From grain import fraud to how disinformation can generate tons of profit in Slovakia

From grain import fraud in European Union countries bordering Ukraine to a lithium-ion battery recycling plant scandal in Hungary, from a GRU affiliated Russian spy to how disinformation can generate tons of profit in Slovakia – this is The Organised Crime and Corruption Watch, regional edition no. 8

In Hungary, investigative reporters uncovered how a lithium-ion battery recycling plant endangered the health of its workers and nearby residents due to poor operation standards and vast amounts of illegally managed toxic waste. 

In the Czech Republic, hospital patients were used in an international fraud involving grain imports from Ukraine. In Romania, a local businessman helped export Russian oil even after the EU imposed sanctions against Moscow due to its full-scale invasion of Ukraine. In Slovakia, disinformation websites generate huge profit by spreading fake news and attacking independent media outlets, while a Russian spy was active under diplomatic cover.

This collaborative report is based on research from seven investigative outlets, which constitute The Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project: 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).

The teams from each platform collaborate for every edition of this publication to showcase the most significant stories on organized crime and corruption in our region. 

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, face health risks even after an official inquiry had uncovered multiple failings. 

The plant in the town of Bátonyterenye is situated in Northern Hungary, and processes about 28 thousand tons of faulty batteries per year. These batteries have been discarded by two plants, the Göd-based Samsung SDI factory and the Komárom-based SK Battery factory. As Átlátszó investigated, the latest inspection by the responsible county government office found that the recycling plant 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 official reports obtained by Átlátszó, 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. 

Read the investigation in Hungarian on atlatszo.hu or the English translation on english.atlatszo.hu.

Ukrainian grain fraud 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 fraud 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 it 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 large-scale international fraud, which exploited patients at a 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 proper documents – and also to evade taxes.

Read the investigation in Czech on investigace.cz

Criminals set up ‘ghost companies’ to profit from Ukrainian grain export

The trade of cereals from Ukraine has thrived through criminal networks following Russia’s large-scale military invasion. Hundreds of ‘ghost companies’, many established after the war, 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. 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 firms. 

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.

Read the investigation in Romanian on riseproject.ro

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 lies can turn a good buck in Slovakia. One such outlet, the disinformation online and print magazine “Zem a vek,” for example, had a revenue in 2021 of almost €360,000. 

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 visible in a transparent account – where all executed transactions are public – to which fans send money. Multiple other propaganda sites, which often attack mainstream media and particularly NGOs by accusing them of being 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. ICJK’s findings are an important window into the inner workings of this ecosystem.

Read the investigation in Slovak on icjk.sk or the English translation on vsquare.org.

GRU-affiliated Russian “diplomat” was long known to authorities 

The investigation by VSquare’s Szabolcs Panyi, with contributions from ICJK, follows the career of 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 far-right and far-left political groups. 

In 2021, when he was already 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. Goriev was found driving under the influence of alcohol, however, this 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 for their involvement in espionage in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Read the investigation in Slovak on icjk.sk or the English translation on vsquare.org

Why did Poland stay silent about the yacht implicated in the Nord Stream explosion?

Journalists at Frontstory.pl looked into the travels of a yacht named Andromeda, which is implicated in playing a role in the Nord Stream gas pipelines explosion, according to German investigators. 

The journalists found that the yacht stopped in Poland’s Kołobrzeg during its cruise in September 2022. The Polish Prosecutor’s Office admitted that the crew was checked by Polish border guard officials. But why, the journalists ask, did the Polish authorities remain silent about it?

Read the investigation in Polish on frontstory.pl

Romanian businessman’s role in boosting Russia’s oil revenues

Romania’s Context revealed that a Romanian businessman facilitated Russian oil export shipments 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 oil 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 also raise the question of 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 nevertheless able to prove that he is the ultimate beneficiary. 

Read the investigation in English on context.ro

Cover photo: Raland / Shutterstock


Polish investigative outlet created by Reporters' Foundation.