March 23, 2023

Tycoon’s Trials Rivet Serbia, Land of Graft

The spectacular rise and fall of Mr. Miskovic, an enigmatic figure who Serbian journalists say is suspected of paying the news media not to write about him, has riveted the region. The Serbian government hailed his arrest last December as part of a crackdown on organized crime and corruption to aid the country’s bid to join the European Union and shed a culture of lawlessness, a legacy of the Balkan wars of the 1990s.

Aleksandar Vucic, Serbia’s powerful first deputy prime minister, who is spearheading the fight against corruption, used his Facebook profile late last year to vent his frustration with the once seemingly untouchable business magnate. “Nobody has and nobody will beat Serbia, and that includes Miroslav Miskovic,” he wrote.

Prosecutors said Mr. Miskovic has been accused, along with his son Marko and nine others, of siphoning off more than $30 million during the privatization of a now bankrupt road repair company between 2005 and 2010. He was freed pending trial. If convicted, he faces up to 10 years behind bars.

Mr. Miskovic’s aides said he was not available for an interview. But his supporters insisted that the charges were politically motivated, and that he was being targeted as a scapegoat. A Web site produced by his company, Delta Holding, entitled “Who is Miroslav Miskovic?” said that he had committed no wrongdoing. “We reject all accusations,” said Branislava Milunov, a spokeswoman for Delta Holding.

The government’s pursuit of Mr. Miskovic is part of a growing effort to root out corruption among the newest members of the European Union, raising the admissions bar for aspiring entrants like Serbia. The Czech Republic recently intensified a high-profile anticorruption investigation that toppled the prime minister. Bulgaria has been mired in weeks of protests against endemic graft. Romania put a former prime minister behind bars last summer on corruption charges. Croatia, too, is grappling with organized crime even after joining the union last month.

A few days after posting the record bail, Mr. Miskovic made a rare public appearance at a news conference for his retail empire, where he said that he had been able to stay in touch with his business associates, even from his prison cell. Delta Holding is Serbia’s largest privately held company, with 7,200 employees across the Balkans, and a network of businesses that encompass real estate, food production, retail sales and insurance.

In a country that has struggled to shrug off economic hardship and corruption since the overthrow of the former Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic in 2000, analysts said Mr. Miskovic had become a potent emblem of the unhealthy link between business interests and the state that has allowed a handful of tycoons to amass enormous riches.

Mr. Vucic, the first deputy prime minister, has accused Mr. Miskovic of giving monthly ”allowances” ranging from $40,000 to $65,000 to some 20 senior politicians, the Beta news agency reported. He has also accused Mr. Miskovic of trying to bring down the government to avoid closer scrutiny of his business. Mr. Miskovic’s company spokeswoman declined to comment on the accusations.

“Miskovic simply became too big for this little country to be tolerated,” said Dejan Anastasijevic, the Brussels correspondent for Tanjug, the Serbian national news agency. “The crony system in Serbia created him, and now the state is trying to restore the balance.”

Mr. Miskovic’s business empire took root under Mr. Milosevic, whom he briefly served as deputy prime minister, assigned to privatize Serbian industry. His aides said he had resigned because he disagreed with Mr. Milosevic’s tactics. Mr. Milosevic died in his jail cell in 2006 during his trial for war crimes.

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5 Are Arrested in British Tabloid Scandal

The arrests appeared to be an intensification of the police investigation into the role of The Sun, Britain’s highest circulation daily newspaper, in the illegal news-gathering techniques that prompted Mr. Murdoch, 80, last summer to close The Sun’s sister newspaper, the weekend News of the World.

Police investigations of wrongdoing at The News of the World, involving the illegal hacking of cellphone voice mail messages and the bribery of police officers for leaking confidential information, have led to the arrest of more than a dozen reporters, editors, executives and others who worked for that paper.

A statement issued by Mr. Murdoch’s News Corporation in New York said the arrests on Saturday resulted from information provided to the police by the company’s Management and Standards Committee, which was charged by Mr. Murdoch last year with rooting out what the company called “unacceptable news gathering practices by individuals” at the newspapers of the company’s British subsidiary, News International.

The company’s cooperation with the police investigation was part of its commitment, the statement said, “to undertake a review of all News International titles, regardless of cost, and to proactively cooperate with law enforcement and other authorities if potentially relevant information arose at those titles.”

