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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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Bratislava by night. (Photo: mjj)

Do not follow where the path may lead. Go instead where there is no path and leave a trail. — Ralph Waldo Emerson

 

BRATISLAVA – This blog leaves a trail.

As a journalist with a long-time base in Central and Eastern Europe, then on to Hong Kong in the Far East, and now back and forth again.

The pendulum continues to swing. My dispatches and photos below aim to open a window onto these unique societies.

Many are third-person serious; some, first-person humorous. (At least they try to be.) When you invest nearly 18 years of your life in an exotic locale, you have to take a step back and appreciate what’s around you, in a more intimate way.

All are produced from the perspective of an American foreign correspondent, journalism teacher and freelancer raising kids overseas.

Spliced in are my recent articles. I’ve been a correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor since 1995, and contributed more recently to Foreign Policy, Harvard’s Nieman Reports, Global Post, Ms. Magazine, The Mantle and other publications listed to the right. I also pitched in with two chapters to the newly published book on the Roma minority, “Gypsy Sexuality.”

Thank you for reading! … mjj

 

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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 June 1, 2011, on The Mantle.]

BRATISLAVA – From the slumber of their winter hibernation, I’ve pulled our bicycles from the depths of our cartoonishly overstuffed hall closet.

Dad’s self-appointed task: wipe down the dust and cobwebs, pump some life into those tires. Sure, I’ve suffered minor injuries, like a bruised shin, but I get no sympathy from this crowd.

There’s another cost, too. When you go so many months between riding a bicycle, as we did from fall to spring, certain muscles grow dormant. Guess what? They begin to atrophy. At least at my age, they do.

In the wake of that initial sojourn, then, I know I’ll feel a little achiness in the buttocks, knees and calves. So much so, I’ve begun blurting out a new slogan to anyone who’ll listen: I ain’t gettin’ any younger.

Yet, the muscle memory is there, retained. That maiden voyage flips the switch and re-activates the muscles. Soon enough, your confidence soars until even biking with little kids feels oh so natural.

Well, writing is just the same. Neglect certain skills, watch them wither.

I was thinking about this as I sat down to write another article for Harvard’s Nieman Reports. Sorting through hand-written notes, jotted in a notepad, becomes something of a chore. I find myself procrastinating. But of course I must go through these damn notes.

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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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Behind the banner of The Slovak Brotherhood: "For God and Nation!" (Photo: mjj)

[The following post appeared March 14 on The Mantle. It was republished March 19 on “Roma Transitions.”]

BRATISLAVAOn the first sunny Saturday of spring, we stroll across downtown Bratislava to a friend’s afternoon party. Suddenly, the chanting of men echoes off the buildings. Several Slovak cops come into view, with arms crossed, eyeing the situation. The din grows louder, headed our way.

“Must be football fans,” I think. “Is there a World Cup qualifier?”

No, another kind of hooligan, as the sunlight shimmers off a couple hundred shaved heads. It’s the “Slovak Brotherhood” – or Slovenksa Pospolitost, also known as “Slovak Togetherness.” While the Brotherhood agitates against “parasites” — Gypsies, Hungarians, Jews, etc. — they don’t boast nearly the visibility of the Czech Republic’s “Workers’ Social Justice Party,” nor the appeal of extremist colleagues to the south, the “Hungarian Guard.” (That uniformed paramilitary is now menacing Roma villagers in Hungary’s Heves County, a region I profiled last year for its far-right support.)

As fish-out-of-water expats in Bratislava, this sort of happenstance sure keeps life interesting for us. Here we are, enjoying Slovakia’s pleasant capital on a sleepy weekend, as our two sons race and weave on their scooters, undisturbed. The next minute, we find ourselves anxiously wading through a skinhead demonstration. Ah, Central Europe.

On this day, we stumble upon the Brotherhood’s annual march to commemorate the 1939 creation of Slovakia’s Nazi puppet-state. Led by the Catholic priest, Jozef Tiso, Slovakia went along with Hitler’s plans and deported tens of thousands of Jews to Auschwitz. Tiso was hanged in 1947 for his collaboration.

