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Posts Tagged ‘Minorities’

[This piece appeared Sept. 2 on TOL's Roma Blogs.]

The Slovak flag at half-mast today on a Bratislava street. (Photo: mjj)

BRATISLAVA – In April 1999, when two American teens mowed down 12 classmates and a teacher at Columbine High School, it was a watershed moment for the country. It spawned all sorts of soul-searching and debate, on everything from gun-control laws and teen bullying to vicious video games and use of anti-depressants. It also inspired Michael Moore’s Oscar-winning documentary on gun violence in the U.S.

In other words, a healthy response to trauma may be to look in the mirror and ask: “Does this say something about our society? Does it say something about us? Does it say something about me?”

Yet most Slovaks, it seems, want no such introspection.

Bratislava was the scene Monday of the worst massacre in Slovakia’s 17-year history, in which a lone gunman killed seven people, including six members of the same family, and injured another 15. In a flash, tiny Slovakia made global headlines. Yet the bigger story here for me – journalistically speaking – is not the bloodbath itself, but overall reaction to it: blame the victim.

You see, the family hailed from the Roma minority – a.k.a. the reviled “Gypsies.” And from the look of media reports, the thinking is that this Roma family must’ve done something to push their 48-year-old neighbor, described as moody loner Ľubomír Harman, over the edge into a murderous frenzy. (more…)

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Embodiment of Mitteleuropa: strudel stuffed with sweet poppy seeds and sour cherries. (Photo: mjj)

HAINBURG, Austria – Lounging by the pool in this medieval Austrian town, overlooked by 17th century castle ruins on a hilltop nearby, you can enjoy a schnitzel, a schnapps or an eiskaffee mit schlag. But listen closely, and virtually all you hear on the blankets of fellow sun-bathers is the Slovak language. (Indeed, a sign jammed in the grass helpfully reminds guests, in both German and Slovak, to please urinate in the WC, not on the lawn.) After all, the Hainburg schwimm-ing pool is just a stone’s throw from the Slovak border.

The pattern repeats throughout our corner of Central Europe. Lake Balaton – the beloved “Hungarian Sea” – sees a sizable sprinkle of Austrian, Slovak, Czech and German license plates. The Hungarian thermal baths in Mosonmagyarovar, along Slovakia’s border, lure loads of Slovaks and Austrians. The nearest Alpine ski slopes in Austria, in Semmering, are a favorite among Czechs, Slovaks and Hungarians.

Ninety years after World War I broke up the old Habsburg Empire, and two decades after the collapse of Cold War divisions of the continent between “East” and “West,” there are subtle signs that the old notion of “Mitteleuropa” – the common culture of Middle Europe – is gradually re-emerging. Some dispute if that is actually reviving regional identity, as my colleague Colin Woodard explored last year for the Christian Science Monitor.

Yet from my vantage point in the Slovak capital, Bratislava – at the confluence of Slovakia, Hungary, Austria and Czech Republic – Mitteleuropa is more than a nostalgic state of mind. (more…)

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Banner imagery that needs no translation. (Photo courtesy of Liza Slay.)

BRATISLAVA – Reverberations continued this week after Slovakia’s first-ever rally for gay pride, which was disrupted by neo-Nazis and cut short for fear Slovak police wouldn’t do enough to prevent violence.

Two ways to read the May 22 “Rainbow Rally”: 1) one more barometer of Slovak democracy, a step forward in that the event was allowed, as hundreds of Slovaks and Westerners gathered in support; 2) dismay at how it unfolded.

Catholic, conservative Slovakia is said to be the last of the ex-Communist-turned-European-Union members to host such an event. Yet no sooner did speakers take the stage in a central square than witnesses say they saw bomber-jacketed skinheads drop tear-gas canisters among the crowd.

Other demonstrators interrupted with cries of “perverts” and “deviants.”

