Navalny faces a charge of embezzling 16 million rubles ($510,000) from a timber company while working as an adviser to the Kirov provincial governor, Radio Free Europe reports.
The 36-year-old lawyer, whose critical blogs and public speeches have made him perhaps the Kremlin’s most feared critic, dismissed the charges as politically motivated. “We say this simple truth – that Putin is a thief – and that's why this trial is happening,” the Guardian quotes him as saying. If convicted he faces up to 10 years in prison.
Russian officialdom acknowledges the political component in the case against Navalny. Recently a spokesman for the powerful Investigative Committee told Izvestia, “Banal embezzlement cases like Navalny's would normally be handled by local authorities” but that when someone “teases the authorities,” the committee’s investigators sit up and take notice.
Ashton said she chose to begin her trip 15 April in Podgorica to flag that Montenegro is an example to other countries in the region, adding that she expects the government to do more to reform its legal system. She also asked for a constructive attitude among all sides involved in last week’s presidential election. The opposition claims fraud helped incumbent Filip Vujanovic retain his post.
Ashton’s tone was less friendly in Albania, which is not yet an official candidate for EU membership. She echoed concerns by the United States over the government’s move to replace a member of the Central Election Commission when the commissioner’s party left the ruling coalition, Reuters writes, and urged the authorities to see that this year’s parliamentary elections are held in line with international standards.
Moving on to Skopje on 16 April, Ashton focused on the dispute with Greece over the use of “Macedonia” as the country’s official name, which Greece insists implies a territorial claim to its province of the same name.
EU officials have been urging Macedonian leaders to patch up ties with Greece and, more importantly, deal with deep internal stresses that have at times brought normal politics to a halt. In a report released 16 April, the European Commission said the country was making progress and saw “new momentum” in the name dispute.
Today’s meeting with the Serbian and Kosovan prime ministers in Brussels was unexpected, following the two sides’ failure to compromise on the question of autonomy for Kosovo’s Serbian community at the last round of talks. The meeting was called after the European Commission delayed its latest report on the two countries’ readiness to start membership talks, RFE reports.
Lawmakers in the Bosniak-Croat Federation, the larger of Bosnia’s two semi-autonomous entities, voted 15 April to cut veterans’ benefits in order to secure the latest tranche of an international loan deal, Reuters reports. If the entity upper house approves the law, perhaps on 18 April, it will clear the way for a 40 million euro ($53 million) payment from the International Monetary Fund, part of an overall 405 million euro loan approved in September to plug the entity’s budget deficit.
Veterans protested in Sarajevo as parliament voted on the law, Balkan Insight reports. Federation Prime Minister Nermin Niksic said the entire budget would be in jeopardy unless the law passes.
“Adoption of this law … will ensure pensions, reimbursements, and salaries are paid,” Niksic said.
Pensions and benefits for the thousands of Bosnians who fought against Serbia and Croatia in the 1990s make up a significant part of the Federation budget. This is not the first time the IMF has demanded cuts as a condition of a loan. In 2010 the government cut veterans’ benefits and reduced public workers’ pay by 10 percent to qualify for a 1.2 billion euro IMF loan.
The entity budget currently is running a 418 million marka ($280 million) deficit, 300 million of which will be covered by IMF and EU loan funds, Reuters writes.
Niksic said 29,000 ex-soldiers will feel the weight of the law. The average pension will be cut by 100 euros to bring total spending on military pensions under a 100 million euro cap, according to Balkan Insight.
Poland is not yet ready to abandon its private pension scheme, even though “the intellectual system that has underpinned the pension funds has turned into rubble,” Finance Minister Jacek Rostowski said 16 April, Bloomberg BusinessWeek reports.
The government sees the funds as a chief culprit behind rising public debt, which has reached about 56 percent of gross domestic product, says The Wall Street Journal’s Emerging Europe blog. The 14 privately managed pension funds are fed by mandatory workers’ contributions and invest much of their assets into government bonds. The funds together held more than $36 billion worth of government bonds in February, or 21 percent of the total, BusinessWeek says.
Seeking to slow down the growth of the funds and the diversion of worker contributions away from the debt-ridden state-run pension plan, two years ago the government slashed workers’ contributions to 2.3 percent from 7.3 percent. The level will rise gradually to 3.5 percent over the next four years.
Prime Minister Donald Tusk last week said the government will announce its plans for the pension system by the end of June based on proposals drawn up by the Labor Ministry.
The Wall Street Journal writes that the funds’ promises to pay high returns have not panned out, while the diversion of worker contributions has hurt the state-run retirement scheme.
Rostowski reacted with outrage when the funds recently said they might consider paying pensions for a fixed term rather than for life.
Earlier this month Polish media speculated about the government shifting the funds’ holdings of government bonds to the state budget or even shutting down the funds, the Warsaw Business Journal reported.
The Romanian institute charged with investigating political crimes committed during the country’s four decades of communist rule has identified 35 former prison officials it believes were responsible for murder and other serious crimes against opponents of the regime.
Andrei Muraru, executive president of the Institute for the Investigation of Communist Crimes and the Memory of the Romanian Exile, told the Romanian daily Gandul the 35 people, now in their 80s and 90s, were implicated in the deaths of hundreds of political prisoners between 1950 and 1964.
Muraru added that the individuals were identified through the testimony of victims who are still alive. However, institute researchers “couldn’t speak with the suspects themselves because the institute is not a criminal court, so it can only document the existence of a file,” then refer the file to a court. Muraru said some notoriously harsh prisons “registered 200 deaths in a year, which is a clear instance of genocide.”
When its investigation is complete, the institute will deliver its findings to judicial authorities.
Unlike countries such as Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic, Romania has never adopted a lustration law to punish former high communist officials. The latest attempt failed when the lower house of parliament voted it down a measure on 19 March after the Constitutional Court ruled that it was unconstitutional, according to Realitatea.net.