The vice chairman of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative party Christian Democratic Union (CDU) said on Monday (4 September) that her website was recently hit with thousands of cyberattacks, many of which came from Russian IP addresses. Julia Kloeckner said the political website was the target of about 3,000 attacks ahead of the television election debate between Merkel and her Social Democratic rival Martin Schulz on Sunday, Reuters reports.
BRATISLAVA, Slovakia — Across Eastern Europe, local oligarchs and investment groups — some directly connected to their countries’ political leadership — are snapping up newspapers and other media companies, prompting deep concerns among journalists and others about press freedom.
It is just one of an array of developments across the region raising questions, a quarter century after the fall of the Berlin Wall, about progress toward Western standards of democracy and free speech.
As in Russia, there are increasing worries about a potentially dangerous concentration of power in the hands of people who have managed to acquire both wealth and political influence and are increasingly extending their control to media outlets.
Here in Slovakia, a German media company sold a substantial stake in the nation’s last serious, independent newspaper to a well-connected investment group that had been among its investigative targets.
At a time of similar developments across the region, what stood out in the investment in Petit Press and its prominent SME flagship newspaper by the group, Penta Investments, was the reaction of the paper’s staff.
Matus Kostolny, 39, editor in chief for the last eight years, walked out the door. Four of his deputies followed. And 50 members of the paper’s 80-person staff submitted notice to leave by the end of the year.
“I think Penta intends to misuse the newspapers for their own purposes,” Mr. Kostolny said. “Their idea of free speech is entirely different from mine.”
But the situation in Slovakia is just the latest in which owners, often Western European or American, have chosen to sell Eastern European media properties and powerful local interests have stepped forward and snapped them up.
In Latvia, opaque disclosure laws obscured who controlled much of the country’s news media until a corruption investigation of one of the country’s richest businessmen revealed that he and two other oligarchs were the principal owners.
In Hungary, beyond outright state ownership of much of the news media, top associates of Prime Minister Viktor Orban control significant chunks. Chief among them is Lajos Simicska, who went to school with the prime minister and whose construction company has profited lavishly from state contracts, although the two are said to be feuding of late.
In Romania, the leading television news station, the right-wing Antena 3, is only part of the vast media empire owned by the billionaire Dan Voiculescu, the founder of the country’s Conservative Party. In August, Mr. Voiculescu was sentenced to 10 years in prison on money laundering charges.
Several oligarchs control the media companies in Bulgaria, regularly ranked in last place among European Union nations in the World Press Freedom Index. That includes a former lawmaker, Delyan Peevski, whose New Bulgarian Media Group — ostensibly controlled by his mother, though opponents charge that he holds the real power — has been closely linked to governments controlled by several parties.
In the 1990s, after the collapse of Communism, most media outlets were either owned outright by the state or utterly dependent on government advertising. When foreign owners — most notably from Germany, Sweden, Switzerland and the United States — subsequently bought up local newspapers, magazines and broadcast outlets, journalists found that the distant owners had no interest in local politics. That was a relief for a time.
“For us, it was perfect,” Mr. Kostolny said of the German conglomerate that owned SME. “We had very professional owners who never picked up the phone and tried to influence the newspaper. Not once.”
But when the economy sank in 2008, most of these foreign owners decided to retreat to their core businesses back home and put their media companies in Central and Eastern Europe on the block. At that point, the distance between their Western owners and the political realities in their countries began to seem like a drawback, especially as the owners began selling to local interests with a direct stake in the coverage.
“It turned out that as much as they didn’t care about Slovak politics, they also didn’t care about who they sold the papers to and the impact of the sale on Czech and Slovak society,” Mr. Kostolny said.
The end result, said Marian Lesko, a commentator for Trend Magazine, a Bratislava-based business journal also owned by Penta Investments, is that “in Slovakia, independent media is no more, basically.”
Alexej Fulmek, the chief executive of Petit Press and one of the founders of SME, said he was troubled by Penta’s stake in the company but decided to stay on to protect SME and the other Petit Press publications, including the most important network of regional papers in the country.
“I am not happy with the situation,” he said. “We don’t like Penta. They have too many economic interests with the government.”
For its part, Penta bristles at being compared to politically connected oligarchs in the region, instead presenting itself as a fairly standard, Western-style investment company with interests in hospitals, retail outlets, real estate and other industries that now happens to include media.
Officials of the company, led by its dominant principal, Jaroslav Hascak, said they were interested only in keeping their media investments profitable by consolidating them and had no intention of meddling in the newsrooms.
“We do not have any direct businesses with the state,” said Martin Danko, the group’s chief spokesman. “We are not providing any services, not participating in any state competitions to supply something. But we are definitely operating in regulated businesses.”
Penta got into the media business after other entities controlled by local oligarchs — Mr. Babis, the Czech finance minister, as well as Ivan Jakabovic and Patrik Tkac, who control the J&T Finance Group in Slovakia — had already started investing in the industry.
