held a referendum on self-determination yesterday (October 1), which was forcefully contested by the central government in Madrid and resulted in hundreds injured in skirmishes with police in Barcelona. But events leading up to the controversial vote appear to have been linked to actors operating far beyond the Iberian Peninsula. One of the central topics actively discussed by the Spanish media boils down to Russia’s alleged involvement. This charge first appeared in an investigative article published by the leading Spanish tabloid El País, which accuses pro-Russian forces of working to stir up events in Catalonia (El País, September 28).
Inter alia, the report identified the following developments:
– Notable individuals, including WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and Edward Snowden, who stole classified information while working as a contractor at the National Security Agency (NSA), repeatedly weighed in on the Catalonian referendum. Both have used Twitter to post highly provocative messages condemning the Spanish government for its alleged crackdown on democracy and human rights. At the same time, these globally known figures have called on the international community not to stand idly by.
– Pro-Russian bots have deliberately antagonized the situation using social media platforms Facebook and, above all, Twitter. The research presented by El País referred to results obtained by the so-called “Hamilton 68” tool, which was developed by the German Marshall Fund. Hamilton 68 analysis uncovered and traced more than 600 pro-Kremlin accounts (both real and fake) filling the online information space during the run-up to the Catalonian referendum.
– At the same time, hackers prevented the Spanish government from closing portals and webpages urging “separatism” (Regnum, September 28). Sources from the Spanish Civil Guard have noted that 144 such Internet sites (based in the European Union) were closed. However, many web links stayed active because they are being maintained from abroad, most likely in Russia or other parts of the post-Soviet space. Due to a lack of bilateral agreements governing cyberspace, Spanish authorities cannot pursue these pro-separatist sites any further.
– Finally, the Spanish-language editions of major Kremlin-backed media outlets, including Sputnik and RT, were repeatedly observed portraying events in Catalonia as a violation of fundamental democratic rights and posting openly anti-Madrid material. For instance, since August 28, RT published 42 pieces on its website pertaining to the Catalonian referendum. And these articles repeatedly featured highly provocative headlines such as “The European Union will respect the independence of Catalonia, but it will have to pass through an accession process” (El País, September 28). The Kremlin-controlled outlets have sought to deepen the rift between Madrid’s official position and that of the local authorities.
Aside from these elements, it is also worth pointing to (seemingly independent) Russian media outlets spreading similar information in languages other than Spanish. Among the most active have been Russia News Now, Fort Russ and News Front, which have posted articles in English, thus reaching out to a broader public. The main refrain of their reporting aims to establish a parallel between events in Crimea and Catalonia, vilifying the United States’ and the broader West’s response while, at the same time, praising Russia’s actions in Ukraine. One such piece, written in English, was translated into Russian and massively distributed in virtually all major Russian information outlets. In the article entitled “Crimea, Kosovo, Catalonia, Corsica and Kurdistan,” the author claims that “the West is engaging in double standards when it comes to referendums,” adding that the events in Catalonia signify the existence of a profound structural crisis in Western society. This leads the author to assert that only the models adopted by Russia and China are workable in the contemporary world. Finally, the article suggests that the Catalonian referendum is merely the beginning of a sequence of independence movements, and its logical conclusion will be that “some American states” will conduct their own votes on secession (Rusdozor.ru, September 26).
Moscow has traditionally denied its alleged involvement in such information campaigns. The Russian ambassador to Spain, Yuri Korchagin, shrugged off all accusations, claiming that the Kremlin is not implicated in the events in Catalonia (Sputnik News, September 27).
Either way, the Catalonian referendum has sparked hysterical exhilaration among Russian propagandists, who rushed into comparisons between Catalonia in 2017 and Crimea in 2014. Besides celebrating “European indecisiveness” and the continent’s “lack of consolidation,” the Russian media railed against Madrid carrying out a “punitive operation in Barcelona” (karatelnaya operatciya), thus adopting analogous parlance it had earlier applied to Kyiv (Vz.ru, September 20).
Meanwhile, notable Russian experts complained that the Catalonians will not be able to “express their democratic will” like residents of Crimea did due to the fact that in “Crimea the democratic process was backed-up by the Russian troops present there.” Some commentators even rushed to define these events as the “Catalan Autumn” (in obvious reference to the 2014 “Russian Spring” in southeastern Ukraine). Interestingly, the Russian media is filled with certainty that European bureaucrats will acknowledge Catalonian independence and keep this new state inside the EU out of “fear of potential ‘grey zones’ ” developing in Western Europe (Delyagin.ru, September 28).
Indeed, it would be extremely difficult to prove that the “Russian trace” played any decisive factor in events in Catalonia. What is obvious, however (though utterly ignored by European elites), is that the “Russian World” is spreading its influence all across the EU. Despite its geographic remoteness from Russia, Spain should be seen as one of Moscow’s prime targets (see EDM, September 2, 2015; March 6, 2017). Pro-Russian/Soviet sentiments (usually confused) are quite strong in this Mediterranean country due to a frequent local misreading of the role of the Soviet Union in World War II. Additionally, Soviet symbols are widespread in Catalonia, especially in major universities permeated by leftist/anti-American sentiments. Thanks to the Russian World Foundation (and the Embassy of Russia), one of the largest European universities, the University of Granada (80,000 students), has opened a “Russian Center” to “spread ‘knowledge’ about Russia among Spaniards” (Russkiymir.ru, May 22, 2015). Similar centers are active in Madrid and Barcelona. Moreover, this year, the Russian diaspora in Spain organized massive May 9 commemorations (marking the anniversary of the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany) in Barcelona, Alicante, Valencia, Tenerife, the Canary Islands and Majorca (RIA Novosti, May 3).
Russian propagandist resources have created a map of European regions that are permeated with “secessionist movements,” including in Spain (Politrussia.com, February 19, 2015). When the time comes, Moscow will make use of such cleavages for its own benefit and to further harm European cohesion.