Did Russia Fuel Separatism in Spain? Catalan Leader Says It's 'Fake News'

Catalonia's embattled former leader Carles Puigdemont says claims Russia attempted to stoke tensions in Spain by supporting Catalan separatism are "fake news."

"There were a lot of fake news reports on the issue…. However, we should only pay attention to hard evidence and facts. There are no specific facts indicating that this could be true," Puigdemont told reporters during a press conference in Berlin on Wednesday, where he addressed a number of issues including Russian interference.

The statement directly contradicted the findings of a January 2018 Senate Committee on Foreign Relations report, which alleged Russia had carried out a campaign of disinformation during a 2016 referendum on whether Catalonia should declare independence from Spain.

"Russia-based criminal organizations have reportedly been active in Catalonia for years, building their influence in politics and business and working to exploit rivalries between regional and national law enforcement entities," the report reads. "There is also an increasing body of evidence that Kremlin-run news outlets like RT and Sputnik, reinforced by bots and fake social media accounts, carried out a disinformation campaign during Catalonia's independence referendum in October 2016."

Puigdemont is being charged with rebellion in Spain for allowing the 2016 independence referendum to take place. Madrid considers the referendum illegal, but the Catalan leadership allowed it to go forward anyway.

The previous Spanish government, led by the recently deposed leader of Spain's conservative Popular Party, Mariano Rajoy, sent the civil guard and the military to stop people from voting. The intervention helped bolster already existing nationalist sentiment in Catalonia after images emerged of Spanish police dragging old women and others away from the ballot boxes.

According to the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, the discord opened the door for Russian meddling in the region.

"The referendum was driven by decades-long domestic political, cultural, and economic issues, but it also presented Moscow with an opportunity to promote an outcome that would weaken a major EU state," the Senate report reads. Spain's former defense and foreign minister also claimed to have "proof" that Russian groups had used social media to drum up support for Catalan separatism, and they claimed to have discussed the issue with the Kremlin.

Some Spanish pundits suggested that Catalan separatism could be used by the Kremlin to legitimize its support for separatism in countries that border Russia like Ukraine and Georgia.

People who voted in the referendum were overwhelmingly in favor of Catalonia's independence, but only around 43 percent of voters are estimated to have gone to the polls. Many of those who want Catalonia to remain within Spain boycotted the vote. Shortly after the referendum took place, Madrid dissolved Catalonia's government and began jailing the region's political leadership. Six members of the former Catalan government are currently in jail in Spain, also on rebellion charges.

Puigdemont and several other Catalan leaders fled to Belgium, where they remained free under court-imposed conditions. But he was detained in Germany in March on a European arrest warrant while traveling back to Belgium after a trip to Finland. A German judge determined that Puigdemont could be extradited back to Spain to face charges for misuse of public funds, but that he could not be charged with rebellion because there is no equivalent crime under German law.

If extradited, Spain would have been barred under European law from charging Puigdemont with rebellion. Spain's new socialist government recently withdrew the arrest warrant as a result.

Speaking Wednesday, Puigdemont said he plans to return to Belgium and continue the fight for Catalonia's independence from there.

Did Russia Fuel Separatism in Spain? Catalan Leader Says It's 'Fake News' | World