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[The following article was published June 1, 2012, in The Christian Science Monitor, then republished on Yahoo News.]

After a number of setbacks, with disputed elections leading to civil war, the African kingdom of Lesotho holds an election that boots the incumbent. A coalition government is in the works.

By Michael J. Jordan, Correspondent / June 1, 2012

Some Basotho outside Maseru say they waited up to three hours to vote. (Photo: mjj)

MASERU, Lesotho – Lesotho – the tiny mountain kingdom surrounded by South Africa, with the best (ok, only) skiing in Africa, and one of the world’s highest HIV infection rates – is getting recognition for something else: carrying out a peaceful election with a likely transfer of power.

After elections held this week, a majority of Basotho voters turned against the 14-year rule of Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili, expressing frustration with empty promises. With no party enjoying a convincing majority, five opposition parties this week cobbled together Lesotho’s first-ever coalition government and claim at least 61 seats of the 120-member parliament – with an ex-foreign minister, Tom Thabane, tabbed as the new premier.

With its straightforward process and absence of violence thus far, Lesotho gives a lesson in democracy that many other African countries — such as Mali, Guinea-Bissau, Cote D’Ivoire, Kenya, and even nearby Madagascar, Zimbabwe, and South Africa could learn to emulate, political observers say.

“If a sitting government actually leaves office gracefully, this will be a first for southern Africa,” says Nqosa Mahao, a coalition-government expert at South Africa’s University of the Witwatersrand, who advised the major parties here prior to the May 26 elections. “It will put Lesotho on the map for its democratic credentials – and set a tone for the rest of the region.”

Setbacks in African elections — notably the four-month civil war in Cote D’Ivoire in 2010, after the losing President Laurent Gbagbo refused to step down — have recently raised questions about whether democratic culture is actually taking root on the continent. Far too many elections feature heavy vote-rigging, intimidation, and sporadic bouts of violence, rendering the final vote count questionable in the eyes of election observers. Yet the election results in Lesotho shows that some African countries can hold world-class elections, even in a country with plenty of excuses for failure, including poverty and rugged terrain.

(more…)

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[The following article appeared April 30, 2012, in The Christian Science Monitor. It was republished on Yahoo News, and posted May 22 on The Mantle.]

Political violence has flared ahead of May 26 Lesotho elections, but Archbishop Desmond Tutu urges candidates to keep the peace and respect election results.

By Michael J. Jordan, Correspondent, Christian Science Monitor

Bishop Tutu exhorts Basotho politicians to keep the peace. But will they listen? (Photo: mjj)

MASERU, LesothoArchbishop Desmond Tutu, the legendary anti-Apartheid activist and Nobel laureate, is officially retired from public life.

But he made an exception Friday for the tiny mountain kingdom of Lesotho.

Political violence in the enclave encircled by South Africa has flared up ahead of May 26 elections – an ominous sign in what one analyst calls the latest “stress test” for democracy in sub-Saharan Africa. Cracks have emerged here with high-profile assassinations, rumors of a “hit squad,” and clashes at campaign rallies.

So the United Nations invited Archbishop Tutu to bolster democracy in the land, where, before launching his crusade against Apartheid next door, he served his first bishopric from 1976-78. On Friday, his “prayer meeting” extracted a pledge among political rivals to keep the peace and respect election results.

Citing the past political violence of South Africa, Tutu urged an audience that included the prime minister of Lesotho, “Please, please, please, please do not let the same happen to this stunningly beautiful land. Nothing can be so precious that it can be bought with innocent lives.”

Lesotho’s election is more than a contested vote in a remote country rarely heard from. It comes on the heels of successful elections across the continent: Ghana, Guinea, Liberia, Niger, Nigeria, and Zambia have recently all experienced peaceful elections. There have been a few notable blemishes: a couple of coups des états in Mali and Guinea-Bissau, and a contested election in Cote D’Ivoire in late 2010 that briefly turned into a civil war.

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[The following article appeared on Oct. 4, 2011, in The Christian Science Monitor. It's the third of my three-part package to commemorate the "Red Sludge" tragedy, with Part I here and Part II here.]

Since last year’s ‘Red Sludge’ disaster, Hungary’s worst environmental tragedy, Hungarians have used the tools of democracy to seek restitution – a rarity in this former Communist state.

By Michael J. Jordan, Correspondent

DEVECSER, Hungary – On Oct. 3, 2010, Jozsef Konkoly finished installing a new heating system in his home in the Hungarian town of Devescer, in advance of winter. Overall, he’d invested a small fortune on renovations.

Jozsef Konkoly, standing where his home once stood, has inspired hundreds of neighbors. (Photo: mjj)

The next day, red sludge cascaded through his windows.

Mr. Konkoly is just one face of Hungary’s deadliest ecological tragedy, the toxic “Red Sludge” calamity that struck this small Central European nation last October. But one year later, he’s also become a rare – and unlikely – symbol of Hungarian democracy-in-action.

Konkoly successfully sued the factory that was responsible for the disaster, becoming an inspiration for hundreds of other ordinary folks in Devecser and Kolontar to do the same. Victims include not only those who lost homes and are now moving into new, government-built homes, but the unscathed neighbors who saw their property value collapse overnight.

At the same time, Konkoly and fellow plaintiffs illuminate a stark truth about Hungary today, two decades into the transition from Communist dictatorship to capitalist democracy: despite growing disillusion and revisionist nostalgia for a ruthless ancien régime, democracy and rule of law are slowly taking root in these post-authoritarian lands.

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[The following Dispatch appeared Oct. 3 in Foreign Policy (with five of my photos in the FP Slideshow The Red Monster). It's the second of my three-part package to commemorate the "Red Sludge" tragedy, with Part I here and Part III here.]

One year later, Hungary is still reeling from its worst-ever environmental castrophe.

BY MICHAEL J. JORDAN | OCTOBER 3, 2011

DEVECSER, Hungary—Imre Vagi, 56, doesn’t scare easily. Even when facing a flood of biblical proportions.

Hungarian Imre Vagi, with his young poplars, has bounced back from the lethal flood. (Photo: mjj)

Vagi has scraped for survival ever since Hungary’s communist regime crumbled in 1989. As industries collapsed, he was laid off in the early 1990s by Magyar Aluminium (MAL), a huge state-owned employer in the western half of this small Central European country.

Many folks in Veszprem County are like the stocky Vagi, with his unshaven face and long sideburns, and trace their roots to the peasants who harvested holdings of the nobility, on undulating fields of potatoes, corn, wheat, even strawberries. The Catholic Church claimed the first portion; nobles, the second; and the miserable souls who’d actually picked the stuff, the last.

Agriculture has been a way of life and mode of survival for centuries, yet as the communist system disintegrated, party-run farms were also in crisis. Nevertheless, Vagi tapped into his farming genetics and in 1995 bought his own plot of five sandy hectares. By last fall, he was tilling up to 400 hectares of mostly grain, cereal, and sunflower — an impressive feat of post-communist entrepreneurship.

Then, the “red sludge” hit. On Oct. 4, 2010, MAL’s communist-era but still active reservoir of toxic waste ruptured, unleashing a crimson wave of 184 million gallons of the caustic byproduct of aluminum production. The noxious goop washed over a swath of 15 square miles, including Vagi’s land.

The first to be walloped was the village of Kolontar; 10 people drowned in the alkaline muck, including a toddler. The torrent then splashed across the town of Devecser, burning scores of victims, poisoning hundreds of homes, and killing off most of the plant and animal life in the Marcal — a tributary to Europe’s second-largest river, the Danube. It was Hungary’s worst-ever chemical accident: one part Chernobyl, one part Pompeii.

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[The following commentary appeared June 6, 2011, in Harvard's Nieman Reports.] It was republished June 10 on The Mantle.]

BRATISLAVA, Slovakia – Western intervention in Libya – and in the Arab Spring itself – has revived debate over “exporting our values,” especially the kinder, gentler, non-militaristic forms of soft power.

Then along comes James Miller’s exquisitely timed broadside, “Questioning the Western Approach to Training,” against one of those soft-power instruments – Western journalism training – in the Spring 2011 issue of Harvard’s prestigious Nieman Reports. (Full disclosure: I’m a contributor to the magazine.)

I’m compelled to respond because Miller – a Visiting Professor at the Center for the Study of Global Media and Democracy, Goldsmiths, University of London, on sabbatical from Hampshire College – sounds like he’d dispatch with overseas journalism educators like me. There it is, in black and white, when he derides “media missionaries.”

I do indeed preach the gospel, whether to university students in post-Communist Slovakia and Czech Republic, or in Hong Kong to Chinese students from the heavily censored mainland, or to minority Roma (a.k.a. “Gypsy”) journalists in the Balkans, or to hundreds of international participants in a biennial foreign-correspondent training course in Prague. I’m not unlike the proselytizing, wholesome-looking Mormons I see around the globe, in their white shirts and black name-tags. Except I do my sermonizing in the classroom, about what I call serious, responsible journalism.

In his essay, Miller writes, “This is a time of unprecedented international efforts to codify and inculcate Western-style news reporting and editing – to train on a global scale what its proponents assertively call ‘world journalism’ – in places quite different from American newsrooms and classrooms, with nothing like the journalistic or political-cultural history of North America and Western Europe.” It’s unclear if he’s calling for a less-Western, more sensitive style to such training, or urging that it be scaled down altogether. Both views are wrong.

He cites the case of post-Communist Eastern Europe – a place I know well, after 16 years as a foreign correspondent out here. “Cold War modernization theory,” says Miller, has fostered “a surprisingly idealized version of mainstream journalism” as a “necessary means of democratization.”

My question for Professor Miller: What’s wrong with that?

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[The following commentary appeared March 22 on the Christian Science Monitor's Opinion page. It was republished March 24 on The Mantle.]

Slave Labor? I Didn’t Get Paid For This Piece — And I’m OK With That

More and more writers are publishing their work without payment in exchange for the promise of ‘prestige’ and ‘platform.’

BRATISLAVA – AOL’s tidy $315 million purchase of The Huffington Post in February produced more pity for the folks who drive much of the site’s success – the HuffPo hordes of bloggers who won’t be offered a slice of the spoils.

They are expected to continue writing for free.

Some call it slave labor. I call it fair barter. Seriously, I would write for HuffPo for free. Heck, I even agreed to write this commentary piece without compensation. [Editor’s note: Thanks again, Michael. You’re very generous.]

I’m a freelance foreign correspondent. I have a wife and three kids to help feed, and I believe that productive labor should be rewarded. So why on earth would I voluntarily submit to sweatshop conditions?

The reason is … Subscription Required for Premier Content

Just joshing. Did I have you going? The real reason I blog for free is, well, because my wife lets me. Another joke! Only partly true. Journalistic Borscht Belt, here I come. But seriously, folks. The key to why I numb myself to compensationlessness can be summed up in on word: investment.

We freelance journalists out on our own today have to “build our brand.” I can’t believe I pulled a mantra from the PR flak’s handbook, but that’s the reality today. How else to distinguish yourself amid the din of countless competing voices and social media? To survive, you have to absorb short-term sacrifice for long-term gain. Even if that means writing for free.

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BRATISLAVA – The last time I saw the European Union this embarrassed by a new EU member, it was forced to freeze hundreds of millions in aid to sticky-fingered Bulgaria. (Which I covered extensively for the CSMonitor.)

