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Archive for the ‘Eastern Europe’ Category

Mount Qiloane, symbol of the Basotho. (Photo: mjj)

MASERU, Lesotho – At the U.S. destination of “Four Corners” – where the states of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah converge – tourists bend over to be photographed with a limb in all four.

Today, I manage a global Four Corners of my own: as an American foreign correspondent, journalism teacher-trainer, and freelancing father of three striving for a simultaneous presence in southern Africa, Far East Asia, Central Europe and the U.S.

This website, which I’d dubbed From East to Eastas I oscillated between my home in post-Communist Eastern Europe and work in China — has swerved south into sub-Saharan Africa, to document a journalistic journey that includes writing from our new home in the “Mountain Kingdom” of Lesotho, teaching in Hong Kong and training in Prague.

Spliced in are my articles and photos for Foreign Policy, Christian Science Monitor, Harvard’s Nieman Reports, The Mantle and many others listed to the right. Thank you for reading! … mjj

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Nagymező utca, the “Broadway of Budapest”: one of countless spots to soak in atmosphere. (Photo: mjj)

[The following piece appeared Sept. 7, 2012, on The Mantle.]


BUDAPEST, Hungary –
I’d fallen out of love. This summer, I wanted so badly for that passion to reignite. No, I’m not referring to my marriage, but to the grand old city of Budapest.

Eight weeks later, I’m delighted to report: the embers still smolder. The elegant architecture. The vibrant café culture. The festive night life. Feels like 1997 again!

Budapest is in my blood. I’m a Hungarian-American who launched a career here as a freelance foreign correspondent, back in 1994. I enjoyed the best years of my youth in the city, from age 24 to 30. My father was born here. My wife, too. My three kids spend large doses of time here – and speak the tricky language as well as natives.

Yet the politics of the place have often mortified me, during the two decades of transition from cruel Communist dictatorship to rapacious capitalist democracy. As the atmosphere descended into one of the most noxious in all of Europe, with hatred and depression sucking up oxygen, the capital, too, grew uglier: graffiti scarred the urban landscape; so many shops, boarded and abandoned; pee-stained alcoholics crashed out on benches along once-regal, Habsburgian boulevards.

We now live in Lesotho, in the hardscrabble mountains of southern Africa. In the tiny capital, Maseru, the three or four cafes, three or four restaurants, just don’t compare to Central Europe. As a frigid winter approached, I flew my kids – more an evacuation, really – up to the summer steaminess of Hungary. They’ve spent weeks reconnecting with their grandparents along the family-friendly, fried-fish-peddling shores of Lake Balaton.

Meanwhile, I’ve flown solo in Budapest much of the time, with the luxury – during hot days and breezy nights – to mill about the old stomping grounds of my free and footloose years of early adulthood.

My conclusion: both city authorities and denizens show signs of resilience.

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[The following piece was published March 20, 2012, on The Mantle.]

MASERU, Lesotho – Last week was one filled with nostalgia and melancholy.

Li Yu survived the Wenzhou train crash. (Photo: mjj)

From my new base in Lesotho, three other adopted homes – Hungary, Slovakia and China, all dear to my heart – each resurfaced in the news with depressingly familiar story-lines. From thousands of miles away, they reminded me of past reporting – and how little changes.

First up, Slovakia, where I recently lived for five years. One of its historic, hilltop castles burns to the ground – apparently caused by two kids, 11 and 12, messing with cigarettes on a windy day. From an adjacent village, they accidentally set fire to some dry grass, whose embers floated upward, igniting the castle’s timber roof.

Poof! In minutes, a gothic, seven-century-old memento, gone.

The Slovak and Czech reaction? Gypsies! It must’ve been those damned Gypsies! More than a rush to judgment, it was a virtual blood-libel against Europe’s largest and most marginalized minority, known more respectfully as Roma. Over the years, I’ve chronicled countless times [like here, here and here] how post-Communist Central Europe always finds something to blame on the Roma. (Even if there’s no love lost in Slovakia for castles that are essentially relics of Hungarian overlordship, while Slovaks toiled as serfs.)

This fire came on the heels of public outrage over a galling corruption scandal, followed by an election that ousted the ruling coalition. If a beaten child has no recourse toward his parents, he turns to kick the dog. Especially in a region saddled by congenital resistance to introspection, which much prefers to point the finger of blame elsewhere.

Though in this case, soul-searching is well warranted, as a Slovakian art historian asserted. The brushfire threat around the castle always existed, he charged, and state authorities were negligent to protect and preserve it.

“It is forbidden to burn grass and it is certainly wrong to do so, but it is just as sick to put the blame on ‘unidentified perpetrators’ who are allegedly members of a minority in the interest of distracting attention from one’s own responsibility,” said the art-historian, Július Barczi.

Next in the news, China.

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[The following post was published Feb. 16, 2012, on The Mantle.]

MASERU, Lesotho – My Hungarian in-laws didn’t take the news well.

Hello, Basotho herders! Are you in need of journalism training? Perhaps help with your blogs? (Photo: mjj)

It was late summer when my wife informed her parents that we’d be moving far away, to the southern tip of Africa – and hauling three beloved grandchildren with us. I thought I was safe from blame: three years in Lesotho wouldn’t be due to my career, but for my wife’s job in international development.

How naive I was. They pointed an accusatory finger, regardless.

You should have been the one to dissuade her,” bemoaned my mother-in-law.

Another counter-argument emerged: But what will Michael do? I excitedly explained all the journalism teaching and training needs that would surely exist in a country afflicted with so many calamities, like the world’s third-highest HIV infection rate, or that 40 percent of the population live below the international poverty line – yet no full-fledged program to teach watchdog journalism.

In Lesotho, I envisioned an opportunity to make a difference.

“You sound like a missionary!” my father-in-law sneered.

What’s so wrong about that, I wondered.

I’m not talking about the real Christian missionaries I count among my new friends in sub-Saharan Africa (see here and here), or the “media missionaries” who purvey God’s word via various media tools.

I plan to evangelize, alright, but preaching the sort of serious, responsible journalism detailed by American journalist and media analyst Ellen Hume in her 2004 monograph, The Media Missionaries: American Support for Journalism Excellence and Press Freedom Around the Globe.

Three months into our stint in Lesotho, here I am: The Media Missionary of Maseru. And the media landscape here is even bleaker than I imagined.

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[The following Feature appeared Jan. 17, 2012, in Foreign Policy magazine. It was republished on Jan. 20 on The Mantle.]

Budapest Winter: Can anyone stop the Putinization of Hungary?

