Now that INTERPOL has elected a Russian police major general as its new vice-president, there are growing hopes that Russian experience can be used to help crack down on international terrorism.

Delegation of Interpol member countries attend a conference during the 85th Interpol General Assembly in Indonesia to discuss terrorism, organized crime and cybercrime, Nov. 7, 2016. Photo: AP

Last week the 85th General Assembly of the International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL) elected a Russian citizen – police major general Alexander Prokopchuk - as the vice president of the organization. Some Russian and Western media outlets have regarded the election as a major political success for Moscow.

In addition, some experts have suggested that the “world police” now has a real need for Russian experience in fighting extremism. What really happened? Has the role of Moscow in fighting international crime really increased?

How Interpol works

Most people believe INTERPOL to be a global secret service whose agents are the planet’s best police officers, busy pursuing criminals all over the globe. This is a popular theme for movies, but in reality, things are very different.

INTERPOL was established in 1923 as a commission to coordinate actions by the member states aimed at fighting international crime. In 1956, the organization adopted a new constitution and received its current title, the International Criminal Police Organization.

At present, INTERPOL is the second largest international organization, after the UN, in terms of the number of member states. There is a division of INTERPOL in every country participating in its work. As a rule, those are agencies by the ministries of internal affairs or similar structures.Thus, in China, the National Central Bureau of INTERPOL is headed by the deputy minister of state security.

INTERPOL’s main functions are concerned with information exchange between the police bodies of separate countries. Its officers’ main weapon is not a handgun but a computer, where various databases are stored.

INTERPOL is busy tracking criminals internationally as well as fighting international crime, terrorism, human trafficking, drug trafficking and other trans-border crimes. The national bureaus’ primary job is to send out notices on the internationally wanted criminals to the law enforcement agencies of their countries as well as collect and systematize information.

 Recommended: "Inside the power struggle within the Russian elite"

In Europe, its functions are duplicated by Europol, a structure serving to coordinate the actions of the European Union’s law enforcement bodies, which was established in 1999 on the basis of the Maastricht Treaty. In addition, Latin America has Ameripol, the youngest among the international police organizations, which was established in 2007.

Recently, INTERPOL has been actively engaged in fighting terrorism. Its officers, as well as their colleagues in Europol, exert every effort to make the information on international extremists, their movements and their contacts in various countries available as quickly as possible to national law enforcement bodies.

Today, INTERPOL’s main priorities are the reduction of the response time to requests from various countries and the creation of the information infrastructure to give police officers in various countries access to information on criminals.

In addition, the  structure carries on a sort of methodological work by organizing international internships for operative officers and distributing the information on the activities of terrorist groups and international crime.

Political dimensions of INTERPOL

Of course, INTERPOL’s work has a political component to it. Thus, given sufficient reasons, any member state can put a criminal on the INTERPOL international wanted list. However, a final decision on that is carried out by the INTERPOL General Secretariat, which regularly turns down a request on the grounds of it being politically motivated.

For instance, in February 2016 a search request for Russian opposition figure and oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky by the National Interpol Bureau of Russia’s Interior Ministry was denied. Interestingly, the decision to deny the request took only one day to be carried out. In contrast, the situation around Boris Berezovsky, another refugee Russian oligarch, who was accused of trying to seize power by force is a good illustration of what INTERPOL is, and what it is not, capable of.

Starting in 2003, the Russian authorities tried to put Berezovsky on the international wanted list. Finally, in 2006, despite the protests by his lawyers, INTERPOL lifted all restrictions on the search for Berezovsky. However, the British court refused to extradite the oligarch to Moscow on the grounds that he had applied for political asylum.

Thus, INTERPOL only coordinates the activity of law enforcement authorities. The states must seek extradition of criminals on their own and, as a rule, every such case is tried individually in the national courts. As a consequence, in the period from 2000 to 2010, over 600 were detained out of 1,500 persons sought by Moscow through INTERPOL, with only 350 extradited to Russia.

