Wednesday, 15 October 2014 00:00

On the Brink: V for Villainy

UA 4 1 640x427
Photo: Christian Diemer
Artificial waterfalls cascade down the slope at the former residence of toppled Ukrainian 
president Vyktor Yanukovych


In this fourth installment of E&M's exclusive series about the current situation in Ukraine "On the Brink", Christian Diemer takes a trip to the former presidential residence in Mezhyhir'ya, not far from the Ukrainian capital.

A girl in a headscarf is waiting where the buses leave for the president's former residence. "No, I am not going to the residence, I live in Mezhyhir'ya." Ayya, 28, is a refugee from Donetsk. "I always wanted to live in Kyiv once in my life. And my family has come with me. So I am OK with that." Ayya is studying to become a dentist, but the university in Donetsk is no longer functioning. She moved to Kyiv just in time to register for the winter semester, which began a couple of weeks ago. "Well, how do you think the situation is over there?! Terrible." And whose side is she on? Instead of an answer, Ayya points at her backpack, where a blue and yellow ribbon is fixed.

Published in Under Eastern Eyes

For some 20 days straight, tens of thousands of Bulgarians have taken to the streets, protesting against the newly-elected government, in office for only a month. Riots brought down the previous government in February – what has happened to make tensions mount once more?

Published in Contentious Europe

Romania’s progress in restoring the independence of the justice system and rule of law has received an unexpected endorsement from the European Commission in the Co-operation and Verification Mechanism (CVM) report. The somewhat positive findings follow a disastrous evaluation last July, when Europe raised concerns about Romania’s commitment to democracy during a political scandal leading to constitutional breaches from the country’s political leaders.

The document, written in a milder-than-expected tone and numbering just ten pages, shows slight progress in the fact that the Constitution and the Constitutional Court’s decisions are once again respected by politicians. However, there are still numerous areas which need improvement. The question that arises after the release of the report is whether it will give the Romanian government a push in the right direction, or a reason to slack its duties.

Independence of justice – a long way to go

Judging by the balance of highs and lows presented in the CVM evaluation, Romania is far from succeeding in having the Commission’s monitoring of its judicial system removed. The monitors find there is still significant political pressure on the judicial system, and the independence of judges remains a problem. The report also shows the government failed to apply part of the ten recommendations EC president Jose Manuel Barroso gave Prime Minister Victor Ponta last summer – despite assurances from the latter that they would be implemented. In addition, European Union officials received “numerous reports of intimidation or harassment against individuals working in key judicial and anti-corruption institutions, including personal threats against judges and their families”.

Published in Under Eastern Eyes
Monday, 07 January 2013 23:51

When the New Boss Came to Town

Just a few days before the parliamentary elections on December 9th 2012, the Romanian government quietly passed a controversial emergency ordinance reorganising the National Audiovisual Council (CNA). Far from going unnoticed, as Prime Minister Victor Ponta and his social-liberal coalition (USL) would have hoped, the imposed changes have sparked yet another fiery debate between media specialists, politicians and European institutions.

Facing public pressure, Ponta did not publish the ordinance in the Official Monitor of the government, therefore delaying its full implementation. Instead, he re-sent it to the Ministry of Justice and Ministry of Public Finances for “improvements”. This doesn’t mean, however, that the matter is closed. Once the two ministries agree on ways to re-write the text, it will be out of anyone’s hands when and in what shape the document will be implemented, or how unexpectedly it will appear in the Official Monitor. The only person holding that decision is Victor Ponta.

The National Audiovisual Council would become an advisory body rather than a public authority.

One of the most feared changes in the ordinance by the members of the CNA is the one limiting the Council’s power to sanction television and radio stations, as well as programme suppliers, for breaching standards. Presently, the CNA is the only public authority able to take such measures. However, under the new regulations passed by government, any CNA sanction that is contested in a court of law will automatically be suspended until the case is closed – which might take up to two years, considering the length of Romanian court cases. Therefore, the Council would become an advisory body rather than a public authority, and its members would be unable to take effective measures when faced with a breach of standards.

