Balkan espionage affair revives ghosts of the past

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  • Euractiv.hr

25.11.2019.

Euractiv.com

The Capitals brings you the latest news from across Europe, through on-the-ground reporting by EURACTIV’s media network. You can subscribe to the newsletter here.

Before you start reading today’s edition of the Capitals, feel free to have a look at Ukraine’s decision to criminalise tobacco smuggling within two months. Also, feel free to have a look at EURACTIV’s interview with the EU’s outgoing Fisheries Commissioner, Karmenu Vella.

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SOFIA | BELGRADE. The fallout of the publication of a video clip purportedly shows a Russian intelligence officer handing over money to a Serbian man is raising tensions between Bulgaria and Serbia reminiscent of ancient historical times when Sofia and Belgrade were enemies.

A Bulgarian investigative journalist, Christo Grozev, who is a member of Bellingcat, the media network using open-source intelligence, said on Twitter that the video clip posted on YouTube shows the assistant military attaché at Russia’s embassy in Belgrade meeting a Serbian agent. Grozev said he used Microsoft face-recognition software to identify the Russian man.

With Serbia being an old ally of Russia, the revelations upset the bilateral relation. Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić lashed at Russia but also accused Germany, Austria and Bulgaria of spying. And although he did not explicitly say this, it appears that he is blaming Western intelligence for publishing the video. In response, Serbian MP, Milovan Drecun, stated that Bulgaria has a “powerful intelligence presence in Serbia”, and that together with Croatia, it runs a spying hub in Skopje, North Macedonia.

Bulgaria’s foreign minister Ekaterina Zaharieva commented that this was a false accusation and it was a Russian intelligence officer bribing the Serbian official, not a Bulgarian one. The foreign minister said the allegations were “not helpful” for the bilateral relations.

Serbian defence minister Alexander Vulin replied by insinuating that NATO member Bulgaria was not an independent country. “Bulgaria may allow others to decide who are its friends, but Serbia doesn’t”, he said.

Alexander Yordanov, a Bulgarian MEP (EPP), said on the public channel BNT that the espionage affair was part of the Russian strategy to destabilise the Balkans. In his words, Russia deflected the attention from its own activities, aimed at transforming Serbia into Russian territory in the Balkans. We warned Belgrade that it could lose Bulgaria’s support in terms of EU integration.

Former Bulgarian ambassador Milen Keremedchiev also warned that Serbia is becoming “Russia’s Trojan horse in the Balkans” and a “very aggressive proxy of Russia in the region”.

Bulgaria and Serbia have fought wars many times in the past. In contrast, recent relations have been very positive, with Sofia supporting Belgrade’s EU accession agenda.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić said Serbia “has for years been facing the offensive activities of various intelligence services”. “Serbia will not be joining NATO, nor the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), or any other military alliance. We will strengthen our army, police, intelligence and counterintelligence sectors. We will invest more and more every year, we have ways to do that,” said the Serbian president.

According to EURACTIV.rs, Vučić does not rule out the possibility that the footage had been unveiled as a provocation ahead of a meeting with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on 4 December in Sochi.

Vučić talked with Russian Ambassador to Belgrade Alexander Botsan-Kharchenko and just asked him “why”?

“We do not forget Russia’s support of Serbia’s integrity, what Putin did at the U.N. Security Council in 2015, or Russia’s support in equipping our army. Serbia is the only one not to have imposed sanctions on Russia, has not voted against Russia at any forum, and has done nothing to jeopardise its friendship with Russia. I only asked our Russian friends why, nothing more, because I saw no logic in the whole thing,” said Vučić.

Meanwhile, Washington accused Russia of trying to destabilise Europe through military pressure, malicious cyber activity and malign influence in many countries that are allies, partners and friends of the United States.

Besides, Bulgarian website Arms Watch has released a report suggesting that the Ukrainian army in the war in Donbas had used smuggled weapons manufactured in Serbia.

The Serbian president said Belgrade had not armed the Ukrainian army and Serbian mines had not been used to kill pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine. He added that permits had not been issued for arms exports to the country, both because of the conflict in eastern Ukraine and the ties with Russia. He also noted that the mines had been sold to Polish company Natan.

“Regardless of the fact that Poland was the end-user, and that the deal was ‘clean’, the Serbian Security and Information Agency informed Russian intelligence, as friendly service, that there was a reason to believe that the arms were re-exported to Ukraine,” Vučić explained.

The Ukrainian embassy in Serbia said the media reports are “staged provocation” and “a clumsy attempt to discredit the authorities of Serbia and Ukraine”.

