Thursday, August 31, 2006

gotcha (reprised) from European Voice

Disinformation flows along the Dniestr river

By Edward Lucas

On 17 September a non-country will be holding a non-vote. The non-country is Transdniestria, a strip of land sandwiched between Moldova and Ukraine.

The non-vote is a poll about its future – by some counts the 11th since the Transdniestria authorities declared independence from Moldova proper in 1990. But no credible outsiders will observe it. The outcome is not in doubt.
It is also a non-vote because the question is oddly phrased. Voters are asked to support either the leadership’s current line, of independence leading to ‘association’ with the Russian federation, or to rejoin Moldova. That is not a mandate for real talks about the future, but a rejection of them. It’s the same old dreary story of posturing and deadlock.
What is new, however, is the energetic efforts by the Trandsniestrian authorities to make their case in English, online. When I last visited the Transdniestrian capital, Tiraspol, back in 2001, it was an internet-free zone.
Now that’s changed. There’s (published by an elusive Irishman),, and They are well-written – mostly by native-speakers of English – well-designed, and well-targetted at outsiders whose sympathy with the underdog might lead them to support a self-declared state struggling against the disdain of the international community.
What puzzles me, though, is who is behind this. Earlier this summer, in two articles for The Economist, I raised some questions about another outfit supporting Transdniestria, the self-described International Council for Democratic Institutions and State Sovereignty (ICDISS). This had published a heavily-footnoted report, in grand lawyerly style, about the legal basis for Transdniestrian independence. This report was cited by the sites above, and others in Russia, as a sign that western opinion was coming round to the Transdniestrian viewpoint.
Trouble was, the ICDISS had no phone number, address, legal status – and no identifiable funding, history or personnel. The distinguished international lawyers cited as sources disclaimed any involvement. Its excuses (provided only by email) were threadbare. Every trail that might prove its prior existence goes cold, or looks alarmingly like an outright forgery.
At first I thought I smelled a Kremlin disinformation campaign. But on closer examination that seemed too flattering. The steely professionals of the Yasenevo ‘sanatorium’ (as the Russian Foreign Intelligence headquarters in southern Moscow is nicknamed) would be ashamed of such amateurish efforts, so easily exposed by a few clicks of a journalist’s mouse. The fingerprints were of cowboys, not colonels.
It seems more likely that the ICDISS is a bunch of lightweight opportunists in Washington DC, paid for by tycoons and goons in Transdniestria, perhaps with the encouragement of sympathisers in Moscow. The same money probably pays for the other websites, and also subsidises ‘Breakthrough’, a local youth movement that apes similar pro-Kremlin efforts in Russia. Coincidentally or not, similar stunts are being pulled in the Caucasus and the Baltics.
Fake think-tanks, spurious reports and manufactured protest movements were common currency for both sides in the old Cold War; now they are popping up in the new one. Unprecedented money, effort and brainpower are now going into pro-Russian mischief-making in Europe’s backyard, to general indifference.
Whether you see it as merely entertaining, or outright sinister, the information war disguises hard questions for both sides. Once the European Union admits Romania, the question of what to do with next-door Moldova – and therefore of Transdniestria – cannot be dodged. And what does Russia really want? So far, it has maintained Transdniestria as a lucrative irritant.
But ambiguity has its limits. Transdniestria wants to become another Kaliningrad. Does the Kremlin want that? And if not, what?


Gustav said...

I've been following your work on this story, and it extremely interesting.

However, I was wondering about your change of mind as to who is behind ICDISS.

If the disinformation is the work of "cowboys, not colonels" as you say, then why would Russia - whose interests would be damaged by the uncovering of a shell think-tank designed to promote Transdniestrian independence - allow such shoddy work to be done?

You say: "It seems more likely that the ICDISS is a bunch of lightweight opportunists in Washington DC, paid for by tycoons and goons in Transdniestria, perhaps with the encouragement of sympathisers in Moscow."

As the saying goes, if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself - so why did the "colonels" encourage the Transdniestrian tycoons and goons go to the "cowboys" instead of doing a more professional job themselves?

You mention in one of the earlier articles that the ICDISS report contains strange language that would suggest Russian authorship ("centrals" instead of "exchanges") - doesn't that also point to Russian involvement in the group?

Widell said...


Widell said...