So, what will Brussels now do about Hungary? On Jan. 1, it became the third ex-Communist country to assume the EU’s rotating presidency. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his party, Fidesz, won elections last spring in such overwhelming fashion, their two-thirds majority has set out to re-write the country’s constitution and commandeer every nominally independent institutions, from the largely ceremonial post of president, to the Supreme Court, state audit office and Central Bank.

Then, just before Christmas – and days away from stepping into the EU spotlight – Fidesz lawmakers passed a media law that shocked fellow EU members in its brazen bid to muzzle mainstream media. A new “Media Council” – coincidentally, with all five members appointed by Fidesz – may slap crippling fines on any newspaper, TV, radio or Internet outlet that produces a report deemed “unbalanced” or offensive to “human dignity.” Oh, and the Council can also force any journalist to reveal their sources.

Reaction was immediate. (more…)

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Bulgaria’s arrest today of an ex-minister accused of bribes, and recent jail sentences of two major figures for fraud and embezzlement, show that the government is finally cracking down on corruption.

Taglines along the bottom of political billboards, like this one in the Black Sea city of Varna, reminded voters during the July 2009 elections that “Buying and Selling Votes is a Crime.” (Photo: mjj)

By Michael J. Jordan Correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor / April 1, 2010

BRATISLAVA, Slovakia – Bulgaria has the European Union’s most government corruption, and is its most violent member state. But convictions there for high-level corruption are rare.

That’s why two court cases in the past fortnight are such a landmark, and a sign that steady European Union pressure on the small Balkan country is producing results.

On March 18, Asen Drumev, former head of the State Agricultural Fund, was sentenced to four years in prison for embezzling $34 million worth of EU assistance. Then on Monday, businessman Mario Nikolov received 10 years for defrauding Brussels of $8.3 million of agriculture and rural-development funds.

They were the first officials to be punished in an effort to placate an increasingly irate Brussels, which has for years criticized Bulgaria’s widespread vote-buying, shady financing of political parties, money laundering, and failure to seize financial assets of alleged gangsters. As many as 150 mafia-related murders have netted no convictions.

Bulgaria routinely vows to crack down, but has never done so.

“The EU was already fed up with Bulgaria for failing to deliver on its promises, so it couldn’t be delayed any longer,” says Ruslan Stefanov, of the Center for the Study of Democracy in Sofia, the capital. (more…)

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Butcher Josef Kosina provides service to a customer. (Photo: mjj)

Private ownership and profit incentive have changed the taste of Prague’s eateries in post-Communist Czech Republic.

By Michael J. Jordan, Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / December 17, 2009

PRAGUE — Salamis hang like chimes, sausages are stacked into pyramids, and the refrigerator holds not only the Czech soda, Kofola, but newcomers Gatorade, Pepsi, and Schweppes.

In the old days, a Prague butcher shop like this would offer slabs of gristly bacon with just a rumor of meat, or an entire dead chicken, leaving customers to deal with feathers and evisceration.

Today, butcher Josef Kosina does it for them, engaging in light banter as he trims the fat and whacks the chicken into easy-to-cook chunks. “We’re responding to customer demand, to give better service,” says Mr. Kosina, cleaver in hand.

Among all the changes in Eastern Europe since the Iron Curtain parted 20 years ago, gastronomic culture – from higher-quality food to slick advertising, and from the rise of customer service to the onslaught of obesity – opens a window onto how the post-Communist lifestyle has Westernized.

Older generations remember deprivations of the past, the rations and shortages, long lines, and empty shelves. People who subsisted for centuries on what they pulled from the ground, plucked from a tree, or cooked from a beast grew accustomed to subpar, state-produced goods – gruffly served.

Today, private ownership and profit motive have revolutionized the region. Aisles and aisles of store shelves are stocked with a dizzying range of local and pricey imported products, especially in the ubiquitous Western “hypermarkets.” Some have separate Asian or Mexican sections. Oranges are a year-round option, as are kiwis, coconuts, and pineapples. Where there was once a lone brand of toilet paper or cereal (tasting like the cardboard in which it was boxed) dozens now jostle for primacy, glorified by Western-style marketing.

That trickles down to the Prague butcher shop, one of three co-owned by Bohuslav Novy. He says his shop responds to demand with less-fatty meat, special cuts, and greater range, like beef, lamb, veal, and even rabbit. A new deli section offers salads, baguettes, and made-to-order sandwiches.

And if his butchers “aren’t polite and don’t smile at our customers,” says Mr. Novy, “we must tell them goodbye, of course.” (View original article here.)

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CzechTOLTrnavaJuly2009 018

An archivist at the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes in Prague files some of the 280 million pages’ worth of secret-police reports. (Photo: mjj)

Twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, some in Eastern Europe miss the days of full employment and before free elections brought extremism.

By Michael J. Jordan | Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

From the November 8, 2009 edition

PRAGUE, CZECH REPUBLIC; and PARTIZÁNSKE, SLOVAKIA – In the airy lobby of the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes, George Santayana’s immortal words are a daily reminder to Czech staffers digitizing millions of Communist-era files: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Yet even the institute’s spokesman says his grandparents criticize the organization’s mission. They brush aside four decades of neighbors and co-workers spying on one another in the former Czechoslovakia and long wistfully for a time of full employment.

“My grandmother says the Com­munists were great, while my grandfather says we’re stupid to open the archives, because people don’t have jobs, which is more important than … history,” says Jiri Reichl.

On the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Germans and others across the world are celebrating the moment that clinched the end of the cold war. But the Czech Republic reflects another trend across Eastern Europe, 20 years into the traumatic shift from dictatorship to democracy: creeping nostalgia.

