One-and-a-Half Cheers for new Czech centre to resist Political Warfare

mvcrOn 1 January, the Czech Centre Against Terrorism and Hybrid Threats (CPTHH) is formally opened, within the Ministry of the Interior (MVČR). With a 20-strong staff, its main focus will be to tackle disinformation and political manipulation through the media–and yes, essentially this means Russia’s current ‘political war’ on the West–and to respond openly. My snap verdict is that this is a worthy start, but the Czechs, like other European countries, need also to move beyond this fashionable but essentially reactive approach and think more strategically and perhaps also robustly about fighting this political war.

The Centre’s website has a handy and in some aspects disarming summary of what it is and is not:

  • What will the Centre do?

  • It will essentially be a specialised analytical and communications unit. Given the competencies of the Ministry of the Interior, the Centre will monitor threats directly related to internal security, which implies a broad array of threats and potential incidents relative to terrorism, soft target attacks, security aspects of migration, extremism, public gatherings, violation of public order and different crimes, but also disinformation campaigns related to internal security.

  • Based on its monitoring work, the Centre will evaluate detected challenges and come up with proposals for substantive and legislative solutions that it will also implement where possible. It will also disseminate information and spread awareness about the given issues among the general and professional public.

  • What the Centre is not and what it will not do:

  • The Centre will not be a new law enforcement agency, nor an intelligence service.

  • The Centre will not have a button for “switching off the internet”.

  • The Centre will not force the “truth” on anyone, or censor media content.

  • It will not remove content from the internet or other (printed) media.

  • It will work primarily with open sources available to all and will openly communicate with civil society, the media, and other subjects.

  • The Centre will not lock anyone up, interrogate anyone, or lead any proceedings with anyone.

  • The Centre will not spread any kind of propaganda, but only expertise relating to the field of internal security, and is modelled on similar strategic communications teams that already exist in the Baltic states or in the United Kingdom.

  • The Centre will also inform about serious cases of disinformation and will provide expert opinions for the public and for government institutions. These opinions, as those of a government institution, will be based on the constitutional order of the Czech Republic.

So far, so open and laudable. The first thing to say is that it is a very welcome move when any Western country demonstrates a willingness to recognise that there is a political campaign under way to undermine and divide Western nations and institutions, and to do something about it.

At the same time, though, there is something a little discouragingly conventional about this approach, especially if a recent story in the Guardian is right that “The specialists will scrutinise disinformation and attempt to counter it, via a dedicated Twitter account and a new section of the interior ministry website devoted to communicating the government viewpoint.” This is a much more limited mission than that implies by the first paragraph in its own self-description, and I hope it is not the main role of the Centre.

The current fad for “mythbusting” and countering “fake news” is understandable, but it frankly is often more the product of a desire to do something, or at least to be seen to do something, than the best thing. The idea that gullible consumers of Russian disinformation will be swayed from their wayward path because a government agency tweets a counter is pretty far-fetched. On the whole, the targets are unlikely to follow such a feed, much less believe it, and while there is value to letting news media know, the problem is that today’s information is too quick and voluminous. For every story spotted, evaluated and countered, ten, fifty more will have appeared. To be sure, sometimes there are lies so significant but also so possible to counter with objective data — the infamous German “Lisa Case” is the obvious example — that it is worth it. But more often this smacks rather more of the kind of metrics beloved of all bureaucracies, of being able to report this many stories checked and that many rebutted, rather than actual impact.

Beyond that, again quoting the Guardian, “The centre will also train civil servants to avoid blackmail and resist foreign lobbying.” This is an interesting angle, because it begins to speak to the element missing from the counter-disinformation angle: dealing with culture and mindsets. Civil servants need to realise that this is a potential threat, and be sensitised to recognise it, and to know how to respond. (Of course, so too do politicians, but that is — alas — not within the CPTHH’s remit!)

