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[The following commentary appeared June 7, 2012, in The Global Post. For my earlier election coverage and photos, click here and here.]

A tiny mountain nation’s peaceful election and transfer of power is a lesson for all of southern Africa.

Rosina Moiloa, who had warned, “No change, no peace,” got what she wanted this week. (Photo: mjj)

THABA BOSIU, Lesotho — It was election day in Lesotho, and after almost three hours of standing in line, Rosina Moiloa had nearly reached the doorway of the threadbare school that doubled as the polling station in this village. But Rosina, a first-time voter, wasn’t griping about the wait.

The textile worker earns $140 per month, but spends nearly half that on the 30-minute taxi commute to her T-shirt factory in the capital, Maseru. In a country of 1.8 million, where half live in poverty and three-quarters lack electricity, she craves affordable educational opportunities for her two children.

So in the latest test of democracy in Africa, Rosina, 42, withstood the early-winter chill in the “Mountain Kingdom” of Lesotho, to reject the 14-year reign of Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili.

“We’ve been told that one vote can change a nation,” she proclaimed, with hands stuffed in her coat pockets for warmth, as other queuing villagers nodded. “I want to see if this is true.”

The May 26 balloting was hailed by political observers as one of the most transparent elections southern Africa has ever seen. Moreover Lesotho appears to have achieved a relatively smooth power transfer. The election resulted in the country’s first opposition victory and the formation of a coalition government. There were no accusations of vote-tampering. There was calm in the streets. And it appears that Mosisili will step down peacefully this week.

In a corner of the globe with little tradition of compromise and power-sharing, the election challenges notions about the dire fate of democracy in Africa and reminds me that many of the oft-derided “Western values” are in fact universal values. What society wouldn’t want to hold its leaders accountable for their words and deeds?

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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.

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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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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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Thousands in Hong Kong lined the streets for a parade to celebrate China’s 60th National Day. (Photo: mjj)

[This piece appeared Oct. 1, 2009, in The Global Post.]

In Britain’s former colony, now China’s property, the mood is mixed.

By Michael J. Jordan — Special to GlobalPost

Editor’s note: Oct. 1 is the 60th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China. To mark the occasion we have two dispatches from two very different corners of China — Tibet and Hong Kong. And from Beijing, Kathleen E. McLaughlin looks at the event’s unique security arrangements.

HONG KONG, China — One month ago, Chinese journalists flocked to cover renewed violence in Xinjiang province, as ethnic Chinese blamed the Uighur minority for a rash of mysterious hypodermic-needle attacks.

China’s media is among the most restricted in the world, so it wasn’t entirely surprising when reports emerged that police had beaten and detained three of the bolder television journalists, accusing them of inciting inter-ethnic violence.

Except, this trio hailed from Hong Kong, the one beacon of democracy in all of China. So news of their treatment struck a nerve in a territory that London returned to China 12 years ago, after 150 years of British rule. Hundreds of Hong Kong journalists took to the streets to demand not only an apology from the Chinese authorities, but even an investigation of the event.

“Press freedom and rule of law are core values of Hong Kong society,” said Yin-ting Mak, chairwoman of the Hong Kong Journalists Association. “That’s why people were so angry, because this was the most vivid, most extreme example of violating these values.”

The incident exposed ongoing tensions within the “One Country, Two Systems” policy that underpinned the British handover and lies at the heart of China-Hong Kong relations today.

This helps explain why this week, as Beijing celebrates 60 years of the “People’s Republic of China” and Communist Party accomplishments, the reaction is far more mixed in politically polarized Hong Kong. After all, Hong Kong has shared only one-fifth of that history, and many locals descend from the Chinese refugees who fled since the 1949 Communist takeover. (more…)

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Karl, Paunka and Petur share a laugh over a glass of home-brewed Bulgarian rakia. (Photo: mjj)

Karl, Paunka and Petur share a laugh over a glass of home-brewed Bulgarian rakia. (Photo: mjj)

While many vacationed here, thousands of Brits have made Bulgaria their full-time home.