These young fascists take “boneheadedness to new levels of delusion,” says David Keys, an English friend who teaches 20th-century history in Bratislava. “They have to create a reading of history in which the Thousand Year Nazi racial hierarchy would have allotted Slovakia a privileged position forever shoulder to shoulder with Nazi Germany as a nation of honorary Aryans, and disregard every utterance Hitler ever made about Slavs, and every action taken against Czechs, Poles, Russians, Yugoslavs and indeed Slovak resisters.”

So here’s the Brotherhood, chanting allegiance to Tiso, whose rehabilitation has been a cause célèbre for Slovakia’s far-right. Especially, Jan Slota and his Slovak National Party, which until 2010 was for four years part of the ruling coalition. I see no counter-protest, though I later learn that an anti-fascist event, “Enough of Silence,” was sponsored the night before.

Without a camera, I fumble for my IPhone. Emboldened by the proximity of police — I’m always at my bravest with cops around — I inch closer to snap a few shots. My wife scurries along with the kids. Once I catch up, I give my sons a brief lesson on World War II – and the right to free speech today.

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[The following post appeared Jan. 20 on The Mantle.]

BRATISLAVA – It’s not the daily grind. More like a monthly juggle.

Juggling projects, that is. When I “penned” the first two entries of this soul-baring, me-as-guinea-pig blog last spring (here and here), I was writing about a different book. Which I hold off on publicizing, to spare myself the shame. It’s been shoved to the back-burner, along with other half-baked projects. And ideas for projects.

Instead, teaching in Hong Kong leapt to the front-burner. It meant a golden opportunity to return to mainland China and launch the book project I hatched in Fall 2009, the first time I taught in Hong Kong. Since Slovakia is a long way from China, I knew I couldn’t visit my subjects too often. It made sense to join forces with an HK-based colleague.

So, with the support of my long-suffering wife, I pull cash from our savings and pay for a one-week reporting trip to the mainland, prior to my HK teaching stint. A train trip, two flights, nights in a hotel. Now that’s what we call in the freelance biz an investment. Will there be a return? Damn straight.

But that was just the cash. Then came the time and effort. From the time I returned home to my family in Bratislava, end of October, it took me almost two full months to complete an introduction and sample chapter. For me, a staggering 12,000 words. At 250 per page, that’s about 48 pages.

Had to do it, though. One cardinal rule of journalism, and of life itself: to convince readers, or any audience for that matter, it’s better to show, not tell. I’m only an Aspiring First-Time Author. (A snazzy title I may soon print on my business cards.) I have little to stand on, beyond those thousand-plus newspaper and magazine articles.

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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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[The following piece appeared Dec. 9 on The Mantle.]

BRATISLAVA – After a second sampling of Chinese culture, I’ve returned to Slovakia with a fancy for drinking tea. Straight. No honey or sugar. No lemon or milk. Just the tea, thanks.

In fact, that’s just the way I order it from Slovak waiters and waitresses: “Len a čaj.” Only the tea. Most nod and bring me two packets of sugar anyway.

Pure tea is the Chinese away, the original way. For five millennia. Savor the taste of the leaves. The medicinal benefits. Even the spiritual benefits. To Chinese, it ranks among the “seven necessities of life.”

Now, I’m not a spiritual kinda guy. Back in Budapest when I gave yoga a whirl, I was less interested in the chakra than the lycra – worn by the limber woman beside me. For me, tea is about flavor and authenticity. It’s like sipping nature.

Similarly, earlier this year, I drastically altered my drinking of espresso. No milk, no sugar. Cold turkey. Len a kava. I figure I ingest enough fats and sugars every day. (As we speak, a half-devoured bar of dark chocolate beckons from my coat pocket…)

In related news, I’m not getting any younger. So why not eliminate one tiny vice from my life?

While patting myself on the back, though, I concede an unseemly side-effect: without that milky filter, espresso has stained my teeth the color of ripe sunflower fields in Hungary. Say chee-ee-eese!

Wait a sec. I’ve been victimized by something called “Hong Kong Foot,” due to carelessness in the tropical clamminess. Why then, in the heart of café culture, can we not anoint another geographic-specific affliction: “Central European Teeth”? From what I see around here, I’m not the only sufferer.

