Catalonia’s secessionists, who are trying to organize an independence vote from Spain on Sunday, may be getting aid from Russia as part of the Kremlin's ongoing strategy to destabilize the European Union, according to European Union analysts. Spain’s central government has deployed thousands of police to contain expected disorder. They have threatened local officials who support the referendum with stiff fines and jail. Spain’s constitutional court has declared the pending vote illegal.
Despite what some see as a heavy-handed response by Madrid, the United States and most EU governments have backed Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy in his efforts to keep Spain united. Russian state media have disseminated reports consistently favorable to Catalan independence in a move some analysts consider to be Moscow’s latest attempt to interfere in Western electoral processes.
The Kremlin has taken no public position on the referendum, calling it an “internal" matter for Spain. Russia’s use of hacked information and dissemination of “fake news,” however, has been detected in recent Western electoral events, including the 2016 U.S. elections, Britain's decision to leave the EU, or Brexit, and the just-concluded German elections.
“It's not that Russia necessarily wants the independence of Catalonia. What it’s principally seeking is to foment divisions to gradually undermine Europe’s democracy and institutions,” said Brett Schaffer, an analyst of the Alliance to Safeguard Democracy, a project supported by the German Marshall Fund, which monitors pro-Kremlin information networks.
The Russian social media outlet Voice of Europe (@V_of_Europe) has run such headlines as “The EU refuses to intervene in Catalonia even as Spain violates basic human rights,” calling Catalonia’s referendum “a time bomb that threatens to destroy the EU.”
The internationally broadcast Russian Television, or RT, alleged on September 20 that a “state of siege” has been imposed on Catalonia and dubbed cruise liners chartered to house additional police agents being deployed to the Catalonia as “Ships of Repression.”
The Russian digital newspaper Vzglyad borrowed a page from the Western media’s treatment of uprisings against Soviet domination in Eastern Europe during the Cold War, with the September 20 headline “Spain brutally suppresses the Catalan Spring.”
Some editorials and Kremlin-sponsored academics took note of how the U.S. and EU neglected to recognize a Russian-sponsored Crimean referendum approving reunification with Russia and compared that with their current indifference toward the Catalan vote.
Catalan secessionist politician Enric Folch, who is international secretary of the Catalan Solidarity Party for Independence, has said on Russian media that a Catalan state would support Moscow in world forums and recognize the independence of territories of Abkhasia and South Ossetia, which separated from Georgia with Russian support. Folch was a star participant at a Kremlin-sponsored conference of independence movements in Moscow last year.
David Alendete, an investigative reporter with the newspaper El Pais, said the conference was organized by a Russian lawyer who is defending Russian computer hackers arrested in Spain and is wanted by the FBI in connection with the hacking of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential election campaign in the U.S.