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Archive for the ‘Bulgaria’ Category

MASERU, Lesotho – I’ve fallen for Lesotho, that part is obvious. But you know what a miserable day looks like around here?

It’s the last Friday of the month: payday in a country of 2 million where an estimated 40 percent live beneath the international poverty line. It’s also raining meerkats and jackals upon a drought-struck land where a survivalist mountain tribe – the Sesotho-speaking Basotho – claim as a national mantra, “Khotso, Pula, Nala.” A simple request for Peace, Rain, Prosperity.

Today, at least they’re getting the rain. But it’s so torrential, I’m sure some misfortunate families are eyewitness to their precious maize crops – the thrice-a-day staple of their diet – slowly washing away. (The World Food Program is already here, helping to feed tens of thousands of families.)

I just rolled into the Pioneer Mall – just about the only place in Maseru where you can seek refuge from the rain with hot coffee or tea. And a modicum of atmosphere. Yet there’s an enormous line of working stiffs, stretched out to the middle atrium, nice and orderly. They’re wet. And unlike their jolly selves.

These are the Basotho proletariat, waiting their turn to withdraw from the ATM. But this line seems much longer than normal. As I motor past, on my way to the loo, I ask the security guard what’s up. He produces one of those irresistible Basotho smiles, and without a trace of sympathy, declares, “The machine just ran out of money!”

So these poor shlubs sense no other alternative than to just stand there – for who knows how long. Now that is a lousy day.

(As I sit here, relaxed, sipping my hot espresso…)

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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.

(more…)

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[The following post appeared May 10, 2011, on The Mantle. The post was republished May 11 on Roma Transitions.]

BRATISLAVA – The Romani people are Europe’s largest minority – and also its most marginalized. Much is written about their persecution, both historic and contemporary, especially in Central Europe today. Yet Jud Nirenberg trammels new terrain, as editor of the newly published book, “Gypsy Sexuality: Romani and Outsider Perspectives on Intimacy.” (I was delighted to contribute two chapters: one on the lack of sex education among Bulgarian Roma; the other, early-teen marriage among Kalderash Roma in Romania.)

Via email, I interviewed Nirenberg, 39, who managed to produce this book while also working as associate director of the U.S. Association for UNHCR, the UN refugee agency.

MJ: How did you first become interested in Roma issues?

JN: I’m an American of mixed Romani and Jewish descent, grew up in Massachusetts and had a fairly assimilated childhood, which isn’t really the norm for Romani Americans. There are, of course, Americans whose parents were Romani immigrants from Europe and whose lives resemble any other first-generation Americans. A lot of Roma came in the 50s from Hungary, for example. But there is a larger community of Romani Americans who are more often the subject of writing (and who are the focus of one part of this book), whose families came a long time ago and yet who live very much apart from mainstream America.

(more…)

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[Below is the blurb of a book to which I contributed two chapters. The first on the lack of sex education among Bulgarian Roma; the second about early-teen marriage among Kalderash Roma in Romania. This book may be purchased from Amazon.]

Gypsy Sexuality: Romani and Outsider Perspectives on Intimacy

Editor: Jud Nirenberg

Authors: Anne Marie Codur, Carol Miller, Jud Nirenberg, Claude Cahn, Maria Serban-Temisan, Bill Bila, Michael J. Jordan, Fernanda Amaral, Istvan Forgacs et al

Roma (Gypsy) communities are not all the same. Everywhere, however, Roma are the objects of some mixture of distrust and exoticism. This collection of essays offers rare and candid voices of Roma and non-Roma women and men on sexuality, gender and inter-racial relations. The collection explores the myths about the romantic and alluring Gypsies and some of the most controversial realities. From teen marriage to prostitution to some governments’ coercive sterilization of Romani women and with memoirs covering topics from inter-ethnic love affairs to rape, Gypsy Sexuality collects the words of poor Roma in slums alongside the writing of the community’s political and women’s rights leaders.  The reader will never think about Gypsies the same way.