BY MICHAEL J. JORDAN |JANUARY 17, 2012

A humiliation for many Hungarians. (Photo: Reuters)

BUDAPEST/PRAGUE – With the European Union’s threat of a lawsuit against the Hungarian government for meddling with the independence of its central bank, the world is finally taking notice of Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s aggressive recent moves to consolidate power.

But for some Hungarians themselves, the gravity of what’s happening in today’s fractious Hungarian political scene was driven home on Dec. 3 by the blurred-out face of the former Supreme Court chief justice, Zoltan Lomnici.

It was one thing for Orban’s muscular center-right government to replace the upper ranks of state television and radio with its own loyalists after winning a two-thirds “supermajority” in the April 2010 parliamentary elections — seizing control of state-run media by incoming governments still remains an acceptable spoil of political warfare in post-Communist Central and Eastern Europe.

But it was another when, in a news report, Hungarian state television pixilated the face of Lomnici — a one-time Orban loyalist who had recent fallen afoul of the prime minister — to conceal his identity from viewers. And that was the final straw for Hungarian TV staffers Balazs Nagy-Navarro and Aranka Szavuly.

Navarro and Szavuly say the Lomnici pixilation proved that the minions of Orban’s party, Fidesz, have taken media combat one step further: They are willing to manipulate stories, edit tape to suit their agenda, and instruct reporters on whom to interview and whom to ignore.

To Szavuly, these tactics epitomize Fidesz’s society-wide conquest. Step by step the party has gobbled up all forms of independence, opposition, and checks-and-balances in one of the EU’s newest members — reminiscent of the “salami tactics” of the late 1940s, when Hungarian Communists gradually hacked away at enemies like slices of salami.

Although Hungary was once “the best pupil in the class” of ex-Communist states striving to join Western institutions — a model of economic dynamism and political reform — wayward Budapest has become a political thorn in the side of a European Union already reeling from Euro-induced calamity.

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One of my new Basotho friends, grilling meat roadside in Lesotho. (Photo: mjj)

MASERU, Lesotho – Surreal. It’s a shopworn term – defined as unbelievable, fantastic or incongruous – that is thrown around way too casually in the Anglophone world. By me, included.

But how else to describe my sensations this past week, as I stumbled into the next stage of my life: here in remote Lesotho, the “Kingdom in the Sky” of the Basotho people?

Just two months ago, I wrapped up 17 years as a Central Europe-based foreign correspondent. The place may be rife with cobblestones and castles, age-old hatreds and poppy-seed strudel, but the post-Communist world is also perched on the doorstep of wealthy, industrialized Europe – and hitched to the fate of the European Union.

Then I spent two months in China, mostly in the hyper-developed, hyper-kinetic and hyper-counterfeiting mega-cities of Hong Kong, Beijing and Shanghai. The Chinese seem hell-bent on proving to the planet – and to themselves – that they’re worthy of the mantle “the next global superpower.”

A mere 36 hours later, via plane, train and automobile, I arrived in Maseru, the capital of Lesotho. Courtesy of my wife’s job in international development, I find myself with our three kids, for three years, in one of the world’s poorest, least-developed, and worst-HIV-ridden countries.

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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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[This article appeared Sept. 15, 2011, on Transitions Online in Prague. It was republished Sept. 16 on Roma Transitions, and republished Sept. 22 on The Mantle.]

After years of debate, the EU unveils its first high-level policy document on the Roma. Now it’s up to national governments to fill in the outline.

By Michael J. Jordan 15 September 2011

BUDAPEST | Angela Kocze has been a firsthand witness to all the calamities that have befallen her fellow Roma over the two decades since Central and Eastern Europe rid itself of communist rule.

Nevertheless, Kocze is the rare voice to somehow muster “cautious optimism” about the first unified European Union policy to target the plight of the Roma, Europe’s largest, most-despised and most-marginalized minority.

Angela Kocze (Photo: mjj)

She even swallows a grain of salt in that it’s Hungary, her homeland, that claims the new EU Framework for National Roma Integration Strategies as a crowning achievement of its just-concluded stint in the presidency of the European Union. Budapest can only hope Western partners will look more kindly upon its six-month reign, which was tainted from the outset by Hungary’s suffocating new media law.

Kocze, a research fellow in the Hungarian Academy of Sciences’ Institute for National and Ethnic Minorities, has for years heard empty – even insincere – promises from Budapest to do something about the subpar education, employment, health, and housing from which many Roma are unable to escape.

Meanwhile, the country has seen the dramatic rise of an openly racist, far-right party. In a not-entirely-unrelated development, nine Hungarian Roma have been murdered in suspected racist attacks, including a man and his 5-year-old son shot as they fled their fire-bombed home.

Yet the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban – despite a number of overtures to the far right over the years – seems to have adopted a new stance, promoting the idea that “Hungarians should not see Roma as a problem, but as an opportunity,” Kocze says. “Something new has started, and there’s an opportunity right now that can be exploited.”

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[The following piece appeared July 22 in TOL/Transitions Online. (It was republished on The Mantle, then republished again on Roma Transitions.) This was the first of my three-part package to commemorate the "Red Sludge" tragedy, with Part II here and Part III here.]

Only a few condemned homes, stained red, have yet to be demolished. (Photo: mjj)

DEVECSER, Hungary – It was just past noon last Oct. 4, and Karoly Horvath had returned home from fishing a local lake, here in provincial western Hungary. His wife and 12-year-old daughter were home to greet him, too – just as the waves of red sludge crashed through the door and windows.

Within seconds, the toxic mud was above their waist, burning the skin. Unable to move, Karoly could only watch mother and child screaming in agony.

“It was the most awful thing,” says Karoly, 38. “As a husband and father, stuck in that red sludge, seeing that happen to them before my eyes, but being so helpless to do something about it.”

His wife, Eva, was hospitalized with burns across 70 percent of her body. At least she survived: ten were killed in what instantly became Hungary’s deadliest industrial accident ever. Greenpeace went so far as to call it one of Europe’s worst ecological disasters “in the past 20 or 30 years.”

For Hungary, the rupture of a Communist-era reservoir of aluminum waste was one part Chernobyl, one part Pompeii. In Devecser, it poured trauma upon trauma for a people already battered by years of economic hardship and political hatred. Today, though, amid the gloom is a glimmer of hope: scores of hapless victims have discovered a rare source of empowerment – the courts – to pursue compensation from the wealthy, well-connected owners of the aluminum company. This reveals a surprising appreciation for the rule of law in a country often painted as fed up with its harsh brand of democracy, two decades into the post-Communist transition.