By Michael J. Jordan, Special to GlobalPost, August 28, 2009

SHTIPSKO, Bulgaria — Bulgarian villagers Petur and Paunka share a lot with their neighbors Karl and Shirley. Petur taught them how to brew rakia, an intoxicating brandy, from any fruit that falls from his trees. Paunka shared her recipe for the rabbit stew she makes with bunnies bred in her barn.

In return, Karl and Shirley check in on their septuagenarian neighbors, bringing food when they’re sick. Karl, 38, also shovels their snow and drives Paunka to the nearest city for heart check-ups — sparing her the long ride on her donkey-drawn cart.

“They really are like family,” he says.

Yet Karl Wadsworth, chatting away in imperfect, accented Bulgarian, is no ordinary villager. He’s British — one of thousands of his countrymen now living today in this small Balkan country. Brits now own an estimated 42,000 homes in Bulgaria as investments, vacation residences, or full-time homes. For those who have made the move and embraced rural Bulgarian life, adjusting to local rhythms has been key to their successful integration. (more…)

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Bulgarian Roma Ognyan Isaev hands out anti-vote-buying pamphlets in the northeastern city of Shumen. (Photo: mjj)

Bulgarian Roma Ognyan Isaev hands out anti-vote-buying pamphlets in the northeastern city of Shumen. (Photo: mjj)

It’s election time in Bulgaria. Gangsters are running for office and voters are taking photos of their ballots to receive payoffs.

By Michael J. Jordan, Special to GlobalPost, July 4, 2009

SHUMEN, BULGARIA — Ognyan Isaev knows his fellow Roma — known derogatorily as “gypsies” — are stereotyped for a slew of unsavory habits. In his native Bulgaria, the poorest and most corrupt European Union member, they are often accused of freely selling their votes to the highest bidder.

So in the run-up to Sunday’s parliamentary elections, Isaev helped lead an “I Don’t Sell My Vote” campaign. He handed out T-shirts and hit the airwaves with a message he says is not just for the Roma.

Distributing fliers Friday in the downtown of this provincial city, Isaev wanted to remind Bulgarians, Roma and ethnic Turks alike of what is not just a Roma problem but a national affliction.

Whether the campaign will make a dent is unclear. Studies indicate that 30 percent of voters would be willing to sell their ballot for as little as 20 Bulgarian leva (about $14), or items like grilled meat, a bag of sugar or cooking oil. The situation has grown so bad that all campaign advertising must now note: “Buying and Selling of Votes is a Crime” — like cigarette packets reminding “Smoking Kills.”

It is this level of corruption, which extends far beyond the election, that is carrying Bulgaria to new depths. (more…)

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By Michael J. Jordan |

Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

from the March 21, 2007 edition

 

VILNIUS, LITHUANIA – Simonas Gurevicius has serious shtick. Blue eyes gleaming, he talks fast and animatedly. His accent, inflection, and shoulder shrugs – like a young Jackie Mason – makes him a throwback to the “Borscht Belt” and the dozens of famed, Yiddish-influenced comics who honed their acts in the upstate New York resorts that once catered to Eastern European Jewish immigrants.

 

But Simonas is no comic and he’s never been in the Catskills. He’s a Yiddish-speaking Jew from Lithuania, the Baltic region of northeastern Europe.

 

“Have a seat there,” Simonas says in English, motioning a visitor to a chair. As the visitor bends to sit, he adds: “The chair’s broken.”

 

“And this, this is a nice guy,” he deadpans, introducing a young colleague. Beat. “But he’s got major psychological problems.”

 

Simonas’s corny shtick is no gimmick; its rhythm and accent ring with authenticity. He’s a rare breed: a young, native speaker of Yiddish, the historic language of Eastern European Jews. And his perseverance makes him something of a hero here.

 

“Simonas is the last of the Mohicans,” says DovidKatz, the Brooklyn-born director of the Vilnius Yiddish Institute. “He’s the last of his generation here to have learned Yiddish in the home.”

 

The Holocaust erased 5 million of the world’s 11 million Yiddish-speakers. In Lithuania, 220,000 of 250,000 Jews died. But Simonas and other Jews here in Vilnius – the cobblestoned cradle of Yiddish life and culture, or Yiddishkeit; a city Napoleon reportedly dubbed “the Jerusalem of the East” – are today working to revive the language. (more…)

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