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Between Eidomeni and the Brenner Pass, Part 2: More Details on Italian Activists and Anarchists in spring 2016

Balkanalysis.com editor’s note: exactly one year ago today, the Greek-Macedonian border was attacked by migrants at Eidomeni. This, the second part of our analysis of that event, draws on exclusive new interviews with Italian pro-migrant activists present there at the time. (The first part of the analysis, which reveals the specific Italian anarchist and activist groups that actively supported the migrant cause, is available here).

By Elisa Sguaitamatti

In early spring 2016, Albania and Italy strengthened security measures regarding migration in the Balkans. Their increased initiatives and force deployment was done in case migrants tried to go via Albanian territory (north by land or west by sea to Italy). This occurred after the closure of the main Balkan Route from Greece to Macedonia.

By blocking a possible Albania corridor, the action contributed to factors that left the central and main Balkan Route crossing at Eidomeni the major one for migrants hoping to get to Northern Europe. The latter would erupt for the second time in a month on April 10-11, 2016, when angry migrants stormed the border, battling Greek and Macedonia, creating what looked temporarily like a war zone along the border fence separating the two countries. It would be the largest single attempt to breach the Balkan Route to date, but failed due to strong policing on the Macedonian side.

Cooperation between Italy and Albania to Patrol Borders

Before moving to cover that central event, we will first consider the peripheral but important efforts made further east under Italian direction, on the Adriatic coast.

In March 2016 Albania intervened along its border with Greece thanks to a deal stipulated by Angelino Alfano, then-Italian Interior Minister and his Albanian counterpart, Sajmir Tahiri. The deal comprised a set of border management, control and patrolling stations in the most sensitive areas along the Greek-Albania eastern border. Albanian officials decided where Italian forces needed to be deployed, up to a few kilometres from the borderline.

Around 450 Albanian border agents were deployed to carry out patrolling operations together with Italian policemen, according to a preventive strategy meant to control and if necessary to contain migration flows. Among the Italians, there were police instructors and anti-terrorism experts who brought modern tools for control and surveillance. Further, Italy would help record biometric data of migrants entering the country and to electronically share information on their identities. This cooperation was considered particularly significant, as Italy feared illegal infiltration by radicalised individuals. The Trans-Adriatic Route had been already well known for many years for contraband smuggling, and the main Italian priority was to ensure it not become a migrant one as well.

Italian State Actor Involvement on the Main Balkan Route Corridor

This operation raises the more general question of Italian state involvement in troubled areas of the Balkans during that period. Italian officials had already been in the field for quite some time, most probably since the end of 2015. As the migration crisis intensified, with more and more refugees getting stranded in Greece, Italian officials specifically studied the situation at the border with Macedonia to better understand what could happen if the Balkan Route was closed, for national security reasons.

Tommaso Gandini was one of the most prominent Italian activists present in the Balkans for a long time during the period in question. In a new interview for Balkanalysis.com, Gandini affirmed that there had been a rumour that Italian Frontex troops had been spotted near the border. However, he added that he had no way to confirm this as fact.

Regarding the same issue, an Italian official with contacts close to the Ministry of Defence commented for Balkanalysis.com that the main reason for the Italian presence in the border area was the perceived importance of the region for Italy, as Rome’s interests were to keep the area stable and safe.

“The Balkans is still a fragile and fragmented area,” the Italian official stated. “Furthermore, lately it has been the breeding ground for many foreign fighters and home to some dormant jihadi cells which could potentially spill over into Italian territory.”

“Adding to this fear, in spring 2016 there was an ongoing refugee crisis,” the official noted. “Therefore, despite being unapproved, the visit by Italian officials and security experts was a commissioned study of a critical area to later outline possible outcome scenarios.”

From the Italian perspective, one worrying scenario at the time was the possible diversion of uncontrolled flows of migrants to Italy and its already overcrowded reception facility centres, our source confirmed. (Although he did not mention it by name, the ‘commissioned study’ was no doubt the Impressione di Macedonia revealed by Balkanalysis.com last summer).

The ‘March of Hope’ River Crossing (15 March 2016) and German Activism

After the first week of March, the Balkan Route was no longer accessible to migrants following the decision of Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia and finally Macedonia to close their borders. It was a coordinated policy officially accepted by the EU (with support from Austria and the V4 countries, despite opposition from some EU countries and political blocs). Thousands of people coming from the Greek islands via Athens began piling up at Eidomeni, creating a chaotic make-shift camp along the Greek-Macedonian border.

On 15 March, a migrants’ ‘march of hope’ was triggered not only by the deteriorating conditions at the camp but also by an Arabic-language leaflet which urged refugees to illegally cross the Greek-Macedonian border. The document, supposedly distributed by some activists on Monday 14 March, provided a map and instructions on how to best reach an unfenced part of the border, delineating a river crossing (the Suva Reka, or ‘Dry River’ in Macedonian, near Eidomeni). However, while the flyer promised the river was dry, it was actually very full and three migrants drowned while trying to cross it.

According to The Guardian, German activists had been behind the flyer. German newspaper Bild added that it had been signed by Kommando Norbet Blum- the name of Germany’s former Labour Minister, who spent a week at the camp in ‘solidarity’ with refugees. There were also some activists and journalists who documented this act of defiance and who were later stopped by Macedonian authorities, but soon released and sent back to Greece. Among them there was Paul Ronzheimer, author of the Bild article, who published a video on social media showing the crossing of the river.

Italian activist Tommaso Gandini was not physically present at Eidomeni on that day, but many of his Italian friends were. Based on the accounts of that day available on the MeltingPot.org blog, around 1,500 migrants decided to cross the river as they hoped it would be a good moment to tempt fate.

One goal was to reunite some of the migrants with their families. They had been warned by some people providing aid that the attempt would be dangerous and useless, but they nonetheless tried to cross the border. However, the Macedonian police soon stopped them and sent them back to the Greek police.

According to the blog post, the flyer indicated the way to illegally get into Macedonia, adding that “those who remained at Eidomeni would be deported to Turkey.” Italian activists there tried to persuade refugees that the crossing was a bad idea and that they could be arrested or detained, but they were determined to try as they had nothing to lose. Therefore, volunteers, activists and journalists finally helped these migrants in their impossible mission.

On behalf of his friends who were in the field then, Gandini confirmed for Balkanalysis.com that the flyers, which put thousands of lives in jeopardy, were in fact handed out by some German activists who had arrived at the camp a few days earlier. After that episode, they soon left the site, he added.

This German involvement was strongly condemned by those providing aid at the camp, including the British association Aid Delivery Mission. As proof of this, the press release written by Aid Delivery Mission clarified that after the drowning of 3 Afghans, volunteers had tried to dissuade migrants from crossing the Suva Reka and informed them about the dangers of the illegal crossing.

However, when volunteers realised that the flow of refugees could not be stopped, they followed the march on mountain paths and formed a human chain to make their crossing safer.

Italian Activists and Other Groups at Eidomeni: #overthefortress and the Lawyers from Bologna

One initiative that Italian activists from the #overthefortress group took was to create an ‘info tent’ structure at the centre of the camp. They did this to inform migrants of the general situation in Greece. They also informed migrants about how to make an asylum application in order to be moved to other countries in a reasonable period of time.

At the tent, an Italian legal team from the Bologna-based Associazione Interculturale Le Mafalde soon started cooperating with #overthefortress activists and the ‘info tent’ so that their legal knowledge and expertise was at the disposal of migrants. This legal team consisted of women only, more precisely, three lawyers and two translators of English and Arabic.

After receiving an update from other humanitarian operators regarding how legal cases were normally dealt with at the camp, the Italian lawyers took responsibility for disseminating information and answers at a jurisdictional level, such as the right to family reunification. The lawyers clarified (in a video interview on MeltingPot.org) that they were also the point of reference for some serious cases.

For example, in one case, 24 migrants had tried to cross the border to get to Macedonia but soon reckoned it was not a good idea, and decided to call the police, who brought them back. On this occasion, one man went missing and his wife asked for help from the Associazione Le Mafalde, which went to 4 police stations in Macedonia to report the missing person. However, according to that interview, ‘they turned a deaf ear,’ said an Italian lawyer by the name of Alba.

Therefore, the Italian lawyer got in touch with the Italian Embassy in Skopje, and the Greek police to report the disappearance. Eventually (the lawyer named Alba said), the deputy at the Italian Embassy in Skopje contacted the lawyers from the Milanese association to say the person had been stopped for specific enquiries but that he would soon be released.

Without the support of the association, this would have never been possible, the report said. (Since Alba did not specifically name the Italian Embassy deputy, it is not clear whether he was in fact the then-deputy Filippo Candela, already discussed last summer by Balkanalysis.com in relation to AISE activity in the country).

A ‘Cultural Centre’ and other Ventures at Eidomeni

However, #overthefortress members were not alone at the camp, as there were other groups providing migrants with support and assistance, carrying out activities in which they were specialised. This was occurring even as the general living conditions continued to deteriorate sharply amidst bad weather and overcrowding.

One of them was a group of Spanish bomberos (firemen) which managed to build an independent makeshift hospital facility, offering medical care and aid to those in need. Spanish, German and Italian activists and volunteers also decided to ‘found’ a ‘cultural centre’ where they could teach in an improvised school for children and adults too.

Like many such facilities, this was a structure that acted independently. One #overthefortress member explained that “independent volunteers were those most attacked by the governments which considered them as instigators of migrant’ protests, to finally isolate them and to deny them access to the camps where only NGOs were allowed to operate.’

Finally, a Wifi area (installed by Italians) allowed a certain Mustafa and other Syrians to manage a communication program called Refugees.tv. It also had a Facebook page which recounted facts about life in the camp, problems and protests there, both in Arabic and English, in order to make refugees’ voices heard.

Another Italian Witness from the Eidomeni Camp

Another Italian activist on the field was Luca Mistrello, who wrote about his experience. This is an excerpt of his story: “the very first day that we got there some operators of UNHCR recommended that ‘not under any circumstance should they ever tell migrants that the border was going to open again,’ which was something that we never affirmed anyway.”

On the contrary, they said that the border would never reopen and that the only way migrants could survive was to accept being moved to other camps being organised by the Greek government, with the promise that within 2 months they would be relocated elsewhere in Europe.

“However, many wanted to stay at Eidomeni because at least in that place their condition was in the spotlight and volunteers, journalists and NGOs were speaking about them. Had they been in other informal camps in the inland they would have been forgotten,” Mistrello noted.

Eidomeni Escalation of Tensions (10 April 2016)

As previously reported in the first part of this analysis, on 10 April 2016 many migrant families were the protagonists of a sit-in protest against both Greek and Macedonian officials. Refugees had gathered in front of the Greek police barricade at the Eidomeni border crossing to Macedonia by 9 a.m. on Sunday. Those at the front held up paper placards with peaceful-sounding slogans as they faced down a Greek police deployment. For the first couple of hours, the protests were calm.

Tommaso Gandini is one of the most prominent Italian activists of the #overthefortress march, was present at Eidomeni for a long period (between February and May 2016). He also took part in the Brenner Pass demonstration on 3 April that was covered in the first part of our report.

Gandini recounted his experience there for Balkanalysis.com and clearly expressed his point of view. “The attempted criminalisation of activists and volunteers is a constant phenomenon of the last few years, from Eidomeni to Athens and from Udine to Ventimiglia,” he stated.

“On 10 April I wasn’t there [at Eidomeni], but I know exactly and personally who organised the protest,” he says. “They were all Syrians, and not only did I speak to them, I also saw various videos that showed the reality of the facts. Thousands approached the border and a delegation of migrants had a dialogue with the police: ‘we would like to enter and we are going to enter today. We will remove these fences of barbed wire and thus enter, but we don’t want to hurt anyone. Please let us in, we don’t wish to hurt anyone,’ they said.”

Gandini made a further claim- that there were no international activists there who intervened, but only some journalists documenting the facts. For this reason, he concluded, “this means that there are no elements to say that the protest was coordinated or prompted by activists. It was completely self-organised.”

Further Italian Activist Testimony Regarding the April 10 Border Attack

With regards to this episode, another Italian activist of the #overthefortress campaign – who was actually at Eidomeni on that day – wrote on the activists’ website that on 9 April rumours were spreading all over the camp that migrants would organise a peaceful sit-in against the authorities on the following day.

However, the young Italian student-activist denied that Italian activists informed migrants to break through the border on 10 April (neither by flyers nor by word-of-mouth). He also denied that these Italians could somehow have been involved in prompting migrants to act against Macedonian officials.

On the contrary, he said that the main reason for defying Macedonian authorities was the increasing frustration of migrants. They were angered over the worsening conditions at the Greek camp, and the closure of the Balkan Route. He and his other colleagues (named Andrea, Carmen and Sandro) also recorded the events live, documenting the unrest on Twitter and Facebook.

A seeming confirmation of this appeared on an Italian anarchist website called Hurriya (in Arabic, ‘Freedom’), which used the Italian slogan ‘senza frontiere, senza galere’ (‘without borders, without jails’).

The website reported that after the EU-Turkey deal, protests of migrants soared in many parts of Greece and everyday people expressed their intention to break through the border at Eidomeni and Evros (the Greek-Turkish border region). On 10 April, after weeks of latent anger, many of them were determined to break through the razor wire fence to get to Macedonia.

According to the website, the Greek government and the mainstream media considered that the uprisings were fostered by flyers handed out by volunteers and activists. Similarly to what had occurred in Calais at the ‘Jungle’ migrant camp, the website argued that “this is the way in which the media wanted to convey the distorted idea that migrants were ‘piloted’ by solidarity groups and volunteers.”

Hurriya also explained that in the wake of the tensions of 10 April, surveillance and controls were stepped up by Greek police towards aid groups and activists over the following days. On 12 April, the Greek police stopped 17 people (among them Germans, Austrians, Portuguese, Greeks, Swedes, one Palestinian and one Syrian) near a river bridge.

Towards the end of April and beginning of May, tensions skyrocketed and concern about repression was widespread among migrants. Those seeking to leave the camp had three possibilities. The first one was to go by bus to an inland-located militarised camp organised by the Greek government, even though they would not know in advance what the destination was. Alternatively, people from Eidomeni could try to cross the Macedonian border illegally by paying a smuggler. This would involve walking through mountainous pathways for hours- with a good risk of being spotted by police and sent back to the encampment. The third and last possibility was going back to Turkey, with all the uncertainties which that entailed.

Conclusion: The Invisible Bridge between Eidomeni and The Brenner Pass

When asked about the connection between Eidomeni and the Brenner Pass, and thus activists’ presence in those places, Gandini made this comment for Balkanalysis.com: “Eidomeni and the Brenner both represent the unwillingness of Northern-Central European countries to take charge of migrants. Both borders were indeed closed because Austria, with its border closure caused a domino effect. Countries like Croatia and Slovenia had no problem letting migrants pass, as nobody wanted to stay in those countries anyway,” he said.

“However, with the closure of the Austrian border they worried about dealing with thousands of people stranded on their territory,” Gandini stated. “Austria is not the root of all evil, but it had to take decisions for all the other countries of Northern-Central Europe.”

The clear connection of the northern border pressure points in Greece and Italy in the activists’ minds made it seem logical for them to thus carry out provocations at both places almost simultaneously during spring 2016. This had a tactical, but also propagandistic aspect.

After being at Eidomeni, and operating as at the Brenner Pass, activists and volunteers made their voice heard. Their permanent presence in Greece existed along with their operation at the Brenner Pass, and their determination break through both borders.

Judging by their determination and solidarity effort, this was particularly important in their relationship with migrants, to instill in them the awareness that the activists were there not only to help them survive, but also to ensure that they were ‘fighting against the system’ and the mechanisms that closed the borders.

Although all of the details concerning the turbulent attempts to attack Macedonian and Austrian borders in spring 2016 may never be known, two important details emerge from this collective testimony. The first was that these cases (like many similar ones) were perceived and presented in a manner typical to the left-wing activist and anarchist movements, as a means of resisting state power and controls. This is a very old motivation for such groups, and the migrant crisis has thus represented another opportunity (or even, excuse) for such groups to mobilise.

The second important aspect of the activist-migrant encounter in spring 2016 was that it had the effect of further emboldening desperate people who were already angered by poor living conditions, EU political decisions, and a general impatience to reach the ‘promised land’ of Northern Europe. By instilling a sense of false hope in the trapped migrant population at Eidomeni, the perhaps well-meaning but irresponsible activists influenced a highly volatile situation in which migrant violence created a genuine security concern for affected states, while damaging relations between European states, parties and blocs.