Penta’s 45 percent interest in Petit Press prevents it from dominating the newsroom, even if it wished to do so — which, Mr. Danko said, it does not, because it understands that the credibility of the news is the core of the company’s profitability.
Mr. Kostolny doesn’t buy it. “Penta’s real interest is in influence, in controlling their critics,” he said. “They will make back their investment with one state contract, and nobody will bother them by writing about it.”
Mr. Kostolny is now working on a plan under which his deputies and as many former SME staffers as he can afford to hire will produce Projekt N, a web portal and a print paper, perhaps weekly, perhaps daily. His plan is to offer breaking news for free online, but to charge for longer and investigative pieces.
For the moment, though, they have no office outside of the Next Apache cafe — the name, said aloud, sounds like “nech sa paci,” which means “here you are” in Slovak — where Mr. Kostolny and many former employees now hang out.
“I still don’t have investors,” he said. “I don’t have computers. I don’t have printing machines. I don’t have anything.”
For his part, Mr. Fulmek said he intended to spend the next several weeks trying to talk some of those who put in their notice to stay at SME with him and fight the good fight there. He even hopes to persuade Mr. Kostolny and his deputies to return, but he is not optimistic.
“They are very pure,” Mr. Fulmek said. “And that’s good, because the country needs such people.”
A little-known place that interests both Ukraine and Russia
The isolated region of Ukrainian Bessarabia, which is also known as Budjak, has become one of the latest places for Ukraine-watchers to worry about. Many of the inhabitants fear a spread of the war from eastern Ukraine. Geography gives their region great strategic importance, especially if the Russians were ever tempted to try to carve a land corridor across to Crimea, Odessa and the Romanian border.
Ukrainian Bessarabia is bounded by the Black Sea, the Danube and Moldova. The Russian-controlled breakaway region of Transdniestria is to the north. There are no roads, bridges or ferries across the Danube to Romania and only two roads connect the region to the rest of Ukraine. If the bridges over the Dniester were blown up, it would be cut off.
Fewer than half of the region’s 570,000 people are Ukrainian. The rest are Bulgarians, Russians, Moldovans, Gagauz or Albanians. Many have a benign view of Russia, which gave their ancestors land and freedom 200 years ago. Almost everyone speaks Russian and many complain that Ukraine has done little for them. Ivan Rusev, a local ecologist, tracks illegal buildings in the Dniester Delta National Park. This was a problem before Ukraine’s 2014 revolution, he says, but it is worse now.
The result is a contradiction. For pro-Ukrainians such as Mr Rusev, too many fellow Bessarabians hope vaguely that “Putin will solve all their problems.” Few have any faith in the government in Kiev. Yet according to Anton Kisse, a local politician, at the same time as many feel sympathy for Russia, they also favour Ukraine’s unity. Sergey Dibrov, a journalist in Odessa, believes that, given the region’s ethnic make-up, any declaration of independence would see the region splinter into bits.
In the autumn there were rumours of plots to proclaim a pro-Russian Bessarabian People’s Republic, along the lines of the separatist republics in Ukraine’s Donbas region. Possible leaders included former Soviet army officers living in Bolgrad, which is mostly ethnic Bulgarian. Yet war in the east has dampened enthusiasm for separatism. A tragedy last May which saw dozens of pro-Russian activists killed in a fire in Odessa has also chilled any desire for revolt against Kiev. Pro-Russian leaders have fled and opportunistic politicians have shifted towards supporting the unity of Ukraine.
The question is what Russia wants. State power has changed hands nine times in Bessarabia in just over 200 years. Locals report seeing drones, some perhaps from Transdniestria and some that may have come from ships of Russia’s Black Sea fleet, based in Sebastopol. Even so, Ukraine’s flag looks likely to fly over Bessarabia for some time to come.
The collapse of the Soviet Union didn’t just affect humans—forests across Europe and Asia were impacted, too.
Some 533 million acres of forest in Eastern Europe have regrown since 1985, largely due to the disintegration of timber industries and abandonment of agricultural lands in countries such as Hungary, Croatia, and Bulgaria.
Drawing on 52,539 images collected by Landsat satellites between 1985 and 2012, a team of scientists has just published a series of maps showing how Eastern Europe’s forests have been changing over the past 27 years.
Bottom line: They’ve been coming back, with the exception of a small number of countries where the logging industry has actually picked up.
Across the entire study area, forest cover grew by nearly 5 percent, although we can see from the chart above that several smaller countries experienced much, much more regrowth.
Zooming in on specific regions, it becomes clear just how much these changes fall along country lines. Take, for instance, the Latvia-Russia border, pictured on the zoomed-in map below:
In Russia, a lot of the regrowth has been taking place in massive collective farms that went bust after the Soviet Union fell. And as this regrowth goes on, scientists expect that Russia will continue to be a major carbon sink into the future, according to NASA:
Overall, about 34 percent of all cropland in Russia was abandoned after 1991. So far, only about 14 percent of that abandoned farmland has been converted back to forest, suggesting that forest re-growth could represent a significant “carbon sink” for Russia in the future.
