The war in Ukraine can have spillover effects more than 4,000 kilometers away. For a few weeks, Portugal has witnessed a political storm over the management of the reception of refugees in some municipal chambers, which have delegated assistance in the hands of Russian citizens settled in the country. The main focus of the crisis is in Setúbal (123,000 inhabitants), governed in the minority by the Unitarian Democratic Coalition (CDU), an electoral alliance of the Portuguese Communist Party and the Los Verdes Party, which has left part of the reception process in hands of the Association of Immigrants from Eastern Countries (Edinstvo), founded by Igor Khashin, former president of the Russian Cultural Center in Portugal, according to the weekly Expresso.
This morning agents of the Judicial Police, which depends on the State Attorney General’s Office, carried out searches in the municipal offices of Setúbal, where the displaced from the war are received and where Khashin and his wife, Yulia Kashina, hired by the Municipal Chamber of Setúbal before the Russian invasion, they have cared for about 160 Ukrainians since the beginning of the conflict. Several displaced persons assured that their documents were photocopied and they were asked for information about them and their relatives who were still in Ukraine. The Portuguese press notes that Khashin has good relations with the Kremlin. In 2014 he defended the annexation of the Crimean peninsula by Russia and it was also the year that he organized a meeting of Russian emigrants in Europe in Lisbon.
The news jumped after the alert launched in an interview in April by the Ukrainian ambassador to Portugal, Inna Ohnivets, about the infiltration of Russians in refugee care programs in various locations. Despite the fact that Portugal is the European country farthest from Ukraine, since the beginning of the crisis it has received more than 34,000 people, according to data from the Foreigners and Borders Service (SEF). The president of the Association of Ukrainians in Portugal, Pavlo Sadoka, considers that these anomalies occur in several Portuguese cities, in addition to Setúbal. Sadoka sent a letter to the Portuguese Administration reporting “suspicious connections that could be used to collect information and personal data, which would then be provided to the Russian Embassy.”
The President of the Republic, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, has requested that the refugee reception network be thoroughly investigated throughout the country to prevent their data from ending up in the wrong hands. Some Administration investigations are already underway in different organizations such as the National Data Protection Commission or the Foreigners and Borders Service, which had a collaboration agreement with Khashin’s association that has now been suspended.
For his part, the president of the Municipal Chamber of Setúbal, André Martins, blamed the Government for what happened. “If there is something that has not worked well and, specifically, if this association is one of those considered pro-Putin, the Government should have informed the Chamber of Setúbal and all the chambers [ayuntamientos] who have these problems. It is up to the Government to clarify this situation,” Martins said in a newspaper interview Public.
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The opposition in Setúbal, the Socialist Party and the Social Democratic Party, have indicated that they do not rule out submitting their resignation en bloc to force the fall of the local government (five representatives of the CDU against four socialists and two from the center-right) and the holding of new municipal elections. This path, however, seems difficult to prosper after the disagreement between the two forces that has been evidenced in recent days. PS and PSD have also announced motions of censure with some differences in criteria. The Socialists propose a commission of investigation on assistance to Ukrainian refugees in Setúbal, while the center-right demands in its proposal the resignation of the president of the Municipal Chamber, André Martins.
The matter triggered the memory of what happened last year in the Municipal Chamber of Lisbon, which was then chaired by the socialist Fernando Medina, current Minister of Finance in the Government of António Costa. The institution provided personal data of the organizers of a demonstration in favor of Russian opponent Alexei Navalni to the Russian Embassy in Portugal. Following an investigation, the Data Protection Commission concluded that 225 breaches had been committed, as it was discovered that similar information from protesters had been provided to the Embassies of Angola, China, Iran and Saudi Arabia, among other countries. The Lisbon Chamber was sentenced to pay a fine of 1.25 million euros.
The episode of the Ukrainian refugees in Setúbal has also increased the pressure on the Portuguese Communist Party, isolated since Russia invaded Ukraine for its position in this conflict. The communist deputies were absent from the Assembly of the Republic on April 21 during the intervention by videoconference of the president of Ukraine, Volodímir Zelenski, whom they criticized for his references to April 25, 1974, the coup d’état of the Portuguese captains that overthrew a 48-year dictatorship. The PCP defends that it is against the war, but refuses to use the word “invasion” and is very critical of Zelensky, whom it accuses of persecuting communists in Ukraine and incorporating neo-Nazi battalions into the Army.
The radicalization of the campaign against the position of the centenary Portuguese Communist Party has led the Prime Minister, António Costa, to warn that he will not encourage in Portugal “a climate of Witch hunt”. “The deep divergence that the Government maintains with the position of the PCP regarding the conflict in Ukraine is clear, but to go from divergence to outlawing it is something absolutely inconceivable in a democratic state of law and in a democratic regime to which the PCP contributed a lot. ”, said the prime minister.