Tuesday, April 17, 2018

The Nikulin file

Amidst the insanity that is closing in around Donald Trump, a seemingly bit player is a Russian named Yevgeniy Nikulin. But while he’s peripheral to the events in the U.S., he’s been a prominent part of the political narrative here, and the growing tug-of-war over whether the country will continue the alignment with the U.S. and Western Europe that it’s built since 1989, or will instead revert to its post-World-War-II position in Russia’s orbit.

As the Guardian reported all the way back in January, 2017, Nikulin was arrested in Prague the previous October (i.e., of 2016) “on an Interpol arrest warrant issued by US authorities.”

The U.S. requested his extradited in connection with various alleged pieces of hacking, including on the site Formspring, used by Anthony Weiner for his public-self-immolation-via-sexting.

But once he was arrested, it turned out that the Russian government wanted him extradited to their country, on allegations from 2009 that he hacked into a bank account and stole 110,000 rubles.
“He was never formally accused at that time. I think the reason is that he was recruited [by the Russian security services],” said Ondrej Kundra, political editor with the Czech weekly magazine Respekt, which has reported that the Russian services offer alleged offenders immunity from prosecution in exchange for collaboration.
At the time of that Guardian article, the expectation was that the Czech Ministry of Justice would make a determination by the end of February—of 2017! That obviously didn’t happen, because last fall there was an article in Respekt about him still being held in Czech prison, and under somewhat unusual conditions. I don’t have the article at hand, but if memory serves, his detention was accompanied by special security measures, not because he was especially dangerous or a flight risk, but because of the sense that somebody might try to do him in while in prison.

(If I can dig up that article, I’ll come back and amend this.)

As it turns out, Nikulin was finally extradited to the U.S. just at the end of last month and has entered a plea of “not guilty” in San Francisco.

We’ll see where his case goes from here and whether and how it ends up being linked with Russian interference in the 2016 election. According to the Guardian last year, “One theory is Nikulin – even if not personally involved in the election hacking – may know other hackers who were.”

But it was also something of a flashpoint here in the Czech Republic.

President Miloš Zeman is not officially anti-EU or anti-NATO, but he plays footsie with political forces in the country that would like to get the country out of one or both structure (there is agitation for a referendum on “Czexit” from the EU). And he definitely makes a big deal of promoting better relations with Russia and China.

The government, on the other hand, was strongly pro-Western under former prime minister Bohuslav Sobotka, and pretty clearly still pro-Western under current premier Andrej Babiš—Babiš plays a little footsie with the same pro-Russia groups as the president, but less overtly.

Zeman had been lobbying for extradition to Russia, while the government was leaning toward extradition to the U.S., but after 17 months of detention there had still been no decision.

Then on March 26th and 27th, U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan was in Prague. It was billed as a private visit, but he met with the prime minister, addressed the lower house of Parliament, and attended a foreign-policy conference in the upper house. (No, we didn't go say “hi”.)

By Friday, March 30th, Nikulin was already in San Francisco, pleading not guilty.

Some people noticed the timing. For instance, the Chancellor (an aide to President Zeman) observed:
If it’s true that a special plane for carrying away Mr. Nikulin landed on Saturday [the 24th, just before Ryan’s arrival] and the Constitutional Court’s decision [regarding an appeal by Nikulin] was handed down on Tuesday, that smells like everything was prepared and planned. I don’t want to cast blame on anyone, but after that, I don’t know if we can really talk about justice. ...
There were rather too many coincidences for me. The third most important politician in the U.S. arrives, a plane for transporting the prisoner is here, the Constitutional Court decides on Tuesday, and the minister’s decision and the whole business is carried out after hours.
In the online commentary site Britské listy, the founding writer Jan Čulík upbraids the entire Czech political scene for treating the Nikulin affair as nothing more than a pissing match between pro-Western or pro-Russian forces on the Czech political scene, without dealing with the substance of the case.
Praguers who support the “West” are celebrating that this “showed” Miloš Zeman, who wanted Nikulin to be returned to Russia, where he probably would have been compelled to work for the Russian secret service. Zeman, Ovčáček [Zeman’s spokesman], and his supporters are enraged that he was handed over to the US.
What’s shocking is that in the power struggle over Nikulin, it seems that nobody in the Czech Republic dealt with the merits of the case and nobody examined whether by chance Nikulin’s human rights were violated. If nothing else, holding an unconvicted person in solitary confinement for several months is absolutely cruel and inhuman treatment of which the Czech Republic should be ashamed.
Worthy thoughts, though Čulík himself says,
Nikulin was a dandy, enjoying himself in the company of the richest and most spoiled children of Moscow’s oligarchs and pro-Putin politicians. He bought and sold expensive sports cars. Allegedly he was barely capable of reading email. It seems highly unlikely that a member of the golden youth would need to boringly occupy himself with a demanding programming task like hacking.
What’s interesting here is that Nikulin’s alleged tech incompetence doesn’t seem to come from any source other than Nikulin’s lawyer, and it is hard to reconcile Čulík’s elevation of that claim with his concern that others aren’t paying enough attention to the facts of the case. The Guardian piece suggests that the Russian government charged Nikulin with hacking long before he (maybe) got mixed up in U.S. election interference.

Čulík has his own framing of Czech politics, in which it’s all a tribal game of each side castigating the other for wanting to subjugate the Czech Republic to the wrong set of foreign powers. “It’s regrettable that Czechs always stand in a deferential bow before anyone who is powerful.” And in service to that framing, he is perhaps too eager to believe that the Nikulin case is all trumped up, rather than having a substantive basis.

The increasing hostility between Russia and the West is creating or exacerbating fault lines through many societies, including here. And on each side of those fault lines, people are wandering around as if in a not-so-fun-house of mirrors, unsure what is real.

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