OCCRP Weekly News Roundup


Coup Birthday
Today marks the 20th anniversary of the failed coup that wound up toppling the USSR.

Many Soviets took advantage of the collapse to go into organized crime, or made millions committing privatization fraud.  Some of those very people have wound up back in positions of power.  By and large, citizenries lacking strong cultures of civic engagement inherited a system with a disregard for the rule of law, and a law enforcement mechanism plagued by endemic corruption.

Western governments and non-governmental organizations have poured billions into fostering transparent, flourishing democracies.  But aside from the former socialist union’s Baltic members, twenty years later the wheels of progress in most of the fifteen countries that used to make up the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics remain stuck in the mud of corruption, and sinking further down due to organized crime.

2004’s Orange Revolution inaugurated hope for a democratic future for Ukraine, but President Viktor Yanukovich has been taking a hard line at home, even while making overtures to the European Union.  The Kangaroo Court trial of former Prime Minister Julia Tymoshenko for malfeasance, charges viewed by the West as trumped up by the president for political gain, climaxed last week as she was carted off to prison for mouthing off to a judge.

Belarus’ president Alexander Lukashenko is referred to as “Europe’s last dictator,” while Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan rate as two of the world’s most oppressive regimes.  In Transparency Internationals 2010 Corruption Perceptions Index, the two countries tied with Sudan for 172nd place.  The survey assessed 178 countries, meaning the two republics were ahead of only Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Myanmar.

In fact, aside from the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuana, and Estonia, which all scored in the top 60, only Georgia scored more than three out of a potential ten points.

In the others, corruption and organized crime remain rampant.  In its brand new strategy to combat transnational organized crime, the Obama Administration said that gangs and networks from the former Soviet Union pose one of the biggest threats to international security.

Tajikistan is increasingly dominated by President Emomali Rahman and his rapacious children.  The President has stifled free enterprise and wasted the Central Asian country’s precious resources building massive palaces to his own ego, much like Turkmenistan’s former dictator, Turkmenbashi.  The latest is a cockamamie plan to waste money by constructing the world’s tallest flag pole for almost $10 million, as tens of thousands Tajiks die each winter from exposure and starvation.  Rahman is approaching  the absurdity of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, with the appointment of this 23-year-old son (and heir apparent) to the country’s top drug trafficking position despite the fact he is completely unqualified.  Shouldn’t matter.  Tajikistan is already a major transit country for Afghan heroin to Russia. I mean, he can’t do much worse, can he?

Mother Russia is beset by a host of organized crime and corruption-related problems.  It’s been rated as one of the riskiest places to do business for reasons including corruption, and places 154 out of 177 on Transparency International’s list.  Some of the world’s most menacing organizations of skilled hackers and mafia dons call Russia their motherland.

Armenia remains under the powerful pressure of its organized crime groups, known as “akhperutyuns,” or brotherhoods, who allegedly operate on a code imported from the underworld laws of Russian prisons.  According to a poll conducted last year by USAID, 80% of Armenians consider corruption to be the country’s biggest problem.

Azerbaijan’s location along several lucrative drug trafficking routes: Iran-Azerbaijan-Russia; Nagorno Karabakh-Iran-Azerbaijan; Iran-Azerbaijan-Europe; and Iran-Azerbaijan-Russia-Japan, places it in the midst of organized crime.  The government made a vocal effort to crack down on corruption and low-level bribes in February, but experts are skeptical that it will last very long.   The country also recently jailed a pro-democracy activist who had called for widespread protests in Azerbaijan.  Victorious in this year’s Eurovision song contest, calls of corruption and occlusion are getting louder as the country prepares to host next year’s competition.

Despite being awarded the OSCE Chairmanship in 2010, Kazakhstan has not made real progress against corruption.  A recently de-classified U.S. State Department cable shows that Ambassador Richard Hoagland believed Kazakhstan was simply going through the motions of combating corruption without catching any of the “big fish.”  Indeed some experts told the Ambassador that government efforts to rout out corruption represented “intra-elite warfare [rather] than evidence of a concerted anti-corruption effort.”  Another independent analyst said the anti-corruption campaign was “little more than a fight for property in uncertain economic times.”

Kazakhstan ranks 162 out of 178 countries in Reporter’s Without Borders’ 2010 Press Freedom Index.

Corruption is so bad in Europe’s poorest country of Moldova that a group of youngsters have started rapping about it. The country remains locked in a stalemate conflict with the unrecognised breakaway region of Transnistria.  The country is known for being a source of organ donations on the black market.