In conclusion, we can say that while the history is still being written, the historic presence of migrant activists and anarchists played a key role in influencing political processes and security reactions that, while seemingly temporary in nature, will have effects for a long time to come.

Between Eidomeni and the Brenner Pass: Italian Activists and Anarchists in spring 2016

Balkanalysis.com editor’s note: exactly one year ago, the Greek-Macedonian border was increasingly becoming a security risk due to the presence of thousands of migrants who refused to leave the impromptu Eidomeni camp, following the closure of the Balkan Route. Violent actions in March and April 2016 were interwoven with other security and political events. The present analysis examines the largely unknown role of the specifically Italian anarchist and activist contingent who played a key role in supporting the migrant cause.

By Elisa Sguaitamatti

In the aftermath of the 2015 migrant crisis, an invisible bridge linking seemingly distant places was formed: it connected such place as the former Eidomeni migrant camp on the Greek-Macedonia border, and the Brenner Pass on the Italian-Austrian border. This human chain consisting of some Italian activist groups involved in solidarity campaigns like #overthefortress. Further, anarchists’ actions were documented by websites such as GlobalProject and MeltingPot where ideas and facts were and are spread, with on-the-spot experiences also being shared.

Some Information about the GlobalProject.info Website

GlobalProject.info website reports that it is an Italian multi-media platform created by the collective effort of activists of the multifaceted GlobalProject, which includes individuals coming from different walks of life as well as those living in social centers, especially in the Northeast of Italy.

“The idea of creating this virtual space was born out of the desire to react to the events that the world was going through like the era of expansion of neoliberalist globalisation and the arrival of world capitalist crisis,” it noted. In this context, GlobalProject chose to spread ideas on the internet, “using spaces, resources and know how, becoming independent from all those things that are controlled, manipulated and dominated. GlobalProject 2.0 is working to refuse this unjust world and believes that social struggles are legitimate and right.”

On the website, there is a dedicated section for no-border activists’ communications and events. Further, a significant part of the website is specifically tailored for marches and initiatives, such as the solidarity campaign #overthefortress to Eidomeni refugee camp that took place from 25 to 29 March 2016.

Information about the MeltingPot.org Website

MeltingPot.org is another website which chose to dedicate its cause to the MeltingPot Project for Europe and the organization of the #overthefortress campaign.

This campaign, according to the website, is “a collective action of monitoring and inquiry in and outside the Fortress Europe.” It started off as a series of “handovers of relay” trips and visits in August 2015, all along the most vulnerable spots of the Balkan route and sensitive paths used by migrants wishing to get to the north of Europe.

#Overthefortress Activists in the Balkans and Greek Islands in 2015

For example, #overthefortress activists were in the Balkans just a few weeks before the construction of the wall between Hungary and Serbia, then Vienna, Eidomeni and the Greek islands.

The MeltingPot website quotes some of the comments made by activists involved in their visits: “we have known and told our story directly describing reality. We held hands [with] hundreds of women, children and elderly on the move. We listened to them and their reasons for leaving, we understood their needs and desires and actively supported them in Eidomeni until the day the camp was dismantled.”

Moreover, last year this solidarity campaign was also present at the Brenner Pass, Calais and Thessaloniki before leaving for a journey of inquiry in the south of Italy to visit reception facilities, to assess the conditions of overcrowded places where migrants were living.

Who Are the Anarchists?

Most Italian anarchists are non-violent people seeking to pursue their cause as well as their full personal realization and sense of belonging to a group. In recent times, more and more adherents have been younger ones who could be mistaken for college students seeking a cause, like members of any other movement. The same phenomenon has long been noted in Greece as well.

Of course, there is also a minority represented by the mobilizers, some of whom have used more violent behaviour. Often this is used to conjure the image factor that makes it ‘important’ to be considered an anarchist. In the migration context, they normally all go under the same umbrella name of “no-borders” and their actions are in line and cooperation with the initiatives of other foreign anarchists’ movements working for a “a global struggle against every border and barrier.”

The #Overthefortress Solidarity Campaign March (25-29 March 2016): From Ancona to Eidomeni

The MeltingPot Project for Europe sponsored a solidarity march from Ancona to Eidomeni from 25 to 29 March 2016 in which nearly 300 people participated, including activists, students and volunteers.

The #overthefortress campaign was born from the effort and determination of many realities. The aim was twofold: bring and deliver necessary goods and aid from Italy to Eidomeni and the surrounding camps; and, on the other hand, to express a firm opposition to the idea of a Fortress Europe which was resorting to nationalism and starting to build walls and barbed-wire barriers.

Only 10 days after the closure of the Greek-Macedonian border (which obliged migrants to stay at Eidomeni in precarious conditions) on 18 March a deal between Turkey and the EU was signed which was considered bad by activists. The reason for this was that, in their opinion, it would create discriminations and chaotic situations to the detriment of asylum-seekers, who would be pushed back to Turkey where they would live in “inhumane conditions.”

Participants in the #Overthefortress March

The website MeltingPot quoted all the associations that adhered to the march: activists from social centers of the north of Italy. These included Agire nella Crisi, Carovana Migranti (Torino), Art Lab Occupato (Parma), Adl Zavidovici (Brescia), LGBTI Antéros (Padova), as well as social centers from the Le Marche region such as Ambasciata dei Diritti Marche (Ancona, Jesi, Macerata) and Ya Basta! Marche and finally, Amici del Baobab (Roma).

Secondly, there were some students’ associations from all over Italy participating. These included: Lisc (Venezia); Refresh (Trento); Polisportiva Clandestina (Trento); Anti-racist Forum (Palermo); Laboratory ParaTodas (Verona); Lab Insurgencia (Napoli); Spam (Padova); Polisportiva S. Precario (Padova); Chiesa Pastafariana; the Italian schools Liberalaparola (Marghera) and Liberalaparola (Padova); Anti-racist group Assata Shakur (Ancona); AlternataSilos (Guidonia), and the welcome project Friendly House (Rieti).

Moreover, some Italian Committees and social cooperatives also gave their contribution. These Committees included: Comitato No Mous/No Sigonella; Catanese anti-racist network; ASD RFC Lions Ska Caserta Antirazzista; Center for Peace Studies or Centar za Mirovne Studije and Welcome!-Dobrodošli! from Zagreb, Croatia. Further, participants in cooperatives came from some cities in Northern Italy. These included: Azienda Easy Promo (Cittadella PD); Cooperativa Caracol (Marghera); Cooperativa Città Invisibile (Padova-Vicenza); Cooperativa El Tamiso (Padova); Ufficio Stampa Propapromoz (Milano) and Sherwood Festival (Padova).

Finally, it is noteworthy to point out that there were also two important delegations from Munich and Prague belonging to the Federation of Young European Greens (FYEG) and activists of Interventionistische-Linke from Nurnberg.

The Road to Eidomeni: Departures by Ship

Approximately 300 activists left from Ancona port on 25 March 2016, together with two smaller delegations from the south of Italy leaving from Bari and Trieste, heading to Greek ports and the Eidomeni camp on the Greek-Macedonian border.

The campaign determined a social activation all over Italy, creating “a common political space of action to break the barriers that separated bodies from necessities and desires,” read one announcement. Thanks to crowdfunding, hundreds of people contributed to the collection of items of clothing, food and medicine to be delivered to the encampment. Eidomeni was “a symbol of the struggle for freedom of movement on the borders of Europe,” the Italian activists said.

The activists described this as “a call for international solidarity and outrage under the slogan #overthefortress.” This rhetoric defined the migrant-crisis experience for them, and the Eidomeni camp represented the perfect example of the convergence of migrant, activist and anarchist cooperation, which Balkanalysis.com had predicted four months beforehand.

Who Were the Volunteers and Activists?

There was an exceptional presence of young Italians going to Eidomeni. One of them, a leader of the solidarity march was Tommaso Gandini, a 21-year-old student, originally from Bologna, but living in Bolzano where he was attending university. Despite his young age, Tommaso was already an experienced activist. Together with some social centres from the northeast of Italy, Le Marche region and other “single units” of Agire nella Crisi network, Gandini had already taken part in initiatives of #overthefortress, and on the platform MeltingPot he documented his experiences live from Eidomeni camp.

Other prominent activists included Chris and Filix who belonged to Interventionistiche Linke (Germany), and Giulia and the group from Rome who were attending a course for legal operators in international protection to look into the situation after the implementation of EU-Turkey deal. Veronica from the association Amici del Baobab in Rome was another prominent Eidomeni activist, as was Sabrina Yousfi of the non-profit association Silos, who believed the march was the first of many actions that would connect all those willing to help migrants in Europe.

Day 1: A Meeting between Italian and Greek Activists and Volunteers

Having arrived at Igoumenitsa harbor, the Italian groups met with Greek activists and some representatives of the Federation of Young European Greens who followed the Italian buses on the road to Eidomeni. They travelled across Epiros and to the camp, north of Thessaloniki on the main border corridor that runs from the Aegean port to Central Europe. This event was less than two weeks after 3 migrants had drowned in a river at the border crossing, being encouraged to travel illegally by activists at Eidomeni.

Not far from the tents of Eidomeni, they came across Greek police forces blocking the road to the camp, deployed in anti-riot gear. After some hours and meticulous controls of all the buses, #overthefortress volunteers and activists reached the makeshift camp and delivered aid, food and clothes.

In the meantime, young Greek activists explained and updated the newly arrived Italians on the situation there: Eidomeni was just the tip of the iceberg, a place where Greek authorities divided refugees by their nationality (stranded refugees usually were Syrians, Afghans, Iraqis, Pakistanis and Kurds). However, they warned Italians of the facts that on the territory there were many other informal camps that needed help and were visited by small delegations of Italians. The first day went by smoothly and there were no tensions in and around the camp.

Day 2: Life Inside the Camp

The #overthefortress group was living together with NGOs operators in the headquarter of Polykastro camp, a village 20 km away from Eidomeni. On the second day, the Italians managed to spend a lot of time inside the camp itself. They managed to accomplish some ‘technical missions’ as they defined them on their virtual platforms.

One of these ‘technical missions’ was to create an information point to explain the rights of refugees in Europe, as well as some infrastructure to establish an internet connection and install a power generator. This was because, as Tommaso Gandini explained in an interview for an Italian newspaper, “the only way migrants have to apply for an asylum request is to book an appointment for an interview with Thessaloniki government officials by a Skype call but the number is always busy. There I saw a lot of uncertainty and little hope.” Other groups were dedicating their time and effort to talk to people, play with children and document with photos and video the conditions of the camp.

Day 3: A March to Thessaloniki

On 28 March, the #overthefortress group carried out its march, reaching Thessaloniki. There, together with other local activists of the student’s network called Antarsya and the hospitality of people of an anarchist-occupied orphanage, they organised a protest in front of the Prefectural building. It was a peaceful popular mobilization to express disappointment regarding the recent European policies in matters of immigration: the closure of the Balkan route, the introduction of the immigration quote system and the approval of EU-Turkey agreement.

Activists and volunteers waved banners reading “EU-Turkey: no deal with whom tramples human rights,” “Solidarity with the Kurds,” “No border, no nation, stop deportation. If you don’t want to listen, we will make you listen,” Another sign read “Next stop Sunday 3 April Brenner Pass Against the Borders.” It was clear that the activists had an organized plan for rapid activities in two countries by that point.

Demonstration at the Brenner Pass by Italian Activists and Anarchists (3 April 2016)

The Brenner Pass is one of Italy’s most important transit routes– for trade, tourism and, during the crisis, for thousands of migrants on their journey towards Northern Europe. At the end of March 2016, the GlobalProject website reported that some Italian activists from the Agire nella Crisi network (a local group from Trentino region) staged a flash mob and a press conference in front of the Tyrolean Parliament presenting an action plan of their march on 3 April.

The Brenner demonstration came after an Austrian plan to restrict access, “channelling people” through the Brenner Pass, through a new fence at this Alpine crossing between Italy and Austria.

The Agire nella Crisi network criticised the militarization of borders and claimed the creation of safe human corridors in Europe to welcome migrants was necessary. Although it started off as a peaceful mobilization, the event turned violent. Local police in Tyrol, Austria said over 600 protesters showed up to the third violent demonstration at the Brenner Pass in just over a month.

Other Actors Involved

On that day, hundreds of pro-refugee activists were gathering for a rally at Brenner train station to protest “against the borders of Fortress Europe.” There were anti-racist and anti-fascist movements from Trentino region, representatives of some social centers of Milan and Naples as well as centers of the Italian region Le Marche.

More generally, no-border adherents from Trento, Vicenza, Venezia, Ancona and some from Sicily were also represented.

Further, there were some volunteers who had participated in the campaign #overthefortress that had witnessed the situation of Eidomeni camp a few weeks earlier, and some people from civil society groups.

Among the international groups of activists there were the Federation of Young European Greens and delegations of Interventionistische-Linke, who were all present at Eidomeni.

Remarkably, there was also a representative of the Kurdish community in Bolzano who, in a video interview, declared that “we, the Kurds, are here today at the Brenner to express our dissatisfaction with Europe that, instead of providing migrants with assistance, decided to give its funds to that dangerous Sultan that is Erdoğan. Welcoming and opening frontiers in Europe represents a fight against the fundamentalism of Daesh.”

Although there is no clear number of people who took part in the march (approximately between 8000 and 1000), it is evident that they were united in their cause. Groups of protesters welcomed the call made by the local Trentino movement Agire nella Crisi network, to firmly oppose the closure of the Italian-Austrian border. Agire contro i confini dell’Europa fortezza (Acting against the borders of Fortress Europe) was the second phase of a political campaign that started from the masses claiming a Europe without barriers, operating in solidarity and friendliness.

Phases of the March “Against the Borders of Fortress Europe”

The parade started moving from Brenner station while people at the front were carrying a big banner that said: “With our bodies we eliminate barriers. Open the borders.”

Revealing the impact of their recent Greek experience, the volunteers of #overthefortress were holding blue tents which were symbolic of Eidomeni camp. They were also claiming the necessity to open the borders against Europe that made deals with Turkey under Erdoğan, a “killer regime than represses Kurds and often attacks dinghies.”

Activists marched across the Brenner Pass into Austria: they stationed at the Austrian frontier and wrote “Welcome” on the wall, crossing out the sign indicating Republic of Austria. For the first time an internal border had been violated to claim the freedom of movement of people by activists.

However, soon after Austrian policemen blocked the road lined, up in riot gear. As protesters tried to break the police lines chanting “no border, we are all illegal migrants,” while throwing bottles and stones at officers, Austrian security forces reacted with shields, pepper spray and batons. Demonstrators could be seen lighting flares, throwing life jackets at police, while shouting “we are all refugees” and carrying banners reading “refugees welcome” and “no more Fortress Europe.”

In the meantime, a group belonging to the more extreme and violent wing of the anarchist circle of Agire nella Crisi managed to get back to the station, causing scuffles along the railway lines while opening blue tents to remid people of the Eidomeni camp.

Further, right before the deployment of security forces, activists wrote “no borders” in capital letters, and “Refugees, Welcome to EU” on the ground. At the end of the demonstration some activists and leaders of the march were stopped, interrogated and soon released by local police.

Eidomeni Escalation of Tensions and Illegal Border Crossings (9-10 April 2016)

Between 9 and 10 April, the MeltingPot website published photos, videos and stories written by young Italian witnesses of #overthefortress campaign reporting the worsening of the situation at the encampment, as well as the escalation of tensions between migrants and Greek and Macedonian authorities.

As the warmer spring season had arrived, the conditions at the camp were deteriorating while the railway station had been blocked for more than ten days to avoid departures of migrants. In addition, aid and services offered by UNHCR and other NGOs were becoming increasingly insufficient, and hence the atmosphere of anger and frustration was mounting.

On 10 April, many Afghani and Pakistani migrant families collected their possessions and tents; they gathered at the exit of Eidomeni camp and started protesting in a sit-in against Greek police.

Enzo Infantino, independent Italian volunteer at the Eidomeni camp explained to the press agency Agenzia Agi that Afghans and Pakistanis were the ones who mainly fuelled tensions and clashes in the camp,  as “they know very well that it will be almost impossible for them to get refugee status [unlike] the case with Syrians. Therefore, they create tensions- otherwise nobody would ever speak of them. On the other hand, Syrians try to keep the situation calm as they are waiting to receive their refugee status.”