On the flip side, though, a new strain of Hungarian resentment has recently bubbled up: at the Roma living among them, known more derogatorily here as ciganyok, or “gypsies.” The venom illuminates how embittered Hungarians have grown, especially toward Europe’s most marginalized minority.

Observers may view the Horvath family as victims. But because they’re Roma, some Hungarians harbor doubts. The mantra around Devecser is, “For many, this wasn’t a red sludge, but a golden sludge.”

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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 post appeared May 20, 2011, on The Mantle.]

BRATISLAVA – At least, that’s the thank-you letter Finland should send Slovakia.

I’ve never been to a Helsinki block party. But earlier this month, for a solid fortnight of the World Hockey Championship, Bratislava sure felt like one. By the end of their two-week drinking binge, I wanted the pickled Finns to grab their gold medals and get the hell out.

Team Captain Mikko Koivu wasn’t the only Finn to raise a cup in Bratislava. (IIHF)

I wouldn’t describe myself as a “hockey fan,” as that requires a curious affection for gap-toothed smiles – particularly among those who had involuntarily eaten a puck traveling about as fast as my car. However, I sure do love a good story. Living in tiny Slovakia, I hoped to live one through their hockey.

Slovakia spared little expense to throw a memorable bash as host of the 16-nation tournament, held every year. Hockey is a passion for this nation of only five million, with toddlers barely beyond diapers carving figure-eights on rounded hockey skates. Slovakia won the world title in 2002, and finished an eye-opening fourth at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver.

I cheered these underdogs every step of the way, as I did their thrilling World Cup run. Meanwhile, Slovak star Marian Hossa helped lead the Chicago Blackhawks to the NHL Stanley Cup last year; the towering Zdeno Chara may soon do the same for the Boston Bruins.

The 2011 world championship would mark the first time Slovakia, independent only since 1993, had hosted alone. Finally, a chance to distinguish Slovakia from Slovenia. Hype began months ago. The wolf mascot, “Goooly,” was stationed at area malls, digitally counting down the minutes and seconds. As full-blown hockey fever hit, the national flag of red, white and blue fluttered from many cars. I came this close to buying my sons foam fingers and Dr. Seuss top hats in Slovak tri-color. I’ll take four more dust-collectors, please.

All this while officialdom weathers the arrows of the latest in a never-ending drumbeat of corruption that mars the post-Communist era, not only in Slovakia, but across the entire region. This scandal, naturally, was over the massive facelift performed on its main hockey stadium, plus the gleaming new hotel built illegally next door.

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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.

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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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[The following appeared March 18, 2011, on The Mantle.]

BRATISLAVA The UN Security Council’s 11th-hour intervention to save Benghazi may have sparked a Libyan ceasefire – or brief respite – but one criticism caught my eye as Gaddafi loyalists tightened the noose around the rebel stronghold.

“There are 1 million people who believed the Western promises that said Gaddafi is no longer legitimate,” said the French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy, who had met with rebel leaders in Benghazi.

Memories of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution come flooding back. Not that I was there, mind you. But Hungarians have for years resented the West for “promised” assistance – via the U.S. Congress-funded Radio Free Europe, the UN, and others – should Magyars take up arms against a Soviet-backed Communist regime several years into its reign of terror.

Spurred on by those words of support, the Hungarians rose up, heroically, on October 23, 1956. Except, the West never came. In Budapest, street-by-street gun battles against Soviet tanks lasted less than two weeks, before being snuffed out. The Hungarian toll: more than 2,500 killed and 200,000 refugees – including my father and grandparents.

My question is not if the international community should’ve intervened in Hungary then, or in Libya today. (As my Mantle colleague Corrie Hulse has suggested.) Rather, if you encourage others to lay their lives on the line, what moral responsibility do you bear if you ultimately fail to back words with action?

For Libya, this depends on your definition of promise. I try to imagine myself in the shoes of an ordinary Libyan who over the past month has seen: the globe rejoice at revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt; world leaders, even Arab allies, brand Gaddafi as “illegitimate” for his ruthlessness against civilians; Libya suspended from the UN Human Rights Council; French President Nicolas Sarkozy shake hands with rebel leaders and call for air-strikes; and the Arab League agree to a no-fly zone against one of their own.

If I’m Libyan, it sure sounds like the world is telling me: Keep fighting. We won’t let the Colonel get away with this. Help is on the way. Yet each day, while Gaddafi’s forces pounded and demoralized the rebels, the international community dragged its feet.

The aftermath of Hungary 1956 was marked by mass arrests, show trials, executions and long prison terms. In Libya, there seems no option but fight to the death. Imagine what revenge awaits Benghazi, after Gaddafi vowed “no mercy, no compassion.” If the ceasefire collapses and the world fiddles while Benghazi burns – as it did for Budapest 55 years ago – the blood won’t only be on the hands of its executioners.

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[This "Dispatch" appeared March 9, 2011, in Foreign Policy. It was re-published March 10 on The Mantle.]

Hungarian Premier Viktor Orban (AFP/Getty)

BRATISLAVA, Slovakia — Just days before Christmas, Hungary’s new right-wing government, which now controls a near-invincible two-thirds of parliament, succumbed to temptation: It rubber-stamped a draconian-sounding new media law that looked as if it would slip a leash of censorship around the necks of both traditional and online media.

The law would have required all domestic and foreign-owned media, including websites and blogs, to register with the authorities. It could also smack media organizations with crippling fines if their coverage was deemed to be lacking sufficient “balance” or respect for “human dignity.”

Moreover, all this would be interpreted and enforced by a new five-member “Media Council” — each member tapped by the party that steers parliament. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe was understandably beside itself, and a representative branded the new law as “unprecedented in European democracies.”

Hungary is already one of the most worrisome countries in Europe. One poll of ex-communist Eastern Europe suggests that Hungarians are the most disillusioned with democracy and capitalism. And in last April’s elections, the European Union watched anxiously. Reigning Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany had been caught in September 2006 lying about the country’s economic woes, which incited the public and spurred a chain of events that decimated support for his Socialists. The right wing won big. Historically big. The leading opposition party, Fidesz, seized 53 percent of the vote; the scaremongering far right claimed a startling 17 percent, another landmark in the post-communist world.

In the months since, Fidesz and its parliamentary majority have tightened their grip by politicizing the Constitutional Court, central bank, state audit office, and the largely ceremonial post of president. Then came the media law.

For the European Union, the heavy-handed tactics of a ruling government in a smaller, ex-communist member might have been easier to ignore if not for the inconvenient fact that Hungary assumed the rotating EU presidency on New Year’s Day. With Budapest holding the gavel — and the limelight — Brussels was red-faced. It responded to the new Hungarian law with unparalleled scrutiny, including a European Commission inquiry.