How significant are we talking? Well, a study published in 2013 in Global Change Biologyfound that abandoned farmlands in the parts of the former USSR that are now Russia have been soaking up 42.6 million tonnes of carbon every year since 1990—or roughly ten percent of Russia’s CO2 emissions from fossil fuels, according to New Scientist.
That may be an environmental win, but it’s come with a major price tag: Enormous social and economic hardship. Reminding us, yet again, just how tricky it is to balance the needs of our changing planet alongside those of its human beings.
Euros are running so low in Greece that shops and restaurants are accepting Bulgarian and Turkish currencies, according to reports. The EU Observer reports that shops and restaurants in Greece are accepting the Bulgarian lev from foreign tourists instead of the euro, while the FT reports that some businesses are accepting the Turkish lira too.
Despite hopes of reaching a deal over the weekend, Greece is days away from running out of cash and both business and consumers are being forced to find new ways to keep the wheels of commerce turning to allow them all to buy food.
Dimitris Hadalis, president of a group for small hoteliers on the Halkidiki peninsula, told the FT: “We do accept lev — there is a line from the Greek tourist confederation and from the association of Greek hotels that we have to do anything to encourage tourists.”
The Bulgarian Lev is particularly appealing because it is pegged to the euro, meaning it’s easy and safe to convert prices. €1 is worth 1.95 Bulgarian Lev.
Bulgaria also borders Greece to the north, meaning there’s a relatively steady flow of tourists from the Central European nation come to Greece.
There’s been speculation that Greece could introduce a parallel currency or digital currency if things get any worse.
But the government has played this down and former Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis was reportedly pushed out for suggesting this.
The UK government has told tourists planning to visit Greece to take enough cash to last for an entire holiday.
The first European private train to enter Iran will make a two-week journey from Budapest to Tehran in October. The first “Golden Eagle-Danube Express” train, which comprises 13 lavishly-decorated wood-paneled 1950s carriages and berths for about 70 guests, will set off from Budapest on October 15.
The two-week trip will cross Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, and Turkey, and take passengers through the ancient Iranian cities of Shiraz and Persepolis before reaching the capital Tehran.
With ticket prices of between 10,000 and 23,000 euros ($13,000-31,000) per person, guests will receive “five-star” treatment, its brochure said.
“Iran has been opening up towards the West recently, so we thought the time was right to set this up,” Marcella Beke, sales director of the “Nostalgia” branch of the Hungarian state-owned rail operator told AFP.
All the berths on the maiden journey have already been snapped up, mostly by British and Australian passengers, Beke added.
“Nostalgia fans needn’t panic, another five trips are scheduled for 2015,” she said.
One can debate whether, by virtue of fractional reserve banking, every bank in the world is just a ponzi scheme, and where the stability of the system depends entirely on the level of counterparty faith and general confidence in the system, in other words, a grand con game in which the central bank is tasked with making sure the con works as planned when confidnce gets “a little low.”
One can not debate, however, that a bank had become anything but a pure Ponzi scheme – in this case, a piggybank whose funds were embezzled by its owner as described previously in “Fourth Largest Bulgarian Bank Seized After Bank Run: “Let’s Not Tear Down Our House” Central Banker Begs” – when a token review, only upon its faillure, reveals that 87% of its loans were invalid!
- Bulgaria central bank corpbank pre-june reports ‘misleading’
- Bulgaria central bank says corpbank assets are 6.7b lev
- Bulgaria central bank says corpbank audit showed only 13 percent of loans had valid collateral
Audit report of Bulgaria’s Corporate Commercial Bank, under central bank’s supervision since June 22, shows its assets of 6.66b lev as of Sept. 30 need to be written off by 4.22b lev, central bank in Sofia says on website.
The good news: the level of corruption, embezzlement and loan devastation in a country like Cyprus for example, where the entire banking sector had to be bailed out by Europe, was just a little less than what happened in Bulgaria’s fourth largest bank. Actually, it is unclear if that is good news.
The bad news: the Bulgarian central bank “regulator”, just like its peers across the continent, and the world, had no idea what the reality of the balance sheet was until the owner vaporized, as did nearly 90% of the bank’s funds, to borrow a Corzinism.
But it’s ok: remember – all other central banks and regulators have full and unhindered visibility when it comes to the fraud and embezzlement across the other several thousands banks that comprise the European Union. Just like the Fed did when it supervised Goldman and JPM.
The only problem is that just like then, so now, nobody dares to do anything, as revealing just how deep the rabbit hole of balance sheet devastation is, goes against the primary directive of every central bank around the globe: preserving faith and confidence in the global fractional reserve banking con game.
As for all those innocent depositors in Bulgaria’s Corpbank who believed the Ponzi and con game would last indefinitely: our condolences: you most likely won’t ever see a dime of your money, even on the deposits that were supposedly “insured.”