In the wake of the Cold War, the West thought it could uphold human rights, the rule of law, and democratic freedoms across the world. The subsequent assertiveness of authoritarian systems in China, Russia, the Middle East, and Latin America put the West on the defensive. Now, authoritarian repression has begun to reach into Western societies.
The European Union is an increasingly dangerous place for journalists. The frequency with which they have been murdered or have disappeared in recent years has caught the headlines, justifying a debate as to what extent state-building processes meant to precede EU accession remain a work in progress after countries join the bloc. Disturbingly, the trend appears to form part of a broader pattern in international relations: assassinations of government critics and members of the opposition are becoming ever more common.
Before the alleged murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the most high-profile case of this kind, was the attempted assassination of Russian defector Sergei Skripal – for which his former employer, the Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU), is widely believed to have deployed a military-grade nerve agent in Salisbury. The sloppiness of the GRU’s actions and the obvious lies the Kremlin used in its cover story are flabbergasting – but they may serve a purpose. Both hitmen were identified by the British authorities as veteran GRU officers who were involved in the extraction of former president Viktor Yanukovich from Ukraine, as well as Russian meddling in the country during the 2013 Maidan revolution.
The Kremlin may have intended the Skripal mission to be their last one before they became public officials or nationalist celebrities. The Skripal operation should also serve the purpose of enforcing discipline within the ranks of the Russian elite. As the glory of annexing Crimea fades, the weaknesses of President Vladimir Putin’s system – seen in Russia’s economic and intellectual malaise – become obvious again. As the regime’s ability to please the urban, educated middle class declines, state repression increases. Appropriately, Skripal’s would-be assassins come from remote areas of Siberia, and owe their careers and access to material comfort exclusively to the regime.
As the case of Khashoggi apparently murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey – bluntly demonstrates, Russia is not the only authoritarian regime hunting dissidents. It is a common sense that people do not suffer fatal accidents or engage in lethal fistfights in diplomatic buildings. And Turkey’s apparent conclusions, which name his alleged assassins and the operation’s chain of command, are far more persuasive than any Saudi excuse.
Saudi Arabia’s main regional rival, Iran, is equally busy in this field. In July, Assadollah Assadi, an Iranian diplomat accredited in Vienna was arrested in Germany on a European arrest warrant. He is accused of planning an attack on a gathering of the National Council of Resistance of Iran in Paris in June. Belgian and French police foiled the plot, confiscating the bomb and detaining the perpetrators. Iran’s intelligence services have long placed foreign-based opponents of the regime under close surveillance, often aggressively gathering information on them. Yet, planning a bombing in Paris is a drastic escalation.
If European politicians refrain from punishing this kind of behavior, authoritarian regimes will increasingly assassinate dissidents abroad and exert other forms of pressure on people they see as dangerous to their rule. Of course, Western democracies can hardly respond in kind, initiating a foreign assassination program against Russian, Saudi, and Iranian officials. But figures linked with despotic regimes send their children to European schools, hide their wealth in European companies and assets, and buy European passports that can provide them with a safe haven. And this needs to change.
The Magnitsky Act, introduced in the US in 2012 to target the Russian regime, provides a template for an effective response. While individual EU member states have introduced similar acts, the European Parliament pushed for an adaption of similar legislation in 2014, though without success. But unless Europeans adopt such measures on an EU level, the patchwork of national sanctions legislation will be easy to circumvent.
Moreover, defending the borderless European Union requires the adoption of common minimum standards for counterintelligence forces and a dramatic increase in state capacity in this area, particularly in central Europe. Authoritarian regimes’ foreign intelligence agencies will learn from their experiences this year and could return with a vengeance. To prevent this undesirable scenario from happening, Europeans need the capability to watch the authoritarian regimes more closely.
‚Ministry of Foreign Assassinations: Killings, Disappearances, and the Challenge to the Liberal Order‘ – Commentary by Gustav Gressel – European Council on Foreign Relations / ECFR.