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[The following Postcard was republished Feb. 24, 2011, in the Jewish Exponent of Philadelphia. It was originally published March 2004 in JTA.]

By Michael J. Jordan

The artist, circa 1920, from "Chagall and the Artists of the Russian Jewish Theater"

VITEBSK, Belarus — There’s no business like Chagall business. At least, not in the hometown of the legendary artist.

Shunned by the Soviet authorities for his leaving the “worker’s paradise” of the Soviet Union for the artistic incubator of Paris, Marc Chagall has undergone a remarkable posthumous rehabilitation in his Belarussian birthplace.

The charming provincial city of Vitebsk, an inspiration for much of the artist’s oeuvre — like his floating, dreamlike images of wood rooftops, barnyard animals and bearded fiddlers — is not only a must-see for Jewish tourists, it’s said to be a cornerstone of national tourism. Located 120 miles northeast of Minsk, the capital, Vitebsk draws German and Japanese tourists and countless foreign art students.

Hordes of schoolchildren tour the museum within the refurbished Chagall family homestead. The museum was opened in 1992 and has since been accompanied by annual “Chagall Days,” featuring music, exhibitions, lectures and poetry readings. It’s quite a turnaround for an artist revered by some, scorned by others as a symbol of dissent, and long banned from public discourse.

Chagall is now a symbol of another kind, says Vitebsk native Arkady Shulman, a Jewish journalist and amateur Chagall historian.

“Any person who emigrated was denounced as a traitor,” says Shulman, who helped establish the Chagall museum and is chief editor of Mishpoha magazine. “People didn’t know his pictures, but they knew his name, and that he was against the system. Today, more people know his art, but he’s become a symbol of a boy from a small town who became world famous.”

(more…)

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[This post appeared Jan. 7 on The Mantle with the photos posted beneath it.]

One face of Hungary. (Photo: mjj)

BUDAPEST – Remnants of the past. I always look for them, especially in Central Europe. How else to stay stimulated in the land I’ve called home for most of the past 17 years?

I discovered a different sort of relic over the holidays in Budapest. When an icy chill swept the region, it rendered most warm-blooded humans homebound. Or hop-scotching from family to friend’s flat. Or scurrying from mall to shiny mall.

These mega-malls are a mecca of modern-day ostentation, just two decades after the era of Communist-imposed blandness. To me, they’re also a relatively new phenomenon. Heck, I just visited the Polus Center for the first time since its grand-opening in 1994 or 1995. (Back then, hovering above the bottom rung of foreign correspondence, I succumbed to writing about stuff like property deals.)

I remember Polus greeted with great fervor, especially its indoor ice-skating rink encircled by kitschy, ethnically diverse food court. What a revolutionary concept, imported from the West: Shopping as entertainment!

Today, though, Polus is itself a quaint artifact. Outstripped by hyper-modern malls that rival anything in the Western world, they’re the domain of an expanding middle class, the nouveaux riches, and blue-collar, wanna-be nouveaux riches who recklessly dispose of their not-so-disposable income.

However, given how many Central Europeans have since been pushed into poverty, these malls are surely a source of envy and resentment from the have-nots. Who are the have-nots, you ask?

During our rare stint in the frozen outdoors, abandoning the warmth of the mall cafe, bowling alley and multiplex cinema, I couldn’t ignore the striking contrast with the sad souls milling about.

The elderly. Themselves a relic of the past. (more…)

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[These photos appeared Jan. 7 on The Mantle with the post above.]

Armed with 300-mm lense, I planted myself on a street corner, shooting at waves of elderly coming at me from the left, the right, and from straight ahead. My Hungarian brother-in-law thought I might get punched for daring to shoot without first asking nicely. But I wanted these Hungarians au naturel. Sure, it was -6 Celsius, and we were all pretty miserable. (By the end, my hand was cryogenically petrified.) But I detected a deeper despair in these faces. [Special thanks to my Romanian colleague, Clara Stanescu, for co-editing. Mulţumesc!]

For more portraits … (more…)

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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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[The following piece appeared Jan. 3, 2011, on The Mantle.]

BRATISLAVA – For years, foreign observers of Slovakia – like me, guilty as charged – have put the puny, post-Communist country on the couch.

The diagnosis: suffers an inferiority complex. Never before independent. Bullied for centuries by the Hungarians. Little peasant brother of the Czechs.

What a difference a decade makes. The new Slovak government is flexing its muscles, as brawny Slovak men tend to do. Except in this case, the face of forcefulness is a woman. Iveta Radičová, the first female prime minister to wield power in Communist-turned-EU-member Central Europe.

The significance here is only partly that a woman has smashed the ceiling to the highest office. (Though, some women in the region are content with proving that sex still sells: during a Czech election campaign this year, six female candidates for Parliament posed skimpily for a calendar. And won.)

Instead, the story is that Radičová leads Slovakia’s one-man rebellion over the pricey EU bailout of Greece, revealing just how influential – or disruptive – the new eastern members can be.

No sooner was Radičová sworn in July 8 to lead a center-right, four-party coalition, than she swung a right-hook at Brussels. She denied the 27-state union a final “yea” unless her new government could renegotiate Slovakia’s staggering contribution: 4.4 billion of the 110 billion euros ($148 billion).

(It didn’t help matters when the public here caught wind of the inconvenient fact that Greek pensioners live much more comfortably than their Slovak peers.)

Radičová also continues to defend Slovakia’s pro-Serbia stance on Kosovo, bucking Brussels in its recognition of Kosovo statehood. (The bogeyman brandished by Slovak hard-liners is less Slavic solidarity than the threat that the heavily ethnic-Hungarian south of Slovakia one day breaks away.)

In December, the spotlight was again on the new premier. But this time, to be a calming voice for markets rattled by the Slovak parliamentary speaker’s call for a “Plan B”: withdraw Slovakia from the troubled, 16-member Eurozone; return Slovaks to their beloved koruny, or “crowns.”

Slovakia had achieved another milestone in January 2009, when it leapfrogged neighboring Czechs, Hungarians and Poles to become the first in Central Europe to jettison its national currency for the Euro. Today, though, Western media is awash with speculation about Slovakia: “Last in, first out?”

Slovakia “hasn’t for one second” considered defecting, Radičová told media. “Our task is to stabilize the euro. Any thoughts about alternatives are weakening the stabilization mechanism and I consider them extremely risky.”

Scrappy Slovakia, with Radičová leading the charge, is worth watching in 2011.

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Szabolcs Szedlak’s bitter disenchantment led him to Hungary’s far-right Jobbik party. (Photo: mjj)

[This piece appeared in the Fall 2010 issue of the World Policy Journal.]