Some young #overthefortress leaders assisted at the scene and recorded what was happening live thanks to the No Border-Wifi system they had installed some days earlier. As more and more migrants arrived and assaulted the railway line, others attempted to enter Macedonia, breaking the barbed wire that separated the border. Macedonian police reacted dispersing the crowds with rubber bullets (according to the activists, but denied by police), tear gas and smoke bombs. This was just one of the many episodes of escalation of tensions, before Eidomeni camp was finally dismantled.

Conclusion: More Challenges Ahead

Despite the geographical distance, there is a strong link that will always bond Eidomeni and the Brenner Pass. It is, again, an invisible bridge through which hundreds of Italian activists and anarchists crossed borders, overcame fences and barriers and wrote a small chapter in regional history. These were the identities and activities of the so called “no-borders” activists at the beginning of spring 2016, when the refugee crisis was still hitting Europe in a serious way.

A year on, as the good weather season begins, we are likely to bear witness to more flows of migrants. Notwithstanding the closure of the Balkan route and the efforts of some European countries to build fences, migrants will continue to arrive in Europe by different means. Similarly, there is a likelihood that activists and anarchists will continue their activities, possibly converging with similar forces of other countries, at times fuelling unrest and tensions at the most sensitive areas.

As of March 2017 – a year on from the dangerous rioting at two key migration chokepoints – it seems clear that immigration waves won’t stop, and hence Europe should be more ready to grapple with the defining issue of immigration and related challenges in future. In this light, in addition to the typical humanitarian and logistical concerns, it will also be necessary for European governments to observe the activities of anarchist and activist groups that may pose temporary threats to public order and security.

Romania’s Winter 2017 Protests: Behind the Power Struggle of the Secret Services, Politicians, and Soros NGOs

Balkanalysis.com editor’s note: George Soros’ web of intrigue is coming under increasing scrutiny, from America to Eastern Europe. Yet while it is commonly believed Soros only supports leftist causes, the case of Romania shows that his political support can change to match his unclear interests.

This exclusive analysis reveals how, while retaining his traditional method of infiltrating the judiciary and government through NGOs, Soros in Romania is also active in politics and the deep-state struggles in which officials, secret agents, businessmen and anti-corruption interests converge.

By Elena Dragomir

In the beginning of 2017, Romania witnessed a series of anti-government protests. These were generally depicted as manifesting civic opposition to a corrupt government trying to end Romania’s fight against corruption.

A closer investigation, however, reveals that this thesis does not seem to stand and a new hypothesis is more likely; this would suggest that Romania’s recent protests actually represent a fierce struggle for power between the state secret services and Romania’s president, Klaus Johannis, on the one side, and the political coalition that won the last parliamentary elections in December 2016 (PSD-ALDE), on the other. The political and secret service-supported protests were also fueled by persons and entities close to various NGOs associated with Hungarian-American billionaire George Soros.

Further, the political dimensions of the protests also reveal that George Soros retains strong influence in Romania, even though here he is not on the “side” he usually plays (i.e., the left-wing parties). As elsewhere in Eastern Europe, it thus seems that the billionaire has allied with elements of the Romanian secret services and prosecution – key actors in the country’s ‘deep state’ – for his own unclear purposes.

We will discuss the protests and this activity towards the end of this analysis. But first it is necessary to outline the structural problems affecting the Romanian secret services and especially, the role of the state bodies investigating corruption cases.

A Structural Problem: No Democratic Control over the Secret Services of Romania

Despite some public debate, in its 26 years since the collapse of the socialist system, Romania could not reform its secret services, which continued to grow unabatedly, outside of any real democratic control.

During the last years, more and more controversies have occurred publicly with regard to the secret services’ involvement in media, businesses, politics and the judicial system. While the current Romanian legislation forbids the secret services from having any interference in politics and judiciary, no law is actually broken when media is infiltrated or when the Romanian Intelligence Service (SRI) establishes its own covert commercial companies, NGOs, foundations or associations.

Although not illegal, as Adrian Țuțuianu, the president of the current parliamentary commission for the control of the SRI recently declared, the presence of undercover agents in newspapers offices was often linked to the SRI’s involvement in politics and press freedom limitations. In 2012, for instance, one of the four chief-editors of the Romanian newspaper Jurnalul Național was uncovered as an SRI agent whose mission was not only to monitor what happened in the newspaper’s office, but to gather information on the sources of documentation used in ‘sensible’ articles and to influence its editorial policy.

A Recent Scandal

A recent scandal seemed to confirm rumors and speculations that some media have claimed for years. Sebastian Ghiță and Elena Udrea, two very controversial members of the former Romanian parliament, publicly declared that SRI systematically acted to control newspapers and to pull down TV stations that were critical of particular politicians (specifically, of former president Traian Băsescu). According to these two, the main instrument used to take down political adversaries was through the so-called anti-corruption fight, carried out by the National Anticorruption Directorate (DNA), working very closely with the SRI.

Sebastian Ghiță, now on the run, was often accused by the media of being an undercover SRI agent himself, or at least an SRI agent of influence. He was a member in the former parliamentary commission for the control of the SRI, and the owner of several companies- allegedly, SRI covert businesses. It is, however, legal for SRI to own and operate its covert commercial companies, as it is legal to own covert NGOs, associations, foundations. In 2013, ten MPs from the National Liberal Party initiated a law for the abolishment of all commercial companies, NGOS, associations and foundations owned by the SRI, in part or entirely, directly or through intermediaries.

Three parliamentary commissions opposed the proposal then. Now, Sebastian Ghiță has disappeared, being accused of corruption by the DNA in several criminal cases. He was also involved in a series of revelations that ended in January 2017 with the suspension and investigation of general Florian Coldea, First Deputy Director of the SRI.

Romanian Deep State- Spies in Parliament

As already noted, different MPs were suspected of being if not secret agents, at least agents of influence of the SRI. Such MPs were supposed to block laws and initiatives unwanted by the SRI, limit or block any democratic control by the parliament over the SRI, support political groups favored by the SRI, increase the SRI’s annual budgets and so on. Journalists emphasize that the SRI’s agents infiltrated not only the media or the Parliament, but also governmental agencies, such as the National Agency for Fiscal Administration.

Such accusations have been repeatedly denied by the SRI and, given the secrecy that inherently characterizes the secret services sector, it is very difficult to have access to reliable evidence and information. Still, in this house of mirrors, there are some very clear facts, including the one that no post-communist parliament or government has ever initiated an effective reform within the security sector. Thus, the question ‘who’s controlling who’ has never been convincingly answered.

Reasons for the Current Situation

Media often speculate that politicians seem to be terrified that they could be criminally investigated by the DNA, should they pass laws that might displease the SRI or the DNA. The same fear also seems to affect the judicial system, according to some reports pointing to judges being arrested by the DNA when they ruled against it.

In this context, several professional organizations of magistrates have asked more than once for “clarifications” on the involvement of the secret services in the judicial system. They have pointed, for instance, at how the SRI is illegally used during criminal investigations, or at the existence of secret agents illegally infiltrated among magistrates.

A (Not So) Democratic and Transparent Fight against Corruption

Every year, the DNA proudly reports tremendous success in its fight against corruption. The more politicians and judges arrested and imprisoned, the better for the fight against corruption.  In 2016, for instance, Laura Codruța Kovesi reported that DNA obtained, the previous year, convictions in over 90% of its cases and that DNA in 2015 filed complaints and indicted one prime minister, five ministers, 67 deputies, five members of the Senate, 97 mayors and deputy mayors, among others.

International media, as well as American and European institutions, all seem to gullibly believe such numbers and reports. They consider Kovesi a ‘crusader against corruption’- despite the fact that such a high percentage should raise considerable suspicions. On 23 February 2017, DNA reported that in 2016 it had indicted 1,270 defendants, of which one-quarter were charged with abuse of office, with a total damage of $260m.

Dana Gârbovan, however, the president of the National Union of Judges in Romania, argues that such numbers are greatly exaggerated while the methods used to reach them remain highly problematic.

 Foreign Perceptions of Corruption

A widely spread public perception, both domestically and abroad, is that Romania was and is the most corrupt (Eastern) European country. Therefore, its European and American partners have constantly asked Romania for more and more proof of its commitment to the anti-corruption fight; presumably, this fight cannot look genuine and successful, unless the DNA reports thousands of arrests and convictions. However, in this context, new threats seem to take form:

  • the fight against corruption appears to have been carried out, far too often, through illegal, unconstitutional means, with little respect for human rights;
  • the anti-corruption crusaders seem to have their own very dark spots;
  • the Romanians’ trust in the DNA and the judiciary in general is constantly decreasing.

Any honest person looking at this picture will see more questions than answers. Are all criminal cases under DNA’s investigation genuine cases of corruption, or is the anti-corruption narrative being used as a pretext to put down adversaries, including or especially political ones? Is Romania, with its politicians and institutions, as corrupt as the DNA reports, or does the DNA itself have a less visible agenda? How does this fit into the mainstream narrative of Romania’s corrupt past, present and future?

The Struggle against Corruption, Sometimes Fought with Illegal Means                     

Examples exist to suggest that illegal methods have been used by the Romanian authorities in order to pursue corruption cases. In January 2017, the National Union of Judges in Romania published the point of view of the Department of the National Security within Romania’s Presidential Administration with regard to the SRI’s activity in the judicial system and to the fight against corruption.  According to this document, the Presidential Administration admits that during the last 12 years the Supreme Council of National Defense in Romania (CSAT) made (secret) decisions that allowed, facilitated and enlarged the implication of the secret services in the fight against corruption, outside the existent legal framework.

Arguing that the laws of the security sector were too old and outdated and that corruption was a matter of national security, CSAT ‘completed’ the current legislation with secret decisions. Thus, as cjr.ro reports, since 2005, the fight against corruptions has been fought by quasi-legal means and without sufficient transparency, while the legislation in the anti-corruption field was de facto adopted outside the legal framework, in secrecy and independently of the laws in force.

There is an apparent striking contradiction here. On the one hand, Romania had a series of Parliaments which during the last two decades were unable, unwilling or simply not allowed to reform the security legislation in the country while, on the other hand, Romania’s security structures complain of the existing outdated legislation. This perceived lack, they say, requires the issuing of additional secret rules within CSAT.

A second example illustrating how extra-legal means are used involves a recent meeting of the Supreme Council of Magistracy, Romania’s General Prosecutor, Augustin Lazăr admitted that a secret protocol was concluded between the SRI and DNA, according to which joint teams of DNA prosecutors and SRI agents have investigated together criminal cases; the law, however, explicitly forbids such practices.

The DNA has repeatedly denied such accusations, while the SRI declared that there is no protocol between the SRI and the DNA. There are, however, perfectly legal protocols that have been concluded between the SRI and other institutions, the SRI’s spokesman said. The website luju.ro, however, continues to present evidence suggesting that such a protocol did exist, being concluded on 4 February 2009.

A third example of this trend involves a decision made by Romania’s Constitutional Court from March 2016, which admitted that SRI illegally intercepted people’s conversations. The Court ruled that such a practice might end and that the DNA cannot base its criminal cases on such evidence that was illegally obtained by the SRI and provided by the SRI to the DNA.

The Anti-corruption Crusaders Have Their Own Problems

Laura Codruța Kovesi served as Romania’s Prosecutor General between 2006 and 2012. Since 2013, she has been chief prosecutor at the DNA. She was caught up in an odd sort of European scandal that is not taken as seriously in other countries: plagiarism. She was accused of plagiarizing her PhD dissertation in Law, a charge that resulted in an inconclusive finding by a Ministry of commission. It decided that just 4% of the whole thesis was lifted, though the scientific quality of the work was sub-par. For many Romanians, it was ironic that such an individual was also a crusader in the fight against corruption.

Moreover, the results of the DNA do not seem so spectacular at a closer investigation. As Cotidiaul.ro reported, 60% of the convictions obtained by the DNA in 2015 were in fact suspended sentences, while 10-12% of its criminal cases in that year ended with acquittals in court. According to luju.ro, in 2016, DNA managed to reach the counter performance of getting 109 acquittals in 51 days, most of which were due to a lack of evidence. Moreover, many of the DNA criminal cases were based on abuse of office or other charges which are rather vaguely defined by the current legislation.

More than once, CEDO reversed decisions by Romanian courts in DNA cases. One recent example is that of the mayor of Râmnicu Vâlcea. He had been accused by DNA of bribery and was sentenced to three years and six months of prison. In 2016 this mayor, Mircea Gutău, was acquitted by CEDO on the grounds that his right to a fair trial was not respected. This DNA case was based on a transcript which CEDO dismissed as falsified by the DNA investigators.

The DNA relies extensively on wiretapping and covert filming. Thus, far too many times, the DNA was accused of abusive or illegal investigative methods and of infringing on human rights, including people’s presumption of innocence. Suspects in corruption cases are paraded in front of the TV cameras in handcuffs, publicly accused and compromised. Their carriers are ruined as are their families, and after many years of trials, a court rules that there is no evidence supporting the DNA accusations and the case ends with an acquittal. Given the examples above, one additional question arises: is the war against corruption a form of corruption itself, if or when it is waged by illegal means?

How Corruption Insinuations Affected the New Head of State

This general trend and practice has also manifested in political life. Klaus Johannis himself was unable to convincingly explain the source of his fortune. In 2015, Rice Project revealed that “most of the real estate property owned by the family of Romanian President Klaus Iohannis was obtained as a result of property restitution based on forged documents”. After a trial that lasted 15 years, in February 2017, a Romanian Court of Appeals ruled against the Johannis family, which irrevocably lost the property obtained through forged documents. How does this personal experience fit into Johannis’ anticorruption narrative? 

A Weak and Fluid Political Class

While the mainstream narrative (especially abroad) sees the DNA as Romania’s only non-corrupt entity, much of the result of the last parliamentary elections on 11 December 2016 can be explained by the people’s increasing lack of trust in the DNA and its investigative methods against corruption, as well as by the people’s suspicions towards the involvement of the SRI in their lives.

The elections resulted in a 39.44% turnout, with the Social Democratic Party (PSD) obtaining 45.48% of votes and the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats (ALDE) 5.62%. PSD and ALDE formed a parliamentary majority and after some delay caused by President Johannis, the Sorin Grindeanu cabinet was sworn in on 4 January 2017. The opposition parties obtained the next-best results in elections: the National Liberal Party (PNL) with 20% of the votes, the Union Save Romania (USR) with 8.87%, and the People’s Movement’s Party (PMR) with 5.35%.

On 18 January 2017, president Johannis publicly announced the cabinet’s alleged intention to pass in secret two emergency ordinance bills – one designed to change the Penal Code in relation to the decriminalization of abuse of office, and the other in relation to granting pardons to thousands of convicted criminals. The Minister of Justice published the bills on its website and sent them to several judicial institutions for consultation.

A Problem of DNA

The DNA, as well as the High Court of Cassation and Justice, the Superior Council of the Magistracy and the Public Prosecutor’s Office issued negative opinions, a result that may or may have not been influenced by public pressure. President Johannis publicly argued that the bills were the attempt of a corrupted political party to dismantle the fight against corruption and to release from prison its convicted members. In reaction, protests were sparked around the country; international media presented it as the largest in Romania’s history, numbering between 25,000 people (in its first day, 18 January) and 500,000-600,000 people (at its peak, on 5 February). The move by the Grindeanu Cabinet was criticized, both in Romania and abroad, along the following lines:

This narrative was presented in a series of Romanian and international mainstream (online) newspapers and news agencies, such as Hotnews.ro, Ziare.comAdevarul.ro, Reuters, Time.com, The Guardian, New York TimesDeutsche Welle etc. In short, this narrative says that a corrupt government (backed by a corrupt parliament) tries to secretly change the legislation in order to avoid its own criminal prosecution for acts of corruption and to pardon criminals already convicted for corruption.

Legal Debate, the Need for Reforms and Protests

The legal debate regarding the real meaning and the legal consequences of these two bills got fierce. The cabinet argued that such accusations were false and more or less great specialists in law debated for both sides.

On 5 February, under the pressure of the continuous protests, the cabinet revoked the original ordinance, and on 8 February the minister of justice resigned.

A reform of the penal legislation in Romania is badly needed. The PSD-ALDE coalition won the election, but seemed to be unable to govern, for reasons involving both its intrinsic weaknesses and the pressure (if not control) exercised by some covert forces.

