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Ukraine Polls Panned, Romania’s EU Funds Blocked

Plus, Georgia to take another look at suspicious deaths and Macedonia takes aim, again, at its birth dearth.

by Barbara Frye, Joshua Boissevain, and Nino Tsintsadze 29 October 2012

1. Observers decry ‘oligarchization’ of Ukraine’s elections


International observers have blasted Ukraine’s 28 October parliamentary elections as corrupt and opaque.


“Considering the abuse of power, and the excessive role of money in this election, democratic progress appears to have reversed in Ukraine,” said Walburga Habsburg Douglas, leader of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s short-term election observation mission. “One should not have to visit a prison to hear from leading political figures in the country,” she said, referring to former Prime Minster Yulia Tymoshenko, the opposition’s most formidable figure, who is locked up on abuse of office charges.


President Viktor Yanukovych votes in the 28 October elections. Image from a video by Euronews.


It was unusually strong language from a body often accused of tiptoeing around electoral abuses. A statement from the observer mission cited “abuse of administrative resources, as well as a lack of transparency in campaign and party financing and of balanced media coverage.” It also criticized Ukraine’s Central Election Commission for doing most of its work behind closed doors.


In early counting, the ruling Party of Regions looks set to maintain control of the Verkhovna Rada, the country’s unicameral legislature, although the opposition has made a strong showing.


Under changes to the law made last year, half of the 450 seats in parliament are contested in proportional representation, or party list, races. The other half are contested in individual races.


With almost half of the votes counted shortly before noon today, the Party of Regions had received 35 percent in the proportional representation section of the ballot. Tymoshenko’s Batkivshchyna (Fatherland) party won 22 percent, the Communists 15 percent, the Ukrainian Democratic Union for Reforms (UDAR) 13 percent, and the Svoboda (Freedom) party 8 percent.


In the 225 single-member district races, the Party of Regions had taken 120 seats to 91 for Batkivshchyna, 11 for Svoboda, and three for UDAR, which is led by boxing champion Vitaly Klitschko.


A coalition led by Tymoshenko’s party took the reins after the last parliamentary elections, in 2007, but a series of defections eventually cost it control of the legislature. Last year, the Party of Regions pushed through changes to the election law that helped it maintain its grip even as its standing in the polls slid. Among those changes was to block coalitions from running in elections – a common practice in Ukraine, which has nearly 200 political parties. The most prominent bloc was headed by Tymoshenko.


In addition, the new single-member constituencies handicapped the opposition, as none of its politicians were as well-known as party leader Tymoshenko. Further, Ukraine had a history of the ruling party using the levers of office to stay in power during a previous period when it used single-member districts.


2. Brussels shuts off aid to Romania over corruption concerns


The European Commission will block development aid to Romania over concerns about how money from Brussels is being used in the country, Reuters reports.


At immediate stake is about 500 million euros ($645 million) earmarked to reimburse the country for money already spent on transportation, development, and environmental projects, the news agency reports. Future funding is also at risk.


The commission cited inadequate management and control – essentially, anti-corruption measures – and said it will turn the tap back on only after those systems “are shown to function ‘robustly,’ ” according to Euractiv.


Romania has had access to about 20 billion euros in EU development aid since it joined the bloc in 2007, but recent studies indicate the country has been able to spend less than 10 percent of that sum effectively and efficiently. “Analysts point to corruption, a lack of motivation and information, inadequate administrative capacity and major gaps in understanding how EU institutions work,” The Economist’s Eastern Approaches blog wrote in June.


The country is saddled with a legacy of corruption. It has seen various EU funds interrupted since 2008 due to similar concerns.


Viktor Ponta
Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta essentially pleaded no contest to the commission’s charges and accepted the 500 million euro penalty, according to Euractiv.


Transport is among the areas where EU money has been wasted. Roads are woeful and inadequate, and the rail network is beset by delays due to dilapidated infrastructure and scarce funding – partly due to widespread fare dodging. Authorities in Bucharest last week began investigating more than 200 employees of the government-owned railway company “for alleged involvement in taking and sharing bribes from passengers caught dodging train fares,” Balkan Insight reports.


3. New Georgian government will re-investigate politically charged deaths


During a meeting with journalists, Georgia’s newly appointed justice minister, Tea Tsulukiani, said a few high-profile death cases from the past several years, including those of banker Sandro Girgvliani and Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania, will be reopened, Radio Free Europe reports.