HEVES, Hungary — The past few years have been turbulent for Szabolcs Szedlak, far worse than most Hungarians could have imagined two decades ago, when they tore a hole in the Iron Curtain and changed their world.

Szedlak, 34, came of age during the tumult of the post-communist transition from dictatorship to democracy. Back then Hungarians were told, and many believed, they’d become like neighboring Austrians—a BMW in every driveway. Just don’t remind folks of those daydreams in this bleak corner of northeastern Hungary.

Szedlak and his family live in Heves, a small, quiet town of 11,000 on the great Hungarian plains. Szedlak was born here, in the heart of the country’s most depressed region. Twenty years ago, the sudden and unexpected exposure to free markets ravaged the state-controlled mines, industries and agriculture that were staples of the communist system—especially in this region. Successive governments have failed to fill the void with new jobs or re-training.

Unemployment in the region now approaches 50 percent among those aged 25 to 40, feeding widespread anger and disillusionment with Hungary’s brand of “democracy.” As joblessness soars, so has support for a new style of politics that harkens back to a bygone era, snuffed out by communism: Right-wing extremism is on the rise. According to one survey, it has doubled here since 2003. Hungary, once dubbed the “happiest barrack in the Soviet camp,” is arguably the unhappiest of the 10 ex-communist members who have since joined the European Union.

Count Szabolcs Szedlak among the disgruntled. (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 Sept. 2 on Transitions.]

Guards lead sick inmates in the hallway of the Jilava prison hospital. (Photo: mjj)

Romania’s prisons are slowly gaining ground on tuberculosis, but the prognosis on AIDS is less encouraging.

by Petru Zoltan and Michael J. Jordan

JILAVA, Romania | In 2007, Octavian Balescu was sentenced to seven years in jail for trying to sell less than half a gram of heroin.

He was thrown into Romania’s Jilava prison, just outside the capital, Bucharest. Jilava, once notorious for its inhumane treatment of prisoners, is where, in November 1940, Romania’s fascist leader Marshal Ion Antonescu and his Legionnaires executed 64 opponents. And it was where, during four decades of communism, the paranoid regime of Nicolae Ceausescu would send anyone it deemed a threat.

Today, Romanian prisoners are surely better off. With the country a new member of the EU, it has adopted Western-style prisoner rights, of which inmates are informed.

Still, prisoners have something to fear: Jilava could make them gravely ill, as it has done to Balescu. “My most basic right is to do my time without getting sick,” he said. But somewhere along the way, he contracted tuberculosis and landed in the Jilava prison hospital, the largest in the Romanian prison system.

His plight is hardly surprising in Romania, which has the highest TB rate among the 27 EU countries. Observers say the prison system is a primary source of infection, not only for the inmates, but for their visitors and their jailers as well.

There’s positive news, though. Romania’s TB rate is declining, and officials continue to reverse a Ceausescu policy built on lies. They are no longer denying the problem exists and are accepting Western assistance. (more…)

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[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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[The following piece appeared in the Summer 2010 issue of Ms. Magazine. My longer piece on the early-marriage controversy, for Transitions Online, is here. For more of my photos of the Kalderash enclave in Targu Jiu, click here.]

Raluca Mihai, age 15. (Photo: mjj)

TARGU JIU, Romania – Her headscarf is vibrant purple – a symbol of mourning in Targu Jiu, Romania.

But 15-year-old Raluca Mihai’s husband isn’t dead. Rather, her headscarf marks a personal tragedy that has rekindled controversy among the deeply traditional Kalderash Roma, a branch of the ethnic minority known pejoratively across Eastern Europe as “Gypsies.”

For the estimated 200,000 Kalderash in Romania, parents’ paramount duty is to preserve their daughter’s virginity until marriage.

Two years ago, however, when Mihai was 13 and engaged, her 15-year-old fiancé raped her, knowing it committed her to the nuptials. He grew so violent during their two-month marriage that she escaped to her parents. The scarf not only mourns her stolen virginity and failed matrimony, but also the unlikelihood that she’ll ever remarry.

“He ruined everything for me,” says the young woman, who had dropped out of school to wed.

In a community where virginity or its loss can mean pride or dishonor for a whole clan, Mihai’s situation is making waves. (more…)

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[The following appeared July 15 on The Mantle.]

BRATISLAVA – To be fair, I didn’t give Gabor Vona much warning.

When Foreign Policy contacted me about writing a profile of Vona [see post just below], an exciting new leader for the far right in Europe, my first goal was to humanize him a bit. That meant visiting his hometown and provincial corner of northeast Hungary. I only had thirty-six hours to do it, so I had to prioritize.

Speaking with himself Vona – whom Budapest analyst Alex Kuli likens to a “rock star” in Western media – would be dealt with later. Over the phone. From back home. Across the border in Bratislava.

That is, if I’d even get the chance. Based on his “Jobbik” party’s track record, I had my doubts. So, I wasn’t entirely surprised that after a week of back-and-forth via an intermediary, Vona rejected my request: he was “certain” his words would be “twisted, altered and falsified.”

My pursuit of a Vona comment is no failure, though. It not only sheds light onto the mentality of the newest political force on the eastern half of the continent. It also illuminates a lingering authoritarian impulse, especially when it comes to more independent-minded media.

Now, again to be fair, it’s understandable if Jobbik were to view me as “unfriendly.” I’ve freelanced from the region for the past 16 years, primarily for Western, liberal-leaning publications. I’ve written plenty about nationalism, minorities and inter-ethnic incitement, particularly as a barometer of the post-Communist transition from dictatorship to democracy.

I can imagine Jobbik wasn’t thrilled with my first article about its militaristic Magyar Garda, or “Hungarian Guard,” in March 2008. (more…)

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[This piece appeared July 13 on ForeignPolicy.com.]

With Web-savvy “radical nationalism” — and a dash of anti-Semitism and Roma-baiting — firebrand politician Gabor Vona has touched a chord among Hungary’s disaffected and disillusioned young voters.

BY MICHAEL J. JORDAN | JULY 13, 2010

Gyongyos, Hungary – While running for a parliamentary seat in Hungary’s April elections, far-right candidate Gabor Vona made one campaign promise that was controversial even by his standards: If voted into parliament, the 31-year-old extremist would report for duty wearing the insignia of his outlawed paramilitary organization, the “Hungarian Guard” — a taboo symbol that, with its ancient, red-and-white-striped emblem, bears a striking resemblance to the flag of Hungary’s Nazi-era fascist party, Arrow Cross.

