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Archive for the ‘“From East to East (and Back East Again)”’ Category

BRATISLAVA — I’m out working late tonight, still trying to clear a backlog of assignments. But I can’t resist sharing with you the cast of characters I just passed in my 10-minute walk to a downtown cafe.

Why? Because for the Slovakia-curious – I know you’re out there, admit it – it’s a quick snapshot of Bratislava’s reality. The Good. The Bad. The Pitiful.

First up, I see a young couple near the corner of Lazaretska and Grosslingova, my home street. They’re holding hands, smiling, thoroughly enjoying each other’s company. (Or at least pretending to.)

I haven’t yet seen any touristy, “Bratislava Is For Lovers!” t-shirts. More popular is any reference to Slovak beer. Or its consumption. However, the public mating ritual is certainly a constant around here. And a nice antidote to the politics that tries to poison relations between majority Slovaks and minority Hungarians.

Next, I see a young boy of 4 or 5, gliding on a pedal-less wooden bike beside a middle-aged man, who could be his father or grandfather. Slovaks seem to enjoy their children, especially heading into the great outdoors en famille.

Moreover, Bratislava is not only the capital, but the hub of economic, intellectual and cultural life. You see several generations of the same family here, as in, original Pressburg families. Then there are all the folks from the countryside who came here for university, pursue a career, or simply hunt down any sort of available job. Eventually, some bring their parents here as well.

That means lots of grandparents watch their grandkids, while mom and dad are working. Heart-warming to see, speaking as someone whose kids unlucky not to have grandparents on hand. Warts and all. (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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A glimpse up Kapitulská. (Photo: mjj)

BRATISLAVA – Patches of sunshine teased us today, but you couldn’t ignore the bone-chilling cold. Still, Kapitulská Ulica beckoned me for a brisk walk. 

From the 16th to 19th century, “Canonry Street” greeted the first steps of the newly coronated Hapsburg kings and queens, who descended from the St. Martin’s Cathedral, whose exterior is now partly blackened by soot.

Today, you can hardly imagine such pomp. While Kapitulská is the most authentic section of Old Town Bratislava, it’s also the most neglected. 

Both reasons make it my favorite spot in Bratislava, a fragment of the past where I blur my eyes to visualize life in “Mitteleuropa” centuries ago. 

It’d been several weeks since I’d been back there, as it’s the farthest walk from our apartment just outside the Old Town. (Parenting duties now dictate that those extra 20 minutes are better spent on my backlog of assignments.) 

But today’s sunlight, so deceptive, put me in a Kapitulská state of mind. I set out on the winding, cobblestoned lane — as always, on guard not to sprain an ankle on the steep stones — admiring the simple but elegant two-story homes, with archways tall enough for the horse-drawn carriages. 

Today, though, I was reminded of the striking difference between Kapitulská and the hub of the Staré Mesto, or “Old Town,” just a couple blocks away. While that quaint, period-piece restoration (and multitude of cafes) draw stylish Slovaks and a stream of tourists, Kapitulská looks untouched. 

For better … and for worse. (more…)

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BRATISLAVA – You couldn’t miss him: a 30-something Rom, on crutches, with five-day-old stubble. (Matching mine.)

He had planted himself smack in the middle of the stone-paved Old Town, his feet pointed inward, like an extreme case of pidgeon-toed-ness. He was begging from passers-by, who averted his eyes and refused to break stride, the prejudice against “Gypsies” too deeply ingrained.

Normally, I would check him out, but not stare too long … and probably keep walking. I just couldn’t imagine doing what he was doing. What line do you cross when you start to think, “Then I’ll go beg.”

It occurred to me: Why do I feel sympathetic to a bedraggled Caucasian in the streets, but not this guy? Because I’m not immune to the nasty stereotype of the Roma as beggars? Or that it’s all some kind of “scam”?

(To my eye, and I’ve lived in the region since 1993, beggars represent the thinnest sliver of a widely diverse nation that numbers anywhere from 10-15 million. For some reason, though, the ethnic majorities who the Roma live among often conflate the two, defaming an entire people.)

I was hurrying to have a productive afternoon, so couldn’t stop to chat. Yet there’s always time for a brief interaction. I flipped through my memory bank and pulled out So vakeres? That’s Romani, I believe, for “What’s up?”

Fishing out a euro, I approached his open palm. I tossed out my friendly greeting. He locked onto my eyes, smiled large, and uttered something in Romani. (It certainly wasn’t Slovak or Hungarian.)

It was a cool moment, on a cold but sunny day.

I don’t quite know what it meant to him. (Let’s assume it was meangingful, OK?) For me, though, I realize that after a year of training young Romani journalists in how to explore interesting Roma topics, I’ve become a Roma-phile. I can’t help but humanize them whenever I can.

If this fellow wants to earn a living this way, why not help out now and then.

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BRATISLAVA – Here in one of Europe’s least-known capitals, I don’t come across many groups of young foreigners who actually live in Bratislava. Not like in magnetic Prague. If my ear serves me right, I’ve identified packs of university students here from places like Spain, Greece, Israel and the Middle East.

Since I don’t speak their language, I can sit in a cafe and enjoy people-watching from a distance without actually understanding what silliness they’re roaring about. I can also concentrate and get work done. A pleasant combination.

Tonight, though, I’m in a smoky cafe, and the only available table is cozily next to a trio of Westerners. Speaking English. Loudly. The two guys seem to be Brits, the woman a Scandinavian of some stripe.

They seem well-meaning, curious enough to want to explore Europe. They also sound too seasoned and familiar with each other to be back-packers … Wait, there’s talk of summer break. University students. Studying theater.

Their coarse language, though, is becoming noise pollution. I can barely block it out. The only reason I’m out working late is to push forward an article I’m writing about the Kosovo Roma refugees withering away in Macedonia.

One of the fellows is on my nerves with graphic detail about his jiu-jitsu trainings. How graphic? Well, I’m hearing way more than I need to hear about what exactly it feels like to be kicked in the head, or taken down hard.

If I were out for a beer or two, maybe I’d ask a few questions. Like, why the hell anyone would want to do that to their brain. But tonight I’m into a pot of jasmine tea – and this close to relocating my laptop.

(If there were an empty seat, of course.) (more…)

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