BRUSSELS – Gathered at a glitzy Dubai resort this week for their annual conference, the leaders of Interpol hoped to emerge from the shadow of the controversy that erupted after Beijing snatched the agency’s Chinese president and unilaterally announced his resignation.
Yet, just weeks later, Interpol appears poised to select as its next president a senior security official from Russia, which has been accused of manipulating the agency’s arrest warrants to harass its enemies.
American and European officials were lobbying behind the scenes to tip a vote on Wednesday away from the Russian candidate, Alexander Prokopchuk. The virulently anti-Russian Ukranian government went public, declaring that Prokopchuk’s candidacy was part of a Kremlin assault on the international order.
For years, the Kremlin has used Interpol to demand the arrest of political enemies who have fled to other countries. This spring, William Browder, a critic of President Vladimir Putin of Russia, live-tweeted his arrest in Spain on a warrant issued in Moscow. He was quickly released, but the incident served as a reminder that Interpol’s vaunted systems remain vulnerable to Kremlin influence.
Despite its portrayal in spy movies as an omnipotent global police force, Interpol has no powers to investigate crimes or to make arrests. Rather, it serves as a sort of United Nations for police leaders and an information clearinghouse to help local authorities catch international fugitives. The police can ask Interpol to approve international warrants, known as red notices, requesting the detention of fugitives around the world.
For more than a decade, Prokopchuk has served in a department of the Russian Interior Ministry that has flooded Interpol with such requests. Interpol has repeatedly rejected warrant applications that it sees as fabricated or baldly political. Undeterred, Russia has sought more of a different type of warrant, known as a diffusion, which is circulated by Interpol but is not subject to its review.
In a telephone interview, Browder described Prokopchuk as a “nameless faceless bureaucrat” who takes orders directly from the Kremlin.
“I can’t imagine a more inappropriate person than a person who has been the architect of the abuse doled out to me by Russia at Interpol,” Browder said at a news conference in London on Tuesday. “This is a perfect way for Putin to basically breathe the fear of God into all of his enemies so they know they can’t even escape Russia if one of his guys is at the head of Interpol.”
Putin’s spokesman, Dmitri Peskov, denounced what he called “a particular kind of interference” in elections at an international organization, according to the Russian state news agency RIA Novosti.
The presidency of Interpol is in many ways a ceremonial position. Nevertheless, elevating a Russian in the face of such criticism would be a public relations coup for Putin.
“If you have an organization where part of the job is to keep the chickens safe, and the head of the organization — OK, he doesn’t really do much, but he’s a fox? It sends a message,” said Michelle Estlund, an American defense lawyer who tracks Interpol. “They can say, ‘Don’t worry, the fox doesn’t really guard the hen house.’ But he’s there.”