Published in Under Eastern Eyes
Sunday, 09 December 2012 22:14

The Politics of Perceiving Corruption

The latest Corruption Perceptions index by Transparency International (TI) brings into question the description of the European Union's role, often told in dialectic terms, of the transformation of Eastern Europe from a web of Soviet satellites to European states. Whilst levels of perceived corruption in Eastern Europe have remained steady compared with three years ago, and admittedly in some cases improved for those states belonging to the EU, they have also plummeted in those “Western” countries most affected by the euro crisis. The public narrative of corruption would do well then, to shift from a primary reliance on historical cultural explanations embedded in the European Union, and focus more on the particular socio-economic conditions at hand.

The comparative view

The headlines on this year's World Anti-Corruption Day (December 9th 2012) focused almost exclusively on the plight of Italy and Greece. The TI's report, based on averaging a range of independent institutional assessments of transparency and accountability, and therefore a “perception” of corruption, rather than a quantitative assessment of this opaque area found Greece to be languishing globally in 92nd place. Greece was not only at the bottom of Western and Central Europe's rankings but well below a number of post-Soviet states, including Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, and Poland, for levels of its political and economic corruption.

The logic of an EU leading members on a steady path to Nordic levels of transparency... is sharply undone.

In sharp contrast, a number of post-Soviet states in Europe are slowly, steadily progressing in terms of holding their institutions accountable. Whilst notably behind traditional Western and Nordic countries, Hungary and Poland both improved their rankings, receiving over 50 out of 100 points from across 10 institutional surveys each. Slovenia and Estonia also featured in the top 20 of European countries too. This analysis does not forget that there are notable criticisms to be levelled at Hungary in particular, most notably Victor Orban's assault on the independence of the Hungarian media, the central bank and judiciary independence, but suggests that a comparative view leads to the conclusion that behind the headlines there are moderate improvements to be noted in the conduct of the Eastern European public sphere.

Published in The Transnationalist
Wednesday, 26 January 2011 13:33

Thaçi: A big fish in organised crime?

I got a bit angry when I read the news that Hashim Thaçi, Prime Minister of Kosovo, might be "a big fish in organised crime". My problem is not that there is a smear campaign against him, but rather that the facts have been public for ten years, whilst the media is regularly surprised.

The recent uproar is based on a leak of a "secret" document marked as "USA KFOR", that - according to the Guardian - accuses Thaçi of being involved in organised crime, particularly in the smuggling of drugs and human organs. Just to be clear: this man got his position (and keeps it) on the basis of massive European and international backing. Shocking? Yes. Surprise? No.

A classified study (pdf, in German) by the German Institut für Europäische Politik, in 2007 quotes a German intelligence assessment which states "especially in Kosovo there are the closest connections between leading political decision-makers and dominant criminal clans from the province, which hold almost all the relevant key positions in society (...) Therefore, the BND notes 'Through the key players (like, for instance, Haliti, Thaçi, Haradinaj) there exist the closest interrelations between politics, the economy and internationally operating [organised crime]-structures in Kosovo'" (my translation, but you get the point).

A different BND assessment, leaked in the slightly darker parts of the web, is more blunt. The dossier (dated 2005) that covers activities of organised crime in the Balkans states that Kosovo is divided into three spheres of interest when it comes to organised crime - one of them controlled by Thaçi. He is brought into connection with riots that took place in March 2004, during which entire truckloads of heroine and cocaine were reportedly brought through the country. Via various connections listed in detail, Thaçi is brought into connection with money laundering, fuel- and drug smuggling, accused of being one of the main "customers" of a hitman. He created the Kosovar intelligence service that is accused of "reconnaissance, intimidation and the physical elimination (through hitmen), particularly of OC [organised crime] enemies".

These allegations are invigorated by public reports, such as the one published (pdf) by Dick Marty for the Council of Europe in late 2010, finding that "[Thaçi's] "Drenica Group" built a formidable power base in the organised criminal enterprises that were flourishing in Kosovo and Albania at the time". However, this was not limited to the German intelligence assessment, but four national intelligence services as well as joint intelligence operations by NATO. Accordingly, "[Thaçi] was commonly identified, and cited in secret intelligence reports, as the most dangerous of the KLA's "criminal bosses".

So, Guardian et al., it's not exactly news, is it?

Published in Beyond Europe
IN -1773 DAYS