“We haven’t come here to condemn homosexuals, but to say that homosexuality is a clear sin, and if these people continue committing it they’ll face eternal damnation,” said Jozef Dupkala, president of the Association for Protection of the Family, according to the English-language Slovak Spectator.

Even Western diplomats, who earlier expressed support for the rally, told the Spectator they felt uneasy about the “thugs” milling about, amid passive police. Rally organizers, citing reports that scores of skinheads might be lining the streets beyond, cancelled the parade that was to follow.

Slovak riot police said they detained 28 extremists, but activists smoldered this week after a pair of un-sympathetic comments from top government officials: one said organizers should have hired themselves private security, while a second reportedly called for mutual respect from “both sides.”

“As if it were not outrageous enough that a top state representative in the area of human rights and minorities failed to move at his own initiative to defend the event, he is now calling for tolerance toward violent neo-Nazi groups,” said rally spokeswoman Romana Schlesinger. (more…)

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Inciting hatred via campaign billboard. (Credit: TASR)

[This post appeared May 25 on TOL's "Roma Blog"]

BRATISLAVA – It started out this morning as a café breakfast with the press, for the European Roma Rights Center to introduce its range of litigation, advocacy and research to the handful of Slovak media even interested in Roma issues.

The chat, though, led inexorably to the role these reporters themselves – and especially, their less-empathetic colleagues – play in shaping harsh Slovak attitudes toward Roma, a.k.a. “the Gypsies.” For me, it also revealed the need here for what some call “human rights-based journalism.”

One reporter opened eyes with his calculation that of the 15 journalists in his office, “thirteen are racist.” Another admitted, “We live in a racist world, and my company is absolutely racist.”

This is no surprise to anyone living in Eastern Europe, where you’re hard-pressed to find any minority on the entire continent more harassed than the estimated 8 million to 12 million Roma.

Yet this is relevant today in Slovakia, on the eve of June 12 elections. Following in the footsteps of neighboring Hungary and its elections last month, the Roma question is once again an irresistible platform for parties pandering to a public ready to scapegoat minorities for their frustrations with the whole post-Communist transition. And oh, by the way, both countries are now members of the European Union — an exclusive club of European democracies.

Several Slovak parties, for example, are advocating the “voluntary” placement of Roma schoolchildren into new boarding schools – which smacks some as ethnic segregation.

More notoriously, the ruling coalition’s far-right partner, the Slovak National Party, produced billboards featuring a bare-chested, obviously Romani man, heavily tattooed and gold chain draped around his neck. Beneath, the slogan: “So that we don’t feed those who don’t want to work.” (It’s since been revealed that the photo was, in face, digitally altered for dramatic effect.)

Defending the billboard, one SNP official creatively – but unconvincingly – accused critics of being the real racists: after all, they were the ones who assumed the man was a Gypsy. (more…)

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[The following appeared May 22 in The Mantle.]

BRATISLAVA – Slovakia, like its neighbors in Central Europe, has one of the tiniest percentages of Muslims in the European Union: an estimated 5,000 in a population of 5.4 million.

Yet that doesn’t mean off-the-beaten-path Slovakia isn’t worried by trends across the Western half of the continent.

It sees France, which this month moved a step closer to banning the full-faced veil; Belgium, which last month did the same; Sweden, still besieged over a cartoon of Mohammad; and Switzerland, which barred minarets six months ago and has one canton trying to forbid the full-body burqa.

Slovakia wants no part of that.

The state has effectively capped its Muslim community with a combination of legalistic and bureaucratic hurdles: tight rules in immigration, asylum and residency. The community, meanwhile, says authorities in the capital, Bratislava, have for years blocked it from building the country’s first mosque.

It’s not just that post-Communist Slovakia has enough of its own troubles, from economic crisis to inter-ethnic tensions with its two largest minorities. And it’s not necessarily anti-Muslim sentiment, though the post-9/11 era has surely injected a dose of Islamophobia into this deeply Catholic nation.

