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Big Corruption Bust in Poland, Suspicious Activity Closes a Russian Bank

Plus, progress is reported in a Bosnian schools dispute, and a Belarusian court upholds a ban on a book of ‘extremist’ news photos.

by By Ioana Caloianu, Ky Krauthamer, and Karlo Marinovic 20 November 2013

1. Polish police detain 18 in suspected $500 million government procurement fraud


Polish authorities have rounded up 18 people in a strike against a major corruption scheme involving government purchases of computer systems, the AP reports.


Those detained 19 November included the deputy head of the country’s statistics office, a Foreign Ministry official, and sales directors of several IT companies.


Jacek DobrzynskiJacek Dobrzynski
Investigators are looking into purchases of IT equipment and services at the Interior Ministry and national police headquarters in what could become Poland’s biggest corruption scandal, Central Anti-Corruption Bureau spokesman Jacek Dobrzynski told the TVN24 news channel.


Suspicious government purchases worth around $486 million are involved, the AP reports. Seventeen other people have already been charged in the investigation.


2. Russian bank shuttered for money laundering


A Russian bank involved in “major suspicious transactions” had its license revoked by the country’s central bank today.


Moscow-based Master-Bank is the biggest of 23 Russian banks to lose their licenses this year, Bloomberg Businessweek reports. The central bank said the institution repeatedly breached money laundering laws and falsified its accounts.


The mid-sized bank was the 72nd largest Russian bank by assets. Its closure will force the state deposit insurance agency to pay depositors around $900 million, Reuters reports, making it the biggest such payout since the government created the agency in 2004.


A money-laundering probe launched in 2011 by the Interior Ministry also resulted in the arrests of several senior Master-Bank executives, RIA Novosti reports.


An analyst quoted by Businessweek said the central bank has stepped up efforts to clean up the banking industry under new governor Elvira Nabiullina. Her predecessor, Sergey Ignatiev, said in June that dubious banking transactions could account for two-thirds of the $54 billion in net private capital outflow from Russia last year.


3. Bosnian Serbs, Muslims reportedly strike deal on school dispute


Republika Srpska, the Serb-dominated part of Bosnia, is close to an agreement with Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) parents who have been protesting for more than a month over how their children are taught, FENA reports.


Goran Mutabzija, Minister of Education and Culture in Rerpublika Srpska Goran Mutabdzija
The education minister of Republika Srpska, Goran Mutabdzija, announced progress in the dispute today after meeting with representatives of parents and UNICEF, the UN children’s agency.


Parents from two partly Bosniak villages in the region have been keeping their children home from school since September in a dispute over the curriculum and the lack of teaching in the Bosnian language. They say the Republika Srpska’s government is not abiding by an agreement to use a “Bosnian” curriculum to teach literature, language, history, and geography for their children and is instead using a Serbian one.


Some parents have been camped out in front of the Office of the High Representative, which oversees the country’s compliance with the peace agreement that ended the war in 1995.


“We will take into account all the specifics and rights of minorities through the work of school boards,” Mutabdzija said today.


The minister did not say whether such a compromise would cancel out his previous statement that Republika Srpska will not renew the agreement with the Bosniak- and Croat-dominated Federation half of Bosnia on the rights of the countries’ children to be taught certain subjects according to their own curriculum.


Mutabdzija said earlier this week that only mother tongue language and religion classes would be offered in Bosnian and Croat, Balkan Insight reports. He suggested the other subjects could be offered as extracurricular activities.


Mutabdzija set a 22 November deadline for the Bosniak children to return to school.


4. Belarusian publisher loses suit over ‘extremist’ photos


A Belarusian publisher has lost another round in his legal fight over a book of press photos, Radio Free Europe writes.


On 18 November, the Belarusian Supreme Economic Court rejected an appeal from the private publishing house LohvinaU, which had its license revoked in April on the request of the Information Ministry for distributing “extremist” material in its publication Belarus Press Photo 2011, which featured the work of photographers awarded prizes in a national competition.


Andrey Bastunets, a lawyer for LohvinaU owner Ihar Lohvinau, said the book was published well before being declared extremist. The ministry’s decision was an “obvious restriction on freedom of expression and opinion,” he said, according to Belsat TV.


The ministry argued it had the right to revoke publishing licenses regardless of when the damaging material appeared.


The book included photos of police standing over a bloody protester during riots following the disputed December 2010 presidential elections. After copies of the book were confiscated at the Lithuanian border in 2012, the Belarusian KGB said the books “contain intentionally distorted, false facts about vital activity of Belarus in political, social, economic spheres and others, which humiliate the national honor and dignity of Belarusian citizens,” the Belarusian Association of Journalists reported.


Lohvinau intends to appeal the Supreme Economic Court’s decision, RFE writes.


Belarus Press Photo 2011This photo by Natalya Dorosh (detail) won an award in the Belarus Press Photo 2011 competition. Photo from a video by Roman Koncur/YouTube


5. Karabakh refugees: A bilateral problem with no solution in sight


Azerbaijan devotes more state funds to the needs of internal refugees than any other country, writes, citing the International Crisis Group. In 2012 the government channeled 3 percent of the budget to rehousing some of the hundreds of thousands who fled Nagorno-Karabakh more than 20 years ago as Armenian forces occupied the territory.


Last year, more than 10,000 refugees moved into new housing, the Geneva-based Internal Displacement Monitoring Center (IDMC) reports.


Yet these new homes “come with a catch,” writes. The recipients “cannot sell, give as a gift, or transfer the apartments; they are deemed temporary shelters and the government retains sole ownership.”


Meanwhile, Baku’s official position, unchanged since the 1994 cease-fire, is that Armenia must withdraw from Nagorno-Karabakh, which remains Azerbaijani territory under international law. Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov restated this demand this week, adding that the “almost 1 million refugees and internally displaced people should return to their place of origin.”


Citing “observers”, writes that that position could encourage the government to keep ownership of the properties so that it can evict the refugees if they are ever able to return to Nagorno-Karabakh.


Yet if that should happen, observers also wonder how many of these people would want to return to the remote territory. Many of the displaced have been rehoused in or around Baku, a city that has been transformed by oil wealth.


The $4.4 billion Baku spent on refugees in the past decade, according to the IDMC, far outweighs the amount the Armenian government can devote to its own displaced people.


Armenian State Migration Service Director Gagik Yeganian recently told that $25 million is needed to provide housing for refugees forced out of Azerbaijan during the conflict over Karabakh. But his service has no budget to assist them, the website reports.


And even in comparatively wealthy Azerbaijan, most internal refugees “are yet to benefit from government housing assistance,” the IDMC states. “More than 400,000 continue to live in dilapidated, crowded, and unsanitary collective centers such as former hostels, schools, kindergartens, and sanatoriums.”

Ioana Caloianu is a TOL editorial assistant. Ky Krauthamer is a senior editor at TOL. Karlo Marinovic is a TOL editorial intern.
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