That review has run parallel to the company’s efforts to reach out-of-court settlements with politicians, celebrities and others who have been identified by the police as among at least 800 victims of illegal voice mail hacking. This month, Murdoch executives reached court-approved settlements amounting to nearly $1 million with 37 phone hacking victims, including Jude Law, the actor; Ashley Cole, the soccer star; and John Prescott, a former deputy prime minister.

The police said that three of the men arrested Saturday were taken from their homes in London and neighboring areas of Essex County for questioning on suspicion of conspiracy in actions involving “aiding and abetting misconduct in a public office,” the criminal offense commonly applied to cases of bribery of public officials. The fourth man was arrested when he appeared at an East London police station, the police statement said.

The police officer involved, a 29-year-old man serving in the territorial policing command of the Metropolitan Police, the formal name for Scotland Yard, was arrested while at work at a central London police station. He was the second serving officer to be arrested as part of the investigation, known as Operation Elveden, following the arrest last month of a 52-year-old female officer. In all of the arrests, the suspects were released on bail.

Scotland Yard and News Corporation did not identify the Sun journalists who were arrested on Saturday. But the BBC’s Web site said they were Graham Dudman, a former managing editor; Fergus Shanahan, a former deputy editor; Mike Sullivan, the paper’s crime editor; and Chris Pharo, the paper’s head of news. The arrests of the men brought to 13 the number of those arrested in the investigation into the bribery of police officers.

Ravi Somaiya contributed reporting from Paris.

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British Premier, Cameron, Defends Veto on Europe Treaty

As members of the Labour opposition shouted “Where’s Clegg?” — a reference to Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, a Liberal Democrat, who, angry about the veto, was conspicuously absent from Parliament — Mr. Cameron, a Conservative, seemed at pains to offer soothing words to those afraid that he had so alienated his European allies that Britain was bound to leave the European Union altogether.

“Britain remains a full member of the E.U., and the events of the last week do nothing to change that,” Mr. Cameron said. “Our membership of the E.U. is vital to our national interest. We are a trading nation, and we need the single market for trade, investment and jobs.”

After vitriol poured out at Mr. Cameron over the weekend — from the Labour Party, from prominent Liberal Democrats in the coalition government, from European diplomats — Monday’s session was oddly anticlimactic. Buoyed by the compliments of anti-European backbenchers in the Conservative Party, who said they would have vetoed the treaty themselves if Mr. Cameron had signed it, the prime minister appeared relaxed and self-assured, exuding the easy confidence that is one of his strongest political assets.

He told Parliament, as he has said all along, that he exercised Britain’s veto because the proposed treaty changes, meant to avert future European economic disaster by strengthening fiscal discipline, gave no assurances to safeguard the future of London’s financial services industry, a critical part of the British economy.

“The choice was a treaty with the proper safeguards or no treaty,” he said. “The result was no treaty.”

Mr. Cameron’s veto left Britain standing alone in Europe. All the other 26 European Union countries either agreed to the proposals, which will be negotiated according to intergovernmental agreements, or said they would seek the approval of their parliaments back home.

Ed Miliband, leader of the Labour opposition, said Mr. Cameron had isolated Britain, a dangerous move at a time when European cooperation was essential. He also questioned Mr. Cameron’s purpose, given that the treaty changes seemed likely to go ahead anyway.

“It’s not a veto when the thing you wanted to stop goes ahead without you,” Mr. Miliband said, to shouts of approval from his fellow party members. “That’s called losing. That’s called being defeated. That’s called letting Britain down.”

Olli Rehn, the European commissioner for economic and monetary affairs, said Britain could hardly wall off its financial industry, the bustling City of London. “I regret very much that the United Kingdom was not willing to join the new fiscal compact, as much for the sake of Europe and its crisis response as for the sake of British citizens and their perspectives,” Mr. Rehn said. “We want a strong and constructive Britain in Europe, and we want Britain to be at the center of Europe, and not on the sidelines. If this move was intended to prevent bankers and financial corporations in the City from being regulated, that is not going to happen.”

Mr. Rehn also offered a reminder that Britain had approved “the six-pack of new rules tightening fiscal and economic surveillance” that goes into force on Tuesday. “The U.K.’s excessive deficit and debt will be the subject of surveillance like other member states,” he said, “even if the enforcement mechanism mostly applies to the euro area member states.”

There had been some worry that Mr. Cameron would face trouble from his own anti-European Union party members, including many who called over the weekend for the government to seize the opportunity to claw back powers from Brussels. But all was conviviality on Monday, with even the most hard-line Conservatives praising the prime minister. Although Mr. Cameron faced a few gentle questions about whether to hold a national referendum on Britain’s membership in the European Union, something the anti-Europe faction dearly wants, he batted them briskly away.

