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          • Year: 2017
          • Serbia is the most important bridge-head for Kremlin in the Balkans

          • Belgrade Centre for Security Policy (BCSP) is presenting an interview with Ferenc Katrein, former Chief Adviser to the Director General of Constitution Protection Office conducted by BCSP Executive Director Predrag Petrovic.

        • Ferenc Katrein has worked for Hungarian National Security Office (NBH) and then for the Constitution Protection Office (AH) between 2000 and 2013. The highest-ranking position he reached during his professional career was Executive Head of Operations, and later he became Chief Adviser to the Director General. He currently lives abroad as a civilian. This interview was conducted in prepartaion for a public debate on legislative reform of the security and intelligence system of the Republic of Serbia.


          Russian diplomacy and intelligence services on the offensive


          In your interview for Index.hu you warned that Russian security-intelligence services are very present in Hungary, operating without any attention/counter measures of Hungarian counterintelligence service. Given the fact that Hungary is EU and NATO member, what is the reason for Hungary to open the door for Russian security services?

          I think it is very difficult to provide an accurate estimation in terms of when the situation has changed. After the election of 2010 we believed that priorities and the information requests could change in favor of even a more pro-Euro-Atlantic direction. Then, surprisingly, we witnessed to the contrary. There was not any visible turning point in counterintelligence, rather our limited capacities must have been used, step by step, for various totally different issues. The traditional cooperation with our partner services has
          been lowered. I think Hungarian services did not literally open their door to the Russian services but that - because of the change of information requests from the political decision-makers - the orientation of their activity has been diverted.


          In what other EU states operations of Russian security services are also critical?

          I am not sure I am aware of the correct answer, but after the Annexation of Crimea and the sanction of EU, it became obvious even for the outsiders that not only Russian diplomacy but their intelligent services "switched gear" to an attacker mode. Their modus operandi is obvious. Leaders of EU countries must learn the meaning of these expressions: hybrid warfare, influence operations, and all kind of active measures in general. The top leaders of the EU simply could not envision a scenario when all these kinds of attacks could resurface again, after the Cold War; consequently their reaction time was extremely slow. Russian services are active not only in the former Communist countries (all of them), but we are well aware of their presence in Greece, Croatia, Germany, France, Belgium, Spain, the Scandinavian countries and in the United Kingdom.


          How strong is the Russian influence in Serbia? Why is Serbia so important for Russia?

          Serbia is very important not only for the Russians but for Turkey and of course for EU/NATO too. Serbia is the last and the most important bridge-head for Kremlin in the Balkan area. The last, highly valued "playground" for him to keep alive their strategic initiative in this region. Pipelines are one of the keywords, but the "traditional" role of the Balkan region in destabilizing the EU is equally of crucial importance. Serbia is also important as a forward intelligence operational base for the Balkan region.


          What channels of influence do Russian security services use in Serbia for achieving their influence? How this influence is manifested (how could it be noticed)?

          I have no current information in Serbia regarding the Russian security services activity. But we are well aware of Russian active measures activities in this country, not only by classic intelligence methods, but by resorting to the old "Komintern" style of influencing media elites, political decision-makers and the intelligentsia. They also try to find contact to the extremist (left or far right) and to use these movements as operational assets. It must be emphasized that it is highly challenging to counter influence operations, because these are in many cases carried out by so-called illegals.


          Serbia between neutrality and foreign influence


          Russians want diplomatic status for Russian members of the Russian-Serbian Humanitarian Center located in Southern Serbia - is this reasonable request? Do you believe that the only purpose of this Center is humanitarian? Could this Center be used for other operations, for example intelligence operations?

          Good questions! As a security officer I am always paranoid. The timing when this Center was established is very interesting to me. I don't clearly understand why a humanitarian center in Serbia (which is not an active conflict zone) needs diplomatic immunity. What I am absolutely sure is that such a facility is a perfect asset in terms of legalizing the presence and movement of intelligence staff, devices and operations, in such a close proximity to Kosovo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro and Macedonia, places of crucial importance for the NATO and the US in their efforts to consolidate the political situation in the Balkans.