Each positive development of “democracy” ushered in negative consequences: Free-market competition brought soaring prices and joblessness; free elections brought extremist parties; free press brought incitement; free movement brought cross-border crime and westward “brain drain.” (more…)

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This restored synagogue in Samorin, Slovakia, today houses an art exhibit. (Photo: mjj)

This restored synagogue in Samorin, Slovakia, today houses an art exhibit. (Photo: mjj)

The region’s Jewish communities are now largely gone, but a growing movement seeks to restore and protect the synagogues, cemeteries, and other remaining landmarks.

 

 

By Michael J. Jordan | Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor, June 25, 2009

 

BRATISLAVA, SLOVAKIA – For architectural historian Maros Borsky, the story begins five years ago.

 

He was documenting the synagogues of Slovakia, which, like the rest of post-Holocaust Eastern Europe, saw its countryside depopulated of Jews, with most provincial synagogues abandoned. Slovakia itself has seen a war-time community of 137,000 shrink to some 3,000 Jews today, with only five of 100-plus synagogues functioning.

 

In the course of his work, Mr. Borsky came across a donor who wanted to renovate a rural synagogue. But which one?

 

“I realized it’s important to create an audience for these synagogues, for Jews, non-Jews, locals, and tourists to learn there once was a community here – and what happened to it,” he says.

 

The result of Borsky’s work, the “Slovak Jewish Heritage Route” will soon connect 23 restored synagogues.

 

The Slovak project will be just one of scores discussed this weekend in Prague as representatives from 49 countries convene for the landmark Holocaust-Era Assets Conference. The agenda ranges from charting the progress made in returning Nazi-looted artwork and restituting Jewish property to caring for elderly survivors of the camps. (more…)

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Navi Pillay, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, said the final document in Geneva "highlights the suffering of many groups." (Photo: mjj)

Navi Pillay, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, said the final document in Geneva "highlights the suffering of many groups." (Photo: mjj)

By Michael J. Jordan |

Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

April 22, 2009

 

GENEVA – After Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s barrage Monday against Israel threatened to derail the global antiracism conference, UN officials decided to act quickly.

 

The conference was teetering on the verge of collapse. By Sunday, nine Western member-states had announced a boycott. On Monday, 22 European countries walked out as Mr. Ahmadinejad launched a verbal attack on Israel as “cruel and racist.”

 

That’s why UN officials jumped right to the main event: the final declaration. It was adopted late Tuesday, three days earlier than scheduled.

 

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay called the document’s early adoption “great news,” saying it “reinvigorates the commitment” of governmental anti-racism efforts.

 

Typically, such documents are negotiated right into the 11th hour. That’s why it was supposed to be released April 24. The basic 16-page agreement had already been hammered out last Friday. Releasing it at the end of the five-day meeting was “just in case the main committee needed that much time – just in case various debates reopened or questions were raised,” Ms. Pillay told reporters. “None of that happened.”

 

The Ahmadinejad speech “set a very negative tone and created a very negative atmosphere,” says Slovak diplomat Drahoslav Stefanek, whose delegation was among those that walked out. “So there was a need to calm things down.” (more…)

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European diplomats walking out during President Ahmadinejad's fiery speech. (Photo: mjj)

European diplomats walking out during President Ahmadinejad's fiery speech. (Photo: mjj)

More than 40 European diplomats walked out to protest the Iranian leader’s speech, in which he called Israelis “the racist perpetrators of genocide.”

 

By Michael J. Jordan | Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

from the April 20, 2009 edition

 

GENEVA – A major UN anti-racism conference already wounded by the boycott of nine Western countries, opened Monday with the buzz of anticipation for a speech by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – the only head of state who accepted an invitation to attend.

 

Mr. Ahmadinejad, who has referred to the Holocaust as a “myth” and called for Israel to be “wiped off the map,” assailed the West for supporting the creation of the Jewish state after the atrocities of World War II.

 

“Under the pretext of Jewish suffering, they have helped bring to power the most oppressive, racist regime in Palestine,” he said, to loud applause from Iranian activists in the gallery and pockets of headscarved Muslim women on the floor. “They have always been silent about their crimes.”

 

With that, the 23 European Union countries who had not yet boycotted the conference abandoned their seats and streamed out of the hall, which was met by a smattering of more applause.

 

It had been hoped that this year’s UN Racism Conference would avoid the fate of its 2001 predecessor, which was nearly derailed by vituperative debate over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The event is intended to be a global forum for addressing racial intolerance and sharing how to combat it. But the Middle East conflict again threatens to dominate the agenda. (more…)

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Pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian activists debate outside UN-Geneva headquarters. (Photo: mjj)

Pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian activists debate outside UN-Geneva headquarters. (Photo: mjj)

A meeting to judge progress on racism is likely to be captive to Israeli-Palestinian and Islamic defamation issues.

By Michael J. Jordan | Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

from the April 19, 2009 edition

BRATISLAVA, SLOVAKIA – The first World Conference Against Racism, held in 2001 in Durban, South Africa, was all but derailed when the Israeli-Palestinian conflict took center stage.

The second global meeting against racism, discrimination, and xenophobia, which starts Monday, is on shaky ground over the same question. Over the weekend, the United States and the Netherlands pulled their delegations. Australia, Israel, Canada, Sweden and Italy have said they also may boycott the UN forum in Geneva.

The week-long event is also in trouble over the issue of religious defamation, specifically the portrayal of Islam in Western nations. The 57-member Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) is expected to accuse the West of Islamophobia and press to restrict criticism of Islam. If this happens, it may upstage discussion of all other topics.

At the 2001 conference, the fight over whether the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was racist often drowned out grievances from minorities such as the Roma of Europe, the “untouchables” of India, and the indigenous tribes of South America.