A Russian vice-president

Alexander ProkopchukINTERPOL is subject to a collegial directorship. Therefore, the Russian representative, Major General Prokopchuk, will simply lack the power to carry out any “political orders” by the Kremlin. On the other hand, his presence among the leadership of this international organization may have a beneficial effect on its work.

Prokopchuk, a native of Ukraine, has an education that is very unusual for a representative of the Interior Ministry. He is a philologist with a mastery of five languages. Since mid-1990s, he has occupied various posts dealing with international affairs. In the mid-1990s, he was an aide for international affairs to the Russian minister of education and a member of the committee for education of the Council of Europe.

In 1998, he started working in the Federal Tax Service and soon transferred to the tax police, where he headed the department of information and public relations. After the tax police was dissolved, Prokopchuk dealt with international affairs in the economics department of the Interior Ministry, where in 2006 he was appointed to two posts at once. He became chief of the Russian national station for the interaction with Europol and deputy chief of the National Central Bureau of INTERPOL at the Interior Ministry.

Thus, a person who had over ten years of experience of working in INTERPOL, knew the ins and outs of the operation of the international law enforcement institutions and had dealt with international affairs all his life, represented Russia within the International Criminal Police Organization.

By the nature of their service, most Russian law enforcement officers are not often exposed to the work of INTERPOL, but in recent years even the officers of the law enforcement bodies that have little to do with international crime have noticed a growing number of material coming from the National Bureau.

Moreover, Prokopchuk is also credited for the fact that, even under the conditions of substantial chilling of the relations between Russia and the West after the beginning of the Ukraine crisis, he preserved and kept increasing the level of international cooperation in the area of fighting terrorism.

Also read Russia Direct's report: "Terrorism: Inside Russia's Syria campaign and the global fight against extremism"

In particular, before the terrorist attacks in Boston, Paris and Brussels, the Russian special services had shared with their Western colleagues some operative personal information on the extremists who were later involved in the attacks.

Not all such contacts were made through INTERPOL, which became, unfortunately, a possible reason why that materials were not taken into account. The problem is that the national security services that supervise both the counter-intelligence and counter-terrorist activities traditionally are distrustful of each other.

In contrast, INTERPOL and its information have a greater influence on police officers, probably because it shies away from politics. For that reason, one of Prokopchuk’s priorities in his new post must be fighting terrorism through the tools that are available to INTERPOL. They include creating an easier operative access for the police structures throughout the world to the personal information on terrorists, fostering the exchange of information, and controlling the entire process.

Besides Prokopchuk, another new person, Meng Hongwei, formerly head of China’s INTERPOL, came to the organization. With his arrival, many experts predict an escalation of the struggle against corruption, which is currently a focus within China. In contrast, the Chinese internal affairs ministry has less experience in fighting terrorism than their Russian colleagues do. Therefore, Prokopchuk may become a key figure in stepping up the struggle against international terrorism by means of and through INTERPOL.

China's Vice Minister of Public Security Meng Hongwei delivers a campaign speech at the 85th session of the INTERPOL general assembly in Bali, Indonesia, November 10, 2016. Photo: AP

A high-ranking officer of one of the Russian law enforcement agencies, who agreed to give comments on the condition of anonymity, sees Prokopchuk as "a specialist on foreign affairs rather than an operative."

"He knows how to set up operations and can contribute a lot to the work of INTERPOL,” he said adding that Prokopchuk may contribute to fighting international terrorism and foster the exchange of information between different nations.

“Primarily, this concerns the Russian experience in struggling against organized crime and terrorism, which we had faced some 10–15 earlier than the European Union did," the official said. "Today, the main tool in fighting crime is information. And a lot depends on whether INTERPOL will be able to overcome the Russian and European bureaucracies by using the modern technologies and, thus, secure an exchange of data between those who deal with criminals in various countries.”