Catalan separatists sought help from Russia as they struggled to break with Spain, The New York Times has reported, citing intelligence files.
Josep Lluis Alay, a senior adviser to the self-exiled former Catalan President Carles Puigdemont, traveled to Moscow on at least two occasions in 2019 to meet with current Russian officials and former intelligence officers in an effort to receive support, the paper said on September 3, citing intelligence reports it reviewed.
Alay’s trips came less than two years after Puigdemont’s government held an independence referendum in October 2017 that passed with overwhelming support as anti-separatist voters largely boycotted it.
Spanish authorities declared the referendum illegal and imprisoned those political leaders who did not -- like Puidgdemont -- flee abroad. The European Union also declared the referendum illegal.
Alay and Puigdemont confirmed the trips to Moscow, which have not been previously reported, but insisted they were part of regular outreach to foreign officials and journalists. The finding by The New York Times suggested there was more to the visits to Moscow.
Alay told the paper that any suggestion that he was seeking Russian assistance was “a fantasy story created by Madrid.” No charges have been filed against the separatists with respect to their meetings in Moscow.
Western nations have accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of seeking to sow disruption in the West by supporting divisive political movements and support of the Catalan separatists would fit into that strategy, the paper said.
However, there is no evidence that the Kremlin provided assistance to the Catalan separatists, The New York Times said.
The paper pointed out that Tsunami Democratic, a secretive Catalonian protest group that disrupted operations at Barcelona’s airport and cut off a major highway linking Spain to northern Europe in 2019, emerged shortly after Alay's trip to Moscow.
It noted that intelligence reports say Alay played a key role in its creation, an allegation he rejects.
Alay also denied intelligence reports that just three days after the large-scale protests began in Barcelona, the capital of Catalonia, he discussed the region’s independence movement at a meeting with two Russians close to Putin.
He confirmed meeting in Barcelona with the two officials -- including a colonel in Russia’s Federal Protective Service, which oversees security for Putin -- but said it was only to “politely” greet them at the request of his Russian acquaintance Aleksandr Dmitrenko.
Intelligence reports claim that Dmitrenko, a Russian businessman who is married to a Catalan woman, had been helping Alay seek financial and technical assistance in Moscow for the creation of banking, telecommunications, and energy sectors separate from Spain.
The 33-year-old Dmitrenko sought Spanish citizenship but was rejected because of his Russian contacts, according to a Spanish Justice Ministry decision, The New York Times said.
The decision said Dmitrenko “receives missions” from Russian intelligence and also “does different jobs” for leaders of Russian organized crime.
Dmitrenko did not respond to the paper's requests for comment.