Ayca Ariyoruk, a senior associate at the United Nations Association, a pro-UN think tank, says it will be up to the OIC to “resist the temptation to bring up issues that have proven to be very divisive.” A citizen of Turkey, as is the OIC secretary-general, she adds, “This conference needs to focus on what can unite countries, not divide them.” (more…)

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'Iron Meggy': Bulgaria has entrusted diplomat Meglena Plugchieva to clean up corruption of EU aid. Massive amounts of EU assistance are being withheld until reforms are made. (Photo: mjj)

'Iron Meggy': Bulgaria has entrusted diplomat Meglena Plugchieva to clean up corruption of EU aid. Massive amounts of EU assistance are being withheld until reforms are made. (Photo: mjj)

Frustrations mount over Bulgaria – the most violent, corrupt, and poorest of EU members. Aid is being withheld as reform promises are made (and broken). Can it be fixed?

 

By Michael J. Jordan|

Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

From the December 31, 2008 edition

 

SOFIA, BULGARIA – This spring, after Bulgaria recalled Meglena Plugchieva from her ambassadorship in Berlin to clean up widespread corruption and misuse of European Union funds, she warned fellow ministers they must act to prevent the loss of massive funding from Brussels.

 

But Ms. Plugchieva also vowed to stand up to Western criticism that singles out her nation’s ills. “Bulgaria is not the cradle of corruption,” she said. “Germany also has its corruption-related scandals.”

 

The “double standard” defense, though, wasn’t enough to deter a stinging financial slap delivered last month by a European Commission angry after millions of euros in development assistance had been siphoned off and a string of high-profile corruption and murder investigations resulted in no convictions.

 

Bulgaria’s case was putting the credibility of EU enlargement at stake: Brussels needed to send a message to those arguing against further expansion and to candidates banging on the door, including Croatia, Serbia, Albania, and Turkey. Just last month, EU officials warned Croatia that its failure to crack down on organized crime and corruption jeopardizes its chance to join the EU next year.

 

“Brussels needed to get serious, to show they’re not just taking a country’s word for fighting corruption,” says Katinka Barysch, deputy director of the Center for European Reform in London. “If they can’t do that with Bulgaria, how are you going to do that with the countries still queuing outside?”

 

(more…)

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Bulgarian potato farmer: Atanas Birnikov used European Union development aid to buy new machinery.

Bulgarian potato farmer: Atanas Birnikov used European Union development aid to buy new machinery.(Photo: mjj)

Failure to curb corruption means less assistance for some.

 

By Michael J. Jordan |

Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

from the December 31, 2008 edition

 

VELINGRAD, BULGARIA – When Atanas Birnikov was a child, his parents’ rolling farmland at the base of the Rodopi Mountains was seized by the communist regime.

 

Fifty years later, after Mr. Birnikov lost his job in the turbulence of the post-communist transition, he was able to reclaim these ancestral lands.

 

Now, Birnikov finds himself a rookie potato farmer. Reviving the farming tradition, he says, couldn’t have happened without funds from the European Union, which enabled him to repay huge bank loans for seeds and farm machinery.

 

“When you’re left out on the street, you have to figure out how to survive,” Birnikov said during the recent harvest, as several dozen seasonal workers he’s hired gathered spuds nearby. “Because we have such young farms, we need help to get on our feet.”

 

Birnikov is one of many Bulgarians benefiting from EU taxpayer assistance – the very funding that the EU has withdrawn because of Bulgaria’s failure to curb corruption. (more…)

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Bulgarian police cadets Elena Kolcheva and Danail Velichkov say they hope to improve the reputation of Bulgarian policing. (Photo: mjj)

Bulgarian police cadets Elena Kolcheva and Danail Velichkov say they hope to improve the reputation of Bulgarian policing. (Photo: mjj)

‘We need a moral cleansing of the system,’ says jurist Nelly Koutzkova.

 

By Michael J. Jordan |

Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

from the December 31, 2008 edition

 

SOFIA, BULGARIA - Many residents of the European Union’s most corrupt and violent member state say that apart from the uniforms there’s little difference between Bulgaria’s cops and mobsters. But over at the Simeonovo Police Academy, on the sprawling eastern edge of the capital, cadets Elena Kolcheva and Danail Velichkov are champing at the bit to get the bad guys.

 

“My family and friends don’t trust the police to be effective,” says Ms. Kolcheva, who’s ranked second in her class and hopes to someday investigate murders. “But now they see the younger generation is motivated to change the system.”

 

Brussels bemoans that as many as 150 assassinations over recent years have produced no prosecutions in Bulgaria. Locals blame a police and court system infested with bribery. A common joke in the business community here is, “we don’t invest in lawyers, we invest in judges.”

 

But there’s also a glimmer of hope that the next generation of police and judges will take a more professional approach to justice. Cadet Kolcheva says a major corruption conviction would embolden her and her fellow cadets. This view is shared by Nelly Koutzkova, former president of the Bulgarian Judges Association.

 

“A young colleague complained to me, ‘When I’m in the courtroom, I feel everyone look at me like I’m for sale,’” Ms. Koutzkova says. “We need a moral cleansing of the system, where even one prosecution would show people, inside and outside, there’s justice for the justices as well.” (more…)

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Bulgarian wrestler Hristo Stoilov (Photo: mjj)

Bulgarian wrestler Hristo Stoilov (Photo: mjj)

Despite the lure of easy money, Bulgaria’s Hristo Stoilov says he’s refused to use his muscles for criminal activity.

 

By Michael J. Jordan |

Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

from the December 31, 2008 edition

 

SOFIA, BULGARIA – While practicing takedown flips with a dummy, Hristo Stoilov’s phone rang. The wrestler, covered in sweat and wearing tights, listened for a minute, shook his head, then returned to grappling. Later, Mr. Stoilov explained the call was from a friend offering him “easy” money to rough up a debtor.

 

Although Stoilov’s thick muscles and steely presence might allow him to quickly earn the $200 fee for intimidating a debtor into paying, he says this is no way to live, not even if a single “visit” yields as much as he earns in two weeks as a personal trainer.

