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Plus, the Czechs drop their human rights qualms about business with China, and Ukraine’s president wants to liberate detained journalists.by Barbara Frye, Mane Grigoryan, Marketa Horazna, Rebecca Johnson, and Madeleine Stern 19 June 2014
1. Bosnia mounts its largest ever corruption probe
Bosnian prosecutors have ordered the arrest of more than 30 tax officials and the questioning of 20 others in the biggest investigation of organized crime and corruption in the country’s history, Balkan Insight reports.
Boris Grubesic, a spokesman for the prosecutor’s office, said the officials are suspected of “organized crime, taxation fraud, illegal taxation, money laundering and abuse of power,” according to the website.
Grubesic said the accused are suspected of waiving taxes on textiles entering the country. State Investigation and Protection Agency spokeswoman Kristina Jozic said some of the suspects waived taxes on more than 300 vehicles crossing into Bosnia from 2011 to 2013.
The former director of the Indirect Taxation Authority, Kemal Causevic, and Deputy Director Zdravko Cvjetinovic were among those arrested.
The Sarajevo-based Center for Investigative Journalism reported last year that Causevic bought nine properties and 20,000 square meters of land during his seven years in office, investments worth well beyond his combined income from 2004 to 2011.
Causevic’s assets were frozen by a court last year while he was the subject of a corruption investigation linked to those allegations, Balkan Insight reported at the time.
According to Transparency International, 70 percent of investigations into corruption in Bosnia are dismissed. The country ranks in the middle of the pack in the organization’s Corruption Perceptions Index of 177 countries, and its public sector gets a 42 on TI’s 100-point scale, with 100 being very clean.
2. Ukrainian official says pipeline blast was likely terrorism
The explosion of a natural gas pipeline in eastern Ukraine on 17 June is being investigated as a possible terrorist attack, Reuters reports.
“According to local residents, they heard two big bangs just before the explosion, which could indicate they were deliberate explosions,” Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said in a statement, according to the news agency.
No one was injured in the blast, which was “caused by an explosive device placed under a concrete block,” Avakov said during an 18 June government meeting, RIA Novosti reports. “We suppose that an explosive device was placed at the base of the cement foundation of the pipeline, and later two short explosions occurred, then a large one.”
The explosion came a day after Russia’s Gazprom shut off all gas to Ukraine except that intended for downstream customers in Europe, pending Kyiv’s payment of a $4.5 billion gas bill.
Avakov pointed the finger at Russia, saying the explosion was “the latest attempt by the Russian side to discredit Ukraine as a partner in the gas sector,” according to Reuters. He said there had been other attempts to attack the country’s gas transit infrastructure.
Former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, who had to deal with a pipeline explosion when his country was at loggerheads with Russia in winter 2005, shared Avakov’s view.
“Putin’s style does not change: in January 2005 the gas pipeline Georgia used to import Russian gas, as well as the main electricity supply line, were blown up by ‘unidentified terrorists’ in several places,” he wrote on his Facebook page. “Georgia ended up without heating and light in winter, in record cold weather.”
3. Czech official shops for Chinese trade and investment
The Czech Industry and Trade minister just wrapped up a trip to China as part of a controversial effort to boost economic ties between the two countries, Radio Prague reports.
Jan Mladek visited several Chinese regions and met with top officials, including ministers and those who hold the purse strings for major investment funds.
Mladek called the trip “a breakthrough in Czech-Chinese relations that were frozen after 2006 when a right-wing Czech government came to power. We are now committed to change that.”
The Social Democratic government that took office in January has reversed the country’s hands off posture toward China, which was based on the latter’s poor human rights record. That principle was largely a legacy of Vaclav Havel, the Czech Republic’s first post-communist president, who was a political prisoner under the communist regime.
Eager to cash in on China’s growing economic clout, Czech Foreign Minister Lubomír Zaoralek visited Beijing two months ago and assured his hosts that his country saw Tibet as an “inseparable part of China,” setting off a storm of protest among rights groups.
The entourage on Mladek’s trip included representatives of the Czech aviation industry. The minister said China’s ongoing transfer of aviation from military to civilian control mirrors a process the Czech Republic has already gone through and could be a fruitful market for Czech expertise.
“We can also train pilots, and deliver small aircraft because the Czech Republic is an important producer in this field,” he said, according to Radio Prague.
“China is the Czech Republic’s fourth largest business partner and the volume of mutual trade has increased three-fold since 2005 to about $20 billion a year. However, the volume of Czech exports, mainly machinery, only reached $1.7 billion in 2013, which is something the Czech government would like to change,” the broadcaster reports.
4. Poroshenko seeks Kremlin help to free journalists in eastern Ukraine
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has asked for aid from his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, in freeing journalists and activists detained in the country’s violence-wracked east, RIA Novosti reports.
The request came on the heels of the 17 June deaths of two Russian media workers in the eastern city of Luhansk.
“Viktor Denisov, a cameraman working with Kornelyuk, said in a television broadcast that they were filming Ukrainian refugees fleeing the area north of the regional capital when mortar fire began,” according to the AP.
Poroshenko has ordered an investigation into the killings. The journalists were wearing press badges, according to RIA Novosti, but Ukrainian media reports they did not have accreditation with Ukraine’s security service and were “in the ranks of the militants” without adequate safety gear.
Both separatists and Ukrainian authorities have detained journalists in the conflict zone, though they usually release them shortly afterward.
Dunja Mijatovic, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s free press rapporteur, lists at least 12 recent detentions on her website, along with instances of journalists being beaten or their families pressured. The site also notes a reported demand by separatists for Internet service providers “to reveal user data, including e-mails, contact lists, login information, visiting history, and other information or face seizure of equipment.”
5. Northern Kosovo trades a barrier for flower pots
What appeared to be a goodwill gesture to literally break down a barrier between ethnic Serbs and Albanians in northern Kosovo was apparently scuttled this week in a puzzling series of events.
First, Serbs in the town of Mitrovica removed a highly controversial roadblock that for three years had blocked a bridge linking the town’s predominantly Serb north to its Albanian southern section.
“But shortly after, large flower pots were placed in the same spot to keep the bridge closed for traffic,” the Associated Press reported on 18 June.
It’s not clear how long the barricade was gone, but also on 18 June, Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaci “welcomed the voluntarily removal of the barricades,” according to the Xinhua news agency. He linked the action to an April 2013 agreement between Serbia and Kosovo. That pact dismantled parallel governance institutions that Belgrade had been funding in Kosovo, which in exchange granted some autonomy for Serb enclaves in the former Serbian province.
Xinhua also reported that a spokesman for KFOR, the NATO force in Kosovo, said, “Serbs themselves have decided to remove the barricade, following a dozen of meetings between local Serb leaders with KFOR commander Salvatore Farina.”
The subsequent placement of the flower pots could be the work of hard-liners or part of the original plan, the AP reports.
North Mitrovica’s mayor, Goran Rakic, whom AP describes as “hard-line,” told reporters that he “took the decision to build ‘a peace park’ where the barrier stood,” according to the news agency.