Available now on Kindle. Coming in paperback in April 2011 to Amazon and selected independent booksellers in Europe and the United States.

“One needs to read this attentively…This book shows the reality of Romani life…I believe that more books like this are needed.”

Asmet Elezovski, Secretary General, European Roma and Travelers’ Forum

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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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[This piece appeared in the Fall 2010 issue of Harvard's Nieman Reports.]

Press releases and broadcast-ready video substitute for European Union coverage, as news organizations cut back on staff reporters in Brussels.

By Michael J. Jordan

Irina Novakova

At the age of 28, Irina Novakova holds a lofty perch in Bulgarian journalism, covering Brussels as European Union (EU) correspondent for both the most serious newspaper and weekly magazine in Bulgaria. She is prominent among the pack of correspondents from ex-Communist Eastern Europe who try to explain the often bewildering EU to its newly democratic members.

The watchdog role of the press resides at the core of any healthy democracy. For countries that have little or no tradition of democracy, as in Central and Eastern Europe, the absence of the journalist in the broad mix of policy discussions is a troubling trend. Nevertheless, she’s anxious. The economic crisis is roiling the region’s media. Finances are so bad for her paper in Sofia, the Bulgarian capital, that management hit the staff with pay cuts.

In Brussels, meanwhile, recent EU member Lithuania is already down to zero correspondents. The last Latvian fends for survival, and a Hungarian correspondent tells Novakova how his country’s sagging interest in EU affairs may force him to freelance, moonlighting in public relations. A veteran Serbian correspondent whose postwar nation aspires to join the EU laments he might need to leave because no client in Belgrade can afford to pay him to report from there. Novakova has attended several farewell parties where the correspondent departs without being replaced.

This trend, though, is not limited to Eastern Europe. The EU press corps itself is dwindling: According to the International Press Association (IPA) in Brussels, the number of accredited reporters has shrunk from some 1,300 in 2005 to 964 in 2009. What’s happening in Brussels is part of the same storm system battering the journalism industry globally. The pressure is not only financial. EU agencies are embracing multimedia and using the Internet to deliver messages directly to constituents in what we might consider political spin-doctoring in real time. Back home, some editors think that European affairs, like so many other stories today, can be covered cheaply and easily from the newsroom via the Internet and telephone. Why keep a correspondent in pricey Brussels?

Novakova describes the “sense of gloom” that permeates the press corps. “I wouldn’t call it a crisis or panic but when you talk to colleagues over a beer, they say, ‘What can you do, these are the times we live in?’ ” she says. “There’s a lot of dark humor.” (more…)

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[This piece appeared July 6 in TOL.]

Adolescent mothers and bleak lives are the toll of one Bulgarian Romani community’s taboo against sex education.

by Michael J. Jordan and Ognyan Isaev

Daniela Metodieva, in her mahala. (Photo: mjj)

SHUMEN, Bulgaria | In this small Bulgarian city, the Roma mostly keep to their own quarter, known locally as the mahala. Among women in the neighborhood, many married in their mid-teens and bore their first child within a year. Then came several more children in quick succession.

Daniela Metodieva, though, says she bucked expectations. She held off on marriage until 17, then gave birth to a girl the next year. She stopped there, at one child.

She’s exceptional in other ways as well: while raising her daughter, now 17, Metodieva waitresses in a bar. Other women in the mahala are either unemployed or sweep the streets of downtown Shumen.

Metodieva wants better things for her daughter, but worries the teen will follow in her footsteps. “I’m only 35 – I don’t want to be a grandmother yet,” says Metodieva, who’s standing, arms folded, in the middle of the road. Her neighbors gather around, listening in curiously.

“Some guy may lie to my daughter,” Metodieva continues. “She may get married and have her own family soon. But what will she understand about life? … For sure, if I could turn back the clock, I wouldn’t marry so young. It’s only when you’re older that you see what life is really like.”

