From grain import scams in the EU to vast amounts of money disinformation can generate in Slovakia
From grain import scams in European Union countries bordering Ukraine to a lithium-ion battery waste plant scandal in Hungary, from a reckless Russian spy to the vast amounts of money disinformation can generate in Slovakia – this is The Organised Crime and Corruption Watch, regional edition no. 8.
In Hungary, investigative reporters found that a lithium-ion battery recycling plant endangered the health of its workers and nearby residents because of poor operation standards and vast amounts of illegally managed toxic waste.
In the Czech Republic, hospital patients were used in an international scam involving grain imports from Ukraine. In Romania, a local businessman provided buyers for Russian oil exports contravening widespread sanctions after Moscow ordered its full-scale invasion of Ukraine. In Slovakia, disinformation websites turn a profit by spreading fake news and attacking independent media outlets, while a Russian spy was active under the cover of a diplomatic mission.
Battery waste plant in Hungary poses environmental and health risks
Workers and residents living near a lithium-ion battery recycling plant in Hungary, which is owned by the South Korean company SungEel Hitech, remain at risk despite an official report that uncovered multiple failings.
The Bátonyterenye plant situated in Northern Hungary, processes about 28 thousand tonnes annually of faulty batteries discarded by the Göd-based Samsung SDI factory and the Komárom-based SK Battery factory. As Atlatszo investigated, the latest inspection by the responsible County Government Office found that the factory reeked of solvents, and the inspectors themselves suffered from skin irritations and symptoms such as rashes, redness, itchy throats, and developed mouth sores.
According to the official reports obtained by Atlatszo, the stench of solvent spread beyond the plant’s vicinity to nearby residential buildings. The inspection also found that the plant was storing over a thousand barrels of waste on the premises for which the plant had no permit.
The company, among others, was fined for illegal waste management activities and for failing to keep up-to-date records. The fines, however, are negligible compared to the company’s profits.
Ukrainian grain scam uncovered in Czech Republic
Throughout the war, corruption has been rampant in Ukraine. It is not only disgruntled Czech farmers who are playing a role in the scam involving millions of euros worth of untaxed grain exports through Europe – but also patients at one of the country’s hospitals.
When farmers across central and eastern Europe protested against the import of cheap Ukrainian grain, they probably had little indication that would result in a correction of Ukraine’s official export policy. Over the past two years, Ukrainian grain worth at least tens of millions of Euros has crossed into European Union countries as part of a big international scam, which exploited patients at the Brno hospital by using their identities to set up fictitious companies.
Ukrainian prosecutors are now investigating hundreds of Romanian, Hungarian, and Czech companies. Investigators believe the companies were used to export grain without any documents and also to evade taxes.
Criminals launched “ghost” companies to profit from Ukrainian grain exports
The trade of cereals from Ukraine has thrived through underground networks following Russia’s large-scale military invasion. Hundreds of ghost companies, many established after the war started, dominate Ukraine’s cereal exports.
This issue has become a matter of national security in Kyiv as the war-torn state has already suffered immense losses to its public budget amid the war. Organized crime networks in the region successfully infiltrated mammoth transactions through such firms, with key transport routes encompassing European Union members Romania, Hungary, Bulgaria, and Poland.
Roughly half of the cereals imported from Ukraine last year — worth a total of $495 million — were routed through dubious firms facing fraud allegations in Kyiv. Among these, Cofco International Romania, an arm of China’s leading agribusiness conglomerate, channeled $37 million worth of cereals through these channels.
A Ukrainian supplier also shipped significant amounts of grains and sunflower oil – also worth hundreds of millions of dollars — to Hungarian companies that were promptly dissolved after the transactions were made.
Lies and propaganda in Slovakia prove highly profitable
Disinformation, propaganda, and lies have been flooding Slovakia’s information space for a long time and represent a substantial threat to the country, according to experts. It can also be highly profitable.
Behind the spread of lies and harmful content, a profitable business can be hiding under the guise of ideology. The investigation by ICJK and partners found that spreading hate and untruths can turn a good buck in Slovakia. One such outlet, the disinformation online and print magazine “Zem a vek,” for example, had sales in 2021 of almost 360,000 euros.
The company behind the conspiracy magazine has a long-term annual turnover of around 300 to 400 thousand euros. Tens of thousands of euros are also in a transparent account (where all executed transactions are public) to which fans send money. Many other propaganda portals, which often attack mainstream media and particularly NGOs as foreign agents, are themselves running as NGOs, mainly as civic associations.
Slovakia’s disinformation ecosystem is one of the most rampant in the EU, with the trends often repeated in other countries. The findings act as an important window into this world.
Reckless Russian “diplomat” was long known to authorities
The investigation by VSquare’s Szabolcs Panyi, with contributions from ICJK follows the career of the GRU officer Anton Goriev, who worked under diplomatic cover in both Hungary and Slovakia.
In Hungary, he was allowed to operate and conduct clandestine operations for years despite the Hungarian authorities allegedly being aware of his real work in the country. Among other things, Goriev met and supported both the far-right and far-left forces.
In 2021, when he was working in neighboring Slovakia, he ran over a 51-year-old woman in a supermarket car park in Bratislava. However, unlike some other incidents in previous years, this was far from an elaborate assassination attempt from the Russian spy agency, which is known for its deadly attacks on European soil in recent years.
Although Goriev was found driving under the influence of alcohol, the incident did not end his “diplomatic” mission. That came months later, in the spring of 2022, when he was among the dozens of Russian diplomats officially expelled from Slovakia on espionage charges in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Why did Poland stay silent about the yacht implicated in Nord Stream scandal?
Journalists at Frontstory.pl looked into a yacht named Andromeda, which is potentially implicated in the blowing up of the Nord Stream gas pipelines, according to German investigators.
The journalists found that the yacht was stopped in Poland’s Kołobrzeg during a cruise in September 2022. The Polish Prosecutor’s Office admitted that the crew was checked Polish border guard officials. But why, the journalists ask, did the Polish authorities remain silent on the topic?
Context revealed that a Romanian businessman aided Russian oil exports even after Russia launched its war in Ukraine. Gheorghe Bosinceanu was one of the businessmen in Europe who provided Russia with ships to export its fuel worldwide, which helped boost revenues for the Kremlin.
While there is no evidence that these shipments violated any sanctions against Russia, it is clear that they have contributed to Moscow’s budget and brought into question moral responsibility.
Bosinceanu hid his shady but lucrative business dealings with Moscow behind a labyrinth of companies registered in offshore jurisdictions. His fleet of ships that were transporting the oil are registered under secretive companies, but Context was able to show that he is the ultimate beneficiary.
This collaborative newsletter is based on the research of seven investigative news platforms that are members of The Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project. They include Investigace.cz (Czech Republic), Bird.bg (Bulgaria), Frontstory.pl (Poland), Rise Project (Romania), Investigative Center of Ján Kuciak – icjk.sk (Slovakia), Átlátszó (Hungary), Context Investigative Reporting Project (Romania). Cover photo: Ilustration by James O’Brien, OCCRP.