- - Wednesday, November 22, 2017

BARCELONA, Spain — The debate in the run-up to crucial regional elections next month on the future of Catalonia is focused on federalism, cultural identity or the future of Spain as a unified country.

As with the U.S. election last year, the big issue is Russia and what the Kremlin may be doing to feed separatist feelings and generally cause mischief and confusion in a key NATO ally.

What started as anonymously based reports about Russian hackers manipulating online information to favor the independence vote in Catalonia’s Oct. 1 referendum, a vote Madrid tried to suppress as illegal under the Spanish Constitution, has turned into a torrent of official warnings about a presumed Russian master plan to destabilize Spain and other EU countries by egging on budding secessionist movements.

EU leaders have long accused Russia of meddling in their elections and internal affairs through social media campaigns, which are said to have influenced the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom and the rise of far-right groups in France and Germany.

Fears that Russian hacking could skew the results of Dec. 21 elections in Catalonia, with voters still deeply divided on independence, have been raised by all of Spain’s mainstream parties, including the opposition Socialists, who have called on Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and other EU leaders to adopt measures to counter Russian meddling.

Spanish Foreign Minister Alfonso Dastis said Spain had detected false accounts on social media, half of which were traced to Russia and another 30 percent to Moscow’s Latin American ally Venezuela. The accounts, he said, were “created to amplify the benefits of the separatist cause.”

Some security officials say Russian-based hackers actively assisted the pro-independence vote on Oct. 1 by reposting online voting information that Spanish police had taken off the internet.

Official representatives have until now been guarded in their accusations so as not to offend Russia, with which Spain otherwise maintains good relations.

While confirming reports that Russia-based hacking teams were targeting Spain, Defense Minister Maria de Cospedal stopped short of directly accusing the Kremlin. “Most of the information comes from social media based in Russian territory, and I mean ‘territory,’” she said.

But evidence of an organized cybercampaign to support Catalonian secessionism is becoming incontrovertible.

“We have discovered an army of perfectly coordinated zombie accounts dedicated to sharing content generated by Russian media in diverse digital conversations on Catalonia,” according to a study by George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs, which analyzed over 5 million messages on Twitter, Facebook and other social networks concerning Catalonia around the time of the Oct. 1 referendum.

Distorted reports and fake news amplified through Russian-based accounts included gross exaggerations about the number of Catalans injured in clashes with Spanish police. Social media accounts based in Russia, as well as many connected with the Socialist government of President Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela, boosted headlines such as “Catalonians choose their destiny amid truncheons and rubber bullets” and “EU leaders support Spanish police violence.”

The GW study’s authors said Russian state media, including Sputnik and the RT television network, engaged in a “deliberate disruption strategy” as Catalonians prepared to head to the polls.

A Madrid research institute partially funded by the federal government said its analysis found that Russian hackers heavily favored the separatist cause online, deploying all the tricks of the trade — trolls, bots and fake news stories — all amplified by heavy coverage in Russian state-controlled media.

Russia has a nationalist agenda, and it supports nationalist, populist movements in Europe because that serves to divide Europe,” Mira Milosevic, a senior analyst at the Elcano Royal Institute in Madrid, told the Bloomberg News service.

Calling the charges groundless, the Kremlin has tried to link the accusations in the Catalonia debate to the “hysteria” in the United States over the extent of Russian meddling in last year’s presidential election.

Spain’s charges are “a continuation of the same hysteria that is now happening in the United States and a number of other countries,” a Kremlin spokesman said.

Google alert

Erik Encinas, a Catalan columnist whose online publication Mediterraneo Digital has been critical of secessionism, received a warning from Google on Nov. 15 about an attempt to hack his email from a location near the Russian city of St. Petersburg. The attempt was launched from the town of Ekaterinburg at 6:35 in the evening, according to the Google notification that reached him during the morning of that day Spanish time.

“This has to be work of the Russian government, which is conducting a generalized cyberoffensive through robot accounts responding to preset parameters identifying opponents of independence. Only a state with a highly developed intelligence infrastructure could do that,” Mr. Encinas said in an interview.

Russian diplomats have categorically denied accusations of meddling in Catalonia.

Russia laments profoundly that anti-Russian campaigns in the Western media have been elevated to the official level in Madrid in the context of the Catalan crisis,” said Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova.

But the chief of Russia’s foreign intelligence service, Sergei Naryshkin, delivered a speech at the Russian Academy of Sciences attacking Spain and the EU for “submitting the leaders of the Catalonian independence vote to political repression and participants in street actions in support of independence to brutal police violence.”

Several European governments say they have been the targets of sophisticated Russian hacking efforts of their electoral systems, and the issue of separatism in the Catalonia debate is one that hits home with Russian officials.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has compared Catalonia’s independence bid to Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence from Serbia in 2008, which was opposed by the Kremlin but instantly recognized by the George W. Bush administration and several leading NATO allies.

Serbia was a Russian ally, while the U.S., Britain and other Western powers were backing a rebel government set up by majority ethnic Albanians representing in the Serbian province.

“By backing the independence of Kosovo, formed and prosperous countries such as Spain put at risk their own fragile stability,” Mr. Putin said after Catalonia’s independence vote.

Spain is one of five European Union countries that have declined to recognize Kosovo’s independence, in part out of fear it would inflame separatist movements at home in Catalonia and the Basque region.

“Kosovo created an international legal precedent for Catalonia, even if the two cases are entirely different,” said Ramon Peralta, an international law professor at the University of Madrid. “The recognition of Kosovo, which was never accepted by the U.N., was a mistake from a legal perspective. Russia now sees Catalonia as a chance to get back at the West.”

Mr. Peralta said he finds it ironic that Spain should be the one that is now paying the price since Madrid was one of the few NATO or EU governments that never recognized Kosovo.

Indicating a broader Kremlin strategy of tit-for-tat, some academics have said on Russian television that an independent Catalonia would recognize Russian sovereignty over Crimea, whose referendum approving Russia’s 2015 annexation from Ukraine was similarly rejected by the West.

Dmitri Medoev, the de facto “foreign minister” of South Ossetia, which broke away from the ex-Soviet republic of Georgia with the help of Russia’s military in 2008, visited Barcelona the week in which the Catalonian parliament declared independence last month.

Mr. Medoev announced the opening of a South Ossetian “interests office” in Barcelona to promote “bilateral relations in humanitarian and cultural issues” and met with a group of Catalan businessmen, according to local press reports.

Mr. Medoev traveled on to the Italian region of Lombardy, which, like Catalonia, is a wealthy region and has a strong separatist movement seeking to break away from Rome.

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