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Is Russia interfering in Guatemala’s anti-corruption commission? The real story might surprise you.

Accompanied by Guatemala’s Attorney General Thelma Aldana, Ivan Velasquez, commissioner of the United Nations International Commission Against Impunity (CICIG), speaks at a news conference April 19 in Guatemala City.  (Moises Castillo/AP)

On April 27, the U.S. Congress’s Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the U.S. Helsinki Commission, held a hearing about alleged Kremlin pressures on the U.N. Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), a hybrid legal body that investigates and tries high-level corruption cases.

The backstory here involves the CICIG’s conviction of three Russian nationals — Igor Bitkov, his wife Irina and their daughter Anastasia — for identity fraud. The Bitkovs claim they face Russian government persecution.

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Some members of Congress seem to agree that the CICIG has become a tool of Russian President Vladimir Putin. On May 4, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) announced a hold on $6 million in U.S. contributions to Guatemala’s CICIG.

The twists and turns of this case illustrate the unintended consequences of heightened concerns about Russian interference. There is little evidence to suggest the CICIG has become part of the Russian state’s “long arm.” But the allegations of Russian interference may effectively doom the CICIG’s anti-corruption mission altogether, by flipping its most consequential source of foreign support: the U.S. government.

The Bitkovs run afoul of Russia — and the CICIG

In 2008, the Bitkov family fled Russia following threats from the Putin-allied VTB Bank, which was pressuring Igor Bitkov to sell shares of his business, North-West Timber Co. The family sought refuge in Guatemala.

In January 2015, Guatemalan authorities arrested the family, along with 36 others, for utilizing a criminal network to obtain fraudulent passports. CICIG and the Guatemalan public prosecutor’s office led the anti-corruption investigation. The trial resulted in a 19-year prison sentence for Igor, and 14 years each for Irina and Anastasia.

Last month, Guatemala’s Constitutional Court ruled that one of the country’s high-impact criminal courts will rehear their case. The case has gotten a great deal of U.S. attention as well. Wall Street Journal columnist Mary Anastasia O’Grady implied that the CICIG is doing Putin’s bidding against the Bitkovs. Rubio and Bill Browder — a U.S. businessman who lobbied for the passage of the Magnitsky Act, to curtail human rights abuses against Russia’s whistleblowers — also suggest a Kremlin-CICIG connection.

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Where’s the evidence that Russian government forces involved the CICIG, though? U.S. and European donors have provided some $90 million, but the CICIG has never received any funding from the Russian government.

One critic points out that VTB’s Guatemalan representative is an alternate judge on the Constitutional Court. Yet this would imply a connection between the Russian bank and Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales, who appointed the judge to the bench. The CICIG, meanwhile, has been no friend to Morales, accusing him of accepting illegal campaign donations.

If there’s no Kremlin-CICIG connection, what’s this really about?

The answer lies in the nature of Guatemala’s internal politics. By labeling the CICIG as a political instrument of the Russian government, Guatemalan political elites are looking to roll back the country’s tough anti-corruption campaign.

As I wrote in the Monkey Cage last September, Morales declared CICIG Commissioner Iván Velásquez persona non grata following corruption probes targeting Morales’s son and brother, among others. Shortly thereafter, Guatemala’s Congress approved changes to the criminal code, which relieved party secretaries of criminal responsibility for campaign finance infractions.

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Popular protests forced Morales and the Congress to reverse both decisions. The CICIG has a broad-based coalition of supporters within Guatemala, which includes sectors as diverse as the traditional economic elite and indigenous organizations. This widespread trust has left anti-CICIG efforts within Guatemala frustrated at every turn. 

Opponents targeted the commission’s greatest external supporter 

By alleging ties between the CICIG and the Kremlin, Guatemalan opponents of the Commission saw a new strategy to undermine CICIG support from the U.S. government. Since 2008, the United States has provided roughly half of the Commission’s $12 million to $15 million annual budget.

With the election of President Trump, the Morales administration perceived an opportunity to diminish U.S. support for the CICIG, particularly given the two presidents’ mutual distrust of the United Nations.

In December, Guatemala was one of only two countries to follow Trump’s decision to shift the embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. At the time, many analysts interpreted Guatemala’s move as an effort to curry favor with the Trump administration, and then seek to taper its support for the CICIG. However, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley’s February visit to Guatemala affirmed the administration’s endorsement of the Commission.

The U.S. Congress has been even more staunch in its support — in the past. In response to the attempt to ouster Velásquez, members on both sides of the aisle threatened to cut economic assistance if the Guatemalan regime did not support the CICIG’s efforts. When Guatemala tried to change the criminal code, a bipartisan congressional delegation chided Guatemala’s political leadership in a closed-door session.

But the Bitkov case is a new twist, and there are new critics of the CICIG in the U.S. Congress. Helsinki Commission co-chairman Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.) said that what happened to the Bitkovs “raise[s] grave questions about why the CICIG would pursue — with such vindictiveness — a family that sought safety in Guatemala.” The calls to cut funding for the CICIG have followed. 

Russian interference or not, what’s worrisome is the bottom line for the CICIG

The accusations have provided CICIG opponents in Guatemala an opening to sabotage the CICIG itself — and curb Guatemala’s struggle against corruption and impunity. The Bitkovs’ lawyers, for instance, concede that there are forces within Guatemala that have “taken advantage” of their conviction to promote an anti-CICIG agenda and, ultimately, threaten progress toward strengthening the rule of law.

But the Bitkov case is emblematic of another troubling reality. As concerns over Russian interference in the political affairs of other countries continue to mount, so, too, will the opportunities for political actors to seize on conspiracies that appear to involve the Kremlin, as a means of furthering their own interests.

It’s not difficult to imagine similar scenarios unfolding elsewhere in the world. The suggestion of a Kremlin plot, no matter how spurious, can easily play into the hands of entrenched political interests. Perhaps this is the greatest lesson of the Bitkov case: Efforts to expose and punish Russian interference can have a dark underside.

Rachel A. Schwartz is a PhD candidate in political science at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.