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Romanians Plead Guilty to Art Heist, Georgia May Reopen Zhvania Death Probe

Plus, a new bridge over the Danube springs leaks and a report delves into the many roots of corruption in Armenia.

by Ioana Caloianu, Barbara Frye, and Ky Krauthamer 23 October 2013

1. Georgia may reopen Zhvania death probe


Georgia’s prime minister and other officials are hinting they may back a new investigation into the death eight years ago of Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania after his brother claimed new evidence had emerged that contradicts the official findings.


Zurab Zhvania
The bodies of Zhvania and Rasul Yusupov, a deputy regional governor, were found in a Tbilisi apartment in February 2005. The official investigation concluded they were poisoned by a gas leak from a malfunctioning heater.


Zhvania’s brother Giorgi has always contested that account and now claims to have evidence to back him up, Radio Free Europe reports. He believes the two men died elsewhere and were brought to the apartment to cover the tracks of what may have been a murder arranged by officials close to President Mikheil Saakashvili. Although in the past he accused former Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili, former Deputy Prime Minister Giorgi Baramidze, and former Prosecutor General Zurab Adeishvili of complicity in the cover-up, Giorgi Zhvania said last week he was “not saying that it was these persons who killed my brother.”


On 17 October Justice Minister Thea Tsulukiani backed a new probe, saying, “The country must know why the prime minister, for whom people had hopes, died,” according to Democracy & Freedom Watch.


Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili told Imedi TV he could not rule out criminal proceedings against Saakashvili in connection with Zhvania’s death and other cases.


Zhvania, at one time a close ally of Eduard Shevardnadze, joined Saakashvili and other reformers in opposition to the corrupt regime, then became one of Saakashvili’s rivals to head up the opposition that took power in the “Rose Revolution.” After Saakashvili’s election as president the two worked closely together, and after Zhvania’s death the president eulogized him as "my closest friend, most trusted adviser, and greatest ally." 


Chief Prosecutor Archil Kbilashvili confirmed that new details in the case had emerged and that investigators were looking into new leads, according to Democracy & Freedom Watch.


2. Accused Romanian art thieves plead guilty, masterpieces still missing


Three Romanians accused of the theft of seven valuable paintings from a Dutch museum have pleaded guilty in a Bucharest court, according to the Guardian. Radu Dogaru, Alexandru Bitu, and Eugen Darie admitted on 22 October that they stole the paintings from Rotterdam's Kunsthal in October 2012, in what is considered the biggest art heist in the Netherlands in over a decade. Three other defendants are on trial in the case, including one in absentia and another who has not been arrested, the Guardian reports.


The paintings, which include works by Picasso, Monet, and Matisse, have not been recovered. Radu Dogaru's mother, Olga, initially told authorities that she burned them in a stove in her back yard. A forensic analysis confirmed the existence of 19th-century canvas and paint in the ashes from the stove, although both Radu and later Olga Dogaru denied that the ashes came from burning the stolen paintings. The Guardian reports Dogaru’s claim that he handed some of the paintings over to a Russian-Ukrainian man.


art thievesCCTV footage of the thieves in the Rotterdam museum. Photo from a video by Observator TV/YouTube


Dogaru's lawyer, Catalin Dancu, claims five of the paintings may be in Moldova, while the other two “got lost in Belgium,” Romanian TV station Antena 1 reports. Dancu also said he might initiate a lawsuit against the Kunsthal and Rotterdam City Hall for failing to provide adequate security.


“There are no sensors around the artworks, not even protective glass cases to prevent you from touching them or smearing them with ink,” Dancu said. The legal action would be meant to act as a mitigating circumstance in his client’s trial, he added. 


3. Holes, leaks plague new Danube bridge


A pothole that appeared recently on a new bridge between Bulgaria and Romania may be only the most visible of many problems affecting the $350 million structure.


Bulgaria’s Transport Ministry found 20 serious defects on the Danube Bridge 2, or New Europe Bridge, Transport Minister Danail Papazov said, according to Novinite. The ministry reinspected the bridge, which opened in June, after a large pothole appeared following heavy mid-October rains.