Metodieva and other Bulgarian Roma say the community needs a dose of sex education, to fully grasp the consequences of teen pregnancy. They partly blame the state, which doesn’t mandate the subject in the school curriculum. Romani parents then amplify the silence: sex is as taboo a topic as there is.

As a result, the community doesn’t connect the dots of how teen pregnancy perpetuates the cycle of poverty. (more…)

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(This post appeared April 9 on The Mantle.)

BRATISLAVA – It’s always nice to hear what a colleague’s up to nowadays.

However, I was both pleased and troubled to recently find one featured in The New York Times, as the “curtain-raising” anecdote of an unhealthy trend emanating from Brussels.

Ina Strazdina is the Last of the Latvian Mohicans – her country’s only remaining correspondent in Brussels, covering the European Union. Heck, fellow Baltic state Lithuania has no journalist left to watch-dog the European body, which both of the ex-Soviet republics enthusiastically joined in 2004.

Times have grown so tough for much of Eastern Europe’s media, dramatic cutbacks almost forced Ina herself to walk the plank in 2008. I’d met her in Prague in January 2007, when she participated in a foreign-correspondence training course that I help lead every six months.

The next year, with Ina stationed in pricey Brussels, Latvian Radio cut her salary by two-thirds, from 2,000 to 700 euros per month – barely enough to pay her rent. So she dug into her nest egg and plugged along, landing freelance gigs with Latvian Television and a leading daily newspaper.

“I had to make a decision,” Ina, 34, told The Times. “I decided that it is easy to destroy things but very difficult to build them up again. Maybe it was an altruistic decision, but I decided I can stay here for another year and try to work.” Her efforts were appreciated: Latvia last year named her its “European Person of the Year.”

Now, I’ve reported from this part of the world for 16 years, so I grasp the financial constraints that hamper media outlets region-wide. Also, how the meager monthly wages of most journalists tempt them to cut corners, accept “freebies” with implicit strings attached, or moonlight on the side in PR.

But the steady exodus from Brussels is more than economic, and more than simply part of the broader trend affecting foreign-news coverage around the world. Just as troubling is how the EU machinery has responded to – and further fuels – this departure.

Then there are the consequences for Eastern Europe itself. (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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BRATISLAVA — At last, Bulgaria seems to be doing something about its notorious corruption problem, a necessary step to appease the European Union and keep billions of aid flowing into the Balkan country.

On Thursday, Bulgaria – the EU’s poorest and most corrupt member – scored its first high-profile conviction of a government official, an ex-agriculture honcho sentenced to four years in prison for allegedly stealing millions of EU funds.

I’m sure ordinary Bulgarians are delighted. Many have told me how angry and embarrassed they are about Bulgaria’s image, and how they despair that anything will ever change.

In late 2008, I explored Bulgaria’s endemic graft in a series of articles for the Christian Science Monitor, highlighting how particularly widespread it is in agriculture and road construction.

As I wrote then, Brussels was fed up with Sofia’s empty promises to crack down on “a smorgasbord of sleaze, including alleged vote-buying … shady financing of political parties, money laundering, and the failure to seize financial assets of purported gangsters. The final straw was an investigation of 35 EU-funded projects in Bulgaria – it found financial irregularities in all but one.”

What made this situation unique was Bulgaria had already been admitted to the EU in early 2007, raising the question: Once a country is in the club, how to react when a new member behaves badly? Worried about how aspiring members might view inaction, Brussels made an example out of Sofia, smacking it with an unprecedented punishment: $315 million in aid was withdrawn.

Bulgaria’s attitude shifted with last July’s election of Prime Minister Boyko Borisov, a former bodyguard and karate coach who vowed to get tough on corruption. Brussels has wanted Bulgarian authorities to send a message throughout society that lawlessness won’t be tolerated, and will continue to push for more “results,” one analyst in the capital tells me.

“Brussels knows Sofia cannot do this quick and will probably muddle through, but wants to at least see some progress,” says Ruslan Stefanov, of the Center for Study of Democracy. “Brussels trusts Sofia is serious this time.”

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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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