This same approach ought also to be taken over disinformation. Sure, have a specialist centre within the MVČR, but arguably even more useful would be task forces within the Ministry of Education, Youth & Sports and the Ministry of Culture, to train young Czechs to consume media wisely and sceptically and crack down on the purveyors of “fake news,” respectively. In some ways, the parallel is with fighting the drug problem. The MVČR’s approach is the analogue of arresting pushers: necessary, but an endless and thankless task in isolation, and the real, long-term answer is to educate and uplift potential users and break trafficking networks in order to tackle the market and the demand, not just the street-side supply.

But let me close by being provocative. The CPTHH is very clear that it is not a police or an intelligence service, won’t arrest people, won’t take content off the net. Why not? To put it another way, is there not also scope for such methods? given the tight relationship between the Kremlin’s media and intelligence assets, and the degree to which arguably its political war could prove more dangerous to the Czech Republic and other European states than any mere military threat, why is there not scope for such measures? If a radical preacher grooms a would-be terrorist to carry out an atrocity, that is rightly seen as something deserving of full-scale law-enforcement activity. If a government-funded disinformation network starts to pump dangerous lies into the information space which could undermine a government, foment civil tension, or even lead to the break up of alliances crucial to national security and prosperity, ought that not be treated with similar seriousness, even if not blood is directly shed?

This does not mean blacklisting websites because they dare cover alternative perspectives, or witch-hunting those who retweet a questionable story. It means going after those who actively and knowingly are engaged in the spread of disinformation directly harmful to national interests, as well as those other horsemen of the infocalypse: intelligence agents, those facilitating the covert spread of Russian economic penetration, etc. It also means the ČR needs to redouble its efforts generally to fight corruption — there is no point hoping to fight “Russian corruption” or even “foreign corruption”, so long as corruption remains a serious issue (which sadly it is, even if things are improving, and the recent claim that it “suffers from some of the worst corruption in the world” was a ridiculous exaggeration). One cannot depend on the patriotism of bribe-takers!

So in short, one-and-a-half cheers for the Czechs, for starting the process. In common with other Western states, though, they may want also to think more deeply as to what is the most effective way of dealing with the challenge on a deeper level, both educating the public, and also taking a more robust position with those knowingly engaged in political war.

Who were the Georgian gangsters arrested in Europe?

I’ll complete this list as more identities become available, but to date, these are the names of the various figures arrested in the June 18 swoop on the Georgian Kutaisi gang across Europe:

Hungary

  • Merab Dzhangveladze, “Dzhango,” vor v zakone and leader of the Kutaisi
  • ?

Italy

  • Guram Odisharia, “Buya,” vor v zakone
  • Roin Uglava, “Matevich,” vor v zakone
  • Gia Gurchiani, vor v zakone
  • Aleko Imedadze, vor v zakone
  • Beso Kuprashvili, vor v zakone
  • Akaki Tugushi, “Enzo Batumi,” vor v zakone
  • ?

Czech Republic

  • Alexander Kartsivadze, vor v zakone
  • ?

Lithuania

  • Givi Gordeladze, “Givi Tol’styi” (“Givi the Thick”), vor v zakone [Gordeladze is again at large; the Lithuanian court, for reasons still not wholly clear, released him on bail, not deeming him a flight risk on grounds of his age (65) and health. Surprise, surprise: he flew.]
  • Temur Nemsitsveridze, “Tsripa,” vor v zakone
  • Razhden Shulaya
  • ?
  • ?

Portugal

  • ?
  • ?

France

  • ?

(Last update: June 27, 2013)

“A Tale of Two Cities”: Corruption in Prague and Moscow compared

“Influence-peddling, embezzlement of government funds, the (ab)use of state intelligence agents to snoop on personal rivals; the police swoop, politicians and powerful government officials are arrested and the prime minister, while personally not involved, takes responsibility for what happened on his watch and resigns. Moscow? Hardly: this is Prague.”

In my latest column for Russia! magazine, I consider what lessons the Czech’s treatment of their current–very real–corruption problem could hold for the Russian government. If it is serious about dealing with corruption systemically and from the top down. Which, sadly, I very much doubt.