Mohamad Safwan Hasna has one hunch why. The Syrian-born head of The Islamic Foundation of Slovakia has lived here for 20 years, speaks fluent Slovak, and married a local Muslim convert.

“I have to be diplomatic,” Hasna says with a smile. “The Slovaks are conservative. They’re not interested in others. They don’t feel the need to learn about other cultures. It’s something about the mentality. But the youth are more open-minded and curious.”

Hasna is speaking to me after he sat on a panel discussion about the meaning of religious symbols. (Like the rare head scarf spotted on a Muslim woman in Bratislava.) The chat is part of a broader series of events, “The Week of New Minorities,” organized by a local human-rights group, the Milan Simecka Foundation. Simecka’s Laco Oravec has another explanation: xenophobia.

(more…)

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BRATISLAVA – I just listened to a podcast in which a popular American sports commentator, Bill Simmons, interviewed the co-creator of “Lost,” a TV show whose fan base is so rabid, some have created websites in which they dissect and critique every plot twist.

The host and guest both seek audience feedback, and they agreed on one point: happy fans tend not to take the time to comment. Instead, it’s typically the “loud minority” that does. (As opposed to Nixon’s “silent majority.”)

Of course, there’s no way to prove how representative any comments section is. Which raises the question: do their often angry voices add any value at all?

This strikes a chord, as my Hungarian wife translated for me a batch of reader comments to my May 7 commentary in the major Budapest daily, Népszabadság. (See post below.)

I knew it would raise hackles: it was about the escalating incitement of hatred against the Hungarian Roma and Jewish minorities, and why I doubt the new government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban will reverse this trend.

The very first of the 203 “komments” caught my eye: a super-sleuth pasted a link to my bio that appeared in a Jewish newspaper in Los Angeles. The message: “Ah-ha, a closeted Jew! Only a Jew would criticize us.”

OK, maybe I read too much into this, but I know the machinations of some Hungarians. (For more of the flavor, I also accepted onto my blog a May 5 comment from Hungary, which creatively called me the “idiot son of an asshole.” He nailed us both, Pops!)

Many of the remaining comments were negative as well, yet I pestered my wife to translate them. Sure, I can be as thin-skinned as any journalist, but I was curious to know if anyone had addressed the substance of my critique, on Hungarian hatred. Many, in fact, did not. (more…)

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(This post appears on my newest client, The Mantle.)

BRATISLAVA — A few years ago, I had a rare opportunity: to visit a real ghetto.

Located in eastern Slovakia, it was populated by minority Roma, known more pejoratively as “Gypsies” in Central and Eastern Europe. These Roma were booted from the downtown of a small city, shunted to its undeveloped outskirts. For me, entering their settlement was like walking into a National Geographic video. Except this wasn’t sub-Saharan Africa, or deep in the Amazon. This was the European Union.

Corrugated-metal and wood shacks. Mounds of stinking garbage. Leaking pipes that kept the place a muddy swamp. Hordes of disheveled (but playful) kids, dressed in rags.

“This, too, is Europe,” I muttered to myself.

I was reminded of that visit in recent days, following the troubling news about Slovakia and its half-million Roma. Last month, my Budapest colleague, Adam LeBor, reported for the Times of London about a new wall that separates Roma from Slovaks in the village of Ostrovany. Built by local authorities, with government funds.

Then, on March 8, Prime Minister Robert Fico floated the idea of taking Roma children from their homes – with parental consent, of course – and sending them to specially created boarding schools.

Slovakia is hardly the only ex-Communist country with a Roma problem. I’ve written about an anti-Roma climate in the Czech Republic so bad that scores have sought asylum in Canada, and a resurgent far-right in Hungary, including a uniformed militia, that rails against “Gypsy criminality.” (Coincidentally, a half-dozen Hungarian Roma have been killed in recent years.)

(more…)

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BRATISLAVA – Following up on the post above, whenever the topic comes up among Slovaks in Bratislava, I do indeed acknowledge that I speak a pretty decent Hungarian. The non-reaction I get provides a clue to how much of the inter-ethnic tensions are manufactured at the political level.

