The best RFE / RL surveys of the year


There is a problem with the remote and sprawling network of pipelines and pumping stations that helps Russia move its vast oil resources, making it the world’s second-largest exporter of crude.

People are stealing oil.

And it’s not just ordinary citizens: they are sophisticated organized criminal groups, operating under the protection of law enforcement agents, including Russia’s main security agency, the FSB, siphoning off oil using illegal taps and pipes, pumping liquid booty from pipelines into tankers or river barges.

And it’s not just a few barrels.

According to one estimate, by state bank VTB Capital, up to $ 3.5 billion is lost each year due to oil theft. Losses for the Russian budget? As much as $ 1.2 billion a year.

This extraordinary discovery came from the exclusive work of the Russian Service of RFE / RL.

The great heist of Russian oil

It is one of more than a dozen major surveys conducted this year throughout Central and Eastern Europe, Russia, the Caucasus and South and Central Asia by RFE / RL reporters.

In which European cities have politically connected insiders in Kazakhstan put their money? Who was actually behind the unsolved macabre murders of Iranian intellectuals around the world between 1988 and 1998?

Here are some of the other highlights of RFE / RL’s investigative work over the past year.

The gruesome murder of an iconic Iranian dissident

When German police entered the Bonn apartment on August 6, 1992, they found the body of a famous Iranian artist, poet and dissident who had fled his home country after the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

It was quite shocking to find a switchblade in Fereydoun Farrokhzad’s shoulder and another knife in his mouth. What was worse: The stove burners had been left on for days, heating up the kitchen and, indeed, cooking his rotting corpse.

A two-year survey by Radio Farda from RFE / RL revealed that German police believed Farrokhzad’s murder – one in a series of murders and disappearances of Iranian dissidents around the world – bore the hallmark of Iranian intelligence services. It remains unresolved nearly three decades later.

A former Iranian intelligence agent also told Farda that Iranian security services deployed another Iranian emigrant who was acquainted with Farrokhzad to carry out the murder.

The results did not only subject the underground work of Iranian intelligence teams to new scrutiny. They also renewed attention to the life of Farrokhzad, a figure who broke the norms and taboos of Iranian society, including speaking openly about his sexuality – and was a vocal critic of the Iranian clerical regime.

From Budapest to Zakarpatska

For more than a decade, starting in 2011, the government of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban – and public funds allied to his political party – have sent hundreds of millions of euros to Hungarian diaspora communities in countries of Eastern Europe: Slovakia, Romania, Croatia, Serbia and Slovenia.

And Ukraine.

About 150,000 ethnic Hungarians live in the western Zakarpattia region, which borders Hungary. The problem took on a political tinge there, as some local Hungarians grew angry at government regulations on the use of languages ​​other than Ukrainian, especially in education.

Ukrainian security services, meanwhile, have raided Hungarian cultural groups in the past, alleging allusions to a separatist movement.

Rely on the numbers first compiled by a consortium of journalistic organizations in Eastern Europe, the investigation unit – managed by the Ukrainian service of RFE / RL in cooperation with UA: Pershy television – discovered that the Hungarian public fund known as Bethlen Gabor sent 115 million euros to Hungarian ethnic communities in western Ukraine.

Some of the funding seemed benign – for example, the renovation of kindergartens where Hungarian Ukrainians can teach their children the Hungarian language and culture. Other funding has a more political tinge: for example, the funding of billboards for a Hungarian ethnic political party that has become more nationalist in recent years.

“When such money is invested, it certainly presupposes influence and loyalty,” an expert told RFE / RL.

The big houses, the deep pockets of the Kazakh elite

Prior to his resignation from the presidency in 2017, Nursultan Nazarbayev was the sole ruler of Kazakhstan. As the country’s first post-Soviet president, he was an unrivaled figure who presided over the remarkable growth in prosperity of the Central Asian nation – growth fueled in large part by its enormous reserves of oil and gas.