 

“I want to live a quiet life,” Stoilov says.

 

Wrestling, the national sport, once generated jobs, entertainment, and considerable national pride here during international tournaments. During communist times, with state-controlled dreck on television, most towns held Saturday night matches. And the state paid wages to some 50,000 wrestlers and coaches – in a country of only 8 million.

 

The postcommunist economic crisis left thousands of wrestlers unemployed, says Emil Budinov, a former national wrestling champion and now a coach.

 

“Imagine: you start winning medals, but then the system collapses and you’re left with nothing,” Mr. Budinov says. “But you’re a strong man, a brave man. So what do you do? You go out on the street.” (more…)

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A year after being released from prison in Libya, where courts had accused them infecting children with HIV, five nurses face tough living at home.

 

By Michael J. Jordan |

Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

from the November 19, 2008 edition

 

SOFIA, BULGARIA – For eight years, five Bulgarian nurses were locked in a Libyan prison, accused of intentionally infecting 426 Libyan children with HIV, and dreaming of the day they would get released and expose the charges as fraudulent.

 

But that day came and went more than a year ago, and now the nurses find themselves facing an increasingly stark reality as they adjust to life back in Bulgaria.

 

While they’re working with the producers of the Oscar-nominated “Hotel Rwanda” to make a film based on their story, the real life version has had anything but a Hollywood ending.

 

Although prominent Libyan authorities admitted that the nurses were tortured into confessing, some Bulgarians still believe that the nurses are guilty. Others view them as opportunistic, and trying to exploit their situation for unreasonable compensation. In reality, many of the nurses now say they’re struggling to make ends meet.

 

“I’m very disappointed in humankind,” says Valentina Siropulo, one of the nurses who has returned to the hospital she worked in before traveling to Libya. “Not only because of the way we were treated in Libya, but also the extreme negative reactions here in Bulgaria.”

(more…)

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Crusader: Bulgarian journalist Hristo Hristov has fought for more than a decade to uncover the truth about Georgi Markov's murder that took place in London 30 years ago. (Photo: mjj)

Crusader: Bulgarian journalist Hristo Hristov has fought for more than a decade to uncover the truth about Georgi Markov's murder that took place in London 30 years ago. (Photo: mjj)

The death of Bulgarian writer Georgi Markov in 1978 raises questions about Europe’s lingering ties to communism.

 

By Michael J. Jordan |

Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

from the October 28, 2008 edition

 

SOFIA, BULGARIA – While Bulgarian émigré Georgi Markov walked over Waterloo Bridge in London on Sept. 7, 1978, a passerby bumped into the well-known critic of his native government. A stinging pain shot through Mr. Markov’s calf, and four days later he was dead.

 

Investigators initially thought an assassin, hired by the communist regime in Bulgaria, jabbed him with a poison-tipped umbrella. But later reports suggested a spring-loaded pen, probably KGB-designed, had fired a ricin-tipped pellet into his leg.

 

Today much of the Markov murder remains shrouded in mystery. The case, however, is just one of many unsolved mysteries spurring intense debate in Eastern Europe between critics and defenders of the communist system.

 

 

Though the days of Soviet control are but a distant memory, revelations about who was once a spy or informant continues to rock the region. Many communist-era officials remain in power and continue to hold onto a number of secrets about the past, not only to protect themselves and their allies, but the reputation of the former dictatorships. (more…)

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1968: Ladislav Bielik's image, on display exactly 40 years later in Bratislava, is a poignant symbol of Moscow's aggression. (Photo: mjj)

[This piece appeared Aug. 22, 2008, in the Christian Science Monitor.]

Ladislav Bielik’s iconic image of a Slovak baring his chest to the barrel of a Soviet tank is part of a commemorative exhibit 40 years ago to the day.

By Michael J. Jordan | Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

BRATISLAVA, SLOVAKIA - Before the 1989 photo of a Chinese man confronting tanks in Tiananmen Square, there was the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia captured by Ladislav Bielik’s iconic image of a protester in Bratislava baring his chest to the barrel of a Soviet tank – 40 years ago Thursday.

The moment is brought to life here in Slovakia’s capital, where Bielik’s sequential batch of 185 photos are featured in a photo exhibit on the same square where ordinary citizens confronted the Soviets that morning.

Bielik, whose office was just around the corner, shot them the morning of Aug. 21, only hours after tanks rolled in to snuff out a glimmer of democratic reform known as the Prague Spring.

“You can read a history book about what happened then, or someone will say ‘There were tanks here,’ but when you see these photos, you know it was real,” says student Tanya Takacova, born just before the 1989 collapse of communist Czechoslovakia.

While Bielik’s photos drive the Slovak narrative of that Soviet-led invasion, some cannot resist drawing broader parallels between Moscow’s aggression then and its recent invasion of Georgia.

“This is no longer 1968 and the invasion of Czechoslovakia, when a great power invaded a small neighbor and overthrew its government,” said US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice last week in criticism of Moscow.

Radio Prague quoted one Czech man as saying, “Russia never changes…. They’re incapable of being free, so they don’t want anyone else to enjoy their freedom.” (more…)

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'I wanted to show that Kazakh history…is much deeper than we'd ever thought.' – Gulnara Sarsenova, cosmetic magnate and movie producer (Photo: mjj)

'I wanted to show that Kazakh history…is much deeper than we'd ever thought.' – Gulnara Sarsenova, cosmetic magnate and movie producer (Photo: mjj)

The Central Asian nation throws Borat a counterpunch.

 

By Michael J. Jordan |

Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

from the May 8, 2008 edition

 

ALMATY, KAZAKHSTAN – If the satirical movie “Borat” spoofed an entire nation, then “Mongol” was a decent counterpunch, casting back 800 years to the glory of a world conqueror, and earning Kazakhstan its first nomination for a foreign-language Academy Award earlier this year.