The circumstances of Girgvliani’s death have remained a sensitive topic in Georgian political circles. In January 2006 the young banker and a friend were kidnapped and taken to the outskirts of Tbilisi after they were involved in a quarrel in a bar with senior Interior Ministry officials and the wife of the Interior Minister. While his friend was able to escape, Girgvliani was found dead near a cemetery the next morning with multiple injuries on his body.


Four Interior Ministry employees were convicted and later pardoned. The Interior Ministry was accused of covering up possible links to the senior officials and the minister’s wife.


Earlier this year, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg ruled that the investigation into Girgvliani’s death “lacked the requisite independence, impartiality, objectivity, and thoroughness,” reports.


Zurab Zhvania
Zhvania, then the serving premier, was found dead 3 February 2005 in an apartment with a friend who was a deputy regional governor. The official report said they died of carbon monoxide poisoning, but Zhvania’s family demanded that the case be reopened, arguing that he was assassinated.


Last week, Zhvania’s brother – a member of parliament from the Georgian Dream coalition – accused President Mikheil Saakashvili and other senior officials of attempting to make the death look like an accident.


In an interview with the Maestro TV station, Gogla Zhvania alleged that his brother and the other man died somewhere else and were taken to the apartment where they were later found. He noted that although the investigation blamed carbon monoxide poisoning, at the time gas had been cut off to the street because of a suspected leak. In an article published on IWPR, Georgian investigative journalist Vakhtang Komakhidze reported that FBI experts invited to investigate the case failed to confirm the official version.


The Georgian parliament also plans to set up an investigative commission to examine high-profile deaths. David Usupashvili, the new chairman of the parliament, said investigation of such cases would not constitute a campaign of persecuting the political opponents, reports.


4. Macedonia tries again to battle birth dearth


Macedonia, like many other European countries, is experiencing a sharp decline in its birth rate. But the government’s previous efforts to stem the tide have only gotten it into trouble.


Last week, Balkan Insight reported that Skopje is taking another crack at the problem. In a 23 October speech, Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski said the imbalance between the number of elderly people and babies being born “posed a greater existential threat than the global economic crisis,” according to the news agency.


Gruevski said the birth rate had dropped by nearly 50 percent since 1980, when 40,000 babies were born, compared with 22,000 in 2011, according to Balkan Insight.


The government is proposing “a range of measures and activities in the education system, migration and infrastructure policies, economic development, and the fight against poverty and social exclusion,” Social Affairs Minister Spiro Ristovski said, without citing specifics.


A previous bid to pay women to have more than one child was thrown out by the Constitutional Court because it favored areas with a high Macedonian population. The country’s ethnic Macedonians have a lower birth rate than the Albanian population.


Meanwhile, Gruevski has landed in hot water before for making disparaging comments about homosexuality and women’s rights in the context of family promotion.


“We are now debating perverted values, same-sex marriages or even adoption of children in those marriages, some kind of women’s rights, or men’s rights … and while spending energy on these issues, as a state we are running out of people,” he said last week, according to Balkan Insight.


5. Serbian Progressives bar sale of bankrupt broadcaster


Serbia’s ruling Progressive party has stopped the sale of a financially troubled broadcaster, Balkan Insights reports, citing sources who say Belgrade wants to free up the national frequency for a politically friendly television station.


At the last minute, TV Avala’s majority owner, Zeljko Mitrovic, was reportedly pressured by the government to back out of a contract to sell his shares of the station to turbo-folk record label Grand Production. The station, which has had financial trouble for years, now faces bankruptcy, having racked up a 25.7 million euro ($33 million) debt, according to Balkan Insight. Earlier this spring, the station suspended live programming following a series of employee strikes over unpaid salaries.


Following news of the sale’s collapse, Serbia’s broadcasting agency revoked Avala’s license, which it has had since 2006. The agency said the company had not paid its fees and hadn’t produced a programming plan, according to Balkan Insight.


Once Avala is out of the picture, the Progressives will give that national frequency to a political ally because most media outlets are controlled by the former ruling Democratic Party, sources told the news site.


Barbara Frye is TOL's managing editor. Joshua Boissevain is a TOL editorial assistant. Nino Tsintsadze is a TOL editorial intern. 
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