I have read two ICDISS reports, one of which was never published. That draft was written by a German (I think) and had a strong EU flavor. It contained copious references to German legal liteture in a number of footnotes. (By the way, the explanation behind the "telephone central" could just as well be that telephone exchange is Zentrale in German.)

If we fall into the fallacy that everybody is working for some government then, obviously, the ICDISS could be a German spoof. Except that in this case it would make sense.

As we know, German post-reunification foreign policy has been all about "democratic institutions and state sovereignty," with all the predictable collateral damage it entails. Germany was the first to recognize Slovenia and Croatia and made a deal with Albania in 1995 to promote the Kosovo independence.

So why would the ICDISS team up with Russia on the Transnistrian issue if it is not really working for Russia? Well, I guess you have ver heard the story about the Trojan horse? Only, in this case we do not know for certain where the gift comes from.

Besides, the ICDISS and Russian would not be the first strange bed fellows in history. We need only think of the marriage between the CIA and Osama. And we do know the ICDISS has been accused of working for the US in Venezuela. The "Council" could be a Kremlin front, but it is certainly much more than that.

Anders36 said...

So, let's see. Edward says that ICDISS is working for the Russian government because in a footnote they say "telephone central" instead of "exchange". Then Widell says that this is more likely proof that they are working for the German government because of "zentrale". Well, I want to chime in too. The truth: They are working for the SPANISH government. Why? Because telephone exchanges are "centrales telefonicos" in Spanish!

If we pick on on flimsy evidence like that then we fall into the fallacy that that everybody is working for some government.
This is not the case, of course. Think tanks, even astroturf tanks or shell think tanks, can perfectly well work for whatever they think is a worthy cause without necessary having a puppet master anywhere. But for someone to accept this he will first need to see past his own cold war mindset.

Edward himself used the work threadbare. Picking up on one single word in a footnote and then accusing someone of being a front for the Kremlin is threadbare.

Edward Lucas said...

I am rather baffled by the last two comments. I can't see any reason why Germany should be involved. There is no, repeat no, independently verified evidence that I have seen about the ICDISS's involvement in Venezuela. They assert that they were accused of being a CIA front there, but I have not seen any proof of this.

The errors in English are a marginal point--they strongly suggest Russian involvement but could also be made by speakers of another language.

The main point is that the ICDISS has perpetrated several deceitful stunts, including bogus Wikipedia entries, a report that cites as "authors" people who are nothing of the kind, a conference that seems never to have happened (at least in the form described). All that fits strongly with their being a front organisation, whether for the Kremlin or for the Tiraspol authorities.

That's a strong accusation, and I hesitate make it bluntly. But I have given the organisation plenty of chances to clear up the inconsistencies and other strange aspects to their declared profile. And they have chosen not to do so.
instead there are a sprinkling of anonymous comments on the internet (such as this last one) which try to pick away at the most tentative bits of the case against them, but don't refute the main charge.


Edward Lucas said...

I should add that this link

gives the aetiology of the wikipedia entry


widell said...

I see. The "council" has perpetrated several deceitful stunts, so it must be a front, "whether" for the Kremlin "or" for the Tiraspol authorities. Either of those two (or both).

Yes, the Kremlin might have a reason for being involved, unlike the Germans (though I don't see why not), but is "a reason" evidence? Anybody would have a reason to be involved in Tiraspol, and perhaps everybody is.

The "telephone central" is a marginal point, true, but if there were more evidence the texts were written by a Russian, I guess that would suggest the Russian government is involved. However, when there is evidence the texts were written by a German, and there is a LOT of German (far beyong the flimsy connection with the Zentrale), doesn't that suggest the German government is involved?

Edward Lucas said...

No. Because the immediate beneficiaries of this are the Russophone authorities in Tiraspol. I simply don't see any plausible reason for assuming German government involvement. Edward

Anders36 said...

Widdell, "reason" is of course NOT evidence and Edward Lucas knows it. He is trying to divert the argument by "proving" guilt by the fact that his scapegoat-of-the-day, ICDISS, won't come out to play the game on his terms. But basically, what he is asking for is called the justice of the Spanish Inquisition: You are guilty until you yourself come forward and prove your own innocence.

Paul Adams said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Lyndon said...

Mr. Lucas, if you haven't heard about this already, you may find it interesting.