Perception or not, corruption isn’t limited to Third World

corruption index

Transparency International, a German-based organization, recently released its world Corruption Perceptions Index for 2015.

Not surprisingly, North Korea, Somalia, Afghanistan and Sudan ranked near the bottom of the index, which measures widespread corruption in the public sphere, and also factors in instances of abuses of power, secret dealings, bribery, child labor, human trafficking, environmental destruction and terrorism, among other things.

Transparency International found that corruption was rife in 68 percent of the world’s countries: It would be interesting to see a similar index for US states.

If the actual machinations that go on with misuse of tax dollars, corporate incentives and lawmaker ethics, among many other things, weren’t both so well cloaked by those in power and so often overlooked by US citizens, it wouldn’t be surprising to see a number of states ranked somewhere around the nations of Eastern Europe in terms of corruption.

The difference between the US and other parts of the world isn’t a lack of corruption, it’s that our elected officials are better at hiding it, aren’t quite so ostentatious in showing off their ill-gotten booty and generally don’t kill those who threaten to expose them.

I’d imagine the same is the case in other so-called “first-world” nations such as Canada, the UK and France. Even highly ranked countries such as Denmark (No. 1), Finland (No. 2) and Sweden (No. 3), have problems.

They just have fewer issues than lower-ranked countries and their corruption occurs in a more “white collar” manner – say spanking new roads and public buildings in friends’ areas in exchange for laundered kickbacks along with incredibly generous government pensions, as opposed to naked looting of the government coffers and outright execution of opponents.

Like most things in life, it’s all in how you play the game.

(Top: Transparency International’s 2015 Corruption Perceptions Index. The darker the country the more corrupt the public sector; the lighter the less corrupt. Greenland, Antarctica and Western Sahara seem pretty safe.)

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France’s regional languages fight for parity

Breton village

The French language has long been held sacred in France, which has led hard feelings among groups within the country whose first tongue is something other than the lingua franca.

France is home to more than 2 million individuals who speak regional languages such as Alsatian, Breton and Corsican, but the French government has refused to change its constitution, which states that “the language of the Republic is French.”

So while France actually signed the European Charter of Regional and Minority Languages – adopted in 1992 under the auspices of the Council of Europe to protect and promote historical regional and minority languages in Europe – the French government has never ratified it.

As a result, the nation’s regional languages have failed to receive support required by the charter.

In fact, the policies of the Paris government have had the deliberate effect of greatly weakening the prevalence of native languages in France that are not “French.”

The second-class status afford languages other than French has not set well in regions where regional tongues are still prevalent, such as Brittany, the Basque country and Corsica.

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Long-missing Matisse recovered in Europe

le jardin

A quarter century after an impressionist work by Henri Matisse was taken from a Swedish museum by a thief wielding a sledgehammer, the 1920 painting has been recovered.

The work, “Le Jardin,” an oil on canvas now worth approximately $1 million, was about to be sold when dealer Charles Roberts ran it through a global database of stolen art – standard practice before a sale, according to Agence France-Presse.

Roberts, who runs Charles Fine Art in southern England, said he was stunned to discover the Matisse had been filched in May 1987.

“It’s not something that happens every day,” Roberts said. “I’m glad I found out now rather than later.”

Roberts said the current Polish owner, whom he did not name, had bought the artwork in good faith 20 years ago, according to the Associated Press.

Christopher Marinello, a lawyer working with the London-based Art Loss Register, which tracks stolen, missing and looted art, said the painting, valued at about $1 million, would be returned to Stockholm’s Moderna Museet.

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Russia still covering up fate of Wallenberg

Nearly 70 years after Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg was arrested by the Soviet Red Army in the waning days of World War II, the circumstances surrounding his ultimate fate still remain unclear but evidence increasingly points to a Soviet cover-up.

A newly found Swedish document shows how the KGB intervened as late as the early1990s to stop an investigation into the circumstances behind Wallenberg’s disappearance, two US-based researchers said earlier this week.

Wallenberg is credited with rescuing tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews from the Nazis between July and December 1944. While serving as Sweden’s special envoy in Budapest, he issued protective passports to Jews and sheltered them in buildings designated as Swedish territory.

Wallenberg disappeared after being detained in Budapest by Soviet officials on Jan. 17, 1945.

The Russians have said he was executed on July 17, 1947, but unverified witness accounts and newly uncovered evidence suggest he may have lived beyond that date, according to the Associated Press.

Wallenberg researchers were hoping that key pieces of the puzzle regarding the diplomat’s fate would emerge when an international commission was granted access to Soviet prison records as communist rule was crumbling.

“But a document from the Swedish Foreign Ministry supports claims that the KGB – the former Soviet secret police and intelligence agency – acted to obstruct that effort, said German researcher Susanne Berger who consulted a Swedish-Russian working group that conducted a 10-year investigation until 2001,” according to the wire service.

