Mike Collier in Riga -
Two men talking in a bar is just two men talking in a bar – unless one of them writes the word "Institute" on a piece of paper, in which case they become a think-tank.
That's pretty much all it takes to become an international centre of analysis and insight these days, and while the likes of the Brookings Institute or Chatham House have decades of genuine academic experience behind them, the marketplace for policy expertise is essentially unregulated.
So when a think-tank called the Center for Eurasian Strategic Intelligence (CESI) reported on December 12 that Russia was planning to provoke unrest in eastern Latvia next year, several Latvian and other news sources carried the story, including lengthy excerpts of CESI's warning that “Moscow is likely to stage a destabilizing operation in Latvia in spring 2015.”
“The operation is not aimed at annexation of territories, but pursues a goal of creating temporary trouble spots, triggering Latvian authorities’ tough actions on suppressing secessionism in these territories. As a result, Moscow expects the operation to give an impetus to Latvia’s authorities to revise the Russian-speaking population policy, introduce zero-citizenship, lift the existing restrictions on Russian language use, thus enabling to enlarge the number of pro-Russian forces in power," CESI claimed in its less than perfect English.
However, on social media several people noticed that something was not quite right with CESI, even beyond its clunky prose.
Origin of the specious
Despite claiming to be based in London, its title is spelt "center" in the American fashion rather than the British "centre". The website address http://eurasianintelligence.org/ could easily be confused with the respected news source http://www.eurasianet.org/. And while claiming to have a battery of analysts and experts, the writing style of all CESI reports is curiously reminiscent of the speaking style of Alex Kraus, the only public face of CESI in a series of videos published online, in which he reads monologues of CESI's source-free “analysis” (including some which bear an uncanny resemblance to materials previously produced in more comprehensible fashion by bne Intellinews).
Kraus' nationality is not known, though he speaks with a pronounced accent that may possibly be Czech or Slovak.
Then on the morning of December 15, blogger Anton Shekhovtsov blew the lid on CESI in a damning series of revelations. His research shows that CESI is at best a scam and at worst a clear attempt at stirring ethnic unrest in the eastern Latgale region of Latvia.
Shekhovtsov brilliantly showed that the portrait of CESI founder, the so-called William Fowler, was actually a stock photo and the company address was a mailbox used by numerous offshore companies – many of them with links to Russia.
bne Intellinews attempted to contact some of CESI's amusing-sounding staff, including the Wolverhampton-born, Sandhurst graduate Fowler (a former “advisor to the governments of Columbia and Botswana”) and their Chief Geopolitical Analyst Steven J Hudson, a retired US Army major who “Worked with the humanitarian mission of the USA in Central Asia.”
Eventually, bne Intellinews obtained a statement from Kraus, who claimed Fowler was uncontactable in Paris. "CESI is think tank that was created in response on Russian policy in Europe. Our staff are former officers of military analytic structures from former Eastern European countries (sic)," Kraus said.
"Latvia analysis is made by our analysts based on information of our sources in UK, social network analysis and publication about work of pro-Russian forces in November in Latgalia (sic). Unfortunately they do not speak Latvian," he added. Asked who was paying the bills, Kraus said CESI was "funded as from donations of our founders, as from commercial orders of several business companies in Europe that buy CESI's analysis and forecast of Russian policy and Moscow's reaction on sanctions."
With CESI exposed as at best a scam and at worse a bunch of agents provocateurs, attention now turns to who's behind them. What makes it so interesting is that for all their shambolic amateurism, their reports appear somewhat inconveniently to be rabidly anti-Moscow. There is of course the possibility that they were working to put together a back catalogue of anti-Russian rhetoric before subtly switching sides, but given the lamentable standard of their deception, this sounds a bit like wishful thinking.
Another possibility is that extreme nationalist elements from Latvia or the Latvian diaspora may have been operating a pay-to-print scheme in which they gave CESI cash in return for producing “analysis” portraying the Russian minority in a bad light. CESI's focus in recent days on bashing opposition parties plus writing against the possibility of a directly-elected president both lend weight to the idea – neither being the sort of thing to be of much interest to anyone outside Latvia.
The good news for Kraus and his imaginary friends is that it will only take a visit to the pub and writing the word "Foundation" on a napkin to be reborn in another guise.
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