Analysis

Allegations of Russian Meddling Resurface in Catalonia

They’re hardly more credible now than they were at the time of the 2017 referendum.

Barcelona Spain
Aerial view of the the Sagrada Família in Barcelona, Spain (Unsplash/Carles Rabada)

Allegations of Russian interference have swirled around the Catalan independence movement for the last three years.

I cautioned against exaggerating Russia’s role in 2017, when two million Catalans voted in a referendum that had been deemed illegal by the Spanish state to break away.

I still believe what I did then: that Russia is a convenient scapegoat for Spaniards who don’t want to understand why nearly one in two Catalans prefer their own republic.

“Easier to blame foreign manipulation than examine the root causes of Catalan separatism and the events which led to the current crisis,” I wrote — from the 2010 Constitutional Court ruling that overturned parts of Catalonia’s autonomy statute to former prime minister Mariano Rajoy’s years-long refusal to negotiate a revision of the charter to current prime minister Pedro Sánchez slow-walking his promise to do just that.

Disinformation

Russia did try to exacerbate existing fault lines between Catalan nationalists and the rest of Spain in 2017, just like it did in the Brexit referendum a year earlier and the Dutch referendum on the EU’s association treaty with Ukraine.

EUvsDisinfo, the website of the bloc’s Russian disinformation task force, reported at the time that Russian media were keen to play up the attempted breakaway as a showcase of failing Western democracy.

The Russians changed tack two years later, blaming violent protests against the imprisonment of nine of the referendum’s organizers on outside influence: the United States, which was supposedly unhappy about Spain’s outreach to Cuba, and George Soros, a financier and philanthropist whom Russian and Russia-friendly propagandists frequently portray as the puppet master of liberal causes worldwide.

Evidence of concrete Russian support for Catalan separatism has been scarce.

Spy

El País, Spain’s center-left newspaper of record, reported in 2019 that authorities were investigating a Russian spy who visited Barcelona two days before the unsanctioned 2017 referendum.

We don’t know what he was doing there. All the way at the bottom of the story, El País conceded that there was no evidence of coordination between Russia and the independence parties which controlled the Catalan government at the time, and still do. Russia’s aim was “to take advantage of the crisis to destabilize Spain.”

Plot

It seems to be the same with the latest news.

El Nacional, a pro-independence outlet, reports that Spanish police are alleging that Russia offered to deploy 10,000 mercenaries to Catalonia, and pay off its debts, in 2017, but Carles Puigdemont, the former regional president who now lives in self-imposed exile in Belgium, balked.

The only evidence seen by El Nacional for this explosive claim is a phone conversation between two lower-level separatist politicians, Víctor Terradellas and Xavier Vendrell, one of whom allegedly traveled to Russia.

From there, police spin a wild conspiracy involving Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, who tweeted in support of Catalan independence, to influence public opinion.

If it all sounds a little incredible, that’s because it it — but you can bet the Spanish media will make hay out of it.

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