Russian Interpol President? 'Like Putting a Fox in Charge of a Hen House,' Experts Say

Widespread public outcry is growing over the possibility that former Russian Interior Ministry official Alexander Prokopchuk could be elected as the president of Interpol, an international organization that facilitates cross-border cooperation between law enforcement agencies.

Critics say that putting a Russian in charge of the organization would give Moscow an easy way to target its political opponents using international institutions. On Monday, a bipartisan group of Senators, including Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) and Marco Rubio (R-FL), called on the Trump administration and the Interpol general assembly to oppose Prokopchuk's candidacy. On Tuesday, Lithuania's Parliament voted unanimously to consider withdrawing from the international organization if Prokopchuk is elected for the role.

Experts say that it is especially inadvisable to give a Russian official special access to information that would allow Moscow to target political opponents and abuse human rights.

"Putting a Russian police general at the Interpol is like putting a fox in charge of the henhouse," Ariel Cohen, a senior fellow at the Washington D.C.-based Atlantic Council, told Newsweek. "Russia has weaponized information and energy, and is now weaponizing Interpol red notices to deal with opponents. Giving Russia access to what Interpol knows about organized crime inside the country and its connections outside the country is unwise to say the least."

Bill Browder, an American financier who is a major critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, has been targeted by Interpol red notices seven times already. In each of these cases, foreign governments chose to release him after they came to the conclusion that Moscow was using red notices to target a political opponent. On Monday, Browder told Newsweek that allowing a Russian to take over Interpol is like "the mafia taking over global law enforcement."

Experts, meanwhile, say that Russia and other authoritarian states have been increasingly using international institutions to go after their enemies, and that this will only get worse if a Russian is put at Interpol's helm.

"In recent years, we've seen increasing but largely covert attempts by authoritarian states to exploit multilateral institutions and democratic systems. Russia's bid to assume the presidency of Interpol may be the boldest example yet of an autocratic regime's efforts to co-opt an international agency premised on the rule of law," Jonathan Reich, an attorney who represents Russian business persons and anti-corruption dissidents who have been targeted via Interpol, told Newsweek.

"While Russia has been roundly criticized for its abuse of red notices and Interpol diffusions, it holds a coveted seat on Interpol's Commission on the Control of Files committee charged with reviewing appeals of the very individuals targeted by such abuse," Reich continued. "If Russia successfully assumes the Interpol presidency, it will have an effective monopoly over that institution's mission, strategy, implementation and appeals process."

At a press conference in London on Tuesday, Browder said that he expects the U.S. will not back Prokopchuk's nomination. But opposition from Washington may not be enough to block the Russian's nomination.

"From what I understand there is wholehearted support in the U.S. government and other governments in Europe not to have to have this individual from Russia appointed. The way I understand the issue though is that every country has a vote and that vote is equal, and so the U.S. vote is equal to that of Tajikistan and there are 192 members of Interpol," Browder told Newsweek on Tuesday.

"I would imagine that the lobbying that Russia is doing is similar to the lobbying that they were doing when they created illegitimate victories in getting the World Cup located in Moscow through FIFA, through the cheating they did at the International Olympic Committee. Russia loves these international organizations where they can cheat behind the scenes. I can't imagine this would be any different," Browder continued.

On Tuesday, Kremlin officials slammed U.S. senators for "meddling" in the Interpol election process. State Department officials also stressed that there is more than one candidate for the role and that the U.S. will back any nominee who would best protect the rule of law.