Sunday, May 19, 2024

Panic. It’s Good For You

 Writing every book is like a purge; at the end of it one is empty ... like a dry shell on the beach, waiting for the tide to come in again

— Daphne du Maurier, born in 1997 when Czechoslovakia was alive with tourism


Is the northern Italian city of Lecco the background for the Mona Lisa?

How frames can change pictures - Transforming the National Gallery, one painting at a time

Panic. It’s Good For You. Jessica Wildfire 

I once wrote a book about a British KGB double agent of the 1950s, and recent spy news is taking me back there. The main difference today is the increased quantity and variety of foreign espionage. During the cold war, Russia’s security services were the major hostile player in the west. But spying, like most international industries, boomed with globalisation. Now Russia is planning a sabotage campaign, China may be an even bigger actor and some smaller powers are joining in. Henry Cuellar, a US Democratic congressman, has just been indicted as an alleged Azerbaijani agent, for instance. (He denies wrongdoing.) Other recent revelations seem straight out of Hollywood: Jan Marsalek, the fugitive Austrian executive of fraudulent fintech company Wirecard, allegedly helped to plot break-ins and assassinations by Russian hit squads in Europe.
Spying looks like an international struggle, but the biggest damage it does is domestic. Fear of espionage, real and imagined, pervades society. Some political parties can turn into fronts for foreign interests. More tragically, entire nationalities risk being stigmatised as fifth columnists. 
All through the cold war, western intelligence agencies undermined their countries’ communist parties. By the 1950s, Britain’s MI5 was keeping 250,000 files on supposed communists and fellow travellers, in a country with few of either. But the biggest efforts were devoted to Italy’s Communist party. The CIA funded Italian anti-communist parties, while British spooks were meddling in Italy’s elections as late as 1976.
Today’s suspected Russian front organisations are certain far-right parties. Recent talk of the far right winning June’s European elections misses the fact that Europe now has two opposed far rights. Some parties, such as Giorgia Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia, are broadly pro-western, while others appear to prefer the Kremlin. That’s how much European politics has shifted in a decade: from left versus right to mainstream versus populist and, now, to national interest versus Russian interest.
Chief pro-Russian suspect is the outfit that just months ago had a shot at becoming the European parliament’s largest single party: Germany’s far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). Always Kremlin-friendly, it may have become something darker. Its top two candidates in June’s elections have become embroiled in espionage affairs. An aide of Maximilian Krah’s was arrested as a suspected Chinese spy, while Petr Bystron was questioned over accusations of taking money from Putin-friendly oligarch Viktor Medvedchuk, who ran a campaign spreading disinformation in Europe. Krah and Bystron deny wrongdoing.
Russia’s presidential administration even drafted a secret electoral strategy for the AfD, reported Der Spiegel. The apocalyptic document, titled “Manifesto of the German Unity Party” — the Kremlin’s suggested new name for the AfD — attacks “illiterate politicians” who drew Germany “into conflict with Russia, a natural ally of our country”. 
Foreign infiltration extends beyond electoral politics. Last month, a German army officer admitted offering military information to Russian authorities. He explained that after watching an AfD-friendly influencer, “probably on TikTok”, he decided to give Russia’s military “advantage”, hoping this would prevent nuclear attacks.
Once a nation starts fretting about foreign spies, it sees them everywhere. In Britain during both world wars, paranoia prompted the internment of blameless German immigrants, including refugees. I grew up in the 1970s still reading children’s stories about heroic British adolescents catching German spies. Yet we now know that Hitler had barely any functioning spies in Britain after the outbreak of war. The paranoia was groundless.
Ever since 9/11, paranoia about foreign influence has stigmatised Muslims. Now, suspicion is turning against Chinese and Russians in New York and Berlin. Beijing feeds western paranoia by sometimes treating “Chinese diaspora communities . . . as a tool to further its political and security interests”, writes Audrye Wong of the University of Southern California.
During the cold war, every time a British official was unmasked as a Soviet spy — a regular, almost ritualised event between 1946 and 1963 — Britons’ trust in their society crumbled a bit more. People in MI6 looked at each other and wondered, “Are you a KGB agent?” Today, each unmasking in western countries has a similar impact. Even if Russian and Chinese spying aims to procure information, its worst effect may be to tear apart civil society. 
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