The appointed head of the parliamentary commission for the control of the SRI, Adrian Țuțuianu declared that the commission aims to eliminate the public perceptions that the members of the commission were merely spokesmen for the SRI, and to bring evidence to the public that the commission actually controls the SRI. In the light of this declaration it seems that there is no danger for this commission to convincingly investigate the SRI’s alleged illegal working relationship with the DNA, its alleged illegal activities and their impact on human rights, its involvement in politics or in the judiciary. It seems also rather unlikely for this parliament to be able to reform the security sector, to control and limit the SRI or the DNA’s reported abuses, and to reestablish the supremacy of the law and of human rights.

 What about the 2017 Anti-government Protests?         

Despite the mainstream narrative, there is consistent evidence supporting the idea that the protests were political in nature and that the secret services and the DNA may have not been completely innocent as far as the protests were concerned.

During the protests, the DNA publicly announced that the Grindeanu bills undermine the anti-corruption fight, as they were intended to release from prison convicted criminals and to cease ongoing criminal investigations involving corrupt politicians. According to Romanian law, the government is entitled to issue emergency bills but, arguing that the measures taken by the Grindeanu Cabinet ‘were not opportune’, the DNA opened an investigation into how the bills were adopted. Since then, different ministers of the cabinet have been summoned to the DNA headquarters to give explanations in this regard. On every such occasion they are paraded in front of the TV cameras.

On 27 February, Romania’s Constitutional Court (CCR) ruled that the DNA had exceeded its constitutional restrictions with the investigation of the legality and opportunity of the Grindeanu Cabinet’s ordinance bill. DNA breached the separation of powers principle, according to the CCR’s ruling. By 1 March, an anti-CCR campaign was already launched. A small but increasing part of the online media says that the CCR ruling is ‘controversial’, ‘strange’, and designed ‘to protect as much as possible the any-Justice attempt’ by the Grindeanu Cabinet. There are also voices trying to compromise the judges of the Romanian Constitutional Court, looking for so called evidence of their corruption and dubious links with the PSD.

Different Facebook accounts announced protests around the country for the evening of 5 March, against the CCR’s ruling in support of the DNA and its anticorruption crusade. For Bucharest, the protests were announced to take place in front of the government and parliament buildings. Thus, it seems that the allegation that there is no institution able or capable of limiting, amending, correcting or punishing the DNA abuses is just about correct. Anybody that attempts to state or correct the DNA’s misconduct ends up being accused of being corrupt, of opposing the DNA’s anti-corruption struggle and of being hand in hand with the PSD.

SRI Denies Involvement

The media speculated as well on the SRI’s involvement in the anti-governmental protests, pointing to the fact that the secret service has the right to own covert NGO’s, for instance. But the SRI denied any involvement. It has been also speculated that SRI supported the USR, during the election, while the USR was one of the political parties that instigated the protests to take action against the cabinet. USR is led by Nicușor Dan, former head of the NGO Save Bucharest (an association financed by George Soros).

The speculations were similarly denied by both the SRI and the USR. Speculations have been voiced regarding the SRI’s role in Klaus Johannis’ election as Romania’s president in 2014, against the PSD candidate Victor Ponta. Such speculations were also rejected. After the election, prime minister Ponta was indicted by the DNA, charged with falsifying documents, tax evasion and money laundering.

Political Protests as an Extension of Election Defeat

The political character of the protest was clearko. The leaders of the parliamentary opposition parties (PNL, USR) have been repeatedly seen among the protesters, asking for the bills to be revoked, for the resignation of the entire cabinet and even for snap parliamentary elections. Members of the former technocratic cabinet headed by Dacian Cioloș (which supported the PNL during the election campaign) were also repeatedly seen in Victoriei Square, among the protesters, as was Romania’s President Klaus Johannis on 22 of January. All of the above participants incited people to protest against the allegedly corrupt government and parliament.

The presence of the parties that lost the 2016 elections in Victoriei Square, as well as their request for the resignation of the cabinet and for snap elections prove the political character of the protests, in the opinion of many. Moreover, according to an opinion poll, 83% of the protesters against the Grindeanu Cabinet did participate in the 11 December election, while over 80% of them placed themselves on the right and center of the political spectrum.

The same opinion poll indicated that the protesters perceive the PSD as the most corrupt political party. This suggests that the majority of the protesters voted during the elections with the current political opposition and that the protests were a delayed reaction to losing the elections in December 2016.

While the international media pointed to the anti-corruption and pro-justice slogans chanted during the protests, around the country many slogans were political. Protesters asked for the imprisonment of the entire government and parliament, for the DNA to ‘come and take’ them all, as they were all ‘thieves’, they also uttered terrible obscenities to the government and parliament members, but especially to the PSD and its leaders. The PSD was also called ‘the red plague’ – as an indication to its alleged links with the communist past older demographic. All these are elements pointing not only to the political character of the protests, but also to their anti-PSD nature.

As Horațiu Pepine convincingly puts it, the protests seem to have been a delayed reaction to the victory of the PSD in the 11 December elections, a delayed mimicking of the anti-Trump protests in the USA, but also a movement of the young generation, while the Grindeanu bills represented just an occasion, not to say a pretext. Moreover, in the context of the last elections being won by the PSD, the rather young protesters (22 to 39 years old, according to the above mentioned opinion poll) fear that the country will champion a less liberal economic policy.

NGOs, Social Media and the Protests: the Soros Connection

Thus, these protests were not as civic, apolitical and spontaneous as some reported. As already mentioned, on the one hand, there were political parties and leaders that urged and organized people to protest. On the other hand, there were a series of NGOs involved in this process. And both used to a great extent the online social media (especially Facebook) to reach their goal.

The following example reveals to some extent the implication of some NGOs in the organizing of the protests. For instance, in the preparation of the protests on 29 January, over 200,000 people received an email from the owner of the online platform de-clic.ro, announcing protests both in Romania and in the diaspora.

According to Eugen Dinu, this platform was created with the financial support of the ‘Foundation ONG Romania’ which is operated by the Foundation of the Development of the Civic Society (FDSC). In 2016, FDSC, whose president is Ionuț Sibian, received over $1.1mn from George Soros. Between 2006 and 2012, FDSC received another over $1mn from The Trust for Civil Society in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE Trust), led by Soros. Sibian’s NGO was also linked to the fall of the Victor Ponta PSD cabinet in late 2015, as was President Johanis.

Soros in Romania since the End of Communism

Between 1990 and 2014, George Soros financed in Romania projects of about $160mn through a network of NGOs and cultural centers– many of which have been involved in the monitoring of the Romanian justice system and human rights.

Many of the Romanian foundations financed by Soros were very vocal and active in the anti-corruption fight arena, such as Foundation of the Development of the Civic Society (Ionuț Sibian), Apador CH (Monica Macovei), the GDS (Andrei Cornea), Freedom House (Cristina Guseth), Save Bucharest Association (Nicușor Dan), as well as Expert Forum (Sorin Ioniță and Laura Ștefan).

Some of these activists are very vocal outside Romania too. Monica Macovei is already famous for her stance on Romania’s alleged corruption in the European Parliament, while Laura Ștefan was interviewed on the theme by Al Jazeera, to give only two examples. Laura Pralog, councilor of the Romanian president Klaus Johannis – and also representative of the Open Society Foundation in Romania – was also one of the anti corruption activists financed by Soros.

The Romanian Center for European Policies, an NGO run by Critian Ghinea  was also financed by George Soros. According to some reports, since 2012, Ghinea’s NGO received hundreds of thousands of euros from the Romanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs to represent Romania’s interests in Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine in connection to NATO’s policy there. Ghinea was also Romania’s Minister for European Funds in the Cioloș Cabinet.

Conclusions

Some commentators saw not only a significant link between Soros and the protests in Romania, but also significant and suspicious similarities between the involvement of such NGOs in the protests in Romania in 2017 and the implication of similar NGOs’ in protests in Belgrade or Kiev.

In the middle of the speculation about Soros’ connection to the 2017 Romanian anti-government protests and in the general contexts of the global scandal involving Soros, in February 2017, the Romanian branch of the Soros Foundation was closed.

There were, however, also ordinary people taking part in the protests, genuinely convinced that Romania’s anti-corruption quest was at stake. Secretly, the protests were supported, guided, organized and encouraged by NGO’s, by the political opposition, by the Romanian president, and by the DNA. In this context, the conclusion of Roger Boyes in The Times seems just about right:

“Romania’s deep, ­secret state (…) has used the issue of corruption to settle scores with its enemies, erode basic rights and institutionalise a sinister connection between the judiciary, the ­secret police and the anti-corruption units.”

 

 

 

The Iranian MEK in Albania: Implications and Possible Future Sectarian Divisions

Balkanalysis.com editor’s note: in 2013, the Obama Administration convinced Albanian authorities to take in the MEK, a former Marxist terrorist group that had been in open combat with the Islamic Republic for years. In 2016, under cover of the migration crisis and with help from the UNHCR, several hundred more of these Iranian dissidents were brought into Albania from Iraq. What could possibly go wrong? In this exclusive new analysis of a little-discussed security subject, Albanian counter-terrorism expert Ebi Spahiu analyzes the potential for future sectarian divisions and domestic and international orientations towards Albania’s newest population.

By Ebi Spahiu

In 2013, the Obama Administration struck a deal with the government of Albania to offer asylum to about 250 members of Mohajedeen-e-Khalq (MEK), an Iranian “dissident group” exiled from Iran to Iraq during the early years of Khomeini’s regime. The group was once labeled a terrorist organization by the international community due to its track record of orchestrating bombing campaigns in Iran – often targeting American offices, businesses and citizens – as well as other military operations in an attempt to oust the newly established Iranian Islamic regime in the 1970s.

Since 2013, the Obama Administration and Albanian government have extended the agreement, consequently increasing the number of asylum seekers to somewhere in the range of 500-2,000 MEK members. During the summer of 2016, Tirana received the largest contingent of about 1,900 people- an operation managed by the UNHCR.

Although most local media portray the operation and Albania’s willingness to offer assistance to the dissident group as a humanitarian mission, little discussion has been made regarding the potential implications that MEK’s presence may have for Albania in the long run, and for religious balances that have already been thrown off by Wahabbi and Salafi presence among moderate Muslim communities in recent years.

Sectarian Identities and Divides in the Context of Wahhabi Activism and Syria

Sunni-based Islamist supporters and organizations have a history of operating in Albania and throughout the Western Balkans via funding that often streams from Gulf countries which have exported Wahabbi and Salafi Islamic values and traditions, ones that were previously foreign to Albania’s majority Muslim population which still follows the Hanafi-based teachings inherited by the Ottoman Empire.

According to a Pew Research Center analysis on Albania’s Muslim population, this religious composition is reflective of centuries of religious influences, including Sufi and Shi’a traditions, attested in practices and rituals to this day. It is mainly from this long history that six in ten Muslims do not distinguish their religious affiliation in a sectarian form, such as Shi’a or Sunni, rather simply identify as “just Muslim,” according to findings by Pew.

Despite these historical legacies that have strengthened relations between religious communities, the presence of Wahhabi and Salafi groups over the years has implanted a sectarian identity regarding which most Albanian Muslim practitioners were oblivious in the past. Since the outset of the conflict in Syria, about 150 Albanian citizens and over 500 ethnic Albanians from Kosovo and Macedonia have joined terrorist organizations in Syria and Iraq, alongside then-Jabhat Al-Nusra and later IS.

Even though the number of foreign fighters has drastically decreased since 2015, threats persist from non-violent agitations and divisive narratives that continue to dominate some religious landscapes, including negative portrayal of local Bektashi communities and sectarian rifts which are becoming more pronounced among popular religious leaders.

The MEK in Albania and Sectarian Divides

Since its inception in the 1960s, the MEK has embraced Marxist ideologies and Shiite-centric Islamic values; this has distinguished the group from other Islamist terrorist organizations which have remained more focused on their sectarian identity.

Most people in Albania know little about the MEK, nor the list of other names the group has used to identify itself as a resistance group against Khomeini’s theocratic rule, not to mention their activities following the Iranian revolution and their exile to Iraq, where Saddam Hussein offered his support in exchange for their capacities to threaten the Iranian regime.

Over the years, the MEK has renounced all violence and developed closer relationships with officials from the American government, which later removed the group from its official list of terrorist organizations. Despite their engagement with the West, however, the group’s history of violence remains an important question often raised by Iran observers and policy-makers, who cast doubt on the group’s pledge to have renounced all forms of violence while achieving political objectives.

In 2013 this was apparent when many countries that were approached by the US government to host MEK members refused to do so, out of concern for security implications. Romania is believed to have been the US’ preferred host for the MEK, but the Romanian authorities immediately refused. Albania was therefore not the first choice for MEK relocation, but accepted due to its close relations with the US.

The type of security implications their presence may bring is yet to be assessed by Albanian policy-makers, with some speculating that the MEK will establish a base in the country’s capital, similar to that of Camp Liberty and Ashraf in Iraq, where they can access weapons and restart their political activities to bring down Iran’s regime.

Even though most MEK asylum-seekers seem to lead a quiet life in their new homes, recent events and discussion regarding the potential death of the exiled MEK leader, Massoud Rajavi, suggest that the MEK seeks to regain its political standing in opposition to Iran, and sees its members’ relocation to Albania as an opportunity to reengage as a resistance movement against Khameini’s regime, but this time away from the direct threat that Iranian proxy groups posed for them in Iraq.

The Paris Event, Albania and Possible Foreign Interests in the New Arrangement

Since their arrival in Albania, the group appears to have ramped up support in the midst of Albania’s political elite, which was highly celebrated during a congress organized by the National Council of Resistance of Iran, held in Paris this past July.

Pandeli Majko, a current Socialist MP and former Prime Minister of Albania during the war in Kosovo, accompanied by over 20 political representatives from Albania, gave an impassioned speech at the Free Iran gathering in Paris where he pledged his support for the refugees currently staying in Albania, as well as the group’s struggle to succeed in changing the regime in Iran. This has certainly angered Iranian officials who insist that the MEK seeks to exploit Albania’s geographical position in order to form a new camp there.

While Iran’s traditional rivalry with Israel might seem to indicate further activity in Albania involving the MEK, available information does not suggest any significant Israeli activity. However, a potential greater concern involves another traditional Iranian adversary – Saudi Arabia – which has been reported as giving help to the MEK. During the event in Paris, several important international figures attended and (as was reported in some anti-Western media) a Saudi government representative made a speech that pledged commitment to help out the movement in bringing down Iran’s regime.

Possible Repercussions for Albania: Sectarian Divides and Local Controversy More Likely than Larger Threats

These developments may have serious repercussions for Albania and Albanian policy-makers who may not foresee the long-term consequences of being involved in the issue, and in expanding their role on foreign policy issues beyond the small Balkan nation’s traditional reach.

Since the MEK has renounced all violence, the group does not represent an immediate threat to national security in Albania. However, it does remain an existential threat to the Iranian regime, which over the years has supported significant raids via Hezbollah and other Iranian-backed proxy groups in Iraq to destroy the organization and kill key MEK leaders. It should be remembered that the MEK was brought to Albania under agreement with the Obama Administration directly from Iraq, not from any third country.

Considering these factors, more involvement should be expected from Albanian authorities, even though there are no clear signs that Iran’s presence is increasing. It would be significantly harder for Iran to hit MEK in Albania than in its neighboring country of Iraq, though it is still possible.

Of more concern is that the MEK presence poses a risk of inflaming sectarian divides in smaller communities, a phenomenon still in its latent state among Albanian Muslims.

Several online sermons from Sunni-based religious leaders warn their followers of a Shiite presence under NGO programs that aim at recruiting young men and women to follow Quranic teachings and study programs in Iran, but there is never a mention of MEK’s presence in Albania and the role they may play.

While a serious sectarian war is farfetched at this point, there is a sectarian narrative to the issue which could be a matter of concern for the future, depending on how strong existing Islamist factions become. These include not just ISIS supporters, but also Turkish and Muslim Brotherhood supporters.

One test will be how well the government manages the MEK, their needs and political objectives. Many Albanians are worried about whether the MEK poses any immediate risk, but nobody is actually talking about Iran’s historic and cross-borders feud with the MEK, and how threatened Iran still feels by the group.

