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Journalist murders are a major EU problem

by Leonid Bershidsky

Bloomberg

The time has come to ask whether membership in the European Union is still a quality assurance seal for democracy and the rule of law among member states. The bloc has clearly failed to enforce its stated values on its periphery. Any additional expansion can only dilute them further.

On Monday, Slovak journalist Jan Kuciak and his girlfriend Martina Kusnirova were found murdered — shot with a single bullet each — in the town where they lived near Bratislava. Kuciak had investigated alleged tax fraud by a real estate magnate with links to the country’s interior minister as well as a possible connection between Italian mafia and an adviser to Prime Minister Robert Fico. He had been threatened, but police did nothing about it.

Kuciak was the second investigative journalist to be murdered in the EU in less than six months. Last year, Daphne Caruana Galizia, Malta Prime Minister Joseph Muscat’s nemesis, was blown up with a car bomb. It’s still not known who ordered the contract killing.

European Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans tweeted he was “shocked by the murder of a journalist in the EU.” Deaths like Kuciak’s and Caruana Galizia’s are indeed shocking, but Timmermans shouldn’t have been surprised that they took place in the EU.

Right now, a major bribery scandal is ripping through Latvia’s banking system. A banker has accused central bank Gov. Ilmars Rimsevics of running the system as a racket. Rimsevics, under investigation for bribery, is refusing to quit his job because he claims there’s a money launderers’ conspiracy against him in response to his efforts to increase the transparency of how banks handle nonresidents’ accounts.

On Monday, the Guardian and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project revealed evidence of a money-laundering scheme run through Danske Bank’s Estonian subsidiary. Clearly, that country’s banking oversight has some problems, too.

Last year, Transparency International, the organization that tracks global corruption, described events in Croatia and Hungary as “the new face of corruption in Europe. Not the lawless, ‘anything goes’ environment of the immediate post-Soviet period, but the deliberate shaping of the laws and institutions to favor a ruling party and its cronies — all under the guise of a nationalist, ‘illiberal’ agenda.” In 2017, Hungary continued sliding down Transparency’s corruption perceptions index, but its example in clamping down on nongovernmental organizations tempted more of its neighbors, notably Poland and Romania, which have sought to make it more difficult for civil society groups to get funding.

There’s plenty of work for investigative journalists in all these countries, which joined the EU in the latest waves of expansion. And — unlike Timmermans — I am not surprised they don’t exactly feel safe. Last November, Georgi Ezekiev, the publisher of the Zov News website in Bulgaria, as well as one of the site’s reporters, received death threats that were ignored by the police. Even in the relatively calm and peaceful Czech Republic, the threat of violence against reporters has increased, in part thanks to President Milos Zeman’s frequently expressed contempt for the profession. Last year, he greeted reporters at a news conference with a toy Kalashnikov inscribed with “At journalists.”

“Stable institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights and respect for and protection of minorities” are a precondition of EU membership. By accepting all the new members in the 2000s — the post-communist states as well as Malta and Cyprus (where 68 percent of businesspeople say corruption is a problem compared with the EU average of 37 percent) — the EU essentially declared that these nations possessed such stable institutions.

In the years since accession, these countries have prospered in all kinds of freedom, democracy and life quality rankings, often overtaking long-established democracies; but it could just be that, during the daunting accession process, they merely learned to present themselves in the best possible light. Unlike the rankings, something like an investigative reporter’s murder is incontrovertible evidence of both corruption and institutional weakness. So is something like the Latvian banking scandal.

I’m not saying the peripheral nations shouldn’t have been granted EU membership. It has lifted them economically and allowed their citizens to travel widely, work and study outside of their home countries. The benefits of being part of the European project have been enormous. It’s important, however, to separate these economic and cultural benefits from the idea that the EU is a values-based bloc. To be that, it needs to be better at enforcing the values.

Timmermans has recently gone after Poland for its controversial court reforms. Worrying as they are, they can hardly undermine the rule of law and democratic institutions as much as pervasive corruption and its violent consequences routinely do in much of “new Europe.” The murders of Caruana Galizia and Kuciak are arguably better reasons to investigate the true level of compliance with EU rules by the countries in which they took place.

They are also something to contemplate in the context of the next planned wave of EU expansion — to the Western Balkans. The former Yugoslav nations and Albania may show all kinds of progress in reports to the EU, but the bloc ought to pay more attention to the size of their shadow economies, reports from groups such as Reporters Without Borders on the situation regarding independent media and incidences of corruption.

The murders of journalists aren’t just the problem of the small nations in which they took place. They are an EU problem, a reminder of how heterogeneous the bloc still is on key membership criteria. The EU needs the leadership and the political will to tackle it — even, if necessary, to suspend countries unable to prevent them or properly respond to them. Otherwise, it may find itself confined to the status of a large economic bloc without any serious moral principles to speak of.

Based in Berlin, Russian writer Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru .