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Unprecedented E-Security for Sochi Olympics, Top Romanian Official Charged with Vote Rigging

Plus, new studies are unlikely to defuse the controversy over Tajikistan’s Rogun dam, and do the Balkan countries need a new police force?

by Ioana Caloianu, Ky Krauthamer, and Alexander Silady 8 October 2013

1. Unprecedented communications monitoring set for Sochi Olympics


Two Russian investigative reporters have uncovered plans for extensive monitoring of electronic communications during next February’s Winter Olympics in Sochi, the Guardian reports.


Journalists Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan combed through documentation on a government procurement agency's website and discovered that the FSB security agency's surveillance systems on wi-fi, telephone, and cellular data networks had been extensively updated in the Krasnodar Krai, which includes Sochi.


Technical documents reveal that the nationwide surveillance system, known as SORM, is now capable of “deep-packet inspection,” a technique that decrypts files sent over the Internet and filters them by keywords. In other words, the FSB will be able to tell who is writing emails about gay rights or opposition politics, and where.


Ron Deibert, a University of Toronto professor and collaborator of Soldatov and Borogan, said there has never been as high a level of surveillance at an Olympiad before.


"Even as recently as the Beijing Olympics, the sophistication of surveillance and tracking capabilities were nowhere near where they are today,” Deibert said.


Deibert said the “scope and scale” of Russian surveillance technology are similar to PRISM, the secret U.S. monitoring system whose existence was revealed by NSA leaker Edward Snowden, now living in Russia.


The FSB did not respond to the Guardian’s requests for further comment.


Soldatov and Borogan’s site reports that the number of phone calls and emails intercepted by SORM doubled in six years, from 265,937 in 2007 to 539,864 in 2012.


Last week an FSB official dismissed the notion that travel restrictions in the Sochi area during the games would infringe upon the rights of visitors, according to Russia Beyond the Headlines.


Krasnaya Polyana, where the Olympic ski events will take place. Photo: Wikimedia Commons


2. Vote-rigging charges leveled at Romanian deputy premier, dozens more


Romanian Deputy Prime Minister Liviu Dragnea and 74 others are suspected of trying to manipulate the 2012 referendum on the impeachment of President Traian Basescu, according to the BBC.


DragneaLiviu Dragnea
Dragnea is charged with asking local Social Democratic party leaders to rig the votes in order to ensure that turnout exceeded the 50 percent threshold needed to validate the results. The official turnout in the 29 July 2012 referendum reached only 46 percent, allowing Basescu to stay in office even though 88 percent of voters backed his impeachment.


The Social Democratic government headed by Prime Minister Victor Ponta made the conservative Basescu its chief target as soon as it took office after the spring 2012 elections. Each side accused the other of manipulating the constitution to strengthen its hold on power.


The Romanian news site Digi 24 reports that Dragnea is suspected of using his then position as the head of the Teleorman County Council to ensure a turnout of more than 60 percent. The other people charged include chairmen and members of election commissions from Vrancea, Teleorman, and Gorj counties, and election observers from the civic sector and political parties.


Digi 24 also writes that the vote rigging scheme included a technology capable of obtaining confidential information from polling stations over the Internet before the voting was over.


Ponta, one of the chief backers of the referendum, rejected the case against Dragnea and said he was “100 percent sure the judges will find that such accusations are politically motivated,” according to The first hearing in the case is scheduled for 18 February.


3. Experts debate proposed West Balkan police force


Security experts broadly welcome Montenegro’s scheme for a “Western Balkan Six” crime fighting organization, although significant questions remain unresolved, Southeast European Times writes.


Montenegro’s deputy prime minister and foreign minister, Igor Luksic, floated the idea of a regional security and cooperation group last spring, the Macedonian news agency MINA reported, citing the Montenegrin daily Dan. The group would include Serbia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Albania, and Bosnia and Herzegovina in addition to Montenegro. The idea reportedly got a positive reaction from the office of EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fuele.


The initiative envisages a joint police force called BALPOL, Serbian Police Union spokesman Dragan Zebeljan told SETimes.


The state secretary of the Serbian Interior Ministry, Vladimir Bozovic, said BALPOL would strengthen security in a region where criminals in different countries cooperate using sophisticated methods and technology.


Law enforcers also need new tools to deal with the risks of radical Islamist and terrorist organizations in the region, Ivan Babanovski of the Macedonian State Security Agency said.


"It is important to start the initiative even without agreeing on all issues," he said.


An academic expert told the U.S. Defense Department-sponsored website there was already a significant level of cooperation in the region.


“But the problem is the very high level of corruption as well as the mistrust among the Balkan countries," Zoran Dragisic of the Belgrade University Department of Security Studies said.


A Macedonian professor of security studies, Vladimir Pivovarov, said BALPOL could help address the weaknesses in existing regional agreements on such matters as extradition.


"But the functioning of BALPOL is questionable in that it is not clear whether constitutions or other state laws will have to be changed; where will the data archives be located and how will they be protected," Pivovarov said.


4. New Rogun studies unlikely to calm Tashkent’s fears of giant dam


Two new World Bank-commissioned engineering studies of Tajikistan’s Rogun dam are unlikely to ease tensions with neighboring Uzbekistan over the huge hydro power project, reports.


The Soviet-era project designed to ease Tajikistan’s chronic power shortages by building the world’s highest dam has become something of a talisman for the Tajikistani government and a bogeyman for Uzbekistan, which lies downstream of the dam.


Last month Dushanbe said it would wait for the results of the studies before starting to build the dam, although as Business New Europe reported, “it is likely to press on with construction whatever the result of the study, inflaming tensions in an already jittery region where water is an increasingly precious resource and earthquakes a constant worry.”


The studies by French consultants Coyne et Bellier recommend repairs to many parts of the project, writes. Tunnels need to be fixed, old machinery “will be subject to frequent breakdowns,” and “significant wall deformations” were found in the underground cavern where the powerhouse will be built.


Uzbekistan could seize on these findings to bolster its position that the dam is unsafe, the article says, noting President Islam Karimov’s 2012 prediction of regional disputes over water resources possibly leading to “not simply serious confrontation but even wars.”


Uzbekistan has also long argued that the reservoir behind the giant dam will slow the flow of water in the Amu Darya River, water it needs for the cotton fields that supply much-needed export earnings. Tashkent has shown its displeasure by blocking Tajikistan-bound freight trains, raising rail tariffs, and proposing a new railway that would bypass Tajikistani territory.


Rogun engineers said in August the first two units of the dam’s hydro power plant could go into service soon, Business New Europe writes.


5. Two historic Bohemian synagogues reopen


Members of the Czech Jewish community and international guests celebrated the reopening of two synagogues last weekend, each in its way a historic jewel.


One of the country’s few surviving village synagogues was rededicated as a cultural center 5 October in Ckyne, southwestern Bohemia, JTA reports. The temple dates from 1828 but has not been used for regular services since the late 19th century, a period when many rural Jews were migrating to the cities.


The building’s conversion into an apartment house before World War II probably ensured its survival, Czech public television’s CT24 news channel reports. A local historian said the restoration cost about 10 million crowns ($530,000).


The Prague Jewish community, local authorities, nonprofit groups, and private builders collaborated on the lengthy restoration, JTA reports. The acting executive director of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, E. Randol Schoenberg, whose ancestors came from Ckyne, attended the ceremony.


The unusual synagogue in the small town of Nova Cerekev also reopened last week, although only temporarily as repairs continue to the structure in the “Assyrian-Babylonian” style – the only synagogue of the kind in Central Europe, CT24 writes.


Ckyne_synagogueThe newly restored synagogue in Ckyne. Photo:

Ioana Caloianu is a TOL editorial assistant. Ky Krauthamer is a senior editor at TOL. Alexander Silady is a TOL editorial intern.

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