Fake consulates of Ukrainian separatists in Czech Republic, Italy and Austria

On September 1, 2016, a so-called Representative centre of Donetsk People's Republic was opened in Ostrava. Although the step lacks any international legitimacy, it displays dangerous characteristics of the Russian hybrid war. In the time of the rapid exchange of information and information noise, the centre serves as an excellent propaganda tool and means of support of both pro-Russian and anti-Western reports. All the more interesting is the fact that a similar centre was opened in Italy and an attempt to establish it was registered in Austria. These centres not only have the same purpose, but also the same scheme of creation, management and operation. The establishment of representative centres might be viewed as an effort to legitimise the separatist territories. There is also a significant element of spreading pro-Russian propaganda, and to some extent, an attempt to create bases for spreading Russian influence.

The opening of the so-called Representative centre of Donetsk People's Republic in Ostrava was claimed by the political leaders of the Donetsk People's Republic. Foreign Minister Natalya Nikonorova allegedly even appointed Czech citizen Nela Lisková as the "honorary consul". The centre was registered as a non-profit organisation in the commercial register of the regional court in Ostrava. Neither the consulate nor the DPR itself are recognised by anyone in the Czech Republic or the European Union. Regarding the opening of the centre, the Czech Foreign Ministry stated that it does not recognise the Donetsk People's Republic, has no diplomatic relations with it, therefore a separatist territory cannot have a diplomatic mission or a consulate in the Czech territory. Lisková was asked to immediately stop using the title of "honorary consul".

The term "representative centre of the DPR" dominated the headlines of Russian media for several days, the information that the centre was not recognised by anyone and that it is just a barely functioning association was mentioned at the end of articles, if at all. The title of the "first diplomatic mission in the European Union", however false, gave the separatist entity illusion of legitimacy in the eyes of uninformed and inexperienced readers. It should be noted that this step cost Kremlin minimal finances. In Ostrava only a very modestly furnished office was opened and according to partial reports, its operation is provided solely by Lisková. According to her, the purpose of the consulate should be to launch an information counteroffensive and to change the image of the rebel DPR in the Czech Republic. Although no significant activity of the centre was recorded, the establishment itself became a popular topic of pro-Russian servers across the Europe.

Soon afterwards, a similar scenario was tested in neighbouring Austria, this time in the name of the Luhansk People's Republic. On September 8, 2016, according to several Russian servers, a so-called Representative centre of LPR was opened in Vienna. Deputy of the self-proclaimed LPR Parliament Nikola Zaporozhets announced that Austrian citizen Alfred Almeder will be the centre's head. According to the information agency UNIAN, the official opening of the office never occurred. It is unclear whether the association was registered in any way. Almeder himself, who works in a humanitarian fund that provided assistance to Ukraine, soon denied the report regarding his involvement and states in his letter to the Ukrainian Embassy that he is not working with the separatists. The Centre's purpose was supposed to be organisation and transport of humanitarian aid to the Donbass. As in the Czech case, the consulate was to bring so-called truthful reports regarding separatist territories to the Austrian people. Like the Czech Ministry, the Austrian Foreign Ministry expressed its full support for Ukraine and refused to cooperate with the organisation in any way. Although this attempt was not successful, it provided publicity to the separatists.

The last and so far the most controversial case is the opening of another representative centre of DPR on 14 December 2016, this time in the Italian city of Turin. According to available information, this initiative was supported by the non-commercial Magellan Fund and led by local citizens, as in the Czech Republic. The main representatives of the centre are Maurizio Marrone, a member of the Piedmont regional parliament, and E. Bertolazi, an analyst at the Institute for Geopolitical Studies. The purpose of the centre is according to Marrone the spreading of truthful information about the DPR among the Italian public and the creation and support of economic ties between Italy and the DNR. Marrone is a member of the Movement of Five Stars, which is inclined towards the current Russian government and whose members also attended the opening of the centre. In addition to many journalists, the event was attended by representatives of the Brothers of Italy party and the Northern League party that decidedly oppose anti-Russian sanctions. However, no representative of the DPR has been spotted at the event.

All three representative centres were established in countries where there are pro-Russian sentiments and broad media space for spreading pro-Russian reports and information. With the help of legal loopholes, a pseudo-consulate is registered as a nonprofit organisation, association or other entity, against which the state cannot legally intervene. The leading posts are filled by the citizens of the country. The first reason is that these people, unlike Donbass separatists, cannot be deported. The second reason is to create a semblance of credibility. Information provided by a local citizen is viewed with greater trust. The third reason might be familiarity with local conditions and social environment. What these people particularly have in common is the fact that they have recently personally visited the separatist territories as participants in humanitarian missions or at the invitation of the separatists.

Another interesting element is how these figures are linked with organisations that lean towards Russian influence. Maurizio Marrone in Italy is a member of the populist Movement of Five Stars with an access to deputies of other northern Italian populist parties, especially the Northern League party. Alfred Almeder in Austria is connected to the Committee for Peace in Ukraine, which claims to fight fascism. On its website, the organisation strongly criticises the current Ukrainian government, which it describes as a right-wing nationalist regime with fascist elements. The Committee supports the right to self-determination of the separatists, opposes any conflict with Russia and refuses the NATO's eastward expansion. Regarding Nela Lisková, she is a founder of the National Militia. This extremist organisation was founded in January 2016 and its program includes support for initiatives directed against NATO and the EU, lobbying for the abolition of anti-Russian sanctions and undermining Ukraine's territorial sovereignty. It is also characterised by spreading a feeling of social threat, undermining the legitimacy of the Czech government, spreading hoaxes and last but not least, the creation of paramilitary militias.

It is not known exactly who is behind this strategy. Although the people responsible for foreign policy of the breakaway territories are Natalya Nikonorova (DPR) and Oleg Akimov (LPR), it is more likely that the author of the strategy is Vladislav Surkov. This politician is considered a guarantor of the Luhansk People's Republic and mainly responsible for the current PR of the separatists and the Russian Federation.

The current role and efficiency of these centres are not vast, but in the future, they could pose a potential threat. According to some experts, this is the same strategy the Russian Federation uses e.g. in the case of military exercises on the borders with the European Union or in the case of violation of the airspace or territorial waters of individual European countries: it is testing the response. If it detects a significant resistance, it withdraws; if it discovers a weakness, it will know where to strike when necessary. Under conditions of hybrid war, a weakness could be, for instance, exploitable media space.

About author: Roksolana Dryndak

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