Slovaks I meet recognize immediately there must be a unique relationship between me and their historic nemesis, the Hungarians. Not that they themselves feel it. But even today, as fellow members of the European Union, the far right in both countries win votes by inciting hatred among ordinary folk.

Hostilities have smoldered since the Communist system collapsed twenty years ago: between the Slovaks and their large ethnic-Hungarian minority, and across the Danube, between Slovakia and Hungary themselves. As I’ve now lived in both countries, I grasp both narratives.

With the lifting of censorship, new nationalists reignited a historic grievance by the Slovaks: we toiled as peasants, while the Magyar overlords cracked the whip. One of the current government’s coalition partners, the Slovak National Party, scores points by stoking such resentment.

In Hungary, though, pain festers from a 90-year-old wound: the Treaty of Trianon. It punished Hungary by severing chunks of present-day Slovakia, northwest Romania, northern Serbia and even bits of Croatia, Slovenia and Austria. On Hungarian roads today, you will often come across bumper stickers that proclaim the much-larger map of “Greater Hungary” … that is, pre-Trianon.

Such imagery may seem innocent, but it sparked fears of inter-ethnic clashes back in the 1990s, during the reign of Slobodan Milosevic and his bloody drive toward “Greater Serbia.” (more…)

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Tradition meets modernity at a Naxi wedding in Lijiang. (Photo: mjj)

In mid-December 2009, for one last memorable week in China, I travelled solo to one of the most fascinating corners of this vast country. My friend and colleague, Robin, sold me on Yunnan province with three compelling details: curious ethnic tribes (and their embroideries!), the preserved ancient cities of Lijiang and Dali, and a short but intense trek through Tiger Leaping Gorge.

Sure it was just one week, but I made the most of it — as you’ll see in the photo essay that I’ll soon post here. Please check back soon!

A Bai woman cultivates lakeside crops in a village outside Dali. (Photo: mjj)

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durbanlogo1

 

 

A crash course in eight years of the Durban process. 

 

BRATISLAVA – It’s rare for me to have covered a single story over many years, but “Durban” is one such story.

 

In 2001 I traveled to that South African city for the original U.N. event, the ambitiously titled “World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance.” Eight years later, I attended the follow-up “Durban Review Conference,” held in Geneva from April 20-24.

 

That’s why I devoted a special section to Durban. Like any major international issue, this one demands a grasp of the background and context, the origins and evolution. So I’ve posted links here to all the Durban-related articles I’ve written since 2001. (more…)

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Koran teacher Adilkhan Serikbay says Kazakhs want no trouble with Jews or any other of Kazakhstan's many ethnic and religious groups. (Photo: mjj)

Koran teacher Adilkhan Serikbay says Kazakhs want no trouble with Jews or any other of Kazakhstan's many ethnic and religious groups. (Photo: mjj)

By Michael J. Jordan · December 18, 2008

 

ASTANA, KAZAKHSTAN (JTA) — Seventy-five years ago, the once-nomadic Kazakhs endured a famine, purportedly orchestrated by Moscow, in which some 1 million people starved to death.

 

Not long after, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin created a network of prison camps in Kazakhstan that in the late 1930s became the southern flank of his notorious Gulag, sucking in countless Kazakhs, Jews and myriad other ethnic groups.

 

Then, during the Holocaust, thousands of Jews from places such as Ukraine and Belarus were evacuated ahead of the onrushing Nazis eastward to the vast, sparsely populated steppes of Kazakhstan. The local Kazakhs mustered the hospitality to greet them with milk and bread.

 

“That which united our grandmothers and grandfathers makes us closer today,” says Jewish activist Valentina Kuznetsova, who lives in Karaganda, the country’s third-largest city.

