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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.

(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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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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