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Posts Tagged ‘Corruption’

[The following post appeared May 20, 2011, on The Mantle.]

BRATISLAVA – At least, that’s the thank-you letter Finland should send Slovakia.

I’ve never been to a Helsinki block party. But earlier this month, for a solid fortnight of the World Hockey Championship, Bratislava sure felt like one. By the end of their two-week drinking binge, I wanted the pickled Finns to grab their gold medals and get the hell out.

Team Captain Mikko Koivu wasn’t the only Finn to raise a cup in Bratislava. (IIHF)

I wouldn’t describe myself as a “hockey fan,” as that requires a curious affection for gap-toothed smiles – particularly among those who had involuntarily eaten a puck traveling about as fast as my car. However, I sure do love a good story. Living in tiny Slovakia, I hoped to live one through their hockey.

Slovakia spared little expense to throw a memorable bash as host of the 16-nation tournament, held every year. Hockey is a passion for this nation of only five million, with toddlers barely beyond diapers carving figure-eights on rounded hockey skates. Slovakia won the world title in 2002, and finished an eye-opening fourth at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver.

I cheered these underdogs every step of the way, as I did their thrilling World Cup run. Meanwhile, Slovak star Marian Hossa helped lead the Chicago Blackhawks to the NHL Stanley Cup last year; the towering Zdeno Chara may soon do the same for the Boston Bruins.

The 2011 world championship would mark the first time Slovakia, independent only since 1993, had hosted alone. Finally, a chance to distinguish Slovakia from Slovenia. Hype began months ago. The wolf mascot, “Goooly,” was stationed at area malls, digitally counting down the minutes and seconds. As full-blown hockey fever hit, the national flag of red, white and blue fluttered from many cars. I came this close to buying my sons foam fingers and Dr. Seuss top hats in Slovak tri-color. I’ll take four more dust-collectors, please.

All this while officialdom weathers the arrows of the latest in a never-ending drumbeat of corruption that mars the post-Communist era, not only in Slovakia, but across the entire region. This scandal, naturally, was over the massive facelift performed on its main hockey stadium, plus the gleaming new hotel built illegally next door.

(more…)

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Bulgaria’s arrest today of an ex-minister accused of bribes, and recent jail sentences of two major figures for fraud and embezzlement, show that the government is finally cracking down on corruption.

Taglines along the bottom of political billboards, like this one in the Black Sea city of Varna, reminded voters during the July 2009 elections that “Buying and Selling Votes is a Crime.” (Photo: mjj)

By Michael J. Jordan Correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor / April 1, 2010

BRATISLAVA, Slovakia – Bulgaria has the European Union’s most government corruption, and is its most violent member state. But convictions there for high-level corruption are rare.

That’s why two court cases in the past fortnight are such a landmark, and a sign that steady European Union pressure on the small Balkan country is producing results.

On March 18, Asen Drumev, former head of the State Agricultural Fund, was sentenced to four years in prison for embezzling $34 million worth of EU assistance. Then on Monday, businessman Mario Nikolov received 10 years for defrauding Brussels of $8.3 million of agriculture and rural-development funds.

They were the first officials to be punished in an effort to placate an increasingly irate Brussels, which has for years criticized Bulgaria’s widespread vote-buying, shady financing of political parties, money laundering, and failure to seize financial assets of alleged gangsters. As many as 150 mafia-related murders have netted no convictions.

Bulgaria routinely vows to crack down, but has never done so.

“The EU was already fed up with Bulgaria for failing to deliver on its promises, so it couldn’t be delayed any longer,” says Ruslan Stefanov, of the Center for the Study of Democracy in Sofia, the capital. (more…)

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BRATISLAVA — At last, Bulgaria seems to be doing something about its notorious corruption problem, a necessary step to appease the European Union and keep billions of aid flowing into the Balkan country.

On Thursday, Bulgaria – the EU’s poorest and most corrupt member – scored its first high-profile conviction of a government official, an ex-agriculture honcho sentenced to four years in prison for allegedly stealing millions of EU funds.

I’m sure ordinary Bulgarians are delighted. Many have told me how angry and embarrassed they are about Bulgaria’s image, and how they despair that anything will ever change.

In late 2008, I explored Bulgaria’s endemic graft in a series of articles for the Christian Science Monitor, highlighting how particularly widespread it is in agriculture and road construction.

As I wrote then, Brussels was fed up with Sofia’s empty promises to crack down on “a smorgasbord of sleaze, including alleged vote-buying … shady financing of political parties, money laundering, and the failure to seize financial assets of purported gangsters. The final straw was an investigation of 35 EU-funded projects in Bulgaria – it found financial irregularities in all but one.”

What made this situation unique was Bulgaria had already been admitted to the EU in early 2007, raising the question: Once a country is in the club, how to react when a new member behaves badly? Worried about how aspiring members might view inaction, Brussels made an example out of Sofia, smacking it with an unprecedented punishment: $315 million in aid was withdrawn.