The Sept. 16, 1991, memorandum from the Swedish Embassy in Moscow cites the former head of the Soviet “Special Archive,” Anatoly Prokopenko, as telling Swedish diplomats that the KGB instructed him to stop a search for documents by researchers working for the first International Wallenberg Commission.

Prokopenko also said the KGB wanted copies of all documents that the researchers had already viewed, according to the memo, which was made available to the Associated Press by Berger. Its authenticity was confirmed by the Foreign Ministry.

The document was significant because it illustrates how since the end of the Cold War researchers have struggled to get access to crucial documents from Soviet archives, Berger said.

“The action in 1991 has, unfortunately, proved symptomatic, rather than an exception to the rule,” Berger told the Associated Press. “Twenty years later, we are still facing this fundamental problem.”

In an interview with the wire service on Monday, Prokopenko said the researchers had been euphoric when they found an archive document on Wallenberg’s transfer from one Soviet prison to another, sharing their discovery with other members of the commission investigating Wallenberg’s fate.

“That was a mistake, the archivist implied, saying the KGB officers on the panel reacted quickly, warning authorities, and Prokopenko was immediately ordered to bar the researchers’ access to the files,” according to the AP.

Prokopenko said he complied because he was working to open the archives to the public, taking advantage of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s liberal reforms, and realized that open disobedience would lead to his immediate ouster.

“I had to make a sacrifice for the sake of uncovering numerous other secrets of the archive,” Prokopenko said.

He added that following a brief period of openness before and after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, authorities have grown increasingly reluctant to allow public access to the archives.

“The situation has grown worse, and even the files that were opened to the public in 1991-1992 were classified again later,” he said.

The Swedish government declassified parts of the memo after Prokopenko mentioned the KGB interference in an 1997 article in a Russian newspaper, but it didn’t become publicly known until Berger obtained it this month.

Wallenberg, who would have turned 100 this year, was arrested the day after the Red Army seized Budapest, along with his Hungarian driver Vilmos Langfelder. The Russians have never explained why they detained the pair.

Russian scholar Vadim Birstein, one of the researchers working for the first Wallenberg commission, told the Associated Press they had just found some previously unknown documents when the archive was closed to them in the spring of 1991.

“We were stopped exactly after I found three documents: two with the name Wallenberg on it and one with the name Langfelder – and (the authorities) said they weren’t hiding anything!”

Birstein and Berger, who are based in the US, said that though they and other researchers have since been granted access to study some Wallenberg files, important archive material has still not been made available.

“At the key junctures, the doors have remained closed,” Berger said, noting that even the first piece of material that was handed over by the Russians in 1991, and was meant to illustrate a new openness on their side, turned out to be censored.

It concerned interrogation material suggesting that Wallenberg had been questioned on July 23, 1947, which would have been six days after his alleged death.

Russia has failed to produce a reliable death certificate or hand over Wallenberg’s remains – circumstances which have prompted researchers to continue efforts to try to tap Russian authorities for more information.

As Sweden’s envoy in Budapest from July 1944, Wallenberg not only saved 20,000 Jews by giving them Swedish travel documents or moving them to safe houses, he also dissuaded German officers from massacring the 70,000 inhabitants of the city’s ghetto.

(Above: Budapest plaque honoring Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg. The plaque is affixed to the wall of the building where Wallenberg was abducted by Soviet authorities in 1945.)

Wreck of famed 450-year-old warship found

Swedish officials believe they have discovered the wreck of the 16th century warship Mars, a massive vessel that was equipped with 107 cannon and was sunk barely a month after the birth of William Shakespeare.

The Mars was the head of King Erik XIV’s fleet before it sank in the Baltic Sea in 1564 during a sea battle with the Danish-Lübeckian navy. The warship was 260 feet long and manned by a crew of 800, making it one of the biggest ships of its day.

Nearly all aboard died when the vessel went down during a battle known as the Action of 30 May 1564 between the Swedish islands of Öland and Gotland.

A team of divers discovered the wreck at a depth of about 250 feet, 12 miles north of Öland, Stockholm’s maritime history museum said. The find came after several years of research, according to Agence France-Presse.

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Sweden: Don’t split atoms in your kitchen

One can just hear the old line by George Costanza of Seinfeld fame being repeated after a Swedish man was arrested by police after he tried to split atoms in his kitchen recently.

“Was that wrong? Should I not have done that? I’m sorry, I’m gonna have to plead ignorance on this thing, because if I had known that sort of thing was frowned upon…”

Richard Handl had the radioactive elements radium, americium and uranium in his apartment in southern Sweden when police showed up and arrested him on charges of unauthorized possession of nuclear material.

The 31-year-old Handl told The Associated Press he had tried for months to set up a nuclear reactor at home and kept a blog about his experiments, describing how he created a small meltdown on his stove.

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