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Croatia, Slovenia End Bank Row; A 'Historic U-Turn by Belgrade' on Kosovo?

Plus, another Chechen rebel leader is killed and Russia goes after Magnitsky’s former partner, again. by S. Adam Cardais, Ioana Caloianu, and Jennifer Hoch 8 March 2013
1. Croatia's EU path cleared with deal to end Slovenian bank row

Zagreb and Ljubljana have reached terms to end a 20-year dispute over a Yugoslav-era bank that threatened Croatia's European Union accession, Reuters reports.

After declaring the impasse broken 7 March, Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Jansa and Croatian counterpart Zoran Milanovic are expected to sign a memorandum on the resolution 11 March. Jansa said Slovenia would be able to ratify Croatia's EU accession treaty within a month.

In 2011, Croatia got the green light to join the EU this July, but Slovenia has refused to sign off on its accession because of the dispute over Ljubljanska Banka, which received savings from Yugoslav citizens in the 1970s. When its assets were acquired by the Slovene Nova Ljubljanska Banka in 1994, thousands of non-Slovene customers couldn't access their deposits, prompting several lawsuits in Croatia supported by the government.

Slovenia has long demanded Croatia drop the suits, worth 270 million euros ($354 million). Croatia has done so under the new deal. The countries agreed to work with the Basel-based Bank for International Settlements to reach a final resolution, Bloomberg reports.

Slovenia is the only EU member yet to take up ratification of Croatia's membership. A European spokesman said Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fuele “considers this to be a good deal for both countries and a good deal for enlargement,” Reuters reports.

2. Thaw continues as Serbian PM says country was lied to over Kosovo

In what Reuters called the latest evidence of a “historic U-turn by Belgrade" under EU pressure, Serbian Prime Minister Ivica Dacic said 7 March that Serbs have been lied to that “Kosovo is ours.”

Demonstrators in Mitrovica in 2008 insist on Serbia's claim to Kosovo. Photo by Giovanni Cobianchi/flickr.
“For 10 years, Kosovo was taboo,” Dacic wrote in Serbian media. “Tales were told; lies were told that Kosovo is ours.

“[But] the Serbian president cannot go to Kosovo, nor the prime minister, nor ministers, nor the police or army. Serbs can only leave Kosovo. That's how much Kosovo is ours and what our constitution and laws mean there.”

Serbia rejects Kosovo's 2008 declaration of independence, but Brussels insists it improve relations with Pristina to join the EU. Hence, Reuters suggests, Dacic's comments and other recent signs of conciliation as Belgrade awaits a start date for EU accession talks. In October, Dacic said it was time for a “historic agreement” with Pristina.

B92 points out that Dacic said Serbia must define its “real” borders and aim to “save what can be saved in Kosovo” in the interest of the Serb minority there. This was a reference to northern Kosovo, a majority-Serb territory that rejects Pristina's authority and considers itself part of Serbia. Many in Belgrade want to annex the north, but so-called “partition” is anathema in Pristina and Brussels.

The EU wants a political settlement over the north, but ongoing talks between Dacic and Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaci have foundered, most recently at a 4 March meeting in Brussels.

According to a new survey, more than 60 percent of Serbs accept that Kosovo is an independent state, Balkan Insight reports. Other recent polling suggests Serbs would sooner walk away from the EU than recognize Kosovo.

Officially, recognition is not a condition of Serbia's EU bid.

3. Moscow: Leader who succeeded notorious Islamist militants killed

Russian authorities say they have killed Abu-Malik, the recently appointed leader of a Chechen rebel group who has been wanted for over a decade, Radio Free Europe reports.

Two other militants were reportedly killed in a 7 March shootout in Vedeno, a district hard hit by the wars in Chechnya after the collapse of the Soviet Union. One Russian officer died, with another injured, according to RFE.

Born Adam Khushalayev, Abu-Malik took over the group after its leaders were killed in January, Reuters points out. The brothers Muslim and Khusein Gakayev were the two most-wanted Islamic insurgents in the restive North Caucasus republic, implicated in the August suicide bombing of a government vehicle and other high-profile attacks.

Chechnya is one of several republics in Russia's North Caucasus where insurgents are fighting for a separate Islamist state.

4. Russia charges Hermitage head with financial crimes, again

The Russian Interior Ministry has accused the UK-based manager of an investment fund of illegally purchasing shares of Russian energy giant Gazprom, according to RIA Novosti.

William Browder
The manager is William Browder, director of Hermitage Capital Management and former employer of Sergei Magnitsky, an attorney who uncovered a massive money-laundering and tax fraud scheme that allegedly involved top Russian officials and used Hermitage as a pawn. Magnitsky was subsequently arrested and died in pretrial detention in 2009 after being beaten and denied medical treatment.

A Hermitage spokesman dismissed the charges as "revenge and hysteria by persons in positions of authority, who have unlimited state resources and who have lost control of common sense,” and criticized the Interior Ministry for acting as a "Ministry of Propaganda."

In November, Browder and Magnitsky were charged with tax fraud. Magnitsky’s posthumous trial is set to start 11 March. According to the Interior Ministry, Browder has ignored the ministry's summons and will thus be tried in absentia.

Also in November, the United States passed the so-called "Magnitsky Act" penalizing Russian officials suspected of human rights violations, an action that led to the worsening of relations between the two countries.  

5. Hackers go after Czech bank, media, stock exchange sites

Hackers have gone after the websites of Czech banks, mobile phone companies, and news agencies, and disrupted Czech search engines this week.

Among the victims were the Czech central bank and the country’s stock exchange, Dow Jones reports.

The cyber assaults, which began 4 March by targeting the media before hitting banks and telecommunications firms, appear to have been a DDoS attack, overloading the sites with requests.

According to the Irish Independent, online banking websites for Ceska Sporitelna, CSOB, and Komercni Banka were affected by the attack. Jiri Kovarik, spokesman for the Prague Stock Exchange said that although the hacking shut down the organization's web page, it had no effect on trading, according to Dow Jones.

Many of the sites were restored quickly, and bank spokespeople said they had not compromised customer information.

While Czech police were not able to identify the hackers’ location, the targeted companies said the attacks came from domestic and foreign IP addresses, Reuters reports.
S. Adam Cardais is a TOL contributing editor. Ioana Caloianu is a TOL editorial assistant. Jennifer Hoch is a TOL editorial intern.
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