Bulgaria’s attitude shifted with last July’s election of Prime Minister Boyko Borisov, a former bodyguard and karate coach who vowed to get tough on corruption. Brussels has wanted Bulgarian authorities to send a message throughout society that lawlessness won’t be tolerated, and will continue to push for more “results,” one analyst in the capital tells me.

“Brussels knows Sofia cannot do this quick and will probably muddle through, but wants to at least see some progress,” says Ruslan Stefanov, of the Center for Study of Democracy. “Brussels trusts Sofia is serious this time.”

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Heavy snow paralyzed much of Bucharest, causing schools to close for THREE days. (Photo: mjj)

BUCHAREST, Romania – One of my very worst habits is being late. In Romania, though, I’ve found kindred spirits.

I’ve only been in snow-covered Bucharest for 24 hours, yet have already managed to be late for several appointments – the brutal combination of horrendous traffic and slick roads only partly to blame. But our team has also been kept waiting for several other meetings.

In each case, reporting partner Petru Zoltan or my interpreter, journalist Lavinia Gliga, has reassured me with a smiling declaration: “This is Romania!”

History-rich Romania is one of the most colorful characters of all the ex-Communist Eastern Europeans. And this sentiment seems a charming mix of Romanian resignation and optimism: things will surely be fouled up, but it just may work out in the end. It also reflects serious self-deprecating humor.

A popular Romanian TV host became famous for his sign-off: “We live in Romania, and that takes up all of our time.” Later, Lavinia would further illustrate the dark humor when explaining a fascinating photo we saw: the Romanian photographer had superimposed a map of Europe over a human buttocks, with his homeland smack in the, um, rectum. (more…)

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Election monitor Rayna Dzhipova explains to officials in an ethnic-Turkish village the potential violations she saw during the July 5 elections. (Photo: mjj)

[This piece appeared Oct. 13, 2009, in Transitions.]

Bulgarians know well that “Buying and Selling Votes is a Crime,” but views on who the main culprits are depend on social affinities.

by Michael J. Jordan and Ognyan Isaev

RAZGRAD, Bulgaria | The urgent call pipes into Rayna Dzhipova’s cell phone as she drives through the Bulgarian countryside. “They’re giving away cheese in Vladimirovtsi!” she exclaims, flooring the accelerator toward the remote village in the country’s northeast. Dashing across bumpy rural roads, past sunflower fields and donkey-drawn carts, she hopes to catch the vote-buyers red-handed.

During the 5 July parliamentary elections, Dzhipova has an unusual role: roving watchdog, patrolling the anticipated “hotspots” heavily populated by ethnic Turks and Roma – a favorite target of vote-buyers. While the vote-selling phenomenon cuts across ethnic and economic lines here, Turks are typically pressured by their community to vote for the ethnic-Turkish party, and the Roma – many of whom are destitute and hold few hopes that any party will improve their lot – are particularly vulnerable.

“I tell people, ‘You cannot blame anyone for your situation if you haven’t used your right and voted,’ ” says Dzhipova, 23, an ethnic Bulgarian who hails from the Turkish-majority city of Razgrad.

With the help of monitors like Dzhipova, the European Union’s poorest and reputedly most corrupt member has finally produced a rare bit of good news for both Bulgaria and Brussels. According to a newly released report by the Civil Society Coalition for a Free and Democratic Vote, public awareness and high turnout – some 60 percent – successfully diluted the corrosive effect of vote-buying this time around. (more…)

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Bulgarian Roma Ognyan Isaev hands out anti-vote-buying pamphlets in the northeastern city of Shumen. (Photo: mjj)

Bulgarian Roma Ognyan Isaev hands out anti-vote-buying pamphlets in the northeastern city of Shumen. (Photo: mjj)

It’s election time in Bulgaria. Gangsters are running for office and voters are taking photos of their ballots to receive payoffs.

By Michael J. Jordan, Special to GlobalPost, July 4, 2009

SHUMEN, BULGARIA — Ognyan Isaev knows his fellow Roma — known derogatorily as “gypsies” — are stereotyped for a slew of unsavory habits. In his native Bulgaria, the poorest and most corrupt European Union member, they are often accused of freely selling their votes to the highest bidder.

So in the run-up to Sunday’s parliamentary elections, Isaev helped lead an “I Don’t Sell My Vote” campaign. He handed out T-shirts and hit the airwaves with a message he says is not just for the Roma.

Distributing fliers Friday in the downtown of this provincial city, Isaev wanted to remind Bulgarians, Roma and ethnic Turks alike of what is not just a Roma problem but a national affliction.

Whether the campaign will make a dent is unclear. Studies indicate that 30 percent of voters would be willing to sell their ballot for as little as 20 Bulgarian leva (about $14), or items like grilled meat, a bag of sugar or cooking oil. The situation has grown so bad that all campaign advertising must now note: “Buying and Selling of Votes is a Crime” — like cigarette packets reminding “Smoking Kills.”

It is this level of corruption, which extends far beyond the election, that is carrying Bulgaria to new depths. (more…)

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