(more…)

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Dina Itkina, director of the Jewish community center in Astana. (Photo: mjj)

Dina Itkina, director of the Jewish community center in Astana. (Photo: mjj)

By Michael J. Jordan · December 18, 2008

 

ASTANA, KAZAKHSTAN (JTA) — For Dina Itkina, the number of times she has trekked hundreds of miles for a Jewish event are too many to count. But one time stands out in the mind of this young Jewish activist here — a journey to neighboring Uzbekistan.

 

Seven years ago, at the age of  17, Itkina began with a 30-hour train trip from her hometown, Kokchetav, south across the plains to Kazakhstan’s largest city, Almaty. There she met two dozen other young Jewish leaders from around the country,  including a pair who had spent more than two days aboard a train from the western Caspian Sea coast. Together they piled into another train for the 12-hour overnighter to the southern city of Shymkent. Then came a one-hour bus trip to the border, an hour walk across the border and another hour ride to Tashkent, the Uzbek capital.

 

After three days of conference, there was the grueling return home.

 

“And nobody cried,” says a laughing Itkina, now 24 and director of the Jewish community center in this capital city. “You have to live here to feel the distances. But this event was a new experience, new emotions, new friends. And a lot of fun.”

 

It’s not only Jewish youth who are immersed in Kazakhstan’s culture of overnight train travel, tolerating odysseys that might deter all but the hardiest Westerners. This is the way of life in Kazakhstan, a country comparable in size to Western Europe, four times the size of Texas. Its population of 15 million is clustered across vast, mostly empty swaths of inhospitable desert and prairie known as steppes.

(more…)

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[This piece appeared March 21, 2008, in Transitions Online.]

 

A Hungarian far-right party spins off a contingent of uniformed marchers and takes aim at “Gypsy criminality.”

 

by Michael J. Jordan

 

BUDAPEST, HUNGARY | Tamas Gyimesi has a style all his own, like a cross between a nightclub bouncer and Hungarian folkloric dancer.

 

 

 

Below his shaved head and gold loops that dangle from both ears, he’s wearing a striking floral, hand-woven vest over a billowing white shirt.

 

On marching days, though, Gyimesi breaks out a more ominous look. He and fellow members of the new, far-right Hungarian Guard don black boots, black caps and black vests stamped with ancient Hungarian stripes last embraced by the Nazi-allied Arrow Cross – a regime that killed tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews during the Holocaust, dumping many of them in the icy Danube.

 

Members of the Guard, which claims at least 650 adherents, say their mission is to protect Hungarians, their culture, their traditions.

 

“Here, all the minorities have rights, but unfortunately, I don’t have rights,” Gyimesi explains from the outset. “We’re becoming a minority in our own country.” (more…)

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Governments and many Roma alike are reluctant to gather accurate information on Europe’s largest minority, but activists say a lack of data blocks progress.

 

By Michael J. Jordan

 

5 March 2008, Transitions Online/TOL

BRATISLAVA | Andrey Ivanov knows all about the Roma plight, as a former activist who ran a micro-lending program for Bulgarian Roma in the 1990s.

 

He saw then how difficult it was for both government agencies and non-governmental organizations to create truly effective policies and programs without official and reliable data on the scope of Romani poverty.

 

Today, as the human-development adviser to the U.N. Development Program regional office in Bratislava, Ivanov watches the curtain close on the third year of the vaunted Decade of Roma Inclusion. Questions loom about its prospects for success.

 

Accurate data is essential to establish benchmarks for measuring all efforts regarding Europe’s Roma, who number anywhere from 8 million to 15 million. This, observers say, also helps explain why most governments dodge the data: they shun the accountability.

 

“My favorite excuse from governments is, ‘I’m sorry, but the EU doesn’t allow us to collect data by ethnicity,’ ” says Ivanov, whose office shelves hold several files with precious ethnic data that UNDP itself has collected. “That’s not the point. The EU doesn’t forbid the collecting of data; it forbids abuse of that data – the tracking of individuals.” (more…)

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