Why the arrested spies are close to far-right parties

The biggest disinformation website had contacts with Russians and Kočner.

Marian KotlebaMarian Kotleba (Source: TASR)

Pro-Russian informer Bohuš Garbár donated €10,000 to the extremist ĽSNS in 2016. Another man detained over his contacts with Russians, Jozef Mihalčin, worked as the assistant of MP Miroslav Suja, when Suja was an ĽSNS MP.

Several people detained by the police due to their collaboration with Russian secret services were close to the far right ĽSNS of Marian Kotleba. After the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Kotleba's party continues to downplay the responsibility of Vladimir Putin's regime for the war in Ukraine. In the past, the police investigated suspicions that ĽSNS was taking money from the Russians.

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Garbár used to write for the disinformation website Hlavné Správy, the onetime biggest one in the segment, recently suspended by the National Security Authority (NBÚ) due to its circulation of disinformation about the war in Ukraine.

ĽSNS used to have a privileged position on this website: it would publish its statements without context. Hlavné Správy also continued to provide generous room to ĽSNS renegades in the new party, Republika.

Jakub Goda, an expert on countering disinformation and marketing specialist, "infiltrated" the website and wrote a dozen articles for them under a fake identity, which gave him insight into how the website operated. He now says that the link between Russian secret services, the disinformation websites, and extremist parties does not surprise him.

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"The Russian Federation wants to weaken countries by eroding the citizens' trust in their own state," he said. "It is the political agenda of extremists and, at the same time, content for disinformation websites that spread various conspiracy theories."

Russians and extremists

The Denník N daily published a leaked video showing Sergey Solomasov, the former military attache at the Russian Embassy in Bratislava, as tasking Bohuš Garbár of Hlavné Správy how to gain contacts and information. It is one piece of evidence that the police investigators are using in the spy case.

According to Police Corps President Štefan Hamran, Garbár served as an intelligence asset for agents of the Russian military intelligence service GRU, which had worked in Slovakia under the diplomatic cover of the Russian Embassy, since April 2021.

"I need political information, communication among countries, from within NATO, within the EU, Bratislava and other countries," Solomasov tells Garbár on the leaked video.

Garbár would collect highly sensitive information in exchange for bribes from Moscow. He confessed to the crime.

ĽSNS spokesperson Martin Beluský reacted that they could not have known about Garbár's activities, because they had not been in contact with him for years. Russian agents recruited Garbár in April 2021.

Suja's onetime assistant Mihalčin was trying to gain information from classified parts of the Slovak Information Service (SIS) and Military Intelligence annual reports, according to the investigators' findings so far.

He has not been charged yet, and was released from detention.

ĽSNS faced suspicions before

Suja, now an member of the Republika party, refuted the cooperation with Russian secret services, and said he would give his former assistant a life sentence or even death sentence.

"If he is guilty, let him go to prison. If he betrayed Slovakia, let it be a life sentence. Let us pass a death sentence, I have no problem with it," Suja said.

At the time when Mihalčin worked for Suja and Garbár donated money to ĽSNS, the German public-service television ZDF got hold of thousands of leaked e-mails from pro-Kremlin Russian businessman Konstantin Malofeev. It followed from the e-mails that Malofeev indirectly financed anti-American and anti-NATO demonstrations in central Europe, and that he financially supported ĽSNS through Belarusian businessman Alexander Usovskij.

The suspicions have not been proved.

Both then and now, Kotleba denied the claims that his party would receive money from Russia.

"Our party serves only Slovakia and is financed only from Slovak sources, from state sources, from the sources of sympathisers and members and not Russia, not America," Kotleba said in parliament on March 15.

Goda noted that Russian oligarchs and people with ties to the Kremlin are cooperating with anti-system parties.

"The Russian government benefits from the polarisation of society in the countries that Kremlin now openly labels its enemies. This is achieved when a large part of the electorate leans to radical parties, loses the trust in the state and desires a radical change of the system," Goda says.

Garbár's Hlavné Správy

For years, the modus operandi of the Hlavné Správy website has been mixing Slovak newswire sources with their own articles, which often peddled various conspiracy theories and disinformation. The NBÚ recently temporarily banned the website in connection with the war in Ukraine.

When Goda contacted the website in the past by using a fake name, Hlavné Správy published an article that he sent them, with a story that he entirely made up about a newly-elected Muslim mayor of a city in New Jersey who wanted to ban the word "Christmas". It took them half a day to withdraw the article, without an apology to the readers.

In the past, Hlavné Správy became of interest to the convicted criminal, then businessman Marian Kočner, who is facing a re-trial in the murder case of journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kušnírová. The prosecutor believes that he ordered the murder. In the aftermath, Kočner used Hlavné Správy as a channel to downplay the importance of the protests that followed, and intended to use the website to promote a political party that he wanted to start. The messages leaked from Kočner's phone suggest that he supported the website financially.

"Thanks for the support that arrived to the account," website head Róbert Sopko wrote to Kočner.

The website now distanced itself from Garbár's activities, saying that they did not know about his contacts with the Russian secret services, and that his contributions did not concern Russia.

Goda admits that it is possible they did not know that their contributor had been recruited by the Russian secret agents, but he believes that it is more probable that the website makes room for articles by Russian collaborators, being aware of their identity.

"My example also shows that the operation of Hlavné Správy is amateurish, and that they do not check on their contributors and the nonsense they are spreading. But I presume that they knew about it. Since the annexation of Crimea, they have been automatically disseminating Russian narratives and their contacts with the Russian institutions are well known," Goda said.

Cooperation with the Russians

For instance, one author of the disinformation magazine Zem a Vek, Ratko Sudecky, slipped up on Facebook in 2018 and revealed that Yevgeni Paltsev wrote for Hlavné Správy under the pseudonym of Eugen Rusnák, spreading Russian propaganda.

There were pictures on Facebook showing Paltsev in contact with people from the Russian media group Rossija Segodnya, financed from the Kremlin. He also had a meeting in the building of the Sputnik agency.

A few months ago, Sopko denied receiving any significant funds from the Russian Embassy. He said that in 2021, they published PR articles for the Russian Embassy for €625 and in 2020 for €833, while in that year, the revenues of the website reached about €274,000.

Goda sees the ties between Russian secret services, disinformation websites and anti-system parties as logical. Disinformation websites evoke the feeling in people that nobody and nothing can be trusted, thus building the electorate for anti-system parties.

Confused citizens and a strong anti-system in politics is beneficial for Russia.

"It's apparent from observation that people who claim that they no longer trust anything are typically willing to believe even in the wildest conspiracies, including the war in Ukraine," said Goda.

©Sme

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