The Russians made no secret of their unhappiness after their candidate, Alexander Prokopchuk, was soundly beaten in elections for the presidency of Interpol. A Kremlin spokesman accused western countries of “unprecedented interference” in the process of choosing a new leader for the international crimefighting organisation, while senior Russian politicians spoke of a smear campaign and called for lawsuits to be instituted against those who circulated information designed to damage him – the anticipation of which might account for some of the hedging in western reports that Prokopchuk may have had a KGB past.
Still, for all its huffing and puffing, Russia said it would accept the result. And, aside from the diplomatic defeat and obvious loss of face, the victory for the South Korean, Kim Jong-yang, is probably not the worst outcome for Moscow. Prokopchuk remains one of four Interpol vice presidents, and Russia enjoys generally good relations with Seoul.
The whole affair could thus be dismissed as a bit of a storm in a tea cup, especially as the day to day running of Interpol is done by its secretary general, a post currently held by a German, Juergen Stock. The role of the president and his deputies is more akin to chairmanship and steering, rather than hands-on administration. The real contest, it could be argued, will come in two years’ time when the post of secretary general falls vacant.
Yet what happened over the Interpol presidency should not be dismissed so lightly. It raises questions that deserve answers – questions that may not even be asked, now that a result has been achieved that is deemed satisfactory by the vocal western world.
Let’s look back, first, at why there was a vacancy for president in the first place. This was the position that had been held by Meng Hongwei, a Chinese citizen who was halfway through his four year term when he mysteriously went missing during a visit to his home country and was subsequently reported to be under arrest for corruption. Was there no opposition to Meng’s elevation to the presidency two years ago on the basis that he was a citizen of China, and a former law enforcement officer in a country with a hardly stellar record on human rights? If not, why not? Or rather, why – in US and UK eyes – was it apparently fine for a Chinese to hold the presidency of a global crimefighting organisation but not a Russian?
And related to that, why has there been no great outcry about the disappearance of someone who – however you might regard him – was a senior official in a major international organisation? Every once in a while his distressed wife is given a few moments of airtime to remind the world of his plight, but to no great effect. His, probably enforced, resignation seems to have been accepted with barely a murmur, allowing the election for his successor to proceed. Even if Interpol worried about future non-cooperation from China if it made serious representations on Meng’s behalf, why did it not keep his post open, at least nominally, in recognition of the way it became vacant?
Second, why did the US and the UK unleash such a desperate last-minute campaign to prevent Prokopchuk’s election? Diplomats generally prefer to operate incrementally and behind the scenes, so the fact that these two countries resorted to such open lobbying at such a late stage suggests two possibilities. Had they, perhaps, failed to foresee that the Russian could be elected, or had they in fact foreseen the possibility but failed to regard it as a problem?
Either way, it seems to have dawned on the UK rather late in the day that having a Russian president of Interpol did not square particularly well with its massive efforts to mobilise diplomatic action against Russia following the Salisbury poisonings. The resulting campaign against Prokopchuk’s candidacy was fierce, and waged on multiple fronts.
Lithuania and Ukraine threatened to leave Interpol altogether; the UK apparently talked of setting up a rival organisation. US congressmen said it would be like putting a fox in charge of the hen coop. Prokopchuk, for his part, was accused of being a Putin crony, of having a past in the KGB and, in his former capacity, of abusing the Interpol “red card” system to go after Russia’s political enemies abroad.
In any case, the 11th-hour lobbying effort was successful, and Prokopchuk lost by a wide margin. But this poses a third question. A determined alliance of the US and the UK, plus a number of countries with very real reasons to fear Russia (Ukraine, the Baltic states) proved capable of blocking the election of a Russian official to the presidency of an international organisation with 192 members – one of the widest memberships of any international group outside the United Nations.
Prokopchuk surely has his flaws. But the specific objections to his candidacy could be levelled against a host of international officials. Not a few have associations with their national leader (though not every Russian official is associated with Putin). Prokopchuk may or may not have had a KGB association (but I would judge it unlikely, as Russia’s interior ministry, governing the police, and Russia’s intelligence services are quite different and often rival animals). And the charge that he abused the “red card” system of international arrest warrants can be levelled against law enforcement agencies in many countries. One country’s criminal can be another country’s political dissenter – which is why the international asylum system exists.
All of which is not to absolve Prokopchuk but to ask whether the real obstacle to his elevation to president of Interpol had less to do with any of his failings but rather, and solely, with the fact of his being Russian. And if Russians conclude from this experience that their nationals have no prospects of advancement within such international organisations – fewer prospects, for instance, than a Chinese – then who would blame them for asking whether there is not one rule for Russians and one for everyone else, and whether it is worth even joining in the first place.
Club membership comes with rules that apply to everyone. If Russia comes to believe that club rules are applied differently to Russia (the World Anti-Doping Agency, for instance, or the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, and now Interpol), is this not tantamount to an invitation simply to opt out or to behave badly – for instance, by using illicit means to access information that, as a member, it should be entitled to see. Of course Russia should comply, and be required to comply, with international rules. But that presupposes that Russia is treated as having an equal stake in applicable organisations and is judged by the same rules as others. In the matter of the Interpol presidency, that is far from clear.
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