Georgian Organized Crime Blitz in Europe

(Some further thoughts to complement my initial, snap response, Europe-wide arrests of Georgian gangsters, with senior Kutaisi vor seized in Prague’)

squadarmobileOn 18 June, police in six European countries carried out coordinated operations, arresting 18 alleged members of the Georgian organized crime group known as the Kutaisi clan. Coordinated by the Italian National Police’s Central Operational Service and the Bari city Squadra Mobile (flying squad), these arrests netted 13 alleged vory v zakone (‘thieves in law’ or ‘thieves within the code’). Overall, there were 7 arrests in Italy, 2 in the Czech Republic, 5 in Lithuania, 2 in Portugal, one in France and one in Hungary. (Some Italian reports also cite arrests in Moscow, but I have yet to see that confirmed.)

This operation, the outcome of an 18-month investigation, was described by Europol as “one of the most significant blows against clans controlled by this high-ranking, elite of the world of Russian-speaking organised crime.”

Perhaps most interesting is that it appears—although this has not been confirmed—that the Hungarian arrest was of Merab Dzhangveladze (“Dzhango”/”Django”), the head of the Kutaisi grouping, and a major player within the Georgian underworld in both Georgia and Russia.

He is a close ally of Tariel Oniani (“Taro”), the vicious senior Georgian gang leader in Russia. He was also a sworn enemy of Aslan Usoyan (“Ded Hasan”), murdered in Moscow in January. Usoyan had formally had Dzhangveladze stripped of his vor v zakone status in 2008, as part of a tit-for-tat struggle with Taro, although this means little in today’s more diffuse and opportunistic underworld. Dzhangveladze may well have been behind the assassinations of both Usoyan and Vyacheslav Ivankov (“Yaponchik”) and has in many ways been Oniani’s right hand while he is in prison.

If Dzhangveladze has indeed been arrested, then this turns a serious blow to the Kutaisi into a devastating one. His brother Levon has in the past acted as his interim lieutenant, but lacks the stature to hold the group together for long. The Kutaisi clan, with an estimated 50 vory v zakone, is one of the most significant Georgian organized crime groups, not least amongst the so-called lavrushniki (“bay leaves”), Georgian gangsters within the Russian underworld. It certainly delivers a serious blow to the extensive Georgian—and, by extension, Eurasian—organized crime in Europe, as well as another example of the increasingly effective coordination of the struggle against them by European police forces.

However, this may also play to underworld developments in Russia. At present, the Usoyan and Oniani networks are locked in a phony war over both deep feuds and future dominance of the “mountaineer” fraction of the underworld, not so much a cold war as a tepid one that could quickly heat up further. If Dzhangveladze is taken out of the picture for long and if the Kutaisi clan are not able to bounce back quickly—two distinct “ifs”—then it does undermine Oniani. It could even embolden Chanturia, Usoyan’s successor, to strike…

Europe-wide arrests of Georgian gangsters, with senior Kutaisi vor seized in Prague

 

uooz__vnahledI’ve noted, both on this blog and elsewhere, that “Russian organized crime” in Europe often is actually Armenian or Georgian–even if today’s Georgian godfathers are frequently based in Russia. It’s a complex and very cosmopolitan underworld, these days, that also manifests itself in the multinational networks through which these gangsters operate. This has been illustrated by the breaking news that a 46-year-old Georgian man, a senior figures within the Kutaisi criminal ‘clan’, has been arrested by ÚOOZ, the Czech organized crime police department.

According to the police, they have been working on Georgian OC since 2011, and since 2012 working especially with Italian law-enforcement because criminal enterprises were conducting crimes elsewhere and moving money into and through the Czech Republic. In particular, the Geogian Kutaisi grouping, led by Merab Dzhangveladze (“Dzhango”/”Django’), was involved in operations in Italy, which included a skhodka sit-down in Milan in December 2011 to resolve disputes with the rival Shushanashvili brothers’ Tbilisi-Rustavi clan, and the murder of a Rustavi man in the city of Bari in 2011 and the retaliatory killing of Revez Tchuradze (“Rezo”), a local Kutaisi factor, in 2012.

