As we piece together what Russian media did to manipulate our presidential election, utilizing social media to spread fake news and hacking state voter rolls, it is of the gravest importance that we not let them get away with this again. This past week, Russian media and Kremlin-friendly dissidents have been using the upcoming Catalonian referendum on independence from Spain to spread propaganda to bring sympathy to the Separatists.
The Spanish daily newspaper El Pais has been critical of the separatists' arguments, and in this excellent article, they debunk the ten major separatist claims in support of independence. Separatists have been spreading false myths that Catalonia fought a war for independence 300 years ago (it didn't), that the Spanish Constitution of 1978 is hostile to Catalans (false - two of its most prominent co-authors were Catalonian and the province overwhelmingly supported it in the polls), and that human rights are being suppressed (since the death of Generalissimo Franco, Spain has been one of the most tolerant and human rights-friendly countries in the world.) The bill calling for the referendum was passed through Catalan's parliament without a required two-thirds majority vote, with no oversight from the Consell de Garanties Estatutaries (their Constitutional Court) and has been called only by Catalan decree and not by all of Spain, as required by the Constitution. It has also violated the Council of Europe's Venice Commission, which demands that all electoral referendums be passed through parliament a year to the day before the scheduled election - in this case, the referendum was passed on September 6th, and the election is scheduled for Sunday, October 1st. In spite of this, Catalan President Carles Puigdemont has called his commitment to the referendum "democratically inviolable," in spite of its blatant illegality.
Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, and those loyal to him, have done everything in their power to fight against the referendum. Throughout the month of September, he sent policemen to raid government offices and confiscate ballot boxes, and arrested government officials. The Spanish government has also blocked websites relating to the referendum. In a Washington Post op-ed, Puigdemont has spoken against Rajoy's actions, writing:
"The Spanish government has to understand that its behavior is unacceptable from the point of view of democracy and civil rights. Four decades after the death of the dictator Francisco Franco, we still find that authoritarian instincts rule at the heart of the Madrid government. Respect for minorities is a fundamental human right, and the right of self-determination is an irrevocable right of all nations."
This last statement is a lie - according to the UN General Assembly, the rights for a state to secede under the principle of self-determination are reserved only for states undergoing colonial rule. But with tensions at such a high, misinformation seeps in, and that's where Russia and its allies come into the picture, twisting information to suit their own ends. This Sputnik article from last Wednesday, "Catalan President Accuses Spain of Suspending Region's Self-Governance" is an example of this. Nowhere in its 269 words does it mention the UN General Assembly rule linked to above. Those who read it might think that Spain is violating Catalan rights, when in reality, it is Catalonia who desires to supersede the Spanish Constitution.
Russian media has compared the Catalan's quest for independence to the actions of Crimeans in 2014, before Russia intervened to "uphold the popular right to expression in the peninsula." This was written in the paper Vzglyad, a Kremlin-friendly outlet that also asserted that an independent Catalonia would recognize Abjasia and South Ossieta, two territories that declared independence from Georgia in the 1990s and have only been recognized by hostile regimes such as Russia and Venezuela. The source of these statements is Jose Enrique Folch, international secretary for Catalan Solidarity for Independence, who has been a useful idiot for the Russians in the past, formerly propagating a fake news story that Catalonia would recognize Crimea as part of Russia.
And it's not just Russian media who are spreading untruths about the referendum, it's some of the most high-profile dissidents. Two of the biggest pro-Catalonia voices over the past few days have been Edward Snowden and Julian Assange. Although neither have connections to Spain or Catalonia, both have connections to Moscow, and are parroting talking points that organizations like El Pais have already discredited. Here, Snowden links to an article by Puigdemont from The Guardian:
And here is Assange denouncing Donald Trump's recent statements against the referendum, inserting some anti-government propaganda against Rajoy, whom Trump met with today. Yes, you read that right, the man who called himself "Mr. Brexit" is denouncing a similar hasty plebiscite.
The services Hashtagify and Fairfax Media have discovered that, over the weekend, Snowden and Assange's tweets with the #Catalonia hashtag drove a third of all traffic to the story, ranking as number one and two, ahead of both WikiLeaks and RT.
Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Peskov has said the referendum is "Spain's internal affair," and that they have no plans to interfere, but as a popular sentiment goes, "Never believe anything until the Kremlin denies it." The fact that sentiment from those with Kremlin connections has gone to the Catalans should be enough to raise eyebrows. It isn't that Russia has any vested interest in Catalonia achieving independence; it's that they seek to "undermine Europe's democracy and institutions," according to Brett Schaffer of the Alliance for Securing Democracy.
And what's more, an independent Catalan state would not resemble anything close to a paradise free from the rule of its mother country. Rather, if passed, Catalonia would declare its independence 48 hours after, without being voted on in parliament. The new state would have no separation of powers, judicial appointments would be controlled by a small committee of loyalists, and parliament would be effectively castrated, with little to no power to check the balance of Puigdemont's government. I don't know about you, but to me, that sounds a lot like Russia. Maybe RT, Sputnik, Snowden and Assange are pushing this line because they know that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
Update: it appears that Putin stooge Dana Rohrabacher has also expressed support for Catalan independence, likening them to the American revolutionaries. This was a few months before the US had officially taken any policy on the position, forcing the US Embassy in Madrid to release a statement distancing themselves from Rohrabacher.