 

But “Mongol” was more than a big-budget Genghis Khan biopic, says Gulnara Sarsenova, the perfume and cosmetics magnate who helped bankroll the $23 million production. It also aimed to bolster the self-respect of a traditionally nomadic people aggressively Russified during 70 years of Soviet domination.

 

“There’s a lack of awareness among Kazakhs of our rich and interesting past,” says the flamboyant CEO, who is from the Naiman clan of northeastern Kazakhstan. That’s the same clan of Borte, Khan’s empress, whose charms in the movie brought out the sensitive side of the Mongol pillager. “I wanted to show that Kazakh history goes much further, is much deeper, than we’d ever thought.”

 

As a co-producer of “Mongol,” Ms. Sarsenova is at the forefront of efforts to reconnect Kazakhs to their ancestors, especially through film. While “Mongol” – with its Russian director, international cast, and global audience – is still a rare, privately funded exception, more typical are the dozens of historical films for domestic consumption that state-run Kazakhfilm has churned out since independence in 1991. (more…)

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Seymur Alizadeh patrols the BTC pipeline near the village of Duzdag, Azerbaijan. (Photo: Yigal Schleifer)

Seymur Alizadeh patrols the BTC pipeline near the village of Duzdag, Azerbaijan. (Photo: Yigal Schleifer)

The $100 million effort stretches across 450 towns and is part of a growing push for corporate social responsibility. 

 

By Michael J. Jordan and Yigal Schleifer |

Correspondents of The Christian Science Monitor

from the March 12, 2008 edition

 

DUZDAG, AZERBAIJAN – Six days a week, Seymur Alizadeh and his chestnut-brown mare patrol the Azerbaijani countryside. Buried a few feet below is the prized Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) oil pipeline, which delivers nearly 1 million barrels of Caspian Sea crude to Western markets each day.

 

Mr. Alizadeh, one of many local villagers guarding the oil route, says, “I feel like a very important part in protecting this pipeline.” Hiring local horsemen is part of a larger effort by pipeline builder BP to create a massive neighborhood watch.

 

BP and other energy companies are under scrutiny for their relations with local communities worldwide for the cost, disruption, and even bloodshed their lucrative pipelines are responsible for. So in recent years they’ve honed a new formula: invest heavily in the affected communities and try to foster goodwill, neutralize controversy, and hopefully safeguard their multibillion-dollar investments.

 

“They have the spotlight on them to do something good in the societies in which they operate, and with the Internet communication revolution, you can very easily publicize something about them from any corner of the globe if they do not behave appropriately,” says Lars Gulbrandsen, a Norwegian researcher who has studied corporate social responsibility (CSR) in Azerbaijan and elsewhere. (more…)

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The capture of nuclear materials in Slovakia last week raises security questions about borderless travel.

 

By Michael J. Jordan |

Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

from the December 4, 2007 edition

 

BRATISLAVA, SLOVAKIA – The capture of over a pound of powderized uranium in Slovakia last week has served as a sharp reminder to Europe, though nuclear experts have cast doubt on the assertion by local law-enforcement officials that terrorists could have used it for a “dirty bomb.”

 

The incident comes just weeks before Slovakia, Hungary, and seven other recent European Union inductees – some of which are former Soviet states – join the passport-free Schengen zone on Dec. 21.

 

As the EU’s borderless travel area expands, the arrest has brought renewed attention to unsecured nuclear material from former Soviet states.

 

“We seem to be immune to understanding that this is worrisome, [saying] ‘Oh well, it’s not enough for a nuclear weapon, or radioactive enough for a dirty bomb,’” says Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Washington.

 

“Enriched uranium at any level is a worry; even if low-enriched uranium, it should be a wake-up call of the danger that someone who might be covertly enriching to make a bomb’s worth of highly enriched uranium could get a hold of this as fresh feed to accelerate their enrichment efforts.”

(more…)

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The International Atomic Energy Agency complains that US and other nations are not contributing as promised. 

 

By Michael J. Jordan |

Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

from the June 22, 2007 edition

BRATISLAVA, SLOVAKIA — The world’s leading nuclear watchdog warned this week that it’s not getting the money to do its job.

 

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), given the task of monitoring the nuclear ambitions of Iran, North Korea, and others, has also been taxed of late by the so-called “nuclear renaissance.” As countries renew the push for nuclear energy, they expect the IAEA to help safeguard new power plants.

 

In a letter sent to the 144 IAEA member-states after budget negotiations stalled last week, director-general Mohammed ElBaradei wrote, “You could finance a less effective agency and we will tell you what that would mean – less than credible verification assurance, less than the best safety advice, a less than perfect security function.”

 

Yet, though the major powers voice fears of nuclear terrorism and nuclear accidents, financial support for the IAEA doesn’t necessarily follow, says Vitaly Fedchenko, a researcher with the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute in Sweden.

 

“There’s an expression in English: Put your money where your mouth is,” says Mr. Fedchenko. “If you’re saying the IAEA is important, OK, but do you really mean that by contributing to the agency? Arranging your spending priorities in a certain way is a political statement in itself.” (more…)

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By Michael J. Jordan |

Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

from the May 15, 2007 edition

 

BRATISLAVA, SLOVAKIA – Two years ago this week, Uzbekistan’s security forces opened fire on antigovernment demonstrators in the city of Andijan, killing 187 people. That’s the official number. The actual figure was likely hundreds more, say most observers.

 

With the anniversary of the “Andijan massacre,” one would expect Western journalists to flood into this ex-Soviet republic. They would be expected to write stories about how a predominantly Muslim nation in Central Asia that Washington had enlisted in its “War on Terror” had since clamped down on dissent.