The suggestion was intolerable to many Hungarians. Arrow Cross’s brief period of political dominance, during which the party murdered thousands of Hungarian Jews and shipped many tens of thousands more to concentration camps outside the country, is still a painful subject. More to the point, the insignia itself is illegal. Vona’s announcement directly flouted a court decision banning the Hungarian Guard, and it provoked the outgoing prime minister into asking the Justice Ministry to investigate.

But the controversy appeared only to reinforce the popularity of Vona’s far-right, Web-savvy Jobbik party, which went on to win a stunning 16.7 percent of the vote — the best performance of any hypernationalist party in post-communist Eastern Europe. And Vona kept his word: At the May 14 inauguration, he took off his suit jacket to reveal a black vest with the Hungarian Guard’s emblem.

Vona’s intransigence may have been shocking, but it wasn’t surprising. Central Europe may be two decades removed from communist dictatorship and ensconced in Western institutions such as the European Union and NATO — but few people are cheering. Promises of a glorious new post-communist life have resulted only in rising prices, growing unemployment, and endemic corruption. And resentment is fueling a greater appetite for right-wing extremism across the region, according to a new survey by the Budapest-based think tank Political Capital. In Hungary alone, right-wing attitudes have leapt from 10 to 20 percent since 2003.

“It’s been constant disillusionment that many people [in Hungary] are susceptible to. They’re bitter about the whole system,” says Alex Kuli, a Political Capital analyst. “That’s what Vona is responding to and manipulating — this deep-seated disillusionment.” (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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Expressions on their faces indicate that Raluca's wedding was not the family's happiest day.

[This piece appeared June 30 in TOL.]

One family of Kalderash Roma speaks out against the custom of early marriage.

by Petru Zoltan and Michael J. Jordan

TARGU JIU, Romania | Raluca Larisa Mihai got married two years ago. As a seventh-grader. She was just 13 years old.

But it was no fairy tale for Raluca, a tradition-minded Kalderash Rom. Here in provincial Romania, hers is one of the most respected families in the Kalderash enclave of Meteor, a neighborhood on the edge of Targu Jiu.

Which is why the tragedy that’s engulfed her family reverberates across Romania – even to Brussels. Raluca today wears the headscarf of a widow; on this day, a vibrant purple. 

‘VICTIMS OF TRADITION’

Her ex-husband isn’t dead, though. Raluca accuses the boy she wed in a Pentecostal ceremony of raping her during their 2008 engagement. He was only 15 at the time. According to her family, he’d learned of another Romani tradition: if he stole her virginity, Raluca would be duty-bound to follow through with the marriage. Two girls had already broken it off with the boy – allegedly because of his violence.

He calculated wisely, then. Despite the rape of their daughter, her parents went ahead with the wedding. If they had backed out, they say they would have been “dishonored” before all of Meteor. After all, Raluca was deflowered.

“From the very first moment that he took advantage of her, I knew I would have rather seen my house set on fire,” says her mother, Bianca.

There is no greater badge of honor for Kalderash parents like these than to deliver their daughter to marriage – as a virtuous virgin. This pressure, though, has consequences. It helps drive the centuries-old tradition of early-teen marriage, a ritual that Brussels criticized well before Romania joined the European Union in 2007. Parents simply want to rid themselves of this burden as soon as possible.

(more…)

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[The following appeared June 25 on The Mantle.]

 

BRATISLAVA – That’s what the Slovak commentator screamed from the TV.

Goodbye, Italy!

How about ‘dem Slovaks?! Our scrappy Central European friends today sent the reigning champion – mighty Italy – tumbling out of the World Cup, 3-2. Even I cheered in the pub today.

“After you, France … Want to share a taxi to the airport?”

Bratislava is celebrating tonight. Flags are fluttering. There’s chanting in the streets. Slovaks are greeting strangers with warmth. My wife and kids are congratulating them as well. Smiles everywhere.

All this reminds me of one plain truth: nothing compares to living in a small, almost-invisible country during a major sporting event, like the Olympics or World Cup.

Seeing how they come together to root for the national team really warms the heart – especially if you focus on the negative most of the time, as I tend to do. (Scroll down for countless examples!)

Living here, though, you connect. You develop relationships. You pull for the people, for the land. You want them to do well.

I’ve now been very, very fortunate to experience this in two countries. First Hungary, now Slovakia. (more…)

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[The Global Post has previewed all 32 teams set to play in the 2010 World Cup. This one is on Slovakia, while the one below is on Slovenia.]

Slovakia already sees the Cup as a success after beating out the Czech Republic, with a shot at the second round if they capitalize on a lucky draw.

By Mark Starr with Michael J. Jordan – GlobalPost Columnist

Slovakia supporters cheer during their team's World Cup 2010 qualifying match against Slovenia in Bratislava on Oct. 10, 2009. (Reuters)

Slovakia World Cup Soccer 2010

In his first presidential campaign, George W. Bush famously confused Slovenia and Slovakia. The mistake was said to reflect the candidate’s ignorance of foreign affairs. But unhappily for Slovakia, it is a remarkably common mistake, even in Europe.

Slovakia’s population has been left with a pessimistic mindset after decades of oppression. In the 20th century alone, the country went from part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, to Czechoslovakia, to a separate German-controlled state during World II and back to Soviet-occupied Czechoslovakia.

Though Slovakia gained independence in 1993, it is still overshadowed by the Czech Republic. That was true in sports too — until Slovakia’s stunning triumph in the 2002 world hockey championship. In February it again surpassed the Czechs on the ice, reaching the Olympic semis where it almost upset host Canada.

Though Slovaks were part of a glorious Czechoslovakian soccer tradition — the Czechoslovak team reached the World Cup finals in both 1934 and 1962 — a Slovak soccer tradition has been slow to develop. The 2010 World Cup should provide a good launch and the youth of this team should keep it competitive in the ensuing years.

Slovakia World Cup History: First World Cup appearance for the 17-year-old nation, formed in a peaceful breakup with what is now Czech Republic.

(more…)

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[The Global Post has previewed all 32 teams set to play in the 2010 World Cup. This one is on Slovenia, while the one above is on Slovakia.]

The Slovenian team is positive in its own abilities and group placement, and in not repeating the embarrassment of the 2002 Cup.

By Mark Starr with Michael J. Jordan – GlobalPost Columnist

Slovenia's Bostjan Cesar and Robert Koren celebrate after defeating Russia in their World Cup qualifying match in Maribor, Slovenia on Nov. 18, 2009. (Reuters)

Slovenia World Cup 2010

Slovenia is the smallest nation — 7,800 square miles, about the size of New Jersey and just 2 million people — to have qualified for the 2010 World Cup. It emerged a nation from war-torn Yugoslavia in 1991, anxious to carve out its own identity and to command a seat at the table with its much bigger neighbors.