Whether Albania is prepared enough to inherit a long-standing struggle between a major regional Middle Eastern power and a cult-like former terrorist organization is yet to be seen, but given Albania’s continued struggles with endemic corruption and organized crime, and the slow emergence of religious radicalization as a regional security threat, sectarian rifts may add to the list of challenges facing Albania’s political standing. One point of controversy that has already occurred domestically is that the agreement itself is very vague; there has thus been plenty of criticism domestically over a perceived lack of transparency on the terms agreed between Albania and the US.

 

Visegrad Group Migration Policy and the Balkans: Cooperation Expected to Continue in 2017

Balkanalysis.com editor’s note: this new report from Poland considers the distinct character of V4 engagement with migration and assesses it in terms of 2016 policy statements, with the expectation that V4-Balkan attitudes and cooperation on the issue will continue during this year in an increasingly turbulent and divided Europe.

By Antonio Scancariello

Despite the formal closure of the Balkan route last spring, the influx of refugees trying to reach EU Schengen Zone borders has not stopped. For future policy trends and decisions, it is necessary to take into account the role of the Visegrad Group (V4) countries, which have already been active in influencing EU policy since 2015. In the year ahead, their policies might affect the Western Balkans as much as the general dealing with the migration crisis itself.

Early Policy Formation

These countries – Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary – have become as important for the solution of the migrant crisis as their Western European counterparts, especially after their disagreement about the so-called migrant quota scheme became clear.

The first stages of the crisis mainly involved Greece and Macedonia, in 2015 and early 2016, which were then followed by Hungary, with the latter becoming “the first to erect a fence to keep migrants away from the country’s borders. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán rejected the quota mechanism from the very beginning, advocating the protection of the EU’s external borders instead,” reported EurActive recently.  “This led to unprecedented numbers of detections of illegal crossings at Hungary’s and Croatia’s borders with Serbia,” as a FRONTEX report explained in a press release of 9 January 2017.

Since the beginning of the crisis, migrants have most often sought to continue towards other EU countries, mainly Germany. However, FRONTEX also noted that “the record number of migrants arriving in Greece in 2015 had a direct knock-on effect on the Western Balkan route,” which has led the V4 countries’ role to gradually grow in importance. The Greece-Macedonia-Serbia migrant corridor “led to unprecedented numbers of detections of illegal crossings at Hungary’s borders with Serbia.”

The Visegrad Approach and the Balkans and Greece in 2016

The V4 attitude toward migration has fundamentally differed from that of several Western European countries which, being overwhelmed by the influx of refugee, have accused the East of being a bloc lacking in solidarity by refusing to take people in, as a 2016 report from Visegrad Revue noted.

Therefore, their approach to solving the crisis has been mainly based on calls for strengthened external EU borders; this was the core message of the joint statement on migration released by the V4 in early 2016.

Gathering in Prague, in the presence of the President of the Republic of Macedonia and the Prime Minister of the Republic of Bulgaria, the prime ministers of the four countries voiced their concerns and proposed their solutions by expressing “their full support for measures adopted at the European Union level with the aim of a more effective protection of the external borders, including reinforced cooperation with third countries while repeating their negative stance on automatic permanent relocation mechanism,” in an official joint statement of 15 February 2016.

This would also benefit the Western Balkans, an area in which stability is needed if the EU is keen in tackling the refugee crisis, the statement added. At that meeting, the V4 leaders also confirmed their support for Greece, the role of which has been considered pivotal in the management of the migrant flow.

Focus on Polish Views

An interesting insight into how the V4 may help in solving the migrant crisis, and the consequences this would have on the Balkans, is provided by Poland. At the February event, Polish Interior Minister Mariusz Błaszczak said that Poland would do its part through helping countries of origin. This policy was reaffirmed in May 2016. These views (which were confirmed by the Presidency of the Visegrad Group in the document) have been developed by Poland, which explains its will to help migrants’ countries of origins. The purpose of this policy was to “deepen the cooperation with them in order to tackle the root causes of the current migratory pressure.” In their estimation, this would in turn ease the pressure on European borders and the Western Balkans, considered by the V4 as a valuable partner in the protection of EU external borders.

The Polish stance is unlikely to change to a more EU- and Germany-oriented one in the foreseeable future, due to the recent constitutional crisis and the prolonged clashes between its government and the EU itself. These statements become even more important following the renewed, huge presence of refugees on Serbian soil, which questioned the alleged closure of the Balkan route. At least 8,000 migrants remain in Serbia, according to La Repubblica. The Italian newspaper states that this is due to the opposition raised by Hungary and the border closures of other nearby countries, like Croatia.

Slovenia, Austria and Possible Outcomes

The obstruction of Slovenia and Austria will also play a factor at the upper edges of the ‘Balkan route.’ The latter is close to the V4’s negative stance regarding migrant quotas, while the former is toward the crisis could deteriorate the overall situation. Slovenia’s government, as recently reported by Balkan Insight, “backed an amendment to the existing Aliens Act on January 5, proposing tougher procedures towards asylum seekers and refugees for a trial six-month period – with a possible extension for another six months.”

Under this scenario, the police can refuse entry to most asylum seekers on the border, the same source stated. Moreover, this could cause the countries close to the Balkan route – Greece, Macedonia, Bulgaria, Serbia, Croatia and Hungary – to adopt the same measures, argues the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights, Nils Muiznieks. However, it is too soon to know whether this is realistic of just alarmism as the individual dynamics in each country differ tremendously.

Therefore, in conclusion, it can be said that the migration challenges faced by the EU since early 2015 have brought new factors and characters into play. The Western Balkans, due to the migrant crisis, is one of them. Although there are no easy solutions available, the region may well benefit from the strengthening of the existing diplomatic ties or the creation of new ones with the V4 countries. This could help Balkan states to address issues of internal stability, as well as with others linked to future EU inclusion.

 

EU Financial Legislation, Hawala Banking and the Migrant Crisis: Developments and Implications

Balkanalysis.com editor’s note: while world media have covered in depth the European Union’s approach to the migrant crisis, little attention has been paid to ongoing financial-sector EU legislation, and its ability – or lack thereof – to control possibly illicit international transactions, using alternative methods such as the Hawala system, favored by many Muslim migrants. (A basic explanation of how the system operates is available here on Wikipedia).

In the following analysis, Bulgarian banking expert Gergana Yordanova explains the relevant EU legislation and the discrepancies with the Hawala system- as well as the implications could have for EU security and financial policing.

By Dr. Gergana Yordanova, PhD.

Today’s historic migrant crisis is creating new risks and threats to the EU, and not only in terms of security and social services. They also include risks to the economic and financial security systems of the migrant-hosting states. In many states, this has involved the ‘net settlement’ of funds via the ‘Hawala’ system of informal Islamic banking. Despite cumulative volumes and financial scale, these settlement operations remain out of the scope of the EU’s new regulatory framework on payment and remittance systems infrastructure. This framework was created after the adoption of the 4th Anti-Money Laundering Directive and the Regulation on information accompanying transfers of funds in 2015.

There is thus a significant new security threat involving latent potential for money laundering and terrorist financing activities, on both the national and cross-border levels. The latter requires an active reframing process of the remittance systems mechanisms, and a holistic, risk-based approach in order to protect society from crime, and to ensure the proper functioning of the EU financial system when confronted with threats like money laundering and terrorist financing.

The New EU Financial Legislation in Context

In 2015, the European Council adopted two key points of legislation: a Directive regarding money laundering and terrorism financing; and a Regulation on information accompanying transfers of funds.

The first is officially known as Directive (EU) 2015/849 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 20 May 2015 on the prevention of the usage of the financial system for the purposes of money laundering or terrorist financing amending Regulation (EU) No 648/2012 of the European Parliament and of the Council, and repealing Directive 2005/60/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council and Commission Directive 2006/70/EC. The official text is available here.

The second is known as Regulation (EU) 2015/847 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 20 May 2015 on information accompanying transfers of funds and repealing Regulation (EC) No 1781/2006. The official text is available here.

The approach of the new Directive (also known as the Fourth Anti-Money Laundering Directive) was based to a greater extent on risk analysis over measures for anti-money laundering activities and the prevention of terrorist financing. It established stronger requirements for customer due diligence checks. This was done to ensure that certain customer and transaction categories would not be exempt from the requirements for enhanced customer due diligence measures. The obliged entities would also have to apply a risk assessment level before deciding whether customer due diligence checks would be required.

The new Regulation is also closely related to the objectives of the Directive. It strengthens the existing legal requirements and obligations related to combating money laundering, terrorist financing and the financing of proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, in terms of value transfers and remittance systems related to it. These provisions also take into account the standards developed in the field (the revised Recommendation No 16, former SRVII) on Wire Transfers, and the revised interpretative note for its implementation of the revised Financial Action Task Force – FATF Recommendations).

This refers to the 2012 FATF Recommendations and International Standards on Combating Money Laundering and the Financing of Terrorism & Proliferation. The official text is available here.

It also includes requirement for increasing the full traceability of funds and payments transfers. It does this by obliging payment/funds transfer service providers to supply the competent national authorities with information, both on the payer and the payee.

The new legislative aspects of this EU regulatory framework provide an instrument ensuring that the competent national authorities have effective tools in combating money laundering, terrorist financing and the financing of proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. In particular, it concentrates on the misuse of the financial system by criminals who act as money launders and their associates.

These changes and reforms are considered by the EU as proper and effective results of a long-term process of identifying various weaknesses in the European financial and banking system.

The Migrant Crisis and Hawala Banking as a Challenge to the New EU Regulatory Framework

The development of a dynamic situation involving a large-scale migrant influx, however, shows that by 2016 – only a year after the adoption of the new regulatory framework, and a year before its entering into force (the new regulatory framework shall apply from 27 June 2017) – these measures had already risked becoming irrelevant. This was due to the sudden increase in persons with experience, and preferences, for informal alternative remittance systems, such as the Hawala system.

This risk is partly due to the fact that the new Regulation does not apply to transfers under 1,000 euros. Also, EU Member States should be able to apply lower thresholds as well as additional general limitations on the use of cash and other stricter provisions by law. This is subject to Article 2 (4) (5) of Directive (EU) 2015/849 and Article 2 (5) |c| of Regulation (EU) No 2015/847).

The use of alternative financial systems such as Hawala banking could thus become a potential threat to the economic and financial security of the EU, insofar as exclusion from the monitoring mechanism could damage the integrity, stability and reputation of the financial sector, its growth and market capitalization and threaten both the internal market and international development.

Directive (EU) 2015/849 : Risk Assessment Requirements

With the above-cited Directive, the EU acquis communautaire, the EU Commission must prepare a report identifying, analyzing and evaluating money laundering and terrorist financing risks that could affect the internal market, and also relate to cross-border activities. The imposed deadline for drawing up this report is 26 June 2017.

Thereafter, the Commission is required to update it every two years, or more frequently if appropriate; this is specified in Article 6 (1) of Directive (EU) 2015/849). The report would cover the areas of the internal market that are at greatest risk in terms of money laundering and terrorist financing. Risks assessed are associated with each relevant sector and based on the revised FATF Recommendation No 1 and the FATF Immediate Outcome 1.

This is also in accordance with Article 7 (2) of Directive (EU) 2015/849), as well as a list of the most common means by which criminals launder illicit proceeds.

It is clear that the settlement mechanisms for Hawala funds transfer should be added in the EC’s report, in the part related to the most common means of laundering illicit proceeds. This risk assessment should be conducted regardless of the scale and volume of funds thus transferred, without taking into account the benchmark subject to Article 2 (4) (5) of Directive (EU) 2015/849 and Article 2 (5) |c| of Regulation (EU) No 2015/847).

In broadening this implementation, an effort would be made to track all the financial flows generated by the migrant waves from the Middle East and North Africa. Moreover, it would preventively interrupt any potential schemes of money laundering or terrorist financing via the ancient informal Arabian alternative remittance system.

Customer Due Diligence

The new EU Directive also foresees the gradual elimination of secret banking, financial and credit arrangements, by establishing strict prohibition of anonymous accounts or passbooks for clients of credit and financial institutions. This is in accordance with Article 10 (1) of Directive (EU) 2015/849. This requires the execution of two types of customer due diligence: one simplified and the other, enhanced, in accordance with Article 13 of Directive (EU) 2015/849. The following measures are required:

  1. identifying the customer and verifying the customer`s identity based on documents, data or information obtained from a reliable and independent source;
  2. identifying the beneficial owner and taking reasonable measures to verify that person’s identity;
  3. assessing and, as appropriate, obtaining information on the purpose and intended nature of the business relationship;
  4. conducting ongoing monitoring of the business.relationship including scrutiny of transactions undertaken throughout the course of that relationship to ensure that the transactions being conducted are consistent with the obliged entity’s knowledge of the customer.

The identities of migrants and refugees in Europe could also hypothetically be identified by customer due diligence with the new Directive, though this is admittedly more difficult in the cases of many newcomers lacking documentation. Thus, a priori it would help to identify persons among the criminal contingent and their associates, as well as people against whom there have been charges or some reasonable assumptions have been made for acting as money laundering, terrorism financing and organized crime agents.

Beneficial Ownership Information

Customer due diligence is directly related to the new aspect in identifying the legal beneficial owners of corporations and other for-profit legal entities. Thus, the information regarding beneficial owners will be delivered by public central registers, in accordance with Article 30 (3) of Directive (EU) 2015/849 and Article 3 of Directive (EU) 2009/101.

The Register should ensure timely and unrestricted access by the competent financial intelligence authorities. Moreover, the information stored could help authorities in gaining a clearer picture of the scale and volumes of various “black and gray” business activities such as: Islamic Hawala finance (in case of any available book-entry transfer orders or payment and cash deposit statements as written evidences), various types of global offshore banking schemes, different clearing houses, central depositories/repositories or central counterparties, large fund transfers to countries or jurisdictions classified as tax havens, as well as political corruption. The last can include acts of nepotism, undue influence-peddling and business relations of politically exposed persons who entrust prominent public functions, their family members and persons known to be close associates. Among the above-mentioned activities and functions, possibilities exist for cases of money laundering, terrorist financing and the financing of proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

New EU Obligations on Payment Systems Providers and the Hawala System

In relation to the information accompanying funds transfers, the new Regulation obliges the payment system provider in accordance with Article 3 (Definition 5) and Article 4 of Regulation (EU) No 2015/847.

This requirement is meant to ensure that funds transfers are accompanied by the information on the payer related, as follows: both the names of the payer and of the payee; their payment account numbers; address; official personal document number; customer identification number or date and place of birth for the payer. These conditions are specified in accordance with Article 3 (Definitions 3 and 4) and Article 4 of Regulation (EU) No 2015/847.

However, the Hawala system`s modus operandi precludes these obligations and requirements for informational and data provision of transfers of funds. In Hawala system settlements, the anonymity of both counterparties is its primary principle of not declaring any verified identity. Moreover, there are no payment or accounting documents (such as deposit and withdraw cash receipts, transfer orders, bills, statements etc.) for any Hawala transaction. Thus, no book-entry (de)materialized form is the second principle of Hawala Banking.

Under the new EU Directive, transfers that exceed 1,000 euros (whether within or outside the Union), require the payment system provider to make available at least the names of the counter-parties, their payment account numbers (in accordance with Article 3 (Definition 7) of Regulation (EU) No 2015/847) or the unique transaction identifier, if applicable (in case of Article 4 (3) of the Regulation, in accordance with Article 3 (Definition 11) of Regulation (EU) No 2015/847).

Notwithstanding these new regulatory requirements, it is obvious that they do not include the Hawala system’s transfers of funds and settlement of remittances. This Eastern transfer system is already very widespread among Muslim communities in Europe, and will continue to be illegal in terms of the new EU acquis communautaire until the adoption of a criteria and mechanisms for its monitoring by relevant national authorities.

Until that time, Hawala banking will remain a fast, convenient and reliable way of transferring funds the origins of which could be illegal and could generate a number of penalty provisions concerning money laundering activities, terrorism financing and the financing of proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. This means that to each payment service or related instruction/order for execution of a payment risk assessment and analysis would be required for signs of illicit activity for each payment transaction, under Article 9 of the Regulation. Any suspicious one would then have to be reported to the national or regional financial intelligence unit (in accordance with Article 9 of Regulation (EU) No 2015/847). However, given the nature of Hawala banking, this is clearly impracticable.

EU Obligations on Intermediary Payment Systems Providers regarding Transaction Data

A set of various effective risk-based procedures for determining information on the payer and the payee within the remittance, messaging or payment and settlement system used to affect the transfer of funds are necessary in order to execute it. Such an obligation on the intermediary payment systems provider is in accordance with Article 3 (Definition 6) of Regulation (EU) No 2015/847.