[Georgi Gotev, based on reporting by EURACTIV.bg and media partners SEGA and Dnevnik, Julia Simić |EURACTIV.rs]

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5G debate heats up

BERLIN | BRUSSELS | PARIS

5G free of foreign state influence. Following a heated debate, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) agreed on Saturday (23 November) at a party congress that bidders for German 5G rollout contracts must guarantee the network will be “free of foreign state influence”.

There were two proposals. First, “The CDU rejects Huawei’s participation in the 5G network expansion” and the second one had a similar tone but allowed a compromise: “The CDU is in favour of, first discussing the topic in the Bundestag within the framework of the amendment of the telecommunications networks”, also pushing for a European solution. The delegates ultimately backed a motion stipulating that 5G suppliers must fulfil a “clearly defined security catalogue, which includes the exclusion of influence by a foreign state”.

Norbert Röttgen, the head of the Bundestag’s foreign affairs committee, who initiated the first motion, insisted that “only equipment suppliers who are not under the influence of undemocratic states” could be trustworthy. The approved proposal also called for the parliament to be included in the decision making on the 5G rollout. Such a decision, which has far-reaching strategic significance for Germany, must be made by the parliament and not just by a ministry, Röttgen told the plenary.

He also insisted on the imminent “loss of control”, endangered security and limited sovereignty. Huawei also stood for the “question of trust”. In previous weeks, Chancellor Angela Merkel supported the Chinese company’s participation due to lack of European alternatives – an exclusion of Huawei would mean not only a time delay, but also a clouding of economic relations with China.

Washington has been putting pressure on Europe not to work with Huawei. US Ambassador Richard Grenell recently said cooperation with Huawei could result in downgraded intelligence-sharing between the two nations.

Meanwhile, Belgium’s biggest trade mission to China, comprised of Princess Astrid, various ministers and dozens of companies, has fallen victim to a massive cyberattack, Belgian media have reported. “It was worse than expected, but luckily we were prepared,” said Geert Baudewijns, cybersecurity expert from Secutec, a company specialised in protection against hackers. According to Baudewijns, who accompanied the delegation to China, around 135 attacks were recorded every hour during the mission on Monday afternoon. The fallout is rated as being limited so far as mission participants were advised to take a series of precautions such as using throwaway cell phones and other electronic devices at home. Although culprits have not been named yet, IP addresses suggest Chinese state security could have been involved.

In Paris, the discussion has focused on the cost of 5G after the government announced on Sunday (24 November) the amount expected for the new 5G frequencies. Agnès Pannier-Runacher, Secretary of State to the Minister of the Economy and Finance, told Les Echos that the reserve price was set at €2.17 billion for all the frequencies made available.

French regulator Arcep asked for a minimum price of €1.5 billion, while operators underlined that they could not pay such a high amount and cover a wider territory as it would mean a bigger investment from them. Telecom operators have been negotiating more local investment against more frequencies in France, and they were hoping to keep the same deal for 5G.

(Claire Stam | EURACTIV.de, Alexandra Brzozowski | EURACTIV.com, EURACTIV.FR))

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MADRID

Socialist members approve ‘coalition’ with Podemos. The members of Spain’s socialist party (PSOE) voted on Saturday in favour of a coalition with the leftist party, “Unidas Podemos”, EURACTIV’s partner EFE reported. The acting PM and leader of PSOE, Pedro Sánchez, expressed his satisfaction with the result of the internal election (92% of support among 178.000 PSOE members), which gives him “free hands” to negotiate with Podemos a progressive coalition government, EFE reported.

However, after the 10 November election was won by the PSOE, Sánchez still needs the support of Podemos and Catalan separatists from ERC (Republican Left of Catalonia) to be the next PM. The question now remains: How far PSOE can go to satisfy ERC’s secessionist appetite (a future independent Catalonia) in order to gain its support?

ERC spokeswoman Marta Vilalta said on Saturday that the negotiating table proposed by ERC to facilitate Sánchez’s investiture must be “among equals”. Vice-president of the regional Catalan Government, Pere Aragonès (ERC), said PSOE should push forward and accept ERC’s demands such as amnesty, self-determination, rights and freedoms for Catalonia. (EuroEFE.EURACTIV.es)

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LONDON

Conservative Manifesto. Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party have vowed to “get Brexit done” as the group launched their 56-page election manifesto in Shropshire, England, yesterday. The Tories have pledged to recruit 50,000 more nurses as well as clamp down on immigration. They have also committed not to raise income tax, national insurance and VAT.

The independent UK charity Full Fact scrutinised some of the pledges and found that for the 50,000 extra nurses plan – the figures put out by the Tories didn’t add up.   While the Conservatives claim their policy will cost the NHS £879m in 2023/24, Full Fact calculated this figure to cost the NHS £2.8bn a year, when factoring in the full spectrum of costs involved.