While Slovenia is known in the sporting world as an Alpine skiing power, it is hopeful that soccer and the World Cup will serve as its introduction to a greater, world-wide audience. That was also the hope in 2002, the first time Slovenia qualified for the World Cup. Instead, the showcase proved a national embarrassment.

In Slovenia’s first game its star player, after being substituted, threw a fit, confronting the coach with a stream of verbal abuse. He was booted, sent home and the team wound up losing all three games.

“Such an extraordinary chance to show yourself to the world, then to blow it in such a primitive way,” says Andrej Miljkovic, a Slovenian sportswriter. “People wanted to take the national jersey they bought for 50 Euros and shove it … somewhere. Anyone will tell you our main goal is the heroes come back as heroes — come back as a team — even if they lose.”

Slovenia World Cup History: Second cup appearance; in 2002 Slovenia lost all three games and was outscored 7-2. (more…)

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[The following appeared May 14 in The Mantle.]

PRAGUE, Czech Republic – Beyond the fact Prague is one of Europe’s great cities, you can’t walk down a street here – or anywhere in ex-Communist Eastern Europe, for that matter – and not spot a metaphor that illuminates how dramatically life has changed here, twenty years later.

A bilingual preschool in Prague. (Photo: mjj)

And if I didn’t have this blog, there’d be no one for me to tell. (Sniff, sniff.)

This week’s window onto the transition comes courtesy of Czech education. I was in Prague for a workshop on how to use multimedia journalism to better explain education issues in a more compelling way. My partner, the multimedia guy, and I, a print guy, showed eight colleagues how to assemble a written and visual project for the Prague-based magazine, Transitions Online.

And what a unique crop of journalists it was: six young women from post-Communist Eastern Europe, one from South Africa, and a fellow from Kenya. Divided into three teams, each was handed a pocket-sized video camera to use here, then take back home to produce more journalism for TOL.

I could go on for hours about how challenging this shoulder-to-shoulder training was for all of us, but more blog-worthy were the three faces of Czech education it revealed:

A Roma-specialized school in Prague. (Photo: mjj)

*The widening gender gap in the IT industry, and how little is done to encourage more women to pursue well-paying jobs in software or hardware development.

*That more and more Czechs are savvy enough about their children’ future – and enjoy the deep enough pockets – to send their kids to a growing number of bilingual preschools.

*A network of nine Czech schools that specialize in teaching Romani students, in a country that even the European Court of Human Rights condemned in 2007 for anti-Roma segregation in schools.

(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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(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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Romanian prison guards jockey for roles that put them into contact with TB-infected inmates to receive a 50 percent bump in pay. (Michael J. Jordan/GlobalPost)

Funding and democracy helped Romania improve conditions in prisons. But will the funds run out?

By Michael J. Jordan — Special to GlobalPost

Published: March 24, 2010

JILAVA, Romania — Communist Romania was a vast den of spies and paranoia, with thousands locked up inside one of Eastern Europe’s cruelest prison systems. Twenty years later, prisoners land behind bars for different reasons, but they still have much to fear.

Prisons are widely considered a leading source of HIV and tuberculosis (TB) infection. And Romania, which already claims the highest TB rate in the 27-member European Union, now worries that heroin injection with tainted needles is spurring an HIV crisis. (Overcrowding and lack of hygiene are leading causes of TB in the slums of Mumbai, as well.)

But thanks to the work of Veronica Broasca and others, as the world marks Tuberculosis Day today, Romania’s prisons can be held up as a success story.

Broasca, an activist with the Romanian Association Against AIDS, heads up the group’s prisons program. She and her colleagues are allowed into Romania’s prisons to provide drug-addiction services, offering inmates a chance to come forward for either clean needles or methadone treatment. Before she leaves, Broasca also unloads a batch of condoms, lubricants and HIV literature in the prison’s visitation room.

She credits prison officials for their progressive mindset, but said they’re also driven by fear of inmates’ ability to seek revenge through the courts. Recent lawsuits accuse prisons of denying them access to proper health care.

“Convicts know their rights,” said Broasca. Prison administrators “tell us they’ll be sued in one second if they don’t provide the treatment needed.”

This new respect for prisoner rights also reveals that in Romania two decades of post-communist democratization has grown roots. Romania’s campaign to join the EU obliged it to align its laws and values with club members. As further incentive, Europe dangled a carrot: cash to tackle problems such as the TB infection rate. (more…)

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BRATISLAVA — I’ve often described to family and friends the “healthy emotional distance” I enjoy from American politics, while living overseas: I follow it from afar, while thankfully not submerged in it.

Like, right now. With the ongoing battle over health-care reform, the escalating Obama-hatred definitely feels scarier than the Bush-hatred that preceded it.

So, what’s the difference? Could it really be Obama’s blackness has unleashed all sorts of latent and not-so-latent racism? That epithets like “radical Communist,” “Marxist” and “socialist” – which sound odd from real-McCoy, ex-Communist Eastern Europe – are coded substitutes for the suicidal “N”-word? Or that “white, Christian America” feels besieged, and won’t have their country “stolen” without a fight?

I just Skype-chatted with an American friend of mine in Vietnam, who thinks the culture of “victimization” has somehow seeped into the minds of many conservatives. I’d go further. My own take from thousands of miles away is this: incitement and hate-speech work. If circumstances are ripe for it.

An analogy: when Yugoslavia exploded into an inter-ethnic bloodbath the early 1990s, many in the West resisted intervention, rationalizing: “These ethnic groups have hated each other for centuries. What can we do about that?” Yet that ignored the fact it was charismatic leaders like Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic and Croatia’s Franjo Tudjman who pricked and provoked their people, hammering away at historic grievances that many folks had pushed to the shadows. Or, may have been unaware of altogether.

What Milosevic and Tudjman did, essentially, was convince people to hate “the other.” Just like, it seems, what agitators Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and others are doing right now. They feed their audience’s deepest fears – or even stoke fears they never had before. Then, watch the hatred flow.

I’m certainly not suggesting it will lead to Bosnian-style butchery in America’s streets. But I’m reminded once again what shrewd observers say about the Holocaust: it began with words, not bullets.

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BRATISLAVA — This weekend, Serbia followed through on its threat to boycott and torpedo a Balkans-European Union summit, over a simple but enormously symbolic issue: it rejected the attendance of “independent” Kosovo.