This requires the implementation of effective procedures. Where appropriate, these include ex-post monitoring or real-time monitoring to determine whether any of the information on the payer and the payee is missing.

These obligations are difficult to meet with the Hawala system. It does not allow delivery and record retention of payer and payee information. Therefore, to comply with the law, the intermediary payment systems provider would have to take into account the missing information and establish effective risk-based procedures for determining whether to execute, reject or suspend each Hawala transaction, and whether it is to be reported to the national or regional financial intelligence unit (in accordance with Article 9 of Regulation (EU) No 2015/847).

Conclusion: Challenges and Opportunities from the Hawala System

The European Union’s continuing reforms of financial transaction controls have overlapped with an unprecedented migrant crisis, one which has brought alternative payment and settlement methods into increasing use in Europe. While Hawala and other alternative payment schemes were in use in Europe for many years before the migrant crisis, and indeed before the legislative amendments of 2015, the difficulty of bringing them under the scope of the law is a systemic and probably impossible task.

As we expect the migrant economy’s use of Hawala banking to only increase in years ahead, this will pose new challenges for EU lawmakers, banking and financial officers- but also new opportunities for experts and firms specializing in analyzing and monitoring alternative payment methods in an increasingly globalized Europe.

………………………

Note: This analysis has been adapted from a conference paper, entitled Reframing of Remittance System Mechanism of the EU in Liaison with the Migration Flows: the Hawala System Case, which was initially presented by the author at the Cross-Border Cooperation and Development Policies on the Balkans Conference, held from 17-18 November 2016 at Ss. Cyril and Methodius University of Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria.

New Information Surfaces on Killed Terrorist Anis Amri, as Italian Investigation Continues

 

Balkanalysis.com editor’s note: the Berlin Christmas Market terrorist attack this past week came as the clearest example yet of the deadly mix of modern events and policies that have allowed Europe to become a new terrorist target. This exclusive report from Milan – where the fugitive terrorist was killed by police – brings together what is known until now with details from Italy that have not yet been reported, and anticipates future actions.

By Elisa Sguaitamatti and Chris Deliso

Anis Amri, the suspect in the deadly terrorist attack on a Christmas market in Berlin this past week, was killed by the Italian police in a shootout  outside Sesto San Giovanni railway station (on the outskirts of Milan) around 3 a.m on Friday 23 December. A reward of 100,000 euros had been offered for information leading to his capture. Speaking later in Berlin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel thanked the Italian police. ISIS has also released a video of the young Tunisian pledging his allegiance to leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, explaining his actions as vengeance against “those who bomb Muslims every day.”

Anis Amri’s Escape Route to Italy, and Possible Motives

Having fled the crashed truck in Berlin, the terrorist managed to cross three borders – a fact that critics of the Schengen Zone are sure to bring up – before reaching Milan. It is still unclear how he left Berlin. French investigators have just opened an inquiry to understand the precise route that Amri took, after Italian authorities confirmed that he had entered their country from France.

After getting out of Germany, the terrorist had purchased a Chambéry-Milan ticket in Chambéry station. From Chambéry to Turin he was traveling alone. He left the French station at 5:15p.m. on 22 December and arrived in Turin at 8:18 p.m.. Italian newspaper Repubblica reports that (according to one important Italian anti-terrorism investigative source) the only possible reason why Amri would have decided to get off the train in Turin would be that he came across someone like a Polfer agent (the train station police) doing a routine ticket check. By 22 December, his photos had become widespread online. Anti-terrorism officials are now investigating whether Amri used the three hours he stayed in Turin to look for shelter, or if he was contacting someone in Milan.

Italy’s General Investigations and Special Operations Division (DIGOS), coordinated by the Milanese counter-terrorism chief, Alberto Nobili, had also stated that Amri arrived in Italy from France, and added that surveillance cameras in Milan train station recorded Amri’s movements around 1a.m. on 23 December.

However, a point of detail that most foreign media have missed is that it is still unclear how he managed to get to Sesto San Giovanni (by around 4 a.m) as there is a 7-kilometer distance between the two places. “How he traveled there and what he was doing there are subject to delicate investigations,” Antonio De Iesu, director of the Milan police, said. “We have to understand whether he was in transit or was awaiting someone.” The final results will be communicated only after accurate and probably lengthy in-depth analysis carried out by the intelligence services.

The most likely current hypothesis for Italian investigators is that Amri had arrived in Milan lacking any pre-planned safe house, and thus decided to spend the night looking for someone who could help him within the historic Tunisian Islamic community.

A second, but less probable motive would be that, in a desperate and irreversible decision for martyrdom, Amri had chosen Milan as his final destination, as a place for vengeance against a country that he had grown to hate and in whose jails he had felt humiliated. This (for now, less likely) scenario would have seen Amri attempt another attack in Italy. In whatever case, his behavior even before the Berlin attack marked Amri as a very dangerous individual, so it was great luck that the police managed to find him, almost completely by accident.

New Details from Italian Security Officials

In a formal note, Interior Minister Marco Minniti made it very clear that details of the operation cannot be discussed as investigations are still underway. At a press conference in Milan, Police Chief Antonio de Iesu and Gen. Tullio del Sette, the commander of the Carabinieri, tried to clarify facts and information.

According to the very first account provided by Mr de Iesu, Amri was standing alone on a piazza in Sesto San Giovanni, next to the northern terminus of the M1 subway line, when the officers stopped him and asked for identification. Amri was “aggressive, firm and determined” with the officers, Mr. De Iesu said.

Amri was carrying a small knife and a few hundred euros, but no cellphone. He apparently responded to police – in good Italian, with a North African accent – that he was not carrying any documents with him. They asked him to empty his pockets and backpack. That is when he pulled out the pistol.

“It was a regular patrol, under the new system of intensified police checks on the territory,” Mr. De Iesu said. “They had no perception that it could be him, otherwise they would have been more careful.” Amri is said to have shouted ‘police bastards,’ in Italian, after he was shot.

Items Gathered and Varying Identities

The police have announced finding on Amri the train tickets (only from Chambéry to Milan), euro notes, shower gel, a tooth brush and tooth paste, and a 22-caliber pistol. Repubblica.it added today that when killed, Amri was wearing three pair of trousers one on top of the other. This curious combination of items tends to support the likelihood of a relatively spontaneous and sudden attack in Berlin, and that he had planned to live after escaping.

Investigators are also looking into the Tunisian’s ‘digital life.’ Italian TV channel Rai News 24 has just said that he had 7 different Facebook profiles with fake identities but with the same family members and friends among his contacts.

A History of Violence and Evasion in Europe’s Migrant Detention System

Now investigations are underway to understand why Amri chose Italy and whether this was his final destination to seek refuge. If so, investigators are trying to determine whether he was trying to reach someone he knew. Otherwise, they are trying to determine whether Amri could have considered Italy as only a transit country.

His past link to Italy is apparent, making the former more likely. He left Tunisia in 2011, during the ‘Arab Spring,’ arriving on Italian shores. During his stay he was held responsible for burning down a reception center for migrants in Sicily.

Later, Amri was detained for four years in six Italian jails (Enna, Sciacca, Agrigento, Palermo and Caltanissetta). He was housed at the identification and expulsion center, judged as “a dangerous and violent inmate.” In his native Tunisia, Amri’s brother said earlier this week that he and his family were “shocked” by his alleged involvement in the attack. After coming out of the expulsion center, however, the deportation mandate was never carried out and Amri crossed into Germany in July 2015. He applied for asylum, but was rejected in July 2016.

Amri should have been deported from Germany after his asylum request was denied. He was even in police custody after being caught with fake papers. But he slipped through the hands of German law enforcement, and now officials are asking how that happened.

Further Indications of a Probably Spontaneous Attack Decision

One of Amri’s phones was found in the truck that he crashed in Berlin and the two SIM cards – according to the information coming from two important Italian investigative sources – appear to have not been in use at that time. This is another indicator that neither the Berlin attack nor the escape that followed were pre-planned. In this case, Islamic State may have been looking for a propaganda victory and had only a broad association with the terrorist- a much different situation than with its involvement in the Paris attacks of November 2015. Regardless, for the general public the result is still the same: more panic and fear about potential attacks.

Likelihood of the Terrorist’s Development in Migrant Centers and Jails

According to the reconstruction of facts made by the daily newspaper La Stampa it is very likely that Amri had previously made friends with radical Islamist prisoners in the Agrigento jail; authorities noticed “suspicious behavior conducive to radicalization.” In January 2015, he was transferred to the Ucciardone prison in Palermo, due to “serious and valid security reasons.”

Another Italian newspaper, Il Corriere della Sera, reported that Amri’s behaviour was pointed out by the penitentiary prison administration department which soon informed the Anti-terrorism Strategic Analysis Committee; this body includes members from the judiciary, police and the intelligence services.

Further Radicalization in Germany?

Therefore, while in prison, Amri could have possibly been affected and influenced by the activity of proselytizers. However, Amri later established contacts with “the most important representative of ISIS in Germany,” Abu Walaa, an Iraqi preacher who was arrested only last month. German authorities claim that Abu Walaa was guilty of recruiting fighters for ISIS. Also, Amri had been ordered to be deported back to Tunisia, but bureaucratic obstacles prevented the authorities from following through on this. Further, last September the authorities stopped electronic monitoring of Amri, even though he had been identified as a security risk.

Recently, Italian media have also reported that German investigators believe that Amri also had another mentor among Walaa’s group: Boban Simeonovic, a 36-year-old Serbian-German from Dortmund (Westphalia), considered to be very radical. Simeonovic, arrested for terrorism last November together with Walaa, had provided direct links with different German members of the Islamic State in Syria.

CNN has added to the story now by referencing the focus placed on all three men in a 345-page German security report from November, when Simeonovic was arrested. “Anis spoke several times about committing attacks,” said CNN, citing a police informant who told this to German investigators, according to the files. “The informant said Simeonovic and another member of the network “were in favor of that and gave him a place to hide. Members of the Abu Walaa network also discussed driving a truck full of gasoline with a bomb into a crowd, the police informant told investigators, according to the documents.”

It thus seems likely from all the data available to us that Amri was personally and spontaneously carrying out a specific attack plan that his cell had generally discussed carrying out, before it was partially disbanded by German authorities. Therefore, while probably a ‘lone wolf’ attack, the Berlin attack has aspects of an organized jihadist operation, rather than simply the personal decision of one deranged individual.

Security Precautions in Milan Increase amidst Public Fears

Currently anti-terrorism efforts in Milan have increased. The Duomo Square (Piazza del Duomo) has been cordoned off by anti-truck barriers made of concrete to protect the Christmas markets and to increase the general level of security in the city.

The turbulence has affected public perception regarding local security too. The Sesto San Giovanni area is mostly a residential one, and people living there have a general perception of fear and insecurity, fearing that Lombardy could become soon an operational basis for “sleeper cells.”

ROS Carabinieri are indeed looking into a sleeper cell that could exist with links in Lombardy and bases in Bergamo, Lecco and Varese. In this area the control of the territory and the work of intelligence led to the expulsion and arrest of four radicalized people affiliated to ISIS in recent years. (Balkanalysis.com has already reported on some Northern Italy-based networks, in November 2015 and again in December 2015).

Furthermore, in the Sesto San Giovanni area the biggest mosque in northern Italy is under construction. It has been at the center of huge criticism lately. The local Islamic community there strongly condemned the attacks and dissociated with Amri’s behavior.

Yesterday, Milan mayor Giuseppe Sala planned to sign the already-agreed “Pact of Milan;” this 650-million-euro investment in urban security includes stepping up military and police staff in sensitive spots.

Moreover, while the Monza Prosecutor is investigating the shootout, the Milan Prosecutor opened a case to understand why the Berlin killer was in Italy at all, after crossing the borders of three countries without being recognized or stopped. According to the very first indiscretions, no hypothesis can be excluded, above all the possibility that he had some accomplices and support in Lombardy.

The Italian police are currently focusing on Amri’s life in Italy over the last few years and the radical contacts that he established once he entered Germany. It seems that he was not an Islamic extremist before coming to Europe, and that the idea of terrorist attacks only came later when he was in Germany, after being in contact with jihadi-Salafist members and mentors.

Possible Support Networks and Other Concerns

TGR Lombardia TV has announced that authorities are now investigating any possible support network that would have been prepared to help and offer shelter to Anis Amri. This network could be specifically located between the two cities of Sesto San Giovanni and Cinisello Balsamo. The reason for this is that Italian authorities confirmed that the Polish-owned truck that crashed into Berlin’s Christmas market on 19 December had departed for Germany from the Italian city of Cinisello Balsamo.

Another concern is officer safety from possible revenge attacks. The Interior Minister disclosed the names of the two young policemen who had to confront and kill Amri. This, together with the images of the two men spread widely in the media, raised criticism among the public and the security forces that their identities could potentially put their lives in jeopardy in future.

The Italian newswire Ansa quoted an excerpt from a new document released by the Head of State Police, Franco Gabrielli, which claimed that “after this shootout episode, much more attention must be paid, as actions in retaliation against policemen and state authorities cannot be excluded.

Finally, the website Il Sole 24 ore.com it has just published an analysis by Middle East expert Alberto Negri, who attests that some parts of Milan and Lombardy have become logistic and recruiting bases for potential jihadists. Evidence cited for that includes arrests and inquiries last August, which dismantled important jihadi cells. Italy has been considered for a long time as the entry point towards Europe; the country has so far prevented jihadists from carrying out attacks locally. But, as the case of Anis Amri shows, luck is very desirable, but not something that can be counted on to tackle a persistent and constant threat.

Conclusion

The horror of the Berlin Christmas market attack, in the larger context of a Europe confronted by major political polarization over border, security and immigration policy, will have effects both for policing and larger political events. The use of a vehicle as a weapon of terror is hardly a new one, but the brazen attack on a crowded public space is going to cause a rethink for urban planners and leaders across Europe, as they grapple with emerging security threats.

Secondly, even if it is not followed by other similar events, the terrorist attack and its dramatic, cross-Continental end, are sure to affect the upcoming elections in France, Germany and other countries, intensify existing debates over border policies, and further create conditions for violent confrontations between rival political blocs on the far left and right, in which it can expected that migrants and Islamist actors will also play a part. If 2016 was an unpredictably dangerous year for Western Europe, it is likely that 2017 will be even more turbulent.

In First Nine Months of 2016, Urban Violence and Crime Rise in Greece

Balkanalysis.com editor’s note: for some historical context to current developments, readers may also enjoy our previous summary here of left-wing attacks and organized violence in Greece between 2008-2012.

By Ioannis Michaletos

During the first nine months of 2016, a clear trend regarding the rise of urban violence and extremism has been observed in Greece and, in particular, in Athens. Protests over economic woes, illegal migration, and football hooliganism, coupled with the spread of political extremists and criminal gangs largely account for this phenomenon.

Following the present analysis is a chronological set of important incidents of Greek urban violence from January through September 2016.

Left-wing Violence follows Predictable Pattern

All available information indicates that most of these security events are associated with a “hard nucleus” of 100 or so anarchists from several member groups (with lots of subgroups, there are about 80 anarchist groups in Athens alone).

These ideologically-driven individuals can count on additional support from roughly 300 migrant activist elements, at least 50% of those foreigners. An emerging trend is the use of teenage Syrians who are placed in various sit-ins in the center of Athens, mainly in the anarchist-friendly Exarcheia neighborhood. It is not known if they are taken advantage of by the anarchist factions (for their own purposes) or if they are simply ideologically motivated.

Historically, the anarchists have tended to attack whichever target is ‘easy.’ This brings them publicity, keeping them visible in the media (and social media), and helps construct the the image that they control parts of the city. It is also highly probable that at least some collaborate with criminals for joint profit.

The below chronology indicates that the PASOK political party was targeted. However, this is simply because it is an ‘easy target,’ with locations in Exarcheia- not because of its party policies.

The data correlates with a perceived trend that today’s anarchists (including those associated with the pro-migrant cause) are not interested, or possibly not capable of, carrying out targeted attacks against high-profile individuals who are guilty in their minds of hypocrisy or acting against their values. Thus it seems the ‘golden age’ of Greek urban combat (as with long-disbanded groups like ELA and 17 November, which attacked Greek politicians, businessmen and foreign officials) is over.

