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Interpol Might Get A Russian President, But His Clout Seen As Limited

Major General Aleksandr Prokopchuk would face significant bureaucratic hurdles to pushing Moscow’s interests in the global police organization, experts say.
Major General Aleksandr Prokopchuk would face significant bureaucratic hurdles to pushing Moscow’s interests in the global police organization, experts say.

The potential election of a Russian official to Interpol's presidency has outraged Kremlin critics, including a group of senior U.S. senators who say installing one of Moscow’s own at the global police clearinghouse would be "akin to putting a fox in charge of a henhouse."

But should Interpol elect senior Russian Interior Ministry official Aleksandr Prokopchuk to the post in an expected November 21 vote in Dubai, his influence on the everyday operations of the organization is likely to be minimal, according to experts.

The same would go for any Interpol president, they say.

"The president of Interpol is more or less an honorary role, and has been so since its reformation post-World War II," Adam Masters, a lecturer at Australian National University and a veteran of Interpol's National Central Bureau for Australia, tells RFE/RL.

The dustup over Prokopchuk's Kremlin-backed candidacy follows years of accusations by rights groups and Western officials that Russia is targeting political opponents with so-called "red notices" and "diffusions" that alert fellow member states that a certain individual is wanted for arrest.

The most prominent of these allegations have involved British investor Bill Browder, a former Moscow-based investor who has become a Kremlin archenemy with his crusading for Western sanctions against Russian officials over rights abuses.

Russia has repeatedly tried and failed to secure Browder's arrest using Interpol, most recently in Spain, where he was briefly detained in May. He has accused Interpol of being "incapable of stopping Russian abuse of their system."

In a November 19 statement, four U.S. senators accused Prokopchuk, a 56-year-old police major general who has led Interpol's National Central Bureau in Moscow since 2011, of being "personally involved in this intimidation strategy which ultimately seeks to weaken democratic institutions and embolden [Russian President Vladimir] Putin's authoritarian regime."

But academics and attorneys with expertise in the workings of Interpol say that Prokopchuk would face significant constraints in trying to push Moscow's interests should he be elected.

"Interpol is a very structured organization, and built into it are a lot of checks and balances that limit the ability of any one individual, however important or influential, to make unilateral decisions on behalf of the organization," Jacques Semmelman, a former assistant U.S. attorney and an expert on international extraditions, tells RFE/RL.

'Political Influences'

At the center of the controversy over Russia's use of Interpol are red notices -- requests, vetted by Interpol, for the provisional arrest of individuals pending extradition -- and so-called diffusions, similar requests that member states send directly to other countries, sidestepping Interpol review.

The number of these notifications issued annually has skyrocketed -- from 1,077 red notices in 2000 to 13,048 last year, and from 5,333 diffusions to 50,530 in the same time period.

Michelle Estlund, a Miami-based attorney who runs the Red Notice Law Journal website, has attributed this sharp rise to the introduction of an Interpol computer network in 2009 that the organization says allows members to "directly issue red notices rather than requesting them through the general secretariat."

Estlund, an outspoken critic of Russia's use of red notices, says it is unlikely that Prokopchuk could exert control or influence over Interpol's Commission for the Control of Files (CCF), a body that deals with complaints from individuals over red notices they allege are abusive, and which ruled against Russia in Browder's case.

The CCF "generally has done a very good job of keeping itself isolated from the more political influences of the rest of Interpol," she tells RFE/RL.

The president of Interpol heads its executive committee, where Prokopchuk has served as a vice president since 2016.

That body is tasked with setting "organizational policy and direction" and "supervising the execution of the decisions of the general assembly," which meets once a year and has the final say on major policy decisions.

Interpol says its secretary-general -- currently former senior German police official Jurgen Stock -- is "effectively the organization's chief full-time official."

Meg Stalcup, an anthropologist at the University of Ottawa who has written about Interpol, says the secretary-general has "much, much more power" than the president.

"The role of the president usually has more to do with member nations claiming and acknowledging status than exerting influence on day-to-day operations," Stalcup tells RFE/RL.

She says that the main levers of influence for the president are procedural in nature, such as determining which issues are placed on a meeting agenda. "For example, no one can speak at the executive committee without the prior authorization of the president, and the president can limit the amount of time that's allowed to each speaker," Stalcup says.

"So you can see how that could lead to controlling what happens at that meeting. It's possible a concerted attempt to control procedure could have some effect."

But Prokopchuk could also face procedural pushback as well.

"Most of the decisions made by the president while presiding a meeting can be opposed and voted upon by the general assembly, or the executive committee, depending on the type of meeting in progress," Giulio Calcara, a lecturer at the University of Eastern Finland who has written extensively about Interpol and global policing, tells RFE/RL.

Secretary-General Jurgen Stock is "effectively the organization's chief full-time official."
Secretary-General Jurgen Stock is "effectively the organization's chief full-time official."

'An Interpol Hat On'

One area of concern about Prokopchuk's potential Interpol presidency would be his role in deciding on potential sanctions for violations of the organization's rules on processing data, says Alex Tinsley, a London-based barrister specializing in extradition, asylum, and Interpol red notices.

In such cases, the general secretariat should submit for decision to the executive committee -- which Prokopchuk would head if elected -- "all proposals to take corrective measures which may result in the long-term suspension" of a member state's access to Interpol mechanisms.

"It's an underused provision, and there's been a lot of calls for the use of sanctions. And ironically one of the countries that has been the subject of such calls is Russia itself," Tinsley tells RFE/RL.

Tinsley says he is also concerned that a "general reform trend" that began around five years ago could face pushback under a new presidency, including efforts to improve transparency concerning evidence in wanted notices and improved protections for refugees.

That effort began under former Interpol President Mireille Ballestrazzi of France, who took office in 2012, but slowed following the election of her successor, Meng Hongwei of China, four years later, Tinsley says.

The election this week was triggered after the resignation of Meng, who went missing in September during a trip to China and who, Beijing later said, was detained as part of an alleged corruption probe.

Tinsley says it was a positive sign when the Interpol executive committee headed by Meng did not push back against the organization's decision in February to lift China's wanted alert for exiled Uighur activist Dolkun Isa. The move angered Beijing, which accuses Isa of being a terrorist.

"One hopes that the Russian president will stand back and approach this role purely with an Interpol hat on, and without regard to the interests of the Russian authorities as such," Tinsley says.

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    Carl Schreck

    Carl Schreck is an award-winning investigative journalist who serves as RFE/RL's enterprise editor. He has covered Russia and the former Soviet Union for more than 20 years, including a decade in Moscow. He has led investigations into corruption, cronyism, and disinformation campaigns in Russia and Central Asia, as well as on poisoning attacks against Kremlin opponents and assassinations of Iranian exiles in the West. Schreck joined RFE/RL in 2014.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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