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Stark Warnings in EU Corruption Survey, Bulgarian President Backs Compulsory Voting

Plus, a controversial Russian lawmaker stands up to the ‘fascist’ threat to Kosovo Serbs, and a sci-fi thriller begins shooting in Minsk under official auspices.

by Ioana Caloianu, Sarah Fluck, Aliona Kachkan, and Ky Krauthamer 4 February 2014

1.  In new report, EU warns of urgent need to combat corruption


In the first EU-wide corruption report, the European Commission highlights the huge costs of graft while acknowledging that EU institutions can play only a limited role in fighting it.


The report highlights public procurement and opaque political party financing as two of the most serious problems, EUObserver reports.


“We are not doing enough and this is true in all member states,” EU Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom said 3 February.


Public procurement is vulnerable to corruption owing to lax regulation and the sheer volume of funds involved – one-fifth of the EU’s gross domestic product. In 2011, the value of contracts subject to EU rules was about 425 billion euros ($575 billion), the report says. It cites 2008 research estimating that corruption may push up the costs of public contracts by an average of 20 percent to 25 percent.


Like other studies, the report found that residents of western and northern EU countries are less likely to say they have personally encountered corruption than their counterparts elsewhere in the EU. In Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Greece, Lithuania, and Romania, from 6 percent to 29 percent of respondents to a recent Eurobarometer poll said they had been asked or expected to pay a bribe in the past year. Sixty-three percent of Spaniards and Greeks said they were personally affected by corruption, followed by Cyprus and Romania (57 percent each), and Croatia (55 percent).


In a study timed to coincide with the EU report, the Czech-based Environmental Law Service identifies gaps in national and EU legislation that groups in the Czech Republic, Poland, and Slovakia exploit for political gain or to misuse EU funds.


Although the EU “has very limited competence in the area of public administrative law of its member states,” the study says union institutions can influence national opinion makers through country-specific recommendations. It suggests the EU Court of Audit and the Anti-Fraud Office push for less turnover among top managers responsible for implementing EU funds in their countries; separating political and nonpolitical positions in public bodies responsible for handling EU funds; and strengthening legal protections for civil servants ordered by superiors to abuse the rules and for whistle blowers.


2. Bulgarian president calls for compulsory voting


Plevneliev_100 Rosen Plevneliev
Bulgarians should be given the chance to reform the country’s electoral system in an effort to lift the country out of a crisis of confidence in the political system, President Rosen Plevneliev said in a televised speech 29 January.


Plevneliev proposed a referendum to decide whether to introduce compulsory voting, direct election of some lawmakers instead of exclusive use of party lists, and electronic voting, Reuters reports.


Making voting compulsory would stem election fraud, said Plevneliev, who is not a member of a political party but belonged to the center-right GERB party – now in opposition – before becoming president.


“I appeal to the parliament to take a decision to hold a referendum … I believe will help to stabilize the institutions and increase public trust,” he said.


Allegations of vote-buying and other election fraud have dogged Bulgarian politics for years. Prosecutors claimed that large-scale fraud affected last spring’s early elections, called after months of protests brought down the government headed by GERB.


A GERB member of the European Parliament, Andrey Kovatchev, supported Plevneliev’s call for compulsory voting, Novinite reports. The Socialists and the Turkish Movement for Rights and Freedom Party, partners in the ruling coalition, have come out against the idea, Reuters writes.


3. Father of Russia’s anti-gay laws to defend the rights of Kosovo Serbs


Vitaly MilonovVitaly Milonov
The St. Petersburg city assembly member who paved the way for Russia’s law against homosexual propaganda, Vitaly Milonov, now wants to help defend Kosovo’s Serb minority from its “Albanian occupiers,” Radio Free Europe reports.


Milonov said last month a nonprofit center he has opened in the Serb part of the northern Kosovo city of Mitrovica will monitor “human rights abuses by the Islamic-Albanian occupiers, the Turkish fascists” of Kosovo.


Milonov sponsored the 2012 St. Petersburg ordinance setting fines for promoting a homosexual lifestyle. Other Russian cities and the national parliament followed suit with similar anti-gay laws.


A Russian and a Serbian human-rights expert will work in the North Mitrovica center, RIA Novosti reports. Though the organization is not officially registered, Milonov received written permission from the Serbian cabinet minister responsible for Kosovo, Alexander Vulin, as well as the blessing of the leader of the Serbian Orthodox Church, according to RIA Novosti.


Speaking in North Mitrovica on 19 January, Milonov said he was acting in his private capacity and that the center was privately funded, RFE writes.


Russia has been one of Serbia’s staunchest allies since the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s and refuses to recognize Kosovo as independent.


4. Belarusian movie whitewashes crackdown on 2010 protests, critics charge


A movie that has divided the Belarusian film world began shooting in Minsk 30 January as actors re-created a protest against President Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s 2010 re-election, RFE reports.


The Culture Ministry-financed film, Abel, shows two brothers taking opposite sides of the social rift that opened after the election. In the weeks after the vote, several defeated candidates and dozens of protesters were jailed on a variety of charges.


The film is an official reaction to the Polish-made drama Viva Belarus! (see trailer below) written by dissident Franak Viachorka and based on his experiences in the anti-Lukashenka protests, the opposition Charter ’97 website writes.



BBC Monitoring quoted Belarusian filmmaker Andrei Kureichik in September saying the Culture Ministry chose producer Sergei Zhdanovich's Nonstop Media company to make the film to put an official gloss on the 2010 election.


Zhdanovich said the film will show "only a fragment" about the election, and, despite what his critics predict, "won't judge and won't analyze events." On 3 February Charter ’97 posted what it says is the complete script, telling how a secret organization of descendants of the Biblical Abel works with Belarusian secret agents to identify killers through a genetic database of every person on Earth. One of the Abelians is an American journalist who travels to Belarus to try to prevent crimes predicted for the 2010 election.


5. Cold, snow wreak havoc from the Adriatic to Afghanistan


At least 15 deaths, school closures, and the threat of electricity shortages have made life miserable in many areas of Central Asia in recent days.


Some of the worst weather hit Afghanistan, RFE reports, with nearby parts of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan also suffering from severe cold and heavy snow. Airports in Kulob and Qurghon-Teppa, Tajikistan, were shut down and schools across the country were told to close until 10 February.


In Kyrgyzstan, five people died in avalanches and the airport in the city of Jalal-Abad was closed.


The severe cold also forced Uzbekistani authorities to close schools in Tashkent and other areas, reports.


The cold blast sent electricity use soaring to a record high in Kyrgyzstan, the Times of Central Asia writes, and energy producers are sending out technicians and taking other measures to ensure uninterrupted power. Residents have been advised to reduce the use of electric heaters at peak hours and switch to coal or gas for cooking and home heating.


Meanwhile, thousands of miles to the west, Slovenia is counting the cost after a powerful ice and snow storm that began 31 January and spread into parts of Croatia and Serbia, where hundreds of motorists were rescued from snowdrifts.


Serbia storm, 2.2014Rescuers in northern Serbia help a child trapped in a car by deep snowdrifts. Image from BBC footage reposted by Skendong/YouTube


Ioana Caloianu is a TOL editorial assistant. Sarah Fluck and Aliona Kachkan are TOL editorial interns. Ky Krauthamer is a senior editor at TOL.
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