OCCRP Weekly News Roundup

The Albanian Supreme Court acquitted former Prime Minister Ilir Meta of charges that he attempted to improperly influence an economy minister over the sale of a hydropower plant.  A former Mafioso told a South African paper that Narco Boss Darko Saric is hiding in South Africa.  And Bulgarian Interior Minister Tsvetan Tsvetanov denied allegations that Prime Minister Boyko Borisov played football with Russian mafia don Konstantin Tsiganov, who is sought by Interpol.

Montenegro Parliamentarian to Investigate Corrupt Telekom Privatization

Andrija Mandic, chairman of his parliament’s committee for monitoring privatization has been asking US and German officials for help determining what went wrong when Montenegro sold its state telecommunications agency to companies in Hungary and Germany.

Mandic held a meeting with parliamentarians and stakeholders in the capital city Podgorica Friday to learn more after two companies, Hungarian Magyar Telekom and its parent company Deutsche Telekom paid US$95 million to the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) Dec. 29, in a settlement acknowledging that they engaged in corrupt practices in Montenegro and another former Yugoslav country, Macedonia.

Because Magyar Telekom is traded on the US stock market, American authorities prosecuted  under the US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.

Mandic is critical of Montenegrin courts:  “The work of the domestic judiciary is catastrophic and it is questionable whether [any charges will be filed] in Montenegro,” he told the SETimes. “No one from the ruling structure has said anything since this scandal emerged.”

Organized Crime Controlling More Areas and More Sectors in Italy

Earlier this week OCCRP reported that Italian mafia groups have become the country’s largest “bank” with more than €65 billion in liquidity.  An investigation by Italy’s parliament released Thursday concludes that ‘Organized crime in Italy controls agricultural and food businesses worth €12.5 billion  (US$16 billion) a year.’

At the report’s presentation, Italy’s chief anti-mafia prosecutor Pietro Grasso said that Italian laws should be tightened to help fight the grip of organized crime on agrobusiness and to stop the fabrication of false Italian foodstuffs, according to the Financial Post.

Sergio Marini, chairman of Italy’s association of farmers Coldiretti, agrees that fake Italian products of low quality also bring down the country’s profits.  He estimates that food and agricultural exports could triple if the government clamped down on counterfeit products.


Updates in Ukraine:

The daughter of Former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko says her imprisoned mother’s life is at risk, reports Reuters.  Yevgenia Tymoshenko says President Viktor Yanukovich “crossed a fine line” when he rejected all early chances of compromise to free her, and urged the West to consider sanctions against him.  Despite repeated efforts by European and American officials to secure Tymoshenko’s freedom, the courts have opened new criminal cases against the two-time PM and moved her from a jail in the capital city Kyiv to a remote prison camp 500 km (310 miles) away.

Ukraine’s Kyiv Post wrote earlier this week about revelations from WikiLeaks cables detailing the involvement of Yuriy Boyko, the country’s current and former energy minister, in RosUkrEnergo, a Swiss-registered firm that transports gas from Turkmenistan to Eastern Europe.

A cable from 2007 signed by Ambassador William Taylor takes a negative view of the company and Boyko’s role in it:

“Fuel and Energy Minister Boyko … has repeatedly stressed the positive role RosUkrEnergo (RUE) plays in affording Ukraine cheap energy. The non-transparent middleman, which Boyko helped create, expects to expand further its influence in Ukraine's energy market through acquisitions made either by itself or by its subsidiary, UkrGazEnergo.”

“Critics say Boyko’s alleged involvement in the creation of murky intermediaries in the multibillion-dollar trade means his current role as point man in the gas talks is a conflict of interest,” writes Yuriy Onyshkiv of the Kyiv Post.

Tymoshenko has long accused Boyko of making him and a cabal of his closest friends millionaires off of the business, and the recently leaked cables from 2006 to 2010 show continued concerns of conflicts of interest, impunity for corrupt officials and Yanukovich’s increasing authoritarianism.

Despite the “high stakes,” Ukraine’s rainmakers don’t seem to mind:

Cables citing candid conversations with oligarchs revealed the ambivalence of Ukraine’s leading businesspeople towards ‘too much power being put in one person’s hands,’ a situation which many analysts say describes Ukraine’s current reality,” writes Mark Rachkevych in the Kyiv Post.


Putin v. The Internet

Some people still love Russian president Dmitry Medvedev, who is getting a street named after him in Jericho by resolution of the Palestinian city council.  But in his home country, opposition to him and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin continues mounting.  The pair continue to be lambasted by anti-corruption blogger, activist and prolific tweeter Alexei Navalny, who this week compared them to Hitler in a humorous ad campaign. At the same time, more and more Russians polled seem dissatisfied with Putin’s campaign platform and rhetoric.

This contempt was displayed even in the comments on Putin’s own site:

From RFE/RL’s Brian Whitmore:

"Please leave politics," wrote a man identified as Andrei Antonenko. "We understand that power is like a drug, but this would be a dignified act." Another man, Arkady Vishnev, suggested that dropping out of the March 4 presidential election "would be the most useful thing you could still do for the country." Svetlana Sorokina, a well-known blogger, also called on Putin to resign as prime minister and quit the presidential race to prevent "the situation to become a revolutionary one."

Though these comments were quickly erased and replaced with paeans praising Putin and asking him to censor the media and crack down on foreign funding for Russian NGOs, they were preserved by bloggers and overshadowed his official campaign launch.

Putin remains the front-runner, but many voters have marched, tweeted, and blogged that they don’t want to see Putin in the Kremlin for another 12 years.  With the election set for March 4, Putin doesn’t have much longer to improve his image.  Seems that old Putinites in the Kremlin have been entrenched for so long they didn’t bother learning about social media.

Navalny summed it up best to the NYT: “Vladimir Putin and his team do not understand the Internet.”