The almost 2-kilometer (1.25 mile) bridge between Vidin, Bulgaria, and Calafat on the Romanian side is only the second to link the countries along their long Danube border. It is meant to divert some of the heavy truck traffic from the older bridge between Romanian Giurgiu and Ruse, Bulgaria and ease cross-border traffic for local residents.


However, as the Financial Times writes, “roads either side of the New Europe bridge are much in need of improvement. The bridge seems unlikely to be a major boon for regional transit without substantial upgrades to connecting infrastructure.”


That view was echoed by the chairman of a Sofia trucking company who said he had not seen a major shift of truck traffic to the new bridge.


Papazov said the new inspection revealed “many potholes and a whole series of problems,” including water leaking under the asphalt through cracks resulting from poor drainage.


“If it can be comforting, the Romanian part is in worse condition," the minister said.


Danube bridgeThe new bridge. Photo: Wikimedia Commons


4. Report: Corruption is strangling Armenia


Corruption is so prevalent in Armenia − from the courts to the military, from contracting to health care, from elections to education − that it threatens the existence of the country itself, according to a new report.


Corruption “puts in place insurmountable barriers for the economic development and progress in the country,” Policy Forum Armenia, a think tank in Washington, D.C., warns.


Researchers examined corruption in six areas to see how it has hobbled the country’s economy, starved Armenia of government and private investment, weakened the armed forces, sown widespread cynicism, and perhaps even contributed to a decline in life expectancy.


The think tank describes a culture in which the top echelons of business and government cooperate to leech off the country’s greatest assets, including, for instance, mining and import-export licenses, often transferring the wealth abroad. The damage to the country is exacerbated by the government’s unwillingness to “tax its friends − the oligarchs and top politicians with sizable business holdings − [instead harassing] the remaining entrepreneurs and businesses by imposing excessive fines and advance payments on future tax liabilities and extorting bribes,” the report notes.


Some of the report’s strongest language is reserved for the justice system, which it deems “in critical condition” and sees as a factor behind large-scale emigration. “The establishment of an independent and unbiased court system is impossible” in a setting where “[t]he courts remain an inseparable component of the executive branch of government subject to arbitrary intervention and pressure.”


The authors say the ruling regime lacks the political will to address the issue, and they encourage would-be reformers outside Armenia, including members of the country’s large diaspora, to cultivate civil society and independent media.


Not that officials do not understand the size of the problem. In 2009, highly placed staff at the Economy Ministry estimated that corruption taints about half of the country’s economic activity.


“There is no understanding of public benefits and the public interest,” then-Deputy Economy Minister Mushegh Tumasyan lamented at the time.


In June President Serzh Sargsyan declared that he would rein in corruption and other lawlessness among local officials, who often treat their regions as fiefdoms. But observers note that those officials are the ruling party’s whips, rounding up votes come election time, so any effort against them is necessarily constrained.


5. ‘Haunted’ Croatian island spurned by potential buyers


Its attractions include easy access to some of Croatia’s biggest tourist spots and good transport connections, for a tiny island. So why are the owners of Daksa having so much trouble selling it?


According to the Croatian Times, the island is reputed to be haunted by the spirits of 48 people cruelly put to death there, possibly explaining why its owners have cut the price by more than half from the $6 million they were asking 10 years ago.


The uninhabited, 12-acre island lies just off the port of Dubrovnik, a constant stopping place for cruise ships and ferries. Day trippers occasionally come to visit the old monastery there, but evil tales have surrounded the place since 24 October 1944, when Yugoslav partisans took 48 local people to the island and executed them as Nazi sympathizers, London’s Daily Mail explains. During the war Croatia was ruled by a Nazi puppet regime.


Among the dead were two priests and the mayor of Dubrovnik, Slobodna Dalmacija writes, adding that the bodies of the massacre victims were not exhumed and given proper burial until three years ago.


By law Dubrovnik-Neretva County has the right to make the first offer for the island, according to the Croatian Times. But with the Croatian economy still in the doldrums after five years of recession and rising debt, the county may have more pressing needs than buying an island of ghosts.

Ioana Caloianu is a TOL editorial assistant. Barbara Frye is TOL's managing editor. Ky Krauthamer is a senior editor at TOL.
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