But the new prosperity came more often to political insiders and those close to Nazarbayev, who parked their millions – often accumulated under questionable circumstances – in mansions and villas abroad.

Over the past two decades, those close to Nazarbayev have bought hundreds of millions of dollars in posh real estate in Europe and the United States: a constellation of upscale properties on luxurious lakeside, amid skyscrapers. -sky Manhattan, the tony suburbs of London and overlooking the azure waters of the Spanish Costa Brava.

RFE / RL identified at least $ 785 million in real estate purchases in Europe and the United States made by Nazarbayev’s family members and their in-laws in six countries over a 20-year period.

The figure includes a handful of properties that have since been sold, including multi-million dollar apartments in the United States bought by Nazarbayev’s brother Bolat. It does not include a large Spanish estate owned by Nazarbayev’s son-in-law, Timur Kulibaev, for which no purchase price could be found.

The findings provide an unprecedented window into the scale of real estate investments by those close to Nazarbayev and the number of people close to the ruling Kazakhstan family who have found themselves with luxury assets in exclusive locations.

“It is difficult to separate the government from the [Nazarbaev] family, ”a longtime Kazakh rights expert told RFE / RL.

Blackmail, rape, suicide in Central Asia

The global webcam industry – where customers around the world pay people, women or men, to chat, undress, and often perform sex acts on camera – generates billions of dollars every year.

In Central Asia, the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek, and the economic capital of neighboring Kazakhstan, Almaty, have become regional hubs for webcam studios.

In Kyrgyzstan, up to 5,000 young women are thought to work as “webcam models”, many of whom are trying to make ends meet in a country where nearly a third of the population lives in poverty.

A RFE / RL Kyrgyz Service survey explored how many of these women are essentially drawn into some sort of modern day slavery and face abuse, blackmail and, in some cases, rape.

Many women are afraid to go to the police, fearing that they will be exploited or extorted for money.

“There are so many young women whose parents are sick, who have disabled children. They really need the money,” said one woman who has since quit working in the webcam industry.

Manganese Mayhem in Georgia

It’s one of Georgia’s largest industrial operations: a massive manganese mine in a western district that activists and locals say has caused large-scale pollution and environmental damage for years. .

The Georgian Manganese LLC ore mine in the town of Chiatura also happens to be controlled by a group of companies closely linked to the Georgian Dream political party, which has dominated the country’s politics since 2012.

With previous ownership going back to a dark American company owned by a Ukrainian billionaire, Georgian Manganese LLC has been fined hundreds of millions of dollars in recent years from regulators – fines that have been mysteriously reduced.

The company has been the subject of numerous allegations of labor violations.

Georgian service of RFE / RL spent months digging through company registers, property records and regulatory records to show how the group of companies linked to Georgian Dream conspired to take control of the mine while flouting environmental regulations – to the detriment of neighboring villagers.

The secret refuge of the Uzbek president in the mountains

Exactly a month after taking the oath of office as Uzbekistan’s second ruler since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, President Shavkat Mirziyoev delivered a speech at a joint session of parliament.

His January 2017 speech touched on many issues, not the least of which is fiscal responsibility.

A few weeks after the speech, however, Uzbek state-owned companies embarked on a secret project that raised serious questions about Mirziyoev’s sincerity: a secluded and exclusive mountain resort, including a new reservoir, which was built for the use of Mirziyoev.

The leisure complex was discovered as part of a multi-part investigation by the Uzbek service of RFE / RL, who spoke to many sources directly involved or familiar with the opaque funded project located on a protected biosphere reserve and isolated from the public by roadblocks and security personnel.

Two sources put the development cost at several hundred million dollars, though only a handful of publicly available official documents even refer to the complex and adjacent reservoir, which were largely completed in 2019.

The investigation also revealed part of the human cost of the project, including water disturbances experienced by villagers downstream and the displacement of a family known for its management of the region’s ecosystem.

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