Catalan Separatists Tailored Public Messaging to Avoid Antagonizing Russia: ‘You Have to Avoid Navalny For Sure’

In 2019, Spaniards were shocked when the newspaper El Periodico revealed that an emissary from the region of Catalonia had traveled to Russia to seek recognition of their efforts to break away from Spain.

According to the report, the Catalans offered to recognize Russia’s claim to Crimea in exchange for support for their independence movement.

Their effort apparently failed, and a controversial independence referendum ended badly for the Catalans, without recognition from Russia or any other major state. Some separatist leaders were arrested and sentenced to jail terms, while others, including the Catalan president, Carles Puigdemont, fled Spain.

But according to a Spanish police report obtained by OCCRP, the leaders of the Catalan independence movement haven’t stopped seeking Russian support — and have censored their own public statements in order to get it. Intercepted text messages reveal intense and even anguished discussions among senior Puigdemont advisers about how to avoid antagonizing the Russian government, including by downplaying support for jailed Russian opposition leader and anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny.

The messages also show them celebrating the appointment of a high-ranking Russian official they apparently considered friendly to their cause, and later interacting with him. They also had dealings with a Russian businessman described by Spanish authorities as having criminal ties and working for Russian intelligence services.

The report contains no evidence that the Russian government provided concrete assistance to the Catalan independence movement. But it indicates that contacts between Catalan officials and influential Russians continued well into 2020.

🔗Russian Interference

Spanish officials and European disinformation specialists have accused Russia of meddling in Catalonia as part of a broader strategy to fuel instability and discontent in the European Union.

The Russian government has always strenuously denied these claims. But alleged Russian interference ahead of the region’s independence referendum was the subject of two judicial investigations in Spain, denounced in a U.S. Senate report, and covered in the media.

Observers said that Russian state media outlets published disinformation and slanted pro-independence narratives that were spread by an army of bots on social networks.

The investigative outlet Bellingcat has also reported that Denis Sergeev, an agent of Russia’s GRU military intelligence agency who has been accused of participating in poisoning attempts, was in Barcelona under a cover alias during that period. The nature of his activities is unknown.

Meanwhile, a Barcelona court investigating a diversion of public funds to finance Puigdemont’s activities abroad found contacts between pro-independence leaders and individuals close to the Kremin.

In one intercepted conversation, a suspect explained that an unidentified Russian group had offered Puigdemont 10,000 Russian soldiers to support Catalonian independence.

The report was produced as part of an investigation, launched by a Barcelona judge in 2016, that alleges embezzlement, abuse of power, and influence peddling by senior Catalan officials.

As part of the investigation, Spanish police detained 21 people, including the head of Puigdemont’s office, Josep Lluís Alay, in October 2020.

Josep Lluís Alay pictured in Barcelona
Credit: Albert Bertran Josep Lluís Alay pictured in Barcelona in 2012.

On Alay’s mobile phone, investigators found messages between him and a series of interlocutors — including Puigdemont, his lawyer, a senior Russian official, and a Russian businessman — that make it clear that Catalonian leaders remained intent on securing Russian support, and engaged in significant self-censorship to do so.

🔗Who Is Josep Lluís Alay?

Alay is best known in Spain as a close confidant of Puigdemont. But until he entered the political scene by the Catalan leader’s side, he was an academic who specialized in Tibetan history and literature, even leading a center for the study of the country at the University of Barcelona. According to the university, he was the first to translate a Tibetan text into Catalan.

He has also translated into both Spanish and Catalan a Russian book called “The Woman Who Can Keep Secrets,” written by a Russian spy arrested in the United States in 2010 and subsequently deported. Her family’s story was the inspiration for “The Americans,” a celebrated television series.

Alay’s intercepted messages show him and Gonzalo Boye, Puigdemont’s lawyer, discussing issues best sidestepped in public statements to avoid annoying the Kremlin.

First on the agenda was Edward Snowden, a former U.S. National Security Agency contractor whose revelations of the agency’s widespread surveillance led to his exile in Russia.

In August 2020, Puigdemont had joined 25 other members of the European Parliament in signing an open letter asking U.S. President Donald Trump to pardon Snowden.

This made Alay nervous:

The president’s Snowden letter was a very risky bet in my opinion.
But it’s to the USA not to Russia
You know that I’m pro-Snowden but it’s like the Navalny topic. You have to be careful with the timing.
Credit: OCCRP

He made the stakes clear:

If we bet in public on the Kremlin, let's do it for real.
Ah of course
Well, this would be a topic to discuss at the next meeting, I think
Credit: OCCRP

Alay then raised other potentially sensitive topics, including the political opposition to Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko and the persecution of Russian opposition leader Navalny. Alay and Boye agreed that Puigdemont should be advised to remain silent on both topics:

Look, there’s a key triangle
Belarus - Snowden - Navalny
A tweet from the president in favor of Navalny could appear at any moment
Yes, the biggest problem is Belarus… for our position.
And that kills us
Nothing about Navalny
Better tell him now
Credit: OCCRP

An hour later, Alay says he’s made the recommendation:

I’ve advised him that the moment in Moscow is very complicated for Putin with this demonic triangle
Credit: OCCRP

The topic arose again the following month, when Alay and Boye discussed a tweet in which Puigdemont and his fellow Catalan delegates in the European Parliament welcomed a visit by Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya.

We have to tell the Russians that this is just to mislead
We’ve had a bad streak
I’ve already had to notify about the Navalny letter
And now this
Yes, but we have to build a good story about this for our friends
Credit: OCCRP

It is unclear what Alay meant in his reference to a “Navalny letter.” But the following month, when the two men discussed a potential interview with a friendly Russian journalist, they agreed that the topic of Navalny was best avoided:

My journalist in Moscow, Chesnokov, also works on a Russian news channel in Telegram, Nezygar
It has 350,000 subscribers
It’s the biggest in Russia
He’s suggesting to publish a 4-question interview with president Puigdemont
What do you think? Timely?
Yes, of course it is
I’ll agree on the questions and perhaps avoid Navalny
You have to avoid Navalny for sure
Credit: OCCRP

The two men then discuss what kind of comment from Puigdemont could interest a Russian reader:

He should do an analysis of where the EU is going, just that
Including the weaknesses and challenges of the EU… provide intelligence but don’t get involved in whatever would piss off the Russians
Credit: OCCRP

The police report in which these transcripts appear concludes that they represented the Catalan officials’ “partisan position,” intended to avoid publishing information “considered detrimental to support that the independence movement could receive from Russia.”

In a series of messages to reporters, Boye disputed this characterization of his and Alay’s exchanges, saying they had been taken out of context. He said he had never contacted the Russian authorities regarding Catalan independence or on behalf of Puigdemont, and did not advise him on Russian affairs, rather discussing “various geopolitical scenarios” with Alay.

He said that Puigdemont had openly spoken in support of Navalny, and pointed to several tweets in which the former Catalan president expressed support for the Belarusian opposition. He also criticized the investigation into Alay as “delusional and inappropriate for a democratic state.”

Beyond public relations strategies, the messages in the report attest to Alay’s interactions with a high-level Russian official.

“Good news from Moscow,” he wrote to Puigdemont in June 2020, welcoming the appointment of former journalist, politician, and diplomat Evgeny Primakov to the head of Rossotrudnichestvo, a Russian government agency that deals with foreign aid and public diplomacy.

In a message to Boye, Alay describes Primakov as Putin’s “right hand” in international relations and adds:

Some say he has more power than the foreign minister

Alay shared with Boye a screenshot of a chat he had with Primakov in which he tells him that a Catalan newspaper is going to publish an article that he hopes “will help to show the situation as a whole, also from the Russian perspective.”

“Great news, Josep, and great job!” Primakov replies. “Thank you very-very much!”

Primakov added that he regarded the European Union’s position on Catalonia as unfair, analogous to its view of the Russian minority in Ukraine.

“The way the European political establishment ignores all those oppressive things being done to Russians in Ukraine is truly disgusting,” he writes. “Double standards as they are. Well, you may know better than me regarding [the] Catalan case.”

Another relationship noted in the police report is between Alay and Aleksander Dmitrenko, a Russian businessman living in Spain whom he described as someone who “opens many doors for us in Moscow.”

In 2016, Dmitrenko co-founded a London company called CatRus Capital that identified itself on LinkedIn as a public relations firm that lobbies for Russia and Catalonia. The company closed in January 2019.

Dmitrenko also had a business partner with high-level ties. In London, he co-founded a firm called AA Plus Wealth Management with Artem Lukoyanov, the adopted son of senior Russian official Vladislav Surkov. Dubbed the “gray cardinal” of the Kremlin, Surkov is considered the architect of Russian strategy in eastern Ukraine and the breakaway regions of Ossetia and Abkhazia. The firm does not appear to conduct any public business activity.

But Spanish authorities suspect Dmitrenko is more than just a businessman. According to a written response the Ministry of Justice sent Dmitrenko to justify rejecting his application for Spanish citizenship, he is believed to work for the Russian intelligence services and an organized criminal group.

“There is proven knowledge of conscientious work for the Russian intelligence services,” reads the document, which was viewed by OCCRP.

“Likewise,” the resolution continues, “contacts have been detected between this individual and some of the main leaders of a transnational criminal organization of Russian origin, for which he also conducts various tasks.” No further details are provided.

In response to reporters’ questions, Dmitrenko rejected these allegations. “I only work for myself and my family,” he said. “It is a ridiculous accusation. It’s silly. It’s a witch hunt, like the inquisition.”

“I have been in Spain all my life and have been denied nationality for a completely fabricated issue,” he continued. “They say that these accusations are proven but I have not seen such evidence in my life.”

Dmitrenko maintained that he was a supporter of Catalonia’s independence referendum but did not lobby for independence. He said he had put Alay in touch with the academic community in Moscow and that his defunct public relations firm was “an economic and cultural lobby to help Russians settle in Catalonia and Catalans settle in Russia.”

He also said that his relationship with Lukoyanov did not extend to the Russian man’s influential father. “I have no relationship with Surkov. I have not met him,” he said. “[Lukoyanov] hardly sees him. They don’t have a good relationship.”

According to messages the police discovered on Alay’s phone, Dmitrenko’s Spanish bank accounts have all been frozen.

“Today they blocked my company’s account at the Sabadell bank,” he tells Alay in a text message. “The last of the banks to do it.”

The messages also show that Alay exerted his influence to get the Barcelona Chamber of Commerce to appoint Dmitrenko as its ambassador in Russia, with a focus on the energy sector.

The two men exchanged numerous messages about an operation to sell oil from a Russian company to a company registered in Hong Kong. Alay described Dmitrenko’s work in the energy sector as “strategic.”

The precise nature of this deal and how it might benefit the Catalan independence movement is unknown. But the directors of the Hong Kong company, Gulf Energy China Limited, are connected to a well-known fugitive, Derek Chong Kwong Kanjanapas, also known as Wong Chong Kwong. He was convicted of bribery and stock manipulation in 2007, but fled before his sentencing and received a jail term in absentia.

The directors, William Wong Chong Fai and Chui Man Si, are his brother and his girlfriend at the time.

Puigdemont and Alay did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

Martin Young (OCCRP) contributed reporting.

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