Moreover, Labour’s shadow health secretary called the 50,000 figure as “frankly deceitful”, after it emerged that of this number, the Government you included 19,000 that it hopes to ‘retain.’ (Samuel Stolton, EURACTIV.com)

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ROME

Sardines v. Salvini. Can thousands of ‘sardines’ halt the rise to power of right-wing ‘big fish’ Matteo Salvini? For two weeks, a new grassroots movement has been challenging Lega’s leader across Italy. During the kick-off of Lega’s electoral campaign for Emilia-Romagna regional elections, over 15,000 people organised a spontaneous counter-rally in a square nearby, and were packed like “sardines”.

The birth of the ‘sardines’ movement was also hailed by incoming Italian Commissioner Paolo Gentiloni. Since that night, the sardines have been present wherever Salvini has been organising his events. “These protesters give importance to all my appearances, I thank them,” said Salvini in an attempt to downplay the movement’s importance. (Gerardo Fortuna | EURACTIV.com)

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ATHENS

Mitsotakis takes action on unaccompanied children refugees. After EU member states ignored a Greek request to help share the burden of 4,000 unaccompanied minor refugees on Greek islands, Greek PM Kyriakos Mitsotakis has said he is going to take care of the issue personally. Currently, in refugee hotspots, children are easy targets for criminal behaviour from other older refugees and migrants.

All children will move immediately to special hosting centres for small groups, where they will be fed and live according to their age with the help of teachers, doctors, psychologists and with the care that, unfortunately, do not enjoy from their parents. (Theodore Karaoulanis | EURACTIV.gr)

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WARSAW

Politicians in the Constitutional Tribunal. Amid scandals, the Polish Sejm approved the candidates for the posts of judges of the Constitutional Tribunal. The institution has been subordinated to the ruling PiS since its judiciary reforms and now added PiS politicians to its roster. Stanisław Piotrowicz, communist-era prosecutor, and Krystyna Pawłowicz, a politician known for her brutal attacks against the opposition, secured the posts.

The move outraged not only the opposition but was also a sign that PiS can pack the tribunal with people who are extremely unpopular in society. (Łukasz Gadzała | EURACTIV.pl)

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BRATISLAVA

Investigation for asking questions. Opposition politician Jaroslav Naď (OĽaNO, EPP), a security analyst and former senior official at the Ministry of Defense, is under investigation by the National Criminal Agency. The criminal complaint, which Naď described “absurd and unfounded”, was submitted by the head of Military Intelligence, Ján Balciar, whom Naď has repeatedly criticised for various dubious activities and allegedly unaccounted substantial private assets. Naď is suspected of endangering confidential information because he sent questions linked to the Skripaľ case [poisoning in the UK] to an unnamed source within the Slovak intelligence community. These questions have not been answered yet. Naď criticised the political decision not to expel Russian intelligence officers with diplomatic protection, that the state was aware of, in the aftermath of the Skripaľ case.  (Zuzana Gabrižová | EURACTIV.sk)

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PRAGUE

The euro is not dead. The Czech Central Bank and the Finance Ministry are, once again, expected not to set a date to adopt the euro. The two institutions provide the Czech government with its recommendation every year, and there is no willingness to change the attitude yet, pointing out insufficient convergence as the main obstacle. The government is still negative toward the euro, and according to opinion polls, 75% of Czechs oppose it too.

On the other hand, unprecedented initiatives connected to the common currency are currently taking place in the Czech Republic. Petition campaign Pro Euro is gaining support from top Czech politicians, such as Foreign Minister Tomáš Petříček (S&D). There is also a newly established association, Euro in Czechia, which has called on mayors of towns and villages to launch local debates about the benefits of the single currency. (Aneta Zachová | EURACTIV.cz)

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BUCHAREST

Iohannis gets a second term. Romania’s centre-right President Klaus Iohannis won a landslide victory in the second round of presidential elections on Sunday. More than 900,000 Romanians living abroad voted, as, for the first time, Romanians in the diaspora could vote for a three day period. Read more (EURACTIV.ro)

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ZAGREB

Corruption is the biggest problem. Four-fifths of Croats say corruption is widespread in Croatia, according to a Croatian national television survey. The majority believes that corruption has mainly prevailed in politics (22,2%) and judiciary (22,1%). They also said judges are not independent in their work (48,2%) and that the biggest pressure on them comes from politicians, parties and government (48,4%). (Željko Trkanjec | EURACTIV.hr)

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[Edited by Sarantis Michalopoulos, Daniel Eck]

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