Greek Urban Violence Relating to Football Hooligans

Football hooliganism is another chronic problem found in many countries. In Greece today, supporters of the major teams are engaged in a bitter fight – especially Olympiacos, Panathinaikos, AEK and Thessaloniki’s PAOK – over a scandal regarding the fixing of football matches that was examined by prosecutors in April 2015.

This issue has been discussed in media. According to reports, the Greek National Intelligence Service even lent its wiretapping services to investigating the case from 2011 onwards. Top football bosses and other related persons were suspected of running a scheme to control Greek football in order to make illegal profits. The investigation has angered rival bases and also resulted in opaque bombings and threats against whistleblowers. The simmering unrest has also resulted in a beefed-up police presence at matches.

2016 Statistics and Trends: Crime Increases, Largely in Athens

Official figures indicate that public demonstrations in 2016 have increased by 100% compared to the previous year. In the first six months of the year alone, there were 4,220 demonstrations across the country, most of them concerning the country’s economic state or migration.

Armed robberies in Greece also increased by 11% in 2016 and violent thefts by 10%. Bag snatching increased by 50% and pickpocketing increased by 10%. And the theft of tourist passports shot up by 15% over last year.

In addition, vehicle theft increased by 9%, and house burglaries by 3%. The bulk of the crime rate increase is most notable in Athens, and less so in other part of the country.

Increases in Drug-related Arrests

At the same time, police forces have increased stop-and-search operations and have enacted a series of nationwide operations, resulting in more than 100 arrests daily for drug offences in a few cases. Despite a series of crackdowns, the drug flow is steady in the country for all sorts of narcotics- a fact which implies that the trade is becoming fragmented and new “criminal blood” has entered this sector.

There are also being witnessed numerous arrests of Syrian refugees who have already become dealers of mostly cannabis, not only inside the refugee camps but across urban spaces. In most cases known to police, they are being recruited by older generation of Arabic immigrants already living in the country.

An Impending Winter Crime Wave?

All indicators at hand suggest an emerging trend of a “crime wave” that will affect Athens in the winter of 2016-2017. The last time that a similar phenomenon took place was in 2011-2012, during a period of intense political infighting and economic destabilization.

This period ahead will inevitably include masses of immigrants/refugees located in camps who are gradually becoming involved in criminal activities, and may even be inclined towards religious radicalization. The convergence of interests between anarchists and migrant activists, as discussed by Balkanalysis.com last December, also continues and in some recent cases of fires and destruction (mostly concerning migrant camps in the islands) there is a strong likelihood that leftist forces supported these actions.

January-September 2016: Chronology of Urban Violence in Athens

January

10th Jan. A riot erupts between football hooligans of the teams Olympiacos and AEK

16th Jan. Anarchists attack police officers in Exarcheia in Athens

21st Jan. Football hooligan fights concerning Panathinaikos team

22nd Jan. Hooligan fights concerning Panathinaikos team

27th Jan. Hooligan fights concerning Panathinaikos team

28th Jan. Riot occurs between anarchists and far-right members in the center of Athens

30th Jan. Anarchists attack the private residence of the minister of state

February

5th Feb. Unknown assailants throw fire bombs at PASOK party offices

7th Feb. Unknown assailants throw fire bombs at PASOK party offices

10th Feb. Hooligan fights concerning Panathinaikos team

12th Feb. Farmers protest and clash with police

19th Feb. Unknown assailants throw fire bombs at PASOK party offices

23rd Feb. Hooligan fights in center of Athens

24th Feb. Anarchists attack state TV offices

25th Feb. Hooligans from Olympiacos team attack police patrols

March

5th Mar. Anarchists protest in Exarcheia and openly display rifles and pistols

12th Mar. Unknown assailants throw fire bombs at PASOK party offices

13th Mar. Anarchists attack urban railway in center of Athens

16th Mar. Anarchists stage riot inside Hilton hotel in Athens

21st Mar. Anarchists publish online personal data and names of traffic inspector personnel, threatening them

24th Mar. Unknown assailants throw fire bombs at police station in Athens

April

2nd Apr. Football hooligans riot in center of Athens

18th Apr. Anarchists attack offices of weekly newspaper

16th Apr. Unknown assailants damage property of traffic inspector personnel (see event 21st March)

22th Apr. Anarchists attack urban railway in Athens

22th Apr. Anarchists attack Police patrol

23rd Apr. Anarchist attack a supermarket in Athens suburb

23rd Anarchists attack bank office

24th Apr. Anarchist attack the police station in Exarcheia

24th Apr. Anarchists attack various shops and buildings in center of Athens

26th Apr. Anarchists attack various shops and buildings in center of Athens

May

8th May Attack with fire bombs on PASOK offices

8th May Anarchists attack  various shops and buildings in center of Athens

21st May Anarchist arson attack on public transport vehicle

22nd May Anarchists attack police patrol

25th May Football hooligans riot in a suburb of Athens

30th May Anarchists attack various shops and buildings in center of Athens

30th May Anarchist arson attack on public transport vehicle

June

1st June Anarchists attack police patrol

5th June Anarchists attack the residence of the minister of state

6th June Football hooligans clash in the outskirts of Athens

15th June Anarchists attack an Athens high court

16th June Anarchists arson public transport vehicle

17th June Attack with fire bombs on PASOK offices

18th June Anarchists attack urban railway station

22th June Anarchists damage public statues in Athens

25th June Anarchists attack various shops and buildings in center of Athens

25th June Anarchists destroy a military vehicle

29th June Anarchists storm the Mexican Embassy in Athens

July-August

This is traditionally considered a vacation period, in which activists suspend attacks in favor of the beach. Nonetheless, urban violence continued, albeit at a 30% decrease. A notable event (though not in Athens) was the occupation of Aristotle University in Thessaloniki by No Border prop-migrant activists and anarchists (including a large foreign contingent) in July.

These other European anarchists were generally more violent, though Greek anarchists led the way with symbolic occupations of low-risk targets (like the office of the ruling leftist Syriza party). Their purpose was to criticize the government’s new refugee camp system set up with EU guidance, following the closure of the ‘wild’ Eidomeni border camp. Activists also sought to challenge police at the Evros border fence with Turkey, but their efforts were minor and inconclusive.

10th July Anarchists and police clash in Athens, cars and trash bins burned with petrol bombs

15th July Anarchists throw paint at Turkish Embassy in Athens

26th July Anarchists throw paint at Turkish Embassy in Athens

1st August Embassy of Mexico in Athens shot at by automatic rifle, anarchists suspected

September

The action was renewed September 2016, with the end of holiday season and return to universities. Since then, the main targets of attack have been public transport, shops, governmental buildings and especially police stations- the usual targets. A police chief was also attacked in September, while there have also been various threatening proclamations against a variety of people, posted online.

The 2016 Local Elections in Bosnia: a Win for the Major Ethno-nationalist Parties

Balkanalysis.com editor’s note: for deeper insight from this author on political and social change in modern Bosnia, see her e-book, 20 Years after Dayton: Where Is Bosnia and Herzegovina today?

By Lana Pasic

On October 2, 2016, the seventh local elections were held in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Although 3,263,906 citizens had a right to vote, the election turnout was low, as in the previous years, seeing only 53.88% turnout, according to preliminary results, with 6% of votes being invalid. Some 30,027 candidates were in the running for the positions of mayors and their place in the city and municipal councils.

bosnia-2016-elections-photo-1-lana-pasic-balkanalysis

Political rivals peer from campaign posters in Bosnia, ahead of local elections.

The election campaign: referendum and war-mongering 

This year’s election campaign was intense and aggressive. Door-to-door campaigning, persistent telephone calls, promises of jobs, and offers of vote-buying have all been present in previous elections as well, but this year political parties seemed to have more zest and determination in ensuring a victory for their candidates.

Irregularities were reported both before and during the election process. The watchdog body Pod Lupom (Under the Magnifying Glass) reported 173 critical situations and 125 cases of citizens reporting misconduct or irregularities during the elections – the largest number since the Dayton Peace agreement was signed in 1995. These cases included minor and major issues, from pressuring and influencing voters, to people voting several times.

In one of the municipalities in Herzegovina, Stolac, the polls were closed early and elections are to be repeated due to irregularities, and to a physical attack on the president of the municipal electoral board, as well as to alleged irregularities in the voting process.

The only municipality where no elections were held was Mostar. The last local elections in Mostar were held in 2008, and since then, the political stalemate has prevented citizens from casting their votes, as Bosniak and Croat parties have not been able to reach an agreement on the electoral regulation, nor for local administration.

The political parties and candidates have touched upon all topics, with few references made to the actual authorities and tasks of the local governments. The campaign in Republika Srpska was run around the referendum for keeping the date of January 9th the national day of the entity. With 55.67% election turnout and 99.81% of the votes for “yes”, the referendum (which took place just a week before the elections) secured Dodik’s Independent Social Democrat’s Party (SNSD) strong support and a large percentage of votes.

On the other hand, in the Federation, the candidates went as far as discussing the potential for the emergence of another armed conflict in the country. The persistence of ethno-politics and war-mongering were just some of the tactics to mobilize the electorate and ensure the support for the “protectors of the national interest”, which are the main ethno-nationalist parties – Izetbegovic’s SDA in the Federation, and SNSD in the Republika Srpska.

Winners and losers: ethnic nationalism and a weak left

The preliminary results unsurprisingly indicate that SDA and SNSD have maintained and entrenched their positions as the strongest political parties in two entities.

The SDA and SBB alliance won 34 municipalities. The alliance between the two largest Bosniak parties in the Federation was made in 2015, after the leaders of the two parties were in a fierce competition for the seat in the presidency during the 2014 elections.

In Republika Srpska, SNSD won in 26 municipalities, extending its influence in certain towns which were previously in the hands of the Serbian Democratic Party (SDS). Meanwhile, the  Croatian Democratic Alliance (HDZ) won mayoral races in 18 municipalities, and the Social Democratic Party (SDP) in 8 municipalities.

Although the preliminary results indicate victory for the nationalist and conservative blocs, in the Federation, a closer look at the statistics, particularly in Sarajevo, indicates that there is still significant support for the options on the political left. However, these are fragmented across several parties – SDP, Nasa Stranka, DF and the newly established GS. Following the failure of the once major leftist party, SDP, in the previous elections, the party has come back stronger, maintaining its position in Tuzla, and winning several other municipalities.

The election results, although disappointing to the progressives, are not at all surprising, particularly after the 2014 elections, and considering the state of the weak and fragmented opposition, as well as low election turnout.

Italian Security in the MENA and Balkans, Part 7: Montenegro

By Matteo Albertini and Chris Deliso

This, the seventh and final installment in our present series, assesses the modern economic, security and diplomatic relationships between Italy and Montenegro.

Italy’s relationship with Montenegro is unique and fundamentally conditioned by historic ties and the maritime situation of both countries on the Adriatic. This geographic reality – with all the good and bad factors it entails – is complemented by a cultural legacy in which Italy’s presence is felt also through the Catholic Church. In the post-Yugoslav years, diplomacy, politics and church affairs have frequently become interwoven in the Italian-Montenegrin relationship.

Although diplomatic relations between the two republics began only in 2006, as a consequence of the independence of Montenegro, Rome and Podgorica (once Titograd) have a long history of bilateral relations.

Montenegro’s most legendary leader (once dubbed “Europe’s father-in-law”), King Nikola Petrovic-Njegos, strengthened diplomatic support for his short-lived kingdom by marrying his sons and daughters off to members of Europe’s royal families. In fact, his daughter Elena married Italian King Vittorio Emanuele III in 1896, inaugurating decades of good relations between Italy and Montenegro. These relations were only partially marred by the Italian occupation during WWII. As reported widely by media, during the 1990s Montenegro attracted the interest of Italian institutions mainly concerning cigarette smuggling between Bar and Bari: a trafficking route which allegedly involved top officials of the then-Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

The stigma of organized crime that started with the “tobacco mafia” stories has, more than anything, compromised Montenegrin leaders’ ability to create truly independent policies: though it may be the best-known owing to its active investigations of leaders by anti-mafia police, Italy is far from the only foreign power that has sought to influence Montenegrin politics, policies and business in the last 25 years.

The cumulative result of this tendency has been a slow but steady movement towards Western institutions, as was seen most recently in this past summer’s NATO accession. That had been preceded by a fierce influence campaign by media from foreign countries who all referenced the country’s reputation as the reason for why it needed to join NATO – or would be a liability to it.

Especially in the decade following independence in 2006, Montenegro has signed many agreements with Italian and European institutions. Amongst the latter, the 2010 Stabilisation and Association Agreement and the 2012 memorandum on the succession of Montenegro are important to note. They followed historic bilateral treaties between Yugoslavia and Italy (and confirmed 18 previous agreements).

On the economic side, it is also important to note the recent contract between the government of Montenegro and the Italian company A2A, regarding the management of Montenegrin Electric Society, EPCG. This document represents (as the agreement with FIAT does for Serbia) a rare case of an international treaty made between a state and a private company. This agreement has increased the Italian economic presence locally.

Italian Diplomacy in Montenegro

Since 2013, the Italian ambassador in Montenegro has been Vincenzo del Monaco. This was a very interesting choice, considering that he is one of the few Italian diplomats with experience in the Italian armed forces, having worked in the Carabinieri before starting a diplomatic career in 1997. Subsequently, he was posted in Beijing (from 2001 to 2005), and worked in the Economic and Commercial Office, before being appointed as First Secretary of the Italian delegation to the European Union until 2009, when he was nominated diplomatic counselor of the Italian Presidency.

Italy maintains a Podgorica mission composed – according to April 2016 data – of 12 members. However, two of these (the military and police attaches) reside in Belgrade. This reaffirms the historic reality of police and military cooperation involving a joint perspective, as with operations against drugs and cigarettes smuggling rings composed of Serbs, Montenegrins and Italians.

While this diplomatic deployment may seem numerically modest, one should also remember that Montenegro has a population of only 650,000. Thus, when considering also cultural groups, international organizations, businessmen and the Catholic  Church, Italy is well-represented in Montenegro. It has something similar to, but smaller than, the leading role it has (as discussed earlier in this series) in Albania. Rather, Italy has above-average diplomatic representation in Montenegro.

Considering Montenegro’s small population, the discrepancy is quite interesting, especially when it comes to today’s ‘Great Powers.’ As such, Russia has 15 diplomats in Montenegro, while the US has 13 persons and China, nine diplomats (Turkey also has nine staff in Podgorica). The sharp decrease in US presence (a year or so ago it still had 20 accredited diplomats) is unusual and might indicate that with Montenegro’s NATO accession, the main task has been accomplished.

Many important European and world countries do not have embassies in Podgorica, instead covering the country from Belgrade. And even those with an embassy or consulate in Montenegro also divide their resources between Serbia and other countries, as does Italy. Among those countries with locally-based embassies, France has four persons (with another five based in Belgrade and one in Zagreb), while Germany has six (with another four based in Belgrade and one in Sarajevo), Surprisingly active Hungary keeps eight diplomats, and one attache in Belgrade. Greece has six diplomats in Montenegro, all locally-based.

Italy’s diplomatic representation in Montenegro is thus double the European average, While not on the same level as Russia, it is competitive with China, the US, and indeed all other countries. The strong Italian deployment benefits traditional maritime ally Britain, which only keeps a couple of people in Podgorica (though it has several affiliated diplomats covering it from several other nations).

Finally, Italian diplomacy in Montenegro has a strong inter-cultural component. For example, there is the XIV Italian Language Week, held under the patronage of the Italian president. Among the events, the embassy in Podgorica organized a “traveling exhibition of Italian cinema,” with film showings in Podgorica, Bijelo Polje, Niksic and Cetinje in October and November.

Italian-Montenegrin Economic Relations

As is the case with Serbia, current trade levels between Italy and Montenegro attest to the deep collaboration between the countries: according to the latest data published by Monstat (the Montenegrin Statistic Institution), in the period January-July 2015, Italy and Montenegro trade exceeded 100 million euro, with a positive balance of trade for Italy of almost 39 million euros. Italy is the fourth-largest exporter in Montenegro after Serbia, China and Bosnia-Herzegovina, and is the second-largest recipient of Montenegrin export after Serbia. Italy imports mainly metallurgic products and machinery, while exports to Montenegro are primarily textiles, clothing, and alimentary products.

Over 30 significant Italian companies are currently active in Montenegro, mainly in the energy sector, with A2A and Terna dominating the internal market, despite some allegations and scandal which also involved the Montenegrin Parliament, and were reported in Italian media in October 2014. The bilateral business relations of Italy and Montenegro are regularly supported by business forums like this one. The longtime prime minister, Milo Djukanovic, has also stated in interviews his positive opinion of Italian trade and overall relations with his country.

