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Killings Raise Tensions in Macedonia, Corruption Sentences in the Czech Republic

Plus, Belarus surprises with release of political prisoners, and Russian state-owned bank becomes a power in Eastern Europe.

by Jeremy Druker, Joshua Boissevain, Ioana Caloianu, and Anna Shamanska 16 April 2012

1. Mass murder near Skopje stokes ethnic tensions


Fears have escalated in Macedonia that the murder of five men, whose bodies were found 12 April, may be ethnically motivated and could set off further clashes between Macedonians and ethnic Albanians, The Associated Press reports. All of the victims were reportedly ethnic Macedonian. While police have not announced any motives or suspects in the execution-style killings, which took place at a lake outside the capital, Skopje, local residents expressed worries that the incident was another in a series of increasingly violent clashes between the two ethnic groups, according to Radio Free Europe.


Macedonian President Gjorge Ivanov and other officials called for a speedy investigation into the slayings and for residents to remain calm after riot police were deployed 13 April to an area near the site of the killings. The police were acting in response to a group of youths blocking a road and causing damage to the property of local ethnic Albanians, according to New Europe.


This year has seen a dramatic rise in clashes between ethnic Macedonian and Albanian youths, in possibly the worst communal violence since the Albanian uprising in 2001. In March, more than 20 people from both groups were arrested after a series of violent incidents. Earlier, in January, ethnic Albanians attacked Orthodox churches during protests over what they said were costumes mocking Islam at a recent carnival.   

2. Czech party leader found guilty of bribery


Vit Barta
The de facto head of one of the Czech government’s coalition parties received an 18-month suspended sentence on 13 April for trying to bribe fellow party members, Czech Position reports. Vit Barta, the founder of the Public Affairs party and a former transport minister, was found guilty of attempting to use large, interest-free loans to buy the loyalty of two of the party’s members of parliament. One of those deputies, Jaroslav Skarka, received three years in prison for fraud, as the court ruled that he had taken the money as part of a plan to discredit Barta.


The other lawmaker to receive money from Barta, Kristyna Koci, has not faced any charges yet, but the judge recommended that the police also consider charging her with fraud.


Barta has never denied giving the money to Skarka and Koci but has said he was only trying to help his fellow party members escape the consequences of the lower salaries for legislators that had been mandated by a new law. He and Skarka immediately appealed their sentences.


Led by a group of charismatic newcomers running on an anti-corruption program, Public Affairs entered parliament in 2010.  In April 2011, the Mlada fronta Dnes newspaper published documents that strongly suggested Barta had hatched a cynical plan years earlier to gain political power so his security company would gain access to lucrative state contracts. Barta was also forced to admit that his company had previously conducted surveillance on local politicians in a district of Prague.


Despite earlier pledges that he would leave high politics if found guilty, Barta said 15 April that he would not give up his seat in parliament, as he didn’t view that as “high politics,” Mlada fronta Dnes reports. He also surprisingly indicated that he would be a candidate in the fall elections for regional governors. “I will fight for the improvement of political culture. Public Affairs is only paying the price for entering politics as naïve fighters against the dinosaurs.”


3. Belarus unexpectedly frees two political prisoners


Belarus released two jailed oppositionists on 14 April, RFE reports. Andrey Sannikau, a former Belarusian presidential candidate, and activist Dzmitry Bandarenka, a former campaign aide to Sannikau, both received presidential pardons. The two had been jailed in the aftermath of the 2010 presidential elections, widely viewed as flawed.



In an interview with RFE a day after his release, Sannikau called the moves part of a “game” to see how the West would react. “I think they will release almost all [political prisoners] in the very near future. But we have to stress that until they release all political prisoners, there shouldn’t be any steps on the part of those who are calling for this – Europe [or] our public opinion.”


Belarus’ refusal to release its political prisoners (RFE puts the number at around 10) has been one of the drivers of escalating EU sanctions against the country. Additional sanctions were passed in March that added 12 people and 29 companies to an already lengthy travel blacklist. In response, Belarus has been preventing various opposition figures from traveling abroad. All ambassadors from EU countries in Belarus were also recalled earlier this year after Belarus called on the Polish and EU delegation ambassadors to leave the country.


The sanctions, however, may not have been the primary reason for Sannikau’s release, according to Belarus Digest. The website speculates that developments in Russia may have provided the real push. The recent completion of a new oil pipeline should lessen Moscow’s dependence on Belarus for transit to the West, and pressure may increase on Belarus to sell off key companies to Russian bidders. With the need to pay off its IMF loan also looming, Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka may again be looking to make friends with Brussels in his long-running strategy of cozying up to the West or Russia as the situation demands.


4. Russian state-owned Sberbank now a force in Eastern Europe 


With a series of recent acquisitions, the Russian state-owned Sberbank has become the largest operating bank in Eastern Europe, The New York Times reports. The bank turned profits of $10.7 billion in 2011 and has a stock-market value of $70 billion, making it the second most valuable bank in Europe after HSBC.


One of the catalysts for the bank’s rapid growth has been the retreat of large Western European banks, driven by the economic crisis. Last fall, Sberbank, for example, bought Austria-based Volksbank’s operations in Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovenia, Croatia, Ukraine, Serbia, and Bosnia. 

Moreover, the vulnerability of Western banks has increased the popularity of the loans handed out by the Russian bank. “One of the costs to the West of the crisis will be the loss of the soft power influence of finance. Companies that were able to look to the West now turn to Moscow,” Roland Nash, a senior partner in Verno Capital, a hedge fund with investments in Sberbank, told the Times.


There are apparently limits to Sberbank’s expansion plans. One of them is its strategy of deriving only 5 percent of profits from its foreign holdings, while another is the opposition of investors to the bank’s Eastern European expansion. However, the latter carries little weight given that 60 percent of the shares belong to the Russian government, which has been known to wield a strong influence over the bank.


5. Turkmen minister canned for being a poor parent


The president of Turkmenistan, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, has fired his minister of energy and industry for poor parenting skills, RIA Novosti reports, citing Turkmen television.


At a 13 April ministerial meeting, Interior Minister Isgender Mullikov spoke about traffic safety, mentioning accidents caused by the children of senior officials. Although not mentioned in the official minutes of the meeting (in Russian), RIA Novosti said the accident in question involved the son of Energy Minister Yarmukhammet Orazgulyev and several of the boy’s classmates from the Turkmen Polytechnic Institute.


Berdymukhamedov then launched into a diatribe about good parenting, saying that many top-ranking officials neglect the upbringing of their children and that poorly raised children usually end up in trouble, which reflects badly on their parents’ standing as leaders. According to the meeting’s minutes, he urged “the importance of bringing up the younger generation on the wise traditions and high spiritual values entrusted by honored ancestors.”


Other officials did not escape punishment over the accident. Berdymukhamedov also fired the head of the Turkmen Polytechnic Institute. Education Minister Gulshat Mammedova and her deputy, Geldimurata Dzhumagulyeva, received “severe reprimands.”

Jeremy Druker is TOL’s executive director and editor in chief. Joshua Boissevain and Ioana Caloianu are TOL editorial assistants. Anna Shamanska is a TOL editorial intern.

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