 

They would likely note that Freedom House, the pro-democracy watchdog based in Washington, now ranks Uzbekistan as among “the worst of the worst” abusers of human rights and civil liberties in the world.

 

Instead, Uzbek President Islam Karimov has effectively gagged the media. Besides persecuting independent local journalists and blocking critical news websites, Tashkent has barred entry to most foreign correspondents.

 

“It’s easily explained: [Mr.] Karimov doesn’t want any foreign witness to what’s going on,” says Elsa Vidal, head of the Europe desk for the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders.

 

Yet, Uzbeks are puzzled – and upset – by this lack of foreign coverage. Revealing the depth of their isolation, one Uzbek journalist asked me at a recent videoconference to mark World Press Freedom Day, “Why are no foreign journalists in Uzbekistan? Not interested?” (more…)

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Lithuania: Daiva Malinauskiene, by a language trolley in Vilnius, got the idea after a trip to Spain five years ago, where she couldn’t communicate. (Photo: mjj)

Lithuania: Daiva Malinauskiene, by a language trolley in Vilnius, got the idea after a trip to Spain five years ago, where she couldn’t communicate. (Photo: mjj)

The ‘Learning by Moving’ project helps EU citizens learn the languages of their neighbors.

By Michael J. Jordan |

Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

from the May 9, 2007 edition

 

On a visit to southern Spain five years ago, Lithuanian Daiva Malinauskiene encountered a typical traveler’s problem: no one could give her directions in a language she understood.

 

But rather than pass it off as an inevitable annoyance of travel within the European Union (EU), which has 23 official languages and 60 indigenous ones, she devised an unusual solution when she returned to Lithuania: the Learning by Moving project.

 

Today, on commuter-packed trolleys in the capital, Vilnius, the PA systems crackle with impromptu language lessons. “Is the post office far from here?” a voice asks cheerily, first in Lithuanian, then in English and Polish.

 

Passenger Ana Zagun spies the saddle slung over a plexiglass partition, pulls a brochure from its pocket, and follow along. “We’re in Europe now, so we must learn English,” says Ms. Zagun, who speaks Lithuanian, Polish, and Russian.

 

Launched last fall in this ex-Soviet republic, the project has since expanded to five other EU countries: Germany, Italy, Poland, Romania, and Malta. It’s one prong of a broader policy to promote multilingualism, as the 27-member Union struggles to cultivate a sense of “Europeanness” while respecting unique identities. (more…)

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A Lithuanian law serves as a litmus test for what punishments Europe will tolerate against former collaborators.

 

By Michael J. Jordan |

Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

from the May 1, 2007 edition

 

VILNIUS, LITHUANIAWhen Kestutis Dziautas enrolled in Moscow’s KGB college in 1985, he wasn’t aware, he says, of the Soviet secret police’s role in executing and imprisoning hundreds of thousands of fellow Lithuanians decades earlier. Likewise, he says, he didn’t know that KGB agents were still the feared foot soldiers of a ruthless regime.

 

But neither his claim of naiveté, nor the fact that he spent only four months working for the KGB before the fall of communism, was enough to spare him: A 1999 law aimed at punishing and rooting out ex-KGB operatives like Mr. Dziautas banned them from a wide range of public- and private-sector jobs for 10 years.

 

So Dziautas and three comrades took their case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg – and won. In 2004 and 2005 verdicts, the court declared Lithuania’s “KGB Act” a violation of the European Convention of Human Rights, specifically the right to work.

 

“I didn’t kill anyone, I didn’t deport anyone, I didn’t commit genocide. I felt like a rabbit upon which they were experimenting, making an example out of me,” says Dziautas, who says he was relegated to fishing and picking mushrooms.

 

Now, Lithuania is under mounting pressure from the Council of Europe to amend its law or face sanctions when the Council’s Committee of Ministers reconvenes in October. The Lithuanian parliament is leery of how the issue, debated again in early April without resolution, may tarnish the reputation of one of the EU’s newer members.

 

Cases like Dziautas’s highlight the struggle Lithuania and others in Central and Eastern Europe face, years into the postcommunist transition: if and how to punish those who persecuted on behalf of a cruel dictatorship and how to make peace with the past and move forward. (more…)

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HIGH-TECH: Deimante Doksaite (l.) and Edita Pundziute (r.) update Lietuviams.com, a website they created to keep Lithuanian migrants connected to home. (Photo: mjj)

HIGH-TECH: Deimante Doksaite (l.) and Edita Pundziute (r.) update Lietuviams.com, a website they created to keep Lithuanian migrants connected to home. (Photo: mjj)

Eastern Europe wants them back.

 

By Michael J. Jordan |

Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

from the January 10, 2007 edition

 

VILNIUS, LITHUANIAMuch ado was made in Paris several years ago about the symbolic “Polish plumber” who was coming to steal jobs from les français. Now, it’s Eastern Europeans who are lamenting the loss of not only plumbers, but all service workers.

 

“If you want some repairs in your apartment, you can’t find anyone,” says Rita Stankeviciute, a sportswriter in Vilnius, Lithuania’s capital. “It’s ridiculous. Lines in the grocery stores are longer. When I used to need a taxi, it was always three minutes. Now it’s ‘In an hour.’”

 

As Western Europeans fret about a new wave of Eastern Europeans flooding their countries – this time from Romania and Bulgaria, the EU’s newest members – those nations have an opposite concern: how to bring those immigrants home.

 

For a small country like Lithuania, with a low birthrate but high rates of immigration, alcoholism, and suicide, the situation is particularly urgent. The former communist nation of 4 million has seen at least 400,000 people migrate west, whether to work construction in Dublin, pick strawberries in southern Spain, or conduct research in Scandinavia.

  

“We must invite them back,” says Zilvinas Beliauskas, director of the government- supported Returning Lithuanian Information Center. “We should consider them an integral part of the nation.”

(more…)

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