This interested me for two reasons. First, as a journalist who’s reported from Kosovo three times (including the aftermath of the 1999 NATO airstrikes), it underscores the continued fragility of the now-severed Serbian province. I’m now putting the finishing touches on an article that explains why Kosovo Roma refugees are reluctant to return home. Serbia’s stance adds to their anxiety.

Second, from my vantage point in Slovakia, I’m reminded the EU is hardly united on the issue of Kosovo statehood. Washington and most of Western Europe stand behind Kosovo, which declared independence in 2008. But Serbia has in its corner Orthodox-Slav big brother, Russia. As one of five veto-wielding members of the UN Security Council, Moscow blocks Kosovo’s UN integration.

More quietly, though, EU members Slovakia, Romania, Cyprus, Greece and Spain also oppose Kosovo statehood. Why? Because of the domino effect of Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence.

Greece and Cyprus fear the same for the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (recognized only by Turkey); for Spain, it’s the Basques; and for Slovakia and Romania, it’s their large ethnic-Hungarian minorities, who primarily populate lands that were once part of Hungary.

Spain’s position on Kosovo is most awkward, considering Madrid holds the EU’s rotating presidency. For me, the Slovakia-Hungary-Romania tension is most palpable. Anxiety over Hungarian “irredentism” – whether real or contrived – rears its head surprisingly often, as a weapon to whip up the masses.

In fact, there’ll be lots of noise on June 4th, when Hungary’s far-right marks the 90-year trauma of the Treaty of Trianon, which lopped off two-thirds of Hungary’s territory, and left one-third of its brethren inside new, alien borders.

I’ll surely have a few thoughts about that.

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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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Slovak hockey is making noise in Vancouver.

BRATISLAVA – How can you not root for the Olympic underdog?

Especially when it’s more than a mere “border rivalry,” as one EuroSport commentator painted the Russia-Slovakia hockey match last night.

No, if one thing unites Central and East Europeans, it’s delight when one of their own sticks it to Russia in a sporting event, as pesky Slovakia did with its overtime victory.

There’s nothing like rising at 6 a.m. to watch Olympic hockey; even better when it’s a stirring upset. Among all the Slovaks I came across today, I dropped a few words (in Slovak, of course!) about the game. The smile they flashed was one way to brighten a dreary winter day.

Sure, most every country in the region has a historic grievance or two against its neighbor. But many reserve a special animosity toward, and dread of, Moscow – courtesy of the 40-year Soviet occupation.

Here I won’t delve too deeply into contemporary politics, but this sentiment typically surfaces during the ongoing debates over the U.S. missile-defense plan, or Russia’s pipeline politics over winter heating oil.

Most Czechs and Slovaks, in particular, will never forgive what happened in 1968, when Soviet tanks rolled into Prague, Bratislava and elsewhere to squash the hopes for democratic reform. Indeed, Czech legend Jaromir Jagr commemorated that trauma by donning the number 68 during his NHL career.

When the Czechs and Slovaks square off, like earlier in the Olympics when the Czechs prevailed 3-1, it’s more a sibling rivalry. With Slovakia, and its 5 million, the kid brother. Hopes are high for both teams. And when one nation is eliminated, their fans will likely continue the tradition of pulling for the other.

Above all, if it’s a rematch against mighty Russia.

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Vilen Molotov-Luchanskiy, standing in front of the lone memorial in Karaganda to gulag victims, says his grandmother's faith in the Soviet system never wavered despite eight years in the gulag. (Photo: mjj)

Vilen Molotov-Luchanskiy, standing in front of the lone memorial in Karaganda to gulag victims, says his grandmother's faith in the Soviet system never wavered despite eight years in the gulag. (Photo: mjj)

 

By Michael J. Jordan · December 22, 2008

 

KARAGANDA, KAZAKHSTAN (JTA) — Liza Luchanskiy was born to a poor, Yiddish-speaking family in Berdichev, the historic, heavily Jewish city deep in the Pale of Settlement.

 

Lured by Soviet promises of equality, she became a communist true believer, working her way up to serve on a committee in Siberia that targeted so-called enemies of the revolution. But her zeal wasn’t enough to save her or her similarly devoted husband, Josef.

 

They were swept up during the frenzy of Stalin’s Great Terror, from 1937 to 1939. Josef was shot by a firing squad in 1938, and Liza was exiled by cattle car to Karaganda.

 

Luchanskiy was sentenced to eight years in the vast network of forced-labor camps here, on the southern edge of Stalin’s fearsome gulag. Enduring extreme cold, hunger and exhaustion, which afflicted her health ever after, Luchanskiy never let go of her faith in communism, her grandson says.

 

“She never blamed the system, only Stalin,” says Vilen Molotov-Luchanskiy, an internist who today heads the Jewish Cultural Center in Karaganda.

 

As many as 1.2 million Soviet citizens — spanning practically all the myriad ethnic groups nationwide — were worked to death or near death in the 75 camps that comprised Karaganda. Among them were many Jews, including many rabbis. (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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In tightly controlled Kazakhstan, President Nursultan Nazarbayev's ubiquitous face and words are seen as a "cult of personality." (Photo: mjj)

In tightly controlled Kazakhstan, President Nursultan Nazarbayev's ubiquitous face and words are seen as a "cult of personality." (Photo: mjj)

By Michael J. Jordan · December 18, 2008

 

ASTANA, KAZAKHSTAN (JTA) — In a world where Israel can claim few Muslim friends, no one is more passionate about Kazakhstan than the Israeli envoy to this oil-rich nation.

 

While the nation jockeys to be a major energy producer, joining Caspian Sea neighbors Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan as a vital alternative to Middle East instability and Russian heavy-handedness, observers often cite the Central Asian nation as a moderate Muslim bridge to the Islamic world. That helps explain why Western allies typically downplay the unseemly side of Kazakh rule — repression of independent critics, persecution of political opposition, harassment of marginal religions. They instead accentuate the positives about this ex-Soviet republic.

 

Israel’s ambassador here, Ran Ichay, also tends to focus on the upside, listing several Kazakh achievements of recent years that he terms “world-class contributions.”

 

Kazakhs, for example, voluntarily dismantled their nuclear program, even as folks in the northeastern region of Semipalatinsk still suffer from having served as human guinea pigs for Soviet-era nuclear testing. And twice they have hosted the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions, an interreligious forum they created that Ichay says is the rare gathering where Jews, Israelis and Iranians are spotted around the same table.

 

“Kazakhstan is very different from what we know in the Middle East,” he says from his modest office in central Astana, the capital city. “They use their religion as a bridge between cultures.”

 

Still, the elephant in the room remains oil and the worldwide worry over “energy security” that was underscored by Russia’s assault on Georgia in August. (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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