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Georgia’s Political Divide Turns Violent, Moldova Probes Russian Money-Laundering

Plus, the Balkans have Europe’s dirtiest air, and Romania and Hungary spar over a flag.

by Barbara Frye, Ioana Caloianu, Anna Novosad, Richard Parrish, and Nino Tsintsadze 11 February 2013

1. After violence, Georgian leaders call for talks


Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili and Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili say they are ready to talk after violence erupted 8 February between opponents and supporters of Saakashvili.


On Friday, hundreds of demonstrators blocked the entrance to the National Library, where Saakashvili was to speak to some representatives of press, diplomatic corps, and other public figures, the Associated Press reports. The president had been barred from making his annual speech to parliament by the ruling Georgian Dream Coalition, which ousted Saakashvili’s United National Movement (UNM) in October elections.



After several people, including members of parliament, were injured in the scuffles, Saakashvili changed the venue again, making the address from the presidential palace. The speech focused on current proposals to change Georgia’s political processes and on the country’s future foreign-policy orientation, according to AP.


Mikheil Saakashvili reports that in the wake of the clashes Saakashvili offered to meet with Ivanishvili, who had issued a statement condemning the violence. The prime minister responded with a proposed four-point agenda for dialogue between his Georgian Dream faction and UNM.


Last week the Georgian Dream-led legislature postponed the president’s address after UNM members refused to support a constitutional amendment limiting the president’s power to dissolve the parliament without that body’s approval, Radio Free Europe reports.


Parliament speaker Davit Usupashvili, a leader of Georgian Dream, said, “We want the president's address to be made in a parliament which is empowered with the appropriate authority, and not in a parliament whose decisions might be unilaterally overturned by the president,” according to RFE.


The UNM in turn has proposed amendments to enshrine Georgia’s pro-Western orientation in the constitution and to raise the number of votes in parliament needed to pass constitutional amendments.


2. Moldova probes Magnitsky-linked money-laundering case


Moldovan investigators are looking into the possible money laundering of Russian budget funds via its banking system, EUobserver writes. The proceedings allegedly involve Moldova’s biggest bank, a Russian mafia group, and six EU countries, and have a direct link to the notorious case of a whistleblower who died in a Russian prison in 2009.


The investigation started when Hermitage Capital, a British investment fund, reportedly sent a complaint to the Moldovan prosecutor in June. The company claims it possesses evidence that a Russian organized-crime group wired $53 million of stolen budget money from an account in Russia’s Krainiy Sever Bank to accounts in Banca de Economii in Moldova, according to EUobserver.


The money was allegedly transferred on to accounts in Switzerland and Hong Kong, and in EU members Austria, Cyprus, Estonia, Finland, Latvia, and Lithuania. 


According to Hermitage’s lawyers, the transfers were part of the money-laundering scheme unearthed by attorney Sergei Magnitsky, who worked for the British firm. His evidence suggested that massive tax refunds had been fraudulently claimed in the name of companies owned by Hermitage, which had in turn been illegally taken over.


The joint investigation by Moldovan authorities and EU law enforcement may uncover “a chain of bloody money,” a Hermitage source told Forbes.


Anzhela Starinsky, a spokeswoman for Moldova’s anti-corruption center, confirmed that the criminal case was opened in response to a complaint from Hermitage, News-Moldova reports. She said details would be available soon.


3. Balkan air is Europe’s dirtiest


Air in the Balkan region has become the most contaminated in Europe, with Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, topping the list of cities with worst air pollution on the continent, according to the World Health Organization.   


Smog blankets Sarajevo in this photo from 2007. Photo by Damien Smith/flickr.


The concentration of air pollutants in Sarajevo is more than three times the limit considered healthy by the EU, measured in micrograms per cubic meter, according to Deutsche Welle


Several other Balkan cities rank close to Sarajevo, including Tetovo and Skopje in Macedonia, Plovdiv in Bulgaria, Timisoara in Romania, and the Serbian capital, Belgrade.


Martin Teis, an air quality expert in Sarajevo, told Deutsche Welle that dirty and outdated heating methods, combined with poverty, created a toxic mix. “People burn all sorts of things in their homes – usually coal and wood, but also old tires,” he said.


Like other experts in the region, Teis also cited the prevalence in urban areas of old cars that lack modern pollution-control devices. Balkan Insight reports that the average age of Belgrade’s 550,000 cars is 15 years old, and the city’s public health authorities say about 150,000 households there use coal for heating.


In Skopje, Dragan Giorgiev from the National Health Institute said, “Obsolete industrial processes, the poor quality of fuel for the central heating plants, the traffic – none of these things [is] regulated.” He told Deutsche Welle, "We are experiencing wild urbanization."


4. Szekler flag sparks diplomatic row between Romania and Hungary


Romania and Hungary are at loggerheads over the use of an ethnic Hungarian flag on administrative buildings in central Transylvania, Balkan Insight reports. On 3 February, ethnic Hungarian officials from the Romanian counties of Covasna and Harghita hoisted the Szekler flag on local-government buildings for the inauguration of a new prefect.


The Szekler flag


A cultural, legal, and administrative region for more than 800 years with varying levels of autonomy, the Szekler land’s population is more than 70 percent Hungarian. Hungary lost the region in the Treaty of Trianon after World War I.


In November, a Romanian court ruled that the display of the Szekler flag and insignia are legal. But Romanian officials interpret its appearance on official buildings as an assertion of the region’s autonomy.


Romanian Interior Minister Mircea Dusa declared for B1 TV that, while minorities have the right to display their national symbols “at their public manifestations and actions, only the Romanian flag should be displayed on Romanian institutions.” However, Kelemen Hunor, president of the Democratic Union of Hungarians in Romania party, told that “for some, the Szekler land has become a chronic disease” and that other Romanian cities or historical sites have the right to hoist their own flags without questions from Romanian authorities. Zsolt Nemeth, Hungary’s minister of state for foreign affairs, labeled the prohibition a "symbolic aggression” against ethnic Hungarians in Romania.


5. Original proof of USSR’s dissolution is missing


The document that declared the end of the Soviet Union in 1991 should be in the archives of the Commonwealth of Independent States, a successor to the USSR – but it isn’t, and no one knows where it is, the Associated Press reports.


Instead, what sits in the archives, located in Minsk, and in a vault in Moscow are certified copies.


“We don’t know where the original is,” Vasily Ostreiko, director of the CIS archives, told AP. “We have a copy of that document. It’s certified in line with international standards, but it’s still a copy.”


The mystery came to light when former Belarusian President Stanislav Shushkevich went looking for the document in the process of writing his memoir, the news agency reports. According to AP, Shushkevich “believes it was stolen – possibly by a former Belarusian official – probably with the intention of selling it to a collector.”


Shushkevich was president in late 1991 and hosted a summit at which he, Russian President Boris Yeltsin, and Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk signed the dissolution agreement.

Barbara Frye is TOL's managing editorIoana Caloianu is a TOL editorial assistant.Anna Novosad, Richard Parrish and Nino Tsintsadze are TOL editorial interns.
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