After the Italians, led by the Bari magistracy, issued European Arrest Warrants for several individuals on racketeering, conspiracy to commit murder and money laundering charges, 32 people were detained not just in the ČR and Italy, but also Hungary, Lithuania, France, Belgium, Poland, Germany and Portugal. In Prague, officers from ÚOOZ supported by URN anti-terrorist commandoes, seized the as-yet-unnamed Georgian criminal, apparently a member of the criminal subculture of the vory v zakone (although this means very little these days), as well as cash and documents.

There is even a link with the killing of Ded Khasan in Moscow earlier this year; Dzhangveladze is an ally of Tariel Oniani (“Taro”), Hasan’s main foe, and also possibly close to Rovshan Janiev, whom Khasan’s own people have blamed for the murder. Italian police intercepts record him ironically noting that Khasan had warned that if the Kutaisi network tried to penetrate the Moscow underworld, “the city would be spattered in blood”–and that Khasan died shortly afterwards…

UPDATE: EUROPOL PRESS RELEASE

Here’s a handy summary from Europol, although given that all the criminals in question appear to have been Georgians at first glance, maybe :”Russia-speaking” is a little questionable a headline.

HARD BLOW AGAINST RUSSIAN-SPEAKING MAFIA

The Hague, the Netherlands
19 June 2013

Early on 18 June 2013, Europol supported the arrest of 18 suspects, 13 of them ‘thieves in law’ (vor v zakone), from the Georgian Kutaisi clan. This is one of the most significant blows against clans controlled by this high-ranking, elite of the world of Russian-speaking organised crime.

The operation was developed in Italy where the Central Operational Service of the Italian National Police and the Squadra mobile of Bari led the case and arrested 7 people. Other arrests took place simultaneously in the Czech Republic (2), France (1), Hungary (1), Lithuania (5) and Portugal (2). As well as the arrests, weapons, drugs and EUR 100 000 were seized. Belgian, German and Polish law enforcement authorities also provided substantial operational support. This outcome is the result of 18 months of EU-wide intelligence exchange and evidence gathering activities in several European Union countries.

This is the first time in Europe that such a high number (13) of thieves in law have been arrested simultaneously. The arrest of the Kutaisi leader in Hungary is specifically a significant blow to Russian-speaking organised criminals. As well as the leader, the rest of the clan’s hierarchy were arrested. The operation is ongoing and further arrests are expected.

This EU-wide investigation was supported from the outset by Europol specialists who facilitated the exchange of criminal intelligence with other Member States, delivered analytical reports and supported the operation on the spot with a mobile office. Eurojust participated in several operational meetings held during the investigation and Interpol was also present yesterday in the operational centre.

In offering his congratulations to all the services involved in this operation Michel Quillé, Deputy Director (Operations) at Europol said: “In such operations the essential role in bringing separate, sensitive investigations together in a secure environment is exactly what Europol is designed to do. In this way a clear picture of the situation in the EU can be built up, intelligence exchange between Member States can be stimulated and Member States can be alerted to the need for them to launch their own investigations or support ongoing enquiries. This case is an excellent example of such cooperation working to protect EU citizens across several Member States.”

NOTES FOR EDITORS:

Vor v zakone or thieves in law are Eurasian criminals who act as leaders, controllers and regulators of Russian-speaking organised crime. For several years the power balance in this criminal landscape has been in turmoil because of an ongoing conflict between the two main Georgian clans – the Tbilissi and Kutaisi clans. The main reasons for the conflict have been the struggle for important crime investment areas and the ultimate aim of full control over all Eurasian organised crime groups.

The assassination of a Tbilissi clan leader, in January 2013 in Moscow, created a new power vacuum leading to several, violent attempts by key players to strengthen their criminal positions. This has resulted in an increased presence of thieves in law in the EU. EU countries have become a shelter for them to avoid investigation and prosecution in their home jurisdictions. Ease of movement and excellent communications in the EU are an attractive environment for them to deploy and monitor their organised crime groups, re-invest criminal proceeds and hide from possible retaliation from opposing clans in the ongoing power struggle.