And the Liberal Democrats — at least those other than the missing Mr. Clegg — pulled back from their tough language over the weekend, mildly attacking Mr. Cameron while giving assurances that the important thing was to ensure a good relationship with Europe and to keep the coalition government together.

Reporting was contributed by Alan Cowell from London, Rick Gladstone from New York, Steven Erlanger from Paris, Nicholas Kulish from Berlin, and Stephen Castle from Brussels.

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Russia Says It’s Close to Joining the W.T.O.

Russia’s accession to the organization has been a key goal of the “reset” between Russia and the United States, a reconciliation whose future is uncertain amid political change in both countries. Russia’s first deputy prime minister, Igor I. Shuvalov, said Tuesday that United States officials were vigorously advocating for Russia and that they were near a breakthrough.

“We have Americans working 24 hours a day on our application in order to persuade other W.T.O. members that Russia should get membership before the end of the year,” Mr. Shuvalov said at a United States-Russia trade event in Chicago. “At the beginning of this year, very few people believed it was possible. Now we are very close to that.”

United States officials offered similarly upbeat assessments. One said American officials “see every likelihood” that Russia could obtain membership in December.

Russia has the largest economy of any country not in the 153-member trade group, and the World Bank says that as a member, Russia could bolster its annual gross domestic product as much as 11 percent over the long term, though noncompetitive industries might suffer. The repeated delays have frustrated Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin, who publicly chastised his officials this spring for complying with regulations of the group, telling them, “Why the hell should they admit us if we already observe everything?”

A top Georgian official said it was premature to celebrate Russia’s accession. The trade group accepts members through a consensus system, meaning that Georgia, which joined in 2000, could block Russia. Although the organization could technically admit Russia through a vote of the majority, that type of accession has never happened.

Russia and Georgia have remained in an icy standoff since they fought a war in 2008, and Russia’s military is deeply entrenched in the Georgian enclaves of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The countries began negotiating in March, with Georgia asking for international observers to be posted on the Russian side of the enclaves’ borders. The countries have found no common ground, said Giga Bokeria, the secretary of Georgia’s National Security Council.

Mr. Bokeria said the matter was a central topic of his meeting last week with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

“We know our allies are interested in having Russia in the W.T.O., but there is a compromise that has to be reached first,” he said. “The ball is in their court.”

The issue has taken on new significance with the news that Mr. Putin is poised to return to the presidency. Mr. Putin adopted a defiant posture toward the United States in his second presidential term and had little public role in the reset, though he clearly approved of the conciliatory tone set by President Dmitri A. Medvedev. Mr. Shuvalov said Tuesday that he had delivered a message to American officials from Mr. Putin.

“Everyone in the United States should understand that we will not forget the reset,” Mr. Shuvalov said.

In recent days, negotiators appear to have removed most of the remaining obstacles to Russia’s accession, including differences on meat imports, sanitary standards and incentives to Russian automobile producers. Andrei Slepnev, a deputy minister for economic development, said the burst of progress had surprised his team.

“We see today that our accession process is at the very end of its final stage,” said Mr. Slepnev, in comments carried by the Interfax news service. Completing the process by December, he said, “is quite possible if the consensus and the mood achieved within the W.T.O. today are maintained.”

Dominic Fean, a junior research fellow with the French Institute of International Relations, said agreements would have to be completed in the next few days if Russia were to join this year. Mr. Putin’s return to the presidency, he said, has made the outcome “more weighty.”

“If it happens now, it’s a very different political signal in favor of integration,” Mr. Fean said. “It shows that Russian concerns about international standing, and about being present at the forums where important decisions are being made, have not gone away.”

Andrew C. Kuchins, director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, emerged from Mr. Shuvalov’s speech in Chicago with the sense that the sides were “really close to the finish line,” including in negotiations between Georgia and Russia, he said.

“There is not going to be a lot of support and sympathy at the end of the day if it were perceived that the Georgians were holding up W.T.O. accession,” Mr. Kuchins said. “The Russians have got to play ball and be flexible, too. The U.S. government has leaned way forward on this.”

Failure to reach an agreement, he added, “would definitely be a blow to the bilateral relationship.”

Steven Yaccino contributed reporting from Chicago, and Helene Cooper from Washington.

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Deputy Prime Minister Leaves Board of Russian Oil Refiner

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Disunion: The Clarion Notes of Defiance

The Confederate government demands that Fort Sumter surrender, and batteries open fire.

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