Last year, corruption and frustration with a lack of transparency fueled a revolution in Kyrgystan, five years after tits Tulip Revolution brought the now-deposed president Kurmanbek Bakiyev.  The country is still transitioning under the presidency of Roza Otunbayeva, who took the reins first as interim during last year’s upheaval.

Yesterday, 83 contenders announced their intention to run for president of the former Soviet Republic.  Hopefully there is at least one unselfish, reform-minded candidate in the lot.

Georgia does not rank as low as its fellow club members.  It has a press freedom ranking of 100 out of 178 and Transparency International ranks it at 68 out of 178.  However, Russia has been doing everything it can to destabilize the country and derail its progress, including the 2008 war.  According to Louise Shelley, the author of Organized Crime and Corruption in Georgia, the country was a hotbed of crime and corruption even in Soviet times.

It was a major factor in the popular discontent that led to the 2003 Rose Revolution, the first so-called “color revolution” in the former USSR.  Since then, Georgia’s

President Mikhail Saakashvilli promised to clamp down on corruption.  Actually, it appears that he has succeeded somewhat.  Recent media reports indicate that Georgia has made great strides against combatting low-level corruption, but that there is still some higher hanging fruit.


I always like to end on a positive note.  The arc of universe is long, but it bends towards transparency, right?


Lassie come home…into my kitchen

Last week, OCCRP told its readers about organized crime’s burgeoning interest in plundering rhinoceros horns.  Truly, traffickers smuggle the darndest things.  This week, Thai authorities rescued more than a thousand maltreated dogs being trafficked to Vietnam, where they would be sold on the black market as a food source.

Whoever thought trafficking was all about drugs, arms, and organs will be disabused of that notion when they hear about the Bulgarian customs officials who uncovered a whopping 5,280 pairs of socks.  According to the border police, smugglers have been trying to get everyone affordable access to the latest fall fashions, tax-free.  But really, this find, the result of a routine check, shows that customs officials are doing their jobs.


Bout Not a Lord of War, Just a Lord of Airplanes

Viktor Bout never sold arms, his lawyer Albert Dayan said this week in a pre-trial hearing in New York City, just airplanes.

“Selling? Never. He never sold, he never brokered,” Albert Dayan told the court.  He said his client was simply a “transporter.”

Bout appeared before a New York court on Wednesday as prosecutors sought to define what could and could not be presented as evidence during the trial.  The government sought permission to present emails and instant message chats found on Bout’s laptop as evidence of Bout’s alleged participation in arms trafficking.

Bout, a Russian national, plead not guilty to charges that he conspired to kill U.S. citizens and to sell arms to the Revolutionary Armed Forces Of Colombia (FARC), considered a narco-terrorist group by the U.S. government.

Before his arrest in 2008, Bout became so infamous that he earned the moniker “Merchant of Death” and inspired the 2005 action movie “Lord of War,” starring Nicolas Cage.

Presiding Judge Shira Scheindlin did not make a final ruling on the prosecution’s petition but said that references to Rwanda and Libya would be barred from the courtroom because of related “baggage.”

Operations in Rwanda and Libya are just a small part of the accusations and suspicions surrounding Bout’s career.  He allegedly armed civil wars in South America, the Middle East and Africa, with a list of clients numbering, among others, Liberia’s Charles Taylor, and the Taliban.

Bout’s lawyer is not his only supporter.  Russia did its best to prevent his extradition to the United States from Thailand after he was arrested there in 2008.  In a recent tit-for-tat spat, Russia has made it clear that it will deny visas to anyone linked to the operation that let to Bout’s arrestAnd Thailand said Wednesday that it would open an investigation into the appeal process that led to Bout’s extradition.

Want to send a message of support?  www.ViktorBout.net gives anyone the opportunity to reach out to the man they say is being used as a “scapegoat” or buy a t-shirt with his face emblazoned on the front.

The official trial is set to begin in October.  If convicted, he could face a mandatory minimum of 25 years in U.S. prison.


Anti-Corruption?  There’s an App for That

A 24 year old Cameroonian has developed a smartphone application to fight corruption.  The software, known as “NoBakchich,” or, “no bribe,” will provide users with information about how to get basic public services they need, like getting a driver’s license, setting up a business, registering a marriage, etc.

Hervé Djia, the creator, says people pay bribes because they don’t know how to obtain services, or they don’t know how much the services are supposed to cost.  He told Voice of America that once people are informed about legal avenues to obtain services, graft will decrease.

Djia also hopes to use the social cure: if users publicize instances of being asked for a bribe, it will bring scrutiny to government employees and raise awareness among citizens that corruption does not have to be the norm.

Because most of Cameroon’s 20 million citizens don’t have smartphones, he is currently designing an application that will work on regular mobile phones.