The Czech interior ministry is hosting the five-day summit staged by Stratcom - Nato’s strategic communications arm – in an effort to persuade governments and the European Union to strengthen electoral processes amid rising concern over suspected interference by the Russian government under Vladimir Putin.
The event comes at a time of heightened sensitivity following Donald Trump’s sacking last week of the FBI director, James Comey, who had been overseeing an investigation into alleged links between Russia and Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.
Elections are approaching in several European countries including Britain next month, Germany in September and the Czech Republic, which faces a parliamentary poll in October and a presidential election a few months later. Officials have voiced fears about the possibility of Russian-backed disruption.
“Western countries are taking this more seriously now because they can see it affects themselves and not just Ukraine and the Baltic states,” said Jakub Janda, of the Prague-based European Values thinktank, which is organising the conference along with other bodies including the British embassy.
“From being a mainly foreign policy issue, it has become an internal security topic.”
The Czech Republic became the first EU member state to explicitly address the issue in January when it established a Centre for Terrorism and Hybrid Threats aimed at protecting the integrity of its elections from “fake news” websites and other measures suspected to be masterminded by Moscow.
Conference organisers are calling for further measures, including legislation, in western countries whose democratic systems and sovereignty could be endangered by outside meddling.
“It is clear that democracies need to set up national policies for countering hostile disinformation operations, which are going on constantly, not only during the electoral period,” says a hard-hitting report to be presented to 160 government specialists meeting behind closed doors during the summit’s first two days.
The report asserts that Moscow tried to influence the pro-leave vote in last year’s Brexit referendum in the UK, in addition to its well-documented preference for Trump and support for the far-right candidate Marine Le Pen in the recent French presidential election.
“Democracies must start treating their electoral processes as a part of critical national infrastructure,” declares the report, which calls for “tailored national defence policies” to keep polls free and fair.
The report suggests that candidates could set up decoy email addresses to guard against computer hacks. It also urges state authorities to close potential legal loopholes that could allow foreign funding of candidates through local proxies.
Analysts accuse the Kremlin of backing mainly far-right fringe movements opposed to Nato, the EU and immigration across a host of countries, including the Baltic republics, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Finland, Sweden and elsewhere. Destabilisation efforts are aided by news websites which peddle slanted accounts and outright disinformation.
European Values, which runs a monitoring website called Kremlin Watch, has accused the EU foreign affairs commissioner, Federica Mogherini, of ignoring the issue.
High-level delegations from the Pentagon and the US Department of State are expected to take part in the conference despite the investigation into Russian interference in last year’s presidential election, including potential Trump campaign collusion.
“We were afraid because of what happened that [American participation] would be stopped or slowed down by the Trump White House,” Janda said. “But I have reports from American diplomats in Europe that [Rex] Tillerson, the secretary of state, is giving it the green light and ordering full steam ahead.”
The summit comes amid a power struggle in Czech politics between the country’s pro-western Social Democrat prime minister, Bohuslav Sobotka, and its president, Milos Zeman, who is widely seen as a close ally of the Kremlin and repeatedly criticised EU sanctions against Russia over its actions in Ukraine.
Czech observers predict that Moscow will support Zeman’s re-election campaign in next January’s scheduled presidential poll.
Author: Robert Tait