The banner of the European Alliance of Tatars (ATA), an array of yellow stars on a field of blue, resembles the symbolism of the European Union. But the organization, which purports to be an umbrella group for ethnic Tatar communities in European countries, is really just a group of pro-Moscow individuals.
The ATA is a project of the Russian government, one of many being created under the "Russian World" rubric to boost the Kremlin's soft power in Europe. The Foreign Ministry has established a Foundation for Supporting and Protecting the Rights of Compatriots Abroad to implement this initiative, working in close cooperation with Rossotrudnichestvo, the Russian government aid agency that is tasked with "forming a positive image of Russia abroad."
"The people from the alliance are trying to sit in two chairs at once," says Adas Jakubauskas, head of the Union of Tatar Organizations in Lithuania. "They are registered in Brussels, but the money comes from the foundation for compatriots of Russia."
Earlier this month, the ATA -- or Auropa Tatarlari Alyansi -- held its fourth-annual "expanded meeting" in the Czech city of Brno.
The main guests at the Brno forum -- aside from around 40 self-proclaimed representatives of Tatar communities -- were Aleksandr Budayev, Russia's consul-general in Brno; Nikolai Barabanov, an official of the Russian Foreign Ministry's department for compatriot affairs; Oleg Solodukhin, deputy head of the Rossotrudnichestvo office in the Czech Republic; and Vyacheslav Yelagin, an adviser to the Foreign Ministry's compatriots foundation.
The meeting's final resolution profusely thanks the Russian Embassy and Rossotrudnichestvo, the Russian government aid agency that is tasked with "forming a positive image of Russia abroad."
The resolution's fourth point states: "We understand clearly that the successful conduct of all our European enterprises would be much more difficult without the organizational, informational, and financial support of the Foreign Ministry's Department for Working With Compatriots Abroad."
'Not Our Organization'
"That is why we are not on the same path with them," Jakubauskas of the Lithuanian Tatar community adds. "We advise members of Tatar communities not to participate in the work of the Alliance of European Tatars. It is not our organization."
Jerzy Shakhunevich, head of the Tatar Cultural Center in Poland, agrees.
"This alliance is a political structure," he told RFE/RL. "I have not found anyone in any country who contributed money. So, for instance, how did they travel to Poland for their meeting? Who paid for their tickets? Moscow. For what reason does Moscow pay for this?"
Over the years, the ATA has received support from various Russia-friendly members of the European Parliament. Lithuanian MEP Valdemar Tomasevski helped to organize the ATA's first congress at the European Parliament in April 2013. Tomasevski's party, the Electoral Action of Poles in Lithuania, routinely forms election alliances with the Lithuanian Russian Union. It has also been supported by Latvian MEP Tatyana Zdanoka, a former Soviet communist who campaigned actively against Latvia's independence from the Soviet Union. She served as an "international observer" of the unrecognized 2014 Russia-organized referendum in the Ukrainian Black Sea region of Crimea that was used by Moscow as a pretext to annex the peninsula.
Wary Of The ATA
Most of Europe's Tatars are Volga, or Kazan, Tatars with roots in Russia's Tatarstan. Although they are sympathetic with their ethnic kin from Crimea, the Crimean Tatars, they have a history of generally shunning political positions. This is one reason they are wary of the ATA, which has participated in Moscow-directed activities that promote Russia's narratives.
The ATA is just one part of an assertive effort by the Russian government to develop a network of Kremlin-friendly organizations around the world, but particularly in Central and Western Europe.
Speaking to a World Conference of Compatriots in Moscow in November 2015, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the Russian World initiative is "an unconditional foreign-policy priority for Russia" and praised the "consolidation" of the Russian world and its "democratically functioning" organizations.
"The anti-Russian actions of Washington and Brussels, including the introduction of unilateral restrictions, have not impacted our dialogue with these communities, which have duly responded to these developments and voiced their support to Russia," Lavrov said.
In addition to such ethnic organizations as the ATA, Lavrov stressed the synergistic role of Moscow's support of Russian-language media abroad, brought together in the Foreign Ministry's World Association of Russian Press (WARP).
"It is hard to overestimate the role of media outlets in our cooperation with these communities," Lavrov said. "The work of the WARP Foundation for Cooperation with Russian-Language Media is in particularly high demand."
The Russian World policy made itself felt dramatically in Germany in January when an obscure Russian group came out with the claim that a 13-year-old girl from a Russian immigrant family had been abducted and raped by asylum-seekers. The story was later proven a fabrication, but only after Russian-state media and Russian-language media in Germany gave it prominent play and thousands of mostly Russian-speaking demonstrators came out into the streets of Berlin.
Speaking to Bloomberg, Joerg Forbrig of the German Marshall Fund said the so-called Lisa Affair was an attempt to "weaponize" electoral politics inside the EU and undermine the government of Chancellor Angela Merkel. "The Lisa Affair was a real eye-opener," Forbrig is quoted as saying.
WATCH: Fake Rape Story Exposes Russian Media Manipulation
A report out this month by Britain's Chatham House highlights the creation of Kremlin "proxy groups" in Central Europe. "Russian pseudo-NGOs undermine the social cohesion of the neighboring states through the consolidation of pro-Russian forces and ethno-geopolitics; the denigration of national identities; and the promotion of anti-U.S., conservative Orthodox [Christian], and Eurasianist values," the report states. "They can also establish alternative discourses to confuse decision-making where it is required, and act as destabilizing forces by uniting paramilitary groups and spreading aggressive propaganda."
The 2015 report of Estonia's Internal Security Service emphasizes the Kremlin's "attempts to exploit the Russian diaspora."
"Instead of supporting Russian-speaking people, the Kremlin has decided to use the slogan of 'compatriot policy' to instigate segregation and undermine integration," the report says. "To increase its influence, Putin's regime use real and imaginary problems and sensitive topics alongside its soft power."
The same report notes Russia's funding "to create new media resources abroad, including in Estonia."
The ATA is an example of the Kremlin's Russian World policy in action, one that was specifically mentioned by Lavrov in his speech to the World Conference of Compatriots, emphasizing that it was created by the Russia-based World Tatar Congress. In 2014 it was registered in Brussels and is headed by an ethnic Tatar living in Lithuania named Flyur Sharipov. In the ATA application, Sharipov presented himself as the head of the Nur Tatar association in Klaipeda, which he listed as a founding organization of the ATA.
This prompted the chairman of Nur to write Sharipov a letter in March 2016 -- a copy of which is in RFE/RL's possession -- saying that Nur had no information about the ATA and was never represented there.
'Stole Our Idea'
Nonetheless, the ATA is registered with the European Union as representing the Tatar communities of Europe. Such registration opens the door for the ATA to fulfill the 11th point of the resolution adopted this month in Brno.
"We will submit our projects in a timely fashion to various foundations of the European Union that provide financial support for the ethnocultural movement," the resolution reads.
Judging by the past, those projects are unlikely to have much to do with promoting Tatar culture or language. Speaking at the Brno meeting, Russian Foreign Ministry official Barabanov praised the ATA's activity in projects aimed at emphasizing Moscow's version of the Soviet role in World War II, such as handing out orange-and-black St. George ribbons.
The story of the ATA is disappointing to Lithuanian-Tatar activist Jakubauskas. He says Europe's Tatars really could benefit from a continental organization and that Tatar groups from the Baltic states had begun discussing forming one when the ATA came along.
"We wanted to create a genuinely European, pro-European organization. Unfortunately, they stole our idea and created this organization instead," he says. "But I emphasize once again -- it is registered in Brussels but financed from [Russia]. For us, that is unacceptable."