DSK's New Life, Between Russian Banks And Serbian Hardliners

Strauss-Kahn in a file photo
Strauss-Kahn in a file photo
Alexandre Lévy

BELGRADE – Clean shaven, impeccably dressed in a dark suit and tie, Dominique Strauss-Kahn is back in business. On Sept. 17, France's former Finance Minister and disgraced head of the International Monetary Fund officially accepted a post as economic adviser to the Serbian government.

DSK's hosts in Belgrade had a hard time hiding how proud they were of recruiting such a hotshot economist — starting with the country's First Deputy Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic: "We are not ashamed to say that he knows much more about economy than all of us. And that in his address book he has more contacts from the world of finance than all of us together."

The 64-year-old will be assisting Serbia"s new finance minister, Lazar Krstic. The 29-year-old Yale prodigy is in charge of relaunching the country's economy and keeping unemployment in check, while at the same time reassuring international financial institutions.

All in all, Strauss-Kahn's private life is of no interest to the Serbians. A couple of days before the Frenchman was nominated as economic adviser, Vucic dismissed questions about DSK's involvement in alleged sexual scandals — which led to his resignation as IMF chief — stressing that the only thing the country was interested in was his competence in economic issues. Still, France had already warned Serbian authorities that Strauss-Kahn's nefarious reputation could potentially be harmful to Serbia's image.

A few months ago, France's Socialist Party (PS) — of which DSK has been a longtime prominent, yet now rather embarrassing member — had even sent out several emissaries to try and dissuade their "Serbian friends" from hiring him.

"The Serbians listened politely, then acted on their own. They wanted DSK — and they got him," a PS official said on condition of anonymity.

Since 2012, Serbia has been governed by a coalition of socialists — allies of late president Slobodan Milosevic — and the center-right, conservative Serbian Progressive Party (SNS). These two parties, although now declaring a push to integrate European values, have sometimes have a hard time convincing their Western partners of their democratic credentials.

Russian lobby

But this time, said Western partners are worried about more than just Serbia's image and reputation. "Rather than go through Bercy France's Ministry of Finance, Dominique Strauss-Kahn has been selected due to the intervention of various Russian energy lobbies present in the Balkans," said an unnamed source familiar with the Serbian-French relations. "This prompted our concerns about the economic interests that could be driving this choice."

Since July, Strauss-Kahn has been a board member of the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF), which belongs to the Vnesheconombank (VEB) — Russia's powerful state development bank, formerly the Bank for foreign trade of the USSR. He is also a member of the Supervisory Board of the Russian Development Bank regions (BRDR), best known for being a subsidiary of the oil giant Rosneft.

Within the Serbian government, the choice has also prompted doubts. Members of the financial arm of the Ministry of the Interior — controlled by Socialist Prime Minister Ivica Dacic, a rival of Aleksandar Vucic — have voiced their concerns about the connections at work behind this appointment.

But the key figure behind Strauss-Kahn's new Serbian posting was in Belgrade on the day the economist accepted the job, quietly mingling with a crowd of overexcited reporters and officials who knew neither his face nor his name: Vladmir Mollov, a Bulgarian-born banker living in Paris, where he heads the very discreet Arjil investment bank.

Until now, few had ever heard of the elegant gray-haired man, or of his work as a mediator — except perhaps in Bulgaria, where he crossed paths with a few local oligarchs, including energy tycoon Hristo Kovatchki, from whom he tried to buy shares in the Sofia Municipal Bank back in 2010. The deal eventually didn't happen because of Kovatchki's involvment in an investigation for alleged tax evasion.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!