The government crisis in Malta, one of the smallest European Union members, shows that oligarchs who purchase political influence -- and who may do just about anything, including commit murder, to avoid being caught -- aren’t just a postcommunist phenomenon.
The crisis comes two years after the investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia was murdered in a car-bombing. Earlier this month, a suspected middleman in the killing was arrested on unrelated charges and offered up information on the case in exchange for a conditional presidential pardon. Last week, soon after the offer was made, authorities arrested one of the country’s wealthiest businessmen, Yorgen Fenech, in connection with the murder as he was attempting to flee on his yacht. (Fenech, who has not yet been charged, was released on bail Tuesday.)
Fenech’s business interests are diverse, spanning real estate, hotels, casinos, energy and shipping. The Tumas Group, which he ran until recently, owns Malta’s tallest building, the Portomaso Business Tower; another company he was associated with has a concession to manage the Port of Valletta. Tumas is also part owner of a company called ElectroGas Malta Ltd., which was selected to build and operate the government’s pet project, a power plant run by liquefied natural gas that is meant to drive down energy prices.
Caruana Galizia was interested in the project, which locks the government-controlled utility company Enemalta Plc. into a long-term contract to purchase gas and electricity from ElectroGas. In February of 2017, she published a strange blog post, linking four Maltese politicians -- Prime Minister Joseph Muscat; his chief of staff, Keith Schembri; government minister Konrad Mizzi; and former minister and European commissioner John Dalli -- with a Dubai company called 17 Black Ltd. Later that month, she mentioned the firm again as “the company which those crooks use to move money in and out of Dubai.”
After Caruana Galizia was killed, other journalists picked up where she’d left off and reported that 17 Black had been set up to make payments to Panama companies owned by Schembri and Mizzi. In 2018, Fenech was named as the owner of 17 Black.
On Tuesday, Schembri and Mizzi resigned as police showed a keen interest in their relationship with Fenech. Chris Cardona, economy minister and a deputy leader of the ruling Labour Party, said he was “suspending himself” from his posts until the investigation was over. All the politicians deny wrongdoing. Muscat, who survived a vote of confidence within his party on Monday, is keen to hold on to power, but demonstrators on Tuesday tossed eggs and coins at his entourage and demanded that he go too.
Muscat would be well advised to follow the example of Slovakian Prime Minister Robert Fico, who resigned last year without waiting for the results of an investigation into the murder of investigative journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancee, Martina Kusnirova. That investigation later focused on the oligarch Marian Kocner, who in March was charged with ordering the murder. (He has pleaded not guilty.) Fico’s resignation allowed his party, SMER, to stay in power despite Kocner’s extensive ties with its politicians, even though it is far from certain to win the 2020 election: Revelations from the Kocner trial, set to start next month, could well feed public outrage.
Slovakia and Malta both joined the EU in 2004 as supposedly well-functioning liberal democracies and market economies. Of the two, only Slovakia is a postcommunist state, but in both, high-profile murders of investigative reporters have revealed a frightening degree of state capture by oligarchs. The transition from a planned economy is not a prerequisite for the emergence of powerful businesspeople who build their fortunes on close relationships with government officials. Nor does joining the EU prevent oligarchs from amassing enormous wealth and power.
Shock events like the killings of Caruana Galizia and Kuciak are, thankfully, rare. But if corruption-fighting reporters aren’t getting killed in Italy, France, Germany and other “old” EU members -- or, for that matter, in the US -- that doesn’t mean these countries are immune to state capture. In a way, the trauma of the murders is helping the affected countries to cleanse themselves: Even in death, the journalists continue to play the role that put them in harm’s way. Elsewhere, corruption just continues to fester. What happened in Malta and Slovakia could happen in any seemingly stable nation proud of its democratic institutions and strict rules on how governments and businesses should interact.
Leonid Bershidsky is Bloomberg Opinion’s Europe columnist. -- Ed.