Italian Moves on the Montenegrin Energy Scene, in the Context of the Larger Energy War

Italian energy giant ENI, which we discussed in regards to its Libya activities earlier in this series, is also active in Montenegro. In a historic decision of February 2016, the Montenegrin government awarded a 30-year oil and gas concession to ENI and Russian energy giant Novatek. Undoubtedly, the pairing raised some eyebrows in certain Western capitals, but in a sense it just cemented a relationship that had been anticipated in earlier planned scenarios.

The final contract between ENI and Russia’s second-largest gas company was signed on September 14, 2016. According to Reuters, “the contract for four blocks covering an area of 1,228 square kilometers has been awarded in line with the terms of a 2014 tender, which initially covered an area of 3,000 square kilometers. Each of the partners will have 50 percent interest in the exploration licenses.” The prime minister, Milo Djukanovic noted that the country will establish “a fund for oil and gas, adopting Norwegian energy model, based on which the country claims ownership over oil in its land.” Drilling is expected to begin this year.

This agreement is particularly significant if we take into account the chronic confrontation between the US and key EU states with Russia over European energy supply. This antagonism has been seen in recent years particularly in regards to two projected pipelines. The (for now, cancelled) Russian South Stream, which would have passed under the Black Sea through Bulgaria and Serbia, was the first. In February 2012, Gazprom announced that Montenegro would join the project (as one of several Balkan states expected to get a gas connector).

The Montenegrin government had planned since October 2011 to join this Russian project. It is important to mention, for the historical record concerning Italian energy strategy, that the agreed investor competition as of 2012 included ENI at 20%, along with Gazprom (50%), Wintershall (Germany, 15%) and EdF (France, 15%). The whole project was of course crushed in 2014 when the US and EU put tacit pressure on Bulgaria to back out.

When this occurred, ENI withdrew from the South Stream project. This left only the American-backed Trans-Adriatic Pipeline, from Azerbaijan to Turkey, Greece and undersea to Italy. As of August 29, 2016, the shareholders of TAP also included an Italian public energy company: along with BP (20%), SOCAR (20%), Fluxys (19%), Enagás (16%) and Axpo (5%), the gas infrastructure and regasification company Snam S.p.A. owns 20% of the venture. This fact, and ENI’s new re-emergence with the Russian Novatek in Montenegro, indicates that Italian energy companies are aggressive and well-positioned for operations in Montenegro, and indeed the Eastern Adriatic in general.

Where Montenegro comes back into the picture here is the proposed TAP connector, the Ionian Adriatic Pipeline (IAP), planned to pass northwards along the Eastern Adriatic coast from Greece. In late August 2016, an MoU was signed by Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Montenegro and Socar. The construction of this pipeline fits in with a general trend we have long noted, both in terms of EU funding structures and even religious activities, that will establish an ‘Eastern Adriatic’ zone of Western-oriented territories, Rather than the misleading and amorphous term ‘Western Balkans’ we are so used to hearing about today, the Eastern Adriatic zone of control was historically the dividing line between the Eastern and Western Roman Empires, and was heavily influenced by Italy (with the Venetian Republic and so on) and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. So while in official rhetoric and pledges involving the EU, we will continue to be told of a focus on the “Western Balkans,” in practical terms the most development will occur on the historically Western-influenced Eastern Adriatic shores.

The energy game here will thus be of constant interest, especially considering that we expect (for other reasons) US relations with the key player in all of this – Azerbaijan – to steadily worsen in the next year. This Caucasus country had always been the cornerstone of US energy policy when TAP was first suggested, as an alternative to Russia, while Turkey was also considered a dependable ally for transit. But the trajectory of US policy in the recent period is increasingly at odds with the two key countries involved in TAP.

Thus, the survival of Turkey’s Erdogan, and his apparent rapprochement with Vladimir Putin are rekindling hopes for a Turkish Stream pipeline that would transit the Black Sea and resurface in Turkish Thrace, thereafter passing westward through the Balkans. While Putin had proposed this pipeline in 2014 as a replacement for the mooted South Stream, the poor relations between Russia and Turkey over Syria froze the project- until, that is, the July 15 coup attempt led Erdogan to reconsider the value of his Western allies.

On September 15, a senior Gazprom official announced that the two countries will sign an agreement on offshore construction in early October, by the time of the World Energy Forum in Istanbul. Cumulatively, these developments (among many others) indicate an intensification of Great-Power struggles which will play out across John Kerry’s so-called ‘line of fire,’ of which the Balkans are definitely a part.

For Italy, therefore, Montenegro will remain a useful base of operations not only for investment in energy, but as a hub for gaining economic and political intelligence on a variety of energy-related potential projects. Montenegro may just be located on a peripheral pipeline extension route, but even this is a crucial element for the EU to get all its ducks in a row for the continent’s energy master plan. Thus the investment and intelligence presence of the US, Russia and China here all make it an important place to keep monitoring- especially for the country that sits right across the sea from it, Italy.

Italian Support for Innovation

Italy’s support for research and innovation in the country was reaffirmed in a recent memorandum signed between Italian company AREA Science Park and Montenegro, through the sponsorship of Italian Friuli Venezia-Giulia region. According to Friuli’s president, Debora Serracchiani, “this agreement makes research a driving force for competitiveness in the international market. The agreement supports the creation of new companies in Italy and Montenegro.

For the Italian region, the agreement will allow a better exchange of knowledge and skills, while for Montenegro the cooperation with AREA could help the country to implement the ambitious National Plan for Investments in Innovation.

Police Cooperation

It is far beyond the scope of this brief overview to delve into all the details of Italy’s investigations and indictments that stemmed from drugs and cigarette smuggling in 1990s (and later) Montenegro. Suffice it to say that the alleged involvement of high-level politicians in both Montenegro and Serbia hindered police and security cooperation between Italy and Montenegro Unreliability, mistrust, and the need to protect important figures created obstacles for joint police investigations of mafia activities. As Balkanalysis.com reported in 2011, the “Adriatic Connection” between Italian and Balkan smuggling outfits grew in those years and significantly affected bilateral relations. Since then, the situation has improved, even if the ruling forces in the country have not really changed in over 20 years.

Since 2010 Italy has sent police liaisons to Montenegro, located at the Italian Embassy, to improve police and security cooperation. Another Eastern Adriatic consolidation trend, one that also reflects realities of organized crime, is now being seen in the increased cooperation of Italian police with their counterparts in Montenegro, Kosovo and Albania. Under the IPA Project, Montenegro was granted 20 million euros from the EU to enhance security agencies and refugee management. On 5 April 2015, the Center of Tarvisio-Thorl Maglern hosted EULEX officials and colleagues from Montenegro, Albania and Kosovo, with the future plan to establish a Center for Police Cooperation between the three countries in Plav.

It was planned that this center would help the exchange of information, risk analysis and improved cross-border cooperation. Support for this initiative had previously been given at a Rome summit of 20 October 2014, in which Italian Interior Minister Angelino Alfano and Montenegrin Minister of Justice Dusko Markovic also cited other areas for improving bilateral police and security cooperation.

Underworld Killings as a New Area of Focus for Italian Intelligence in Montenegro

A high-profile recent case on which Italian police and intelligence are sure to be investigating was the assassination of Montenegrin organized crime figure Dalibor Djuric on 22 September. He was shot by a long-range sniper, through a wire fence while exercising in a prison yard in Podgorica. According to Balkan Insight, “the assassination is the third drugs-related killing in a few months, after a bomb blast killed two alleged members of drug gangs in September… Five people have been killed since early 2015 in apparent clashes between the rival Skaljari and Kavac clans, named after neighbourhoods in Kotor.” The sniper’s shot had come from a hilltop. A burned-out car with Italian license plots was later found by police nearby.

In this 2011 report, we discussed how mafia groups that emerged from the 1990s wars later developed a new and more ‘Italian-style’ model of discretion and white-collar business activities. However, it seems the recent spate of underworld killings in Montenegro has to do broadly with the fallout of several major drug busts, that are squeezing gangs’ profits and space for movement while providing motivation for fratricidal revenge. This has followed the increasing law-enforcement efforts of Italy, the USA, South American countries and others in Europe.

In a way, therefore, the success of judiciaries in trying alleged drug lords with white-collar businesses in Montenegro has also ironically created a new kind of hard-security risk in terms of armed combat on the streets of Montenegrin towns. This is hardly beneficial for the country’s image or all-important tourism economy. So we can expect Italian intelligence to also focus more on the ‘ground war’ aspect of organized crime as much as on the usual investigation of international trade routes and partners.

Italy’s Position on Montenegro’s NATO Membership

Since Montenegro’s independence in 2006, Italy has remained a great supporter of its Euro-Atlantic integration. Italy supported its NATO membership, before and after it was invited to join the alliance in December 2015. On 20 May 2016, Russia condemned this invitation, stating that it could raise new tensions between Moscow and Brussels. Russian government spokesman Dmitry Peskov stated, according to Reuters, that Moscow considers “the enlarging of the NATO as a wrong idea, since this process won’t translate into better security for Europe.”

On the other hand, the Secretary General of NATO, Jens Stoltenberg, stated that “Montenegro is already contributing to NATO, UN and EU operations, promoting regional cooperation and implementing important reforms; giving to Montenegro the possibility to become a member will ease the political process inside NATO itself. It will bring more security and stability in the region […] and will be a clear signal that NATO’s doors are always open to nations that share and promote our values.”

Russia objected to this declaration. While considering Montenegro a “traditionally friend country,” Moscow was disappointed by the government’s decision. Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova called the decision a new attempt to change the strategic-military balance in Europe, “especially in light of the alliance game started to isolate our country.” However, analysts knew that Russia was hardly surprised by Montenegro’s (inevitable) choice to join NATO, and had made contingency plans. One interesting conjecture, that cannot of course be proven, is that Russia’s annexation of Crimea was partly a precautionary measure against the potential loss of its ‘warm-water port’ on the Adriatic.

In any case, Western diplomatic sources in the Balkans have stated for Balkanalysis.com that Russia’s declared opposition to Montenegrin NATO membership could be just a pretext for defending its general international role, since Moscow, aside from energy supplies, does not have any real means of leverage to condition local politics and future decisions.

Italy and other Western countries have planned that in the long term, Montenegro’s NATO membership will help to expand the rule of law and limit the influence of both organized crime and foreign intelligence services on local actors. It is interesting to note that the intensification of rival mafia assassinations has massed around the time of Montenegrin accession to a Western bloc (NATO) closely resembling the similar experience of Bulgaria before joining another (the EU).

The Mysterious Convergence: The Church, Italian Intelligence and Montenegro

Montenegro became an independent state on June 3, 2006, following a referendum three months before. According to official 2015 data, the first ambassador to present his credentials (on March 30, 2007) was Enrico Tuccillo- representative of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta. (For unknown reasons, the 2016 list gives his accreditation date as April 29, 2008). A veteran lawyer with close relations to the Catholic Church, the Naples-based Tuccillo had successfully defended  Milo Djukanovic’s right to diplomatic immunity, in the latter’s long battle with the Italian state over the cigarettes smuggling affair of the 1990s.

In the bigger picture, this affiliation is important as it reveals another aspect of Italian interest – and sophisticated ability to work international systems – present in Montenegro. The Knights of Malta, a Rome-based chivalrous order and one of the very few given official status by the Vatican, maintains diplomatic relations with over 100 countries. The Montenegrin state possesses several priceless ancient Christian relics that once belonged to the SMOM, who have tried (and will continue to try) to ‘win back’ these state heritage items.

Since the early 1990s, the policy of driving a wedge between Serbs and Montenegrins has been a Western goal and part of this has come through the creation (first as an NGO, later as a religious body) of a ‘Montenegrin Orthodox Church,’ to rival the established Serbian one. Structures within the Church and Italian intelligence have helped guide this process of church-building, diplomatic sources have stated for Balkanalysis.com, with different sides looking for their own interests. The Knights of Malta regarded an independent church that could claim all religious heritage in the country as advantageous to their obsession with reclaiming relics. In the big picture, the Western plan to bring Montenegro into the desired Eastern Adriatic bloc was partly envisioned as a geopolitical one involving religion. While that process is not yet finished, already 30 percent of Montenegrins support the MPC. Today, a similar attempt to divide the Orthodox Church in Macedonia – again, for geopolitical goals – is being promoted by Western intelligence services in the context of the political crisis.

Montenegro, despite being small in size, has an outsized importance for rival intelligence services due to its maritime placement between Croatia, Serbia, Kosovo, Albania and Italy. This has brought many interests to the table. As the authors noted in an ebook, The Vatican’s Challenges in the Balkans, Hungarian intelligence in Montenegro has played an invaluable support role for the Vatican- something particularly ironic considering that in the 1970s Hungary had been tasked with conducting hostile intelligence activities against the Vatican, for the Soviet Union.

As was the case with Serbia, Italy’s main intelligence interests in Montenegro are firstly economic, and second police- and security-related. Keeping track of major energy deals and the preparations that go into them (as well as intelligence and counter-intelligence on potential business partners and foes) is an important task, as is monitoring the Montenegrin security services for Russian penetration. As in Albania and Croatia, Italy can use its superior HUMINT capacities here to benefit its allies, chiefly Great Britain. For the latter, this need will intensify in a post-Brexit situation.

The second trend worth watching in future regarding Italian intelligence and Montenegro is expected developments with Latin America. drug smuggling and the Montenegrin-Serbian diaspora are two issues of focus relevant in this context. But the three-way relationship is richer. Italy has a significant and historic relationship with Argentina, for example, which continues today- the pope, after all, is an Argentine of Italian descent.

Argentina was the second country (following the Knights of Malta) to have an ambassador offer his credentials to the newly-independent Montenegro, when Domingo Santiago Cullen did so on 9 November 2007. It also hosts a large Montenegrin and Serbian diaspora, and is a key site of activity for the renegade Montenegrin Orthodox Church (in fact, before becoming pope, Archbishop Bergoglio met with MOC leaders in Argentina). In addition to the high-profile issue of cocaine smuggling from Latin America through cooperation of Italian, Serbian and Montenegrin groups, these issues are all of relevance to larger Italian interests.

Fortunately, Italy will be well-represented down south. Relatively few Italian intelligence officers have intimate experience of both Montenegrin and South American issues, so it is advantageous for AISE that its operative in Montenegro through 2013, Filippo Candela, will probably be running the Buenos Aires station. If cleared, this prestigious promotion decided in March will follow two turbulent (but apparently successful) years in Macedonia. (We covered the publicly perceived Italian role in Macedonia’s political crisis in the third part of the current series). The appointment will improve Italian intelligence’s abilities to ‘put all the pieces together’ concerning all of the Argentine-Balkan areas of common overlap mentioned above.

Conclusions

Italian diplomatic, economic, intelligence and security relations with Montenegro represent perhaps the most interesting (if not the most significant) case of Italian influence in the MENA and Balkan regions.

For here there are numerous overlapping interests of Italian and foreign investors, including the ‘energy game’ and Montenegro’s connected pipeline projects, as well as the strong moves of outside powers like China in infrastructure development and the UAE in high-end tourism.

While still a haven for organized crime with deep connections to Italy, Montenegro is also now a NATO ally – with all of the interests that invities – and a strong base of activity for the Vatican and related Italy-based groups like the SMOM. But above all, Montenegro is a playground for very wealthy individuals from all over the world, representing divergent political, business and intelligence interests. Often Hollywood exaggerates a stereotype, but the decision to partially set the remake of Bond classic Casino Royale in Montenegro does reflect a certain reality about the kind of visitors it attracts.

Finally, while some Western states have simply bemoaned the influence of corruption and crime in Montenegro’s political life, the tiny and mountainous enclave has never functioned as a perfect democracy, though it has always been independent-minded. Socialist Yugoslavia brought a temporary exception to this historic identity- one seen most vividly in the exploits of King Nikola, and again in that of his modern-day successor, Milo Djukanovic.

It is thus not surprising that the historic periods of maximum Italian influence in Montenegro have been precisely at those when it has existed as a sort of glorified fiefdom. And so, while Western sticklers for democratic processes and rule of law have frequently been frustrated and ineffective here, Italy has been more persuasive- specifically because it understands Montenegro less as a state than as a ‘manageable paradise.’

2004-2009 Back Archives