Czechs and Balances: arrests in Prague may actually be good news

Ekonom_49_450Prague is, needless to say, agog with the latest and biggest corruption story: the raids this morning by some 400 police officers, led by the ÚOOZ organized crime division, which led to a series of arrests. They included several members of parliament including the former head of the parliamentary party of the Civic Democrats (ODS)—the main party in the increasingly shaky governing coalition—Petr Tluchor, former agriculture minister Ivan Fuksa (ODS), as well as Government Office director and CEZ energy utility board member Lubomir Poul, former Military Intelligence chief Ondrej Pálenik, who now heads the State Material Reserves Administration. However, perhaps the most politically-charged is the arrest of Jana Nagyová, head of Prime Minister Petr Nečas’s private office head (and, according to scurrilous, unconfirmed, but not necessarily incorrect rumor, the now-divorcing PM’s lover). The very fate of the government may hinge on Nagyová’s fate, with the prospect of a no-confidence motion being tabled or even a fragmentation of that is already a fragile and, arguably, dysfunctional government.

Parliament interrupting its session, the value of the Czech koruna dipped slightly, and president Miloš Zeman—who may relish the opportunity to throw his weight around more—has called a meeting tomorrow with Nečas, Justice Minister Pavel Blažek and the national police chief. The main opposition party, the Social Democrats, have predictably called for the “immediate resignation of the prime minister” and early elections but perhaps the most serious risk is that this forced (or allows) the junior government partner, foreign minister Karel Schwarzenberg’s TOP 09, to bring Nečas down.

In contrast with the strikingly efficient handling of the recent floods, for which both local and national government deserve full credit, this looks like a shambles. The current government has been battered by a series of corruption cases that risks making Nečas look like Silvio Berlusconi minus the bunga-bunga parties. Perhaps it is no wonder that Czechs regard corruption as one of the most serious challenges to their state and foreign observers concur.

But let me add a note of unfashionable optimism here. This is not a corruption story so much as an anticorruption one. Of course, ideally the Czech Republic would be a shining beacon of probity, Denmark with knedliky, but in all conscience, this is hardly—yet—likely. Forty-plus years of Soviet rule and all the value-distorting, economy-strangling, society-warping pressure that entailed and then a crash transition to the market take time to assimilate. As is, 54th out of 176 in the 2012 Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index, the ČR is near the mid-point of the ex-Soviet satellite states, between Estonia (32nd) and Bulgaria (75th). Lobbyists who go beyond the usual bounds, illegal wiretaps, embezzlement, sweetheart deals; they are hardly unique to the Czechs.

So a certain level of corruption within the elite is, while unconscionable, also probably inevitable. When corruption cases come to light, though, the real message is not that corruption exists, but that it comes to light. The tragic but also encouraging irony is that Nečas, who may be brought down by this investigation, was instrumental in giving prosecutors the resources and political autonomy to allow them properly to investigate corruption. All countries have at least some level of corruption—the mark of a mature, law-governed state is that even the most powerful people are not exempt from justice. While many high-level corruption cases in the ČR never seem to get anywhere and there are still certainly serious challenges, progress does seem to be being made. In short, this is a painful moment for many within the Czech political class, but these may be growing pains.

Postscript: Nečas and his apparent resignation

I write is as the news breaks that PM Nečas is apparently to resign tomorrow in response. To be sure, this might be because some unsavory facts relating to him are about to break or because of pressure within the cabinet, but in general terms, it is likewise counter-intuitively encouraging when a senior figure finds himself having to (or wanting to) take responsibility for the misdeeds of members of his team. I cannot help but contrast that with what happens in Russia, Ukraine and similar countries where democracy and the rule of law are so much more weakly rooted and where corruption is ignored, mobilized as a weapon against enemies (and a treat for friends) and nothing in and of itself to discomfort the ruling powers. The Czechs may be embarrassed by their current travails, but they should be perversely proud. Kinda. OK, better not to have a government mired in corruption in the first place, but if you are going to have that, then arrests, resignations and ample public disclosure and opprobrium are all signs of a healthy political culture…

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