          Is it a general rule that military counter-intelligence services in post-communist states are the most conservative, the most pro-Russian?

          Yes, it seems, mainly because public opinion and even political decision-makers are less interested in their activities, believing that these are kind of special military stuff. The example of GRU, now one of the entities in charge of Russian information warfare, provides a clear example of how totally wrong this assumption is.

          In Hungary, after the regime change the services have been decentralized and 5 different services were born, out of which two were military intelligence and counterintelligence and three civilian intelligence services. The military services remained intact. Nobody really cared about them. Hungary joined to the NATO just in 1999 and till and after this fact there was not any significant change inside the structure of these military services. Generally the Military Intelligence Office (KFH), because of their external duties, has very close links with our allies but the leadership of the military counterintelligence, Military Security Office (KBH) preserved the tradition and habits which were learned in Russian military schools during their young ages, still back in the 1970s and 1980s. After 2010 many of these "old-school" leaders got a new chance in the Hungarian security and intelligence community.


          Western intelligence experts believe that Serbian security-intelligence services are Russian proxies, which is only further strengthened by the recent scandal in Macedonia where it was revealed that Serbian agent Goran Zivaljevic and journalist Miroslav Lazanski had led pro-Rusian propaganda. Would you agree that Serbian security-intelligence services are used as a Russian tool? If you agree, please explain.

          Thank you very much for this concrete and provocative question. I can tell you that the security and intelligence community of EU was very open and receptive to the Serbian security service (BIA) in years of 2011. I was the person in charge of organizing and managing the program of the Hungarian EU presidency in the field of internal security services. All of the security services of the EU have supported our intention to invite the BIA experts to our common meeting regarding counter-terrorism issues. It was the first step to try to involve the Serbian partner in concrete cases. I don't know exactly how close the relationship between the Serb and Russian services is but it always depends on the political leaders. Given the fact how deeply the Russian services penetrated Serbia and at the same time how rare the occasions are when we hear about Russian spy scandals in Serbia, one can wonder if there is any correlation.


          Serbia has decided to be militarily neutral country, aspiring to EU membership. How should security-intelligence services of neutral country operate? What should be the relationship with other services?

          I am aware of that the Yugoslavian tradition is to be an independent state, but I think it is the most complicated and unpredictable way. I think, in this case especially intelligence agencies should take into account the old phrase: a country has neither permanent friends nor permanent enemies. It means, it should strive to shape peaceful coexistence with neighboring countries and services as well as with main powers, and at the same time it should strive to gain as much information about their intentions as it is possible. Trust but verify. However, the decision of how this information is put in use is in the hands of the political decision-makers. Meanwhile, I would like to emphasize, that we have no any other reasonable option than to coexist peacefully in this region. We already know too well what happens when we fight each other, for stupid reasons. This leads to nowhere.


          You have been speaking a lot on Russia as a threat to EU. What about China, violent extremism, terrorism, organized crime?  

          Yes, you are right; we must talk about the manifold challenges not only about the Russian influence operations. China is an emerging intelligence power, with a practically unlimited information collection and analysis capacity. And with a special, traditionally Chinese way of thinking, bidding their time, building their strategy stone by stone (step by step), behind the scenes, not fancying spectacular and cathartic moves. In this case we need especially to figure out the right angle of our counterintelligence activity, regarding our rather limited capacities compared to the one of the China. Violent extremism, terrorism and organized crime are phenomena which are frequently intertwined, so we need to find intellectual platform for a more holistic, strategic attitude. This is not police work, this is intelligence. Beside, international cooperation is of utmost importance in these areas. Which leads us back to the question of Russia: until the problem of Russian espionage issues are not fixed in our countries, the willingness of our Western partners to collaborate is going to be extremely low.

          Ferenc Katrein is one of the participants at the BCSP's public debate  supported by the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands through the project "LEGASI - Towards Legislative Reform of the Security and Intelligence System", within the MATRA program. 

        • Tags: state security service, security sector reform, intelligence services, Serbia and Russia, Western Balkans, Predrag Petrović, interview
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