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Around the Bloc - 5 July

The important, interesting, or just downright quirky news from TOL’s coverage region. Today: cloudy forecast for Russian independent office-seekers; Uzbeks forced to work; on the trail of Russian dirty money; and Albanian roadwork. 5 July 2019

Browder Accuses Latvia of Adding Detergent to Russian Laundromat

 

Hedge fund manager and Kremlin critic Bill Browder accuses Latvian authorities of failing to prevent Russian money laundering through the country’s banks, Latvian news agency LETA writes. Browder has been a constant Kremlin critic since the 2009 death in a Russian prison of Sergei Magnitsky (pictured), a lawyer investigating corruption on Browder’s behalf. In a letter addressed to Justice Minister Janis Bordans, Browder, who heads Hermitage Capital Management, said the firm filed a money laundering complaint with Latvian authorities in 2012 on the basis of Magnitsky’s investigation. The authorities made no headway for a number of years, despite a criminal case being opened. “Following the complete disregard for their investigation in Latvia, Hermitage continued to investigate with the help of the Lithuanian and Estonian authorities,” LETA writes. Last year, Denmark’s biggest bank, Danske Bank, admitted its Estonian unit was used to launder as much as $230 billion between 2007 and 2015, most of it stemming from Russia. Other large European banks have also admitted to laundering money for Russian and other clients. ING Group agreed to pay about $900 million to settle one case, and Deutsche Bank paid a $700 million penalty for helping move about $10 billion out of Russia.

 

 

Illicit Russian Money Pops Up in Montenegro

 

Montenegro is another country whose authorities paid no heed to Browder. The trail of Russian money led to “a sleek 21-meter yacht moored in Porto Montenegro, an exclusive marina on the Balkan nation’s Adriatic coast,” which, according to an OCCRP investigation, “was more than just a pleasure cruiser for the rich: It was a vessel for moving money of dubious origin via inflated yacht rental fees.” The company that paid for the rentals drew its funds from two British Virgin Islands companies, whose owner Dmitry Klyuev is believed by U.S. authorities to be the mastermind behind the tax fraud scheme revealed by Magnitsky. The company that owned the yacht also purchased an apartment building on the Montenegrin coast with money that Browder alleged came from the same fraudulent source. Neither the highest state prosecutor nor the chief special prosecutor took action on Browder’s complaint, OCCRP says.

 

 

No Houses and No Roads

 

Years after their houses and apartments were demolished to make way for building projects such as Tirana’s outer ring road, many Albanians are still waiting to receive the compensation promised by the government, Balkan Insight reports. One couple, Zayhra and Halil Gjapi, “were homeless for four months and lived at the doorway of an apartment block in Tirana after the government bulldozed their house in 2014,” according to BIRN. The authorities offered the couple social housing only once their story spread on social media. “The unpaid compensation derives from problems with ownership documents. Delays caused by a lack of funds [in the authority] are just a small part of it,” the Road Authority told BIRN, adding that it is obligated to pay owners of expropriated properties as soon as possible. In other cases, houses were expropriated to make way for a road that didn’t even cross the owners’ village.

 

 

Prosperous Village Built on Forced Labor

 

Uzbeks are also experiencing their share of trouble with government-initiated building projects, like Prosperous Village, part of President Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s rural development scheme. RFE/RL reports that thousands of people were recruited for project-related works “against their will,” quoting an anonymous person from a town where such work are ongoing as saying, "Those who don't have anyone to take care of their children came to work with their kids." Those summoned were also threatened with the loss of jobs, pensions, or child support if they didn’t take part in the work. Last year, the UN’s International Labor Organization announced that Uzbekistan continued to use forced labor in the cotton fields, although the combination of a cotton boycott by big Western retailers, higher wages for pickers, and a less repressive government since the death of longtime leader Islam Karimov means far fewer people are pulled from schools and jobs and sent to the fields during the harvest.

 

 

Would-Be Petersburg Politicians in Kafkaesque Charade

 

Although local and regional elections in Russia are still two months away, civic-minded citizens are already having a first bitter taste of the electoral process, as some are hitting a wall while trying to register as candidates in St. Petersburg, RFE reports. City resident Pavel Chuprunov, who documented his struggle on Twitter, tried in vain to register for several days in a row, telling RFE, "Either the election officials hide from us, or they don't open the door, or they call up fake candidates to stand in line.” Independent candidate Ilya Gantvarg said, "There are strong candidates there, capable of beating the government candidates without a problem. So since they can't beat them in any legal way, they're unleashing this chaos."

Compiled by Ioana Caloianu
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