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FBI Probes Russia-Based Bank Hack, Balkan Leaders Seek Investment in Berlin

Plus, Turkmenistan inks a major gas deal, and rights advocates are alarmed over the plight of an imprisoned Uzbekistani film producer.

by S. Adam Cardais, Ioana Caloianu, and Anders Ryehauge 29 August 2014

1. Report: Russian cyber warriors attack U.S. banks

 

The FBI is looking into the origins of recent cyber attacks from Russia against JP Morgan Chase and at least one other U.S. bank, Bloomberg reports, citing sources familiar with the probe.

 

The hackers managed to obtain a large amount of “sensitive data” from the bank earlier this month in a complicated attack that according to security experts goes “far beyond the capability of ordinary criminal hackers.” Two anonymous sources told Bloomberg there could be a government link to the incident because of the “sophistication of the attack and technical indicators extracted from the banks’ computers.”

 

Investigators are also considering the possibility that the hacks are the work of criminal cyber gangs in Russia or Eastern Europe.

 

The probe comes amid heightened tension between the West and Russia, and as government-backed cyber attacks from the East against targets in the United States have been on the rise.

 

ISight Partners, which provides cyber defenses for companies, warned its clients recently against a potential rise in cyber attacks in the United States in retaliation for sanctions imposed on some Russian individuals and companies, Bloomberg reports.

 

JP Morgan took heat from Russia in April when it blocked a payment from the Russian Embassy to an affiliate of a U.S.-sanctioned bank. The Russian Foreign Ministry called the move "illegal and absurd" at the time.

 

The multinational company has not issued a statement on the attack but told Bloomberg that companies of its size experience cyber attacks daily and have “multiple, layers of defense to counteract any threats.” The company is estimated to be the fourth-largest public company in the world, according to Forbes.

 

This is not the first time Russia has been accused of launching a cyber attack against its antagonists. In 2007 Estonia experienced a wave of cyber attacks with Russian connections and the following year Georgia was similarly hit.

 

2. At summit, Balkan leaders court German investment

 

Balkan leaders pledged to work together to revive their ailing economies at a 28 August summit in Berlin, where sights were also set on courting German investment, Balkan Insight reports.

 

Hosted by Chancellor Angela Merkel, the one-day summit drew Balkan premiers and finance and foreign ministers to discuss with EU leaders everything from economics to the region’s European trajectory. A major takeaway, Balkan Insight reports, was a consensus that Serbia, Croatia, Montenegro, and their neighbors must begin working together to rebuild their economies two decades after the wars that tore Yugoslavia apart.

 

Dusan Vujovic
For instance, Serbian Finance Minister Dusan Vujovic urged regional cooperation on road, railway, and other infrastructure projects. “We need to finish the connections that we started[ed] building 60 years ago.”

 

At the same time, leaders stressed the need for foreign investment, particularly from Germany. “We need a game changer … and the game changer is foreign investment,” said Albanian Economy Minister Arben Ahmetaj.

 

According to a separate Balkan Insight report, Balkan leaders are eyeing German investment in several big infrastructure projects. These include a new highway in Montenegro; energy and road projects in Kosovo; and, in Serbia, reconstruction of a rail link through Montenegro and Kosovo to Albania.

 

Merkel and other European leaders pledged financial aid for infrastructure projects, Radio Free Europe reports.

 

The Balkan conference is to become an annual event. Austria will host it next year.

 

Leaders from Balkan countries met with German Chancellor Angela Merkel this week to discuss cross-border projects and to woo foreign investment. Photo from the German government website.

 

3. In diversification push, Turkmenistan to build $1.7 billion gasoline plant

 

In a $1.7 billion deal with a Turkish-Japanese consortium, Turkmenistan will build a gas-to-liquids plant as part of a push to capitalize fully on its massive natural gas reserves, Reuters reports.

 

Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov
On 26 August, Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov signed the deal for a high-end natural gas processing plant that will produce more than 600,000 tons of gasoline a year. Japan’s Kawasaki Heavy Industries and Turkey’s Ronesans Endustri Tesisleri are partners in the project, slated to launch in spring 2018.

 

The hermit state of Central Asia, Turkmenistan has the world’s fourth-largest natural gas reserves, according to Reuters. The deal is part of a plan to diversify away from an overreliance on natural gas production.

 

In June, Berdymukhamedov wrapped up similar large-scale deals with South Korean investors to build two natural gas processing plants.

 

The agreements come as Iran, Turkmenistan’s second-largest trading partner, reduces Turkmen gas imports as domestic production rises.

 

4. Imprisoned Uzbekistani film producer likely pressured to forgo legal help

 

A former Uzbekistani film producer and businessman in a Tashkent prison for alleged connections to banned organizations might have been pressured into refusing legal advice through brutal methods.

 

Mirsobir Hamidkariev’s refusal of legal counsel has been a cause of concern for his mother, Marguba Hamidkarieva, who has sought help from the Fiery Hearts Club human rights organization, Uznews.net reports, citing the group’s website.

 

Fiery Hearts Club director Mutabor Tajibaeva said prosecutors are probably trying to prevent Hamidkariev from talking about the torture and psychological pressure he has been subjected to by investigators. Surat Ikramov, head of Independent Human Rights Activists Initiative Group, said it’s common for inmates in Uzbekistan to be pressured to refuse legal advice so that a lawyer will be assigned to them who usually turns a blind eye to the mistreatment and abuse of his or her client.

 

Hamidkariev has been on Uzbekistan’s list of international fugitives since 2011, and he and his family received political asylum in Russia in May, according to Uznews.net. However, he was kidnapped by Uzbekistani secret services before the ruling came into effect and taken to Tashkent, where he faces charges of connections with banned Uzbek organizations, Islamic jihadists, and Wahhabis, a loose term for Islamic extremists commonly used in Russia and Central Asia.

 

The real reason for Hamidkariev’s imprisonment might be his connection to Gulnara Karimova, the once-powerful daughter of Uzbekistani President Islam Karimov, according to Uznews.net, which says he was friends with her boyfriend and manager of a performer who is a former boyfriend of Karimova.  

 

Karimova is under house arrest and has had her business empire stripped from her. Some who worked closely with her have been imprisoned.

 

5. Macedonia plans exclusive ‘health care zone’ near Skopje

 

In a bid to attract “medical tourism,” Skopje is courting foreign hospitals that will be off limits to locals, Balkan Insight reports.

 

Under the Health Ministry plan, private companies will receive state incentives to build hospitals in a “health care zone” near Skopje to exclusively treat foreign, private patients. Health Minister Nikola Todorov said the raft of incentives will include up to 50 percent of the initial investment and a 10-year income-tax exemption for hospitals and their employees.

 

Throughout the western Balkans, health care is poor, and Todorov stressed that the “health care zone” would be top notch, with treatments, preventive care, and diagnostic techniques not “previously used in Macedonia,” Balkan Insight reports.

 

However, Macedonians and patients from neighboring Kosovo will not be welcome, he added, because existing private facilities might lose business. Kosovans often seek treatment in Macedonia because theirs is among the worst health care systems in Europe.

 

Balkan Insight points out that the proposal comes on the heels of a constitutional amendment to open a “free financial zone,” effectively a tax haven for foreign banks and investors.

S. Adam Cardais is a TOL contributing editor. Ioana Caloianu is a TOL editorial assistant. Anders Ryehauge is a TOL editorial intern.
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