Plus, another Azeri blogger sits in jail, and the FBI busts an alleged conspiracy to send restricted electronics to the Russian military.by Jeremy Druker, Ioana Caloianu, and Nino Tsintsadze 4 October 2012
The signs are that UNICEF is phasing out its already scaled-back operations in Russia, after failing to negotiate a new agreement with the Kremlin, The Moscow Times reports. Although a spokesman for the United Nations Children’s Fund declared 3 October that “a new form of partnership” is still under discussion, regional spokesman John Budd said most of UNICEF Russia's 12 staff members have been looking for other jobs. UNICEF closed both its country program and its Russian office on 31 December. Its remaining work, managed from Geneva, focuses on fulfilling prior commitments and finishing up programs, a UNICEF employee told the newspaper.
The scaling back of the organization's operations, which include efforts to improve the situation of the country's orphans, is causing concern among experts. Alexei Golovan, a former children's ombudsman, said child welfare is in a “fairly alarming” state given the existence of “many negative tendencies” in Russian society.
UNICEF is not the first international organization to recently reduce its presence in Russia. On 1 October, the U.S. Agency for International Development shut down its Russian operations after accusations that it used its grants to wield political influence. Although the departures of the two foreign organizations seem unrelated, Alexander Lukashevich, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, said “Russia is one of the ‘new donors’ now and refuses to accept the status of a recipient of development aid from all international organizations.”
U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe has been another apparent victim of the Kremlin’s wariness of international groups. The radio station will stop its medium-wave broadcasting in Moscow by 10 November and will switch to multimedia Internet broadcasting after a law banning broadcasters more than 50 percent owned by foreign entities from holding a license.
A successful businessman who emigrated from the Soviet Union to the United States was charged 4 October with stealing military technology for Russia, The Associated Press reports. A federal indictment has accused Alexander Fishenko and 10 others of being part of “a surreptitious and systematic conspiracy” to bypass U.S. government regulations and export sophisticated microelectronics to be used by the Russian military.
According to the government, such electronics are “subject to strict government controls due to their potential use in a wide range of military systems, including radar and surveillance systems, weapons guidance systems, and detonation triggers,” the news agency reports. Citing a U.S. Justice Department official, National Public Radio reports that Fishenko had told American suppliers the technology would be put to civilian use, such as operating traffic lights.
The U.S. authorities also charged Fishenko, who owns a Houston-based electronics company that the FBI raided on 4 October, with money laundering and acting as a Russian agent on U.S. territory. Born in the Soviet Republic of Kazakhstan, Fishenko came to the United States in 1994 and has allegedly been engaged in the scheme since 2008.
The Russian government denied any involvement. “The charges are of a criminal nature and have nothing to do with the work of the secret services,” Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said 4 October, Reuters reports, citing Russian news agencies. NPR, however, quoted Stephen Blank, a national security expert at the U.S. Army War College, as saying that efforts to obtain such technology have increased over the past 12 years. “It is an essential part of [Russian President Vladimir] Putin's program to upgrade the use of intelligence agents.”
The case immediately evoked memories of the 2010 arrest of a network of alleged Russian spies living double lives in the United States, including notorious “femme fatale” Anna Chapman.
International criticism is mounting over the arrest of an activist blogger in Azerbaijan last week. On 3 October, Reporters Without Borders strongly condemned the arrest of 25-year-old Zaur Gurbanli, saying, “There is little doubt that Gurbanli’s arrest is linked to his blogging and political activities.”
After his arrest, the Azerbaijan authorities confiscated about 8,000 leaflets of the NIDA organization, a group of young opposition activists of which Gurbanli is a board member. The leaflets showed a portrait of President Ilham Aliev with the slogan: “I will leave in 2013 if you join NIDA.”
In a recent blog post, Gurbanli had ridiculed the inclusion of a poem by the president’s daughter in an elementary-school anthology of Azerbaijani literature. The poem had been dedicated to the girl’s late grandfather, former President Heidar Aliev. “This is the poetry of the daughter of the dictator Ilham Aliev. Look what we are coming to. This is the method of poisoning our children. We should protest as much as we can,” Gurbanli wrote, according to RFE.
Gurbanli was also an active member of the Sing for Democracy campaign, which attempted to draw attention to Azerbaijan’s poor human rights situation during the Eurovision song contest.
Azerbaijan has faced criticism before for its harassment of young online activists, most prominently for the arrest of the so-called donkey bloggers in 2009.
In yet another corruption scandal in the high reaches of Czech politics, Czech Labor Minister Jaromir Drabek resigned on 3 October over criminal allegations involving his close friend and deputy, Reuters reports.
Two days earlier, Czech police had arrested Deputy Labor Minister Vladimir Siska and charged him with bribery. According to the Czech daily Mlada fronta Dnes, the police caught Siska in a sting operation soliciting a bribe from a firm in return for withdrawing a complaint at the anti-monopoly office over a suspicious tender.
Drabek initially refused to step down, claiming the innocence of his friend and longtime business partner, and seemed to have the support of his party, TOP09. However, within 24 hours, having apparently lost the party’s support and facing a court decision to keep Siska in custody, Drabek announced his resignation, saying, “I do not feel any guilt but I am ready to bear the political responsibility.”
Drabek had led long-delayed efforts to revamp the country’s pension system, now stalled again after President Vaclav Klaus recently vetoed a law connected with the changes, which are meant to start in 2013. According to Reuters, the minister’s departure is the 10th so far in the 16-member cabinet, which is only halfway through its term.
Though this most recent scandal is unlikely to help the governing parties’ chances in the upcoming regional elections, Drabek’s resignation over the alleged sins of his subordinate elicited some praise for Prime Minister Petr Necas’ hard line against compromised ministers. “For ordinary people, who call for the blood of the corrupted, it’s probably a small thing,” Martin Komarek, a prominent columnist, wrote in Mlada fronta Dnes. “In comparison with the normal practices of all previous governments it is, yes, a ‘small step for Necas, but a big step for the country.’ ”
Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta took on another role 2 October, becoming the country’s interim minister of health, after Health Minister Vasile Cepoi resigned a day earlier amid allegations of corruption and embezzlement, the Romanian news agency Mediafax reports. Ponta will hold the ministerial office until 9 December, a week after parliamentary elections, by which time a new government should be formed. The former minister’s administrative duties will be fulfilled by Raed Arafat, a deputy state secretary in the Health Ministry. A popular figure in Romania, Arafat helped create the SMURD nationwide emergency system in the 1990s. His resignation in January over a bill proposing the privatization of the health system drew nationwide anti-government protests. According to Ponta, Arafat declined an invitation to become the new health minister.
Cepoi handed in his resignation on 1 October, after the National Anti-Corruption Agency, part of the Justice Ministry, accused him of “conflict of interests, prejudices against the financial interests of the European Commission, and corruption,” Mediafax reports. According to the Romanian daily Adevarul, Cepoi and his wife, a high school teacher in the northeastern city of Iasi, received more than 42,000 euros ($52,000) through a project funded by the European Commission that Cepoi himself approved for funding through his role as head of the local Public Health Directorate at the time. Cepoi will remain Ponta's adviser for health issues while under investigation.
Digi 24 writes that Cepoi becomes the seventh minister to leave the cabinet formed by Victor Ponta when he became prime minister six months ago. The ministers of culture, education, and foreign affairs lost their jobs over scandals involving allegations of corruption, plagiarism, and conflict of interest, respectively.