I even have the makings of a definition: The unfortunate consequence of a daily addiction to espresso, consumed without the amelioration of dairy – or lactose-free dairy – products. (Note to self: first copyright “Central European Teeth,” then start a support group.)

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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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[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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MALINOVO, Slovakia – It was so sad, the way it ended. On the football pitch, exhausted. Dreams crushed. They would not be champions, after all.

I’m not talking about Slovakia’s heroic football team, which succumbed to Holland on Monday, 2-1, four days after pulling the greatest upset of the 2010 World Cup.

I’m talking about the traumatic finish to my 8-year-old son’s football tournament on Sunday. Devastating.

A postcard-perfect afternoon, in this village outside Bratislava, we cheered from the sidelines of a sun-drenched field as our team of 7- and 8-year-olds squared off against three other teams.

When my kid started playing, he was as fluid with the ball as a newborn giraffe. I thought his true calling in football was as scorekeeper.

A year later, remarkably, he bounds after it gracefully. Like an antelope. Oh, and he’s the only one in eyeglasses, which miraculously survived the season intact. In the process, he was named most improved player.

During the tournament’s first 30-minute game, with our boys ahead and feeling giddy, their English coach understatedly advised: “Win this one … and the next two … and you’ll win the championship!”

They won the first, 3-0. “We are the champions!” they sang. Prematurely, I thought.

They then won the second, by an identical 3-0. We fathers were feeling pretty good, too. Since our kids attend an international school, we hail from all directions. One shouted encouragement to his son in Finnish; another, in German; a third, Japanese; a fourth, Danish; and a fifth, um, in Australian.

The opponents were mostly Slovak, with some ethnic Hungarians mixed in. One coach caught my attention, as he seemlessly barked commands to his squad in both languages. (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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(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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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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Slovakia sent the Swedes packing.

BRATISLAVA — That’s what Slovakia’s leading sports daily blared this morning: “Attack for a medal!” It’s the rally cry for their Cinderella of a hockey team: snag a medal, any medal.

To conquer its semi-final foe tonight, the behemoth Canada, on its own ice, in front of 19,000 rabid fans, may be too much to ask of Slovakia. Sure, hockey is the national sport for this Central European nation of five million; we see Slovak tykes as young as three in full hockey gear, carving up the rinks.

Sure, the national hockey team won the world championship in 2002, and consistently ranks among the top ten in the world. However, in the four previous Olympics since Slovakia gained independence from the ex-Czechoslovakia in 1993, its hockey team finished no higher than fifth.

That’s why Wednesday’s stunning victory over defending-champion Sweden was so significant: the 4-3 nail-biter guaranteed Slovakia its best-ever finish.

Indeed, my wife wondered why there was no traffic early yesterday morning: a Slovak colleague later explained that most everyone was home, watching Slovakia withstand the final, frenetic minutes of the Swedish team.

Thanks to the nine-hour time difference with Vancouver, the epic semi-final today begins here at 3:45 in the morning. Could there be a worse time for a television event? Slovaks country-wide will be thrust into a quandary: stay up late, or get up early? (more…)

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BRATISLAVA – I stopped in a local sports shop yesterday to buy my older son a birthday present: a Slovak hockey jersey. (Yes, I’ve been bitten by the Olympic bug. See Feb. 19 post, “The Thrill of Victory”)

I wound up in a pleasant conversation, in Slovak, with the shop clerk and his buddy. After my hiatus to study some Cantonese (see Sept. 22 post, “Easy For You To Say”), I’m regaining the sea legs with the Slovak language. Four months away set me back. Yet during this unexpected chat, I felt it return to me.

Where I stumbled, I could see the friend furiously recalling the English he’d learned in high school. So, we bantered, and I heard all about their Slovak friend who’d lived in the U.S. for 30-some years, fathered two children – both U.S. citizens – but was then deported back here. For some reason. That part escaped me. But I understood the gist!

(I settled on a 20-euro jersey of Slovak Marian Hossa, a leader of the current Olympic team. I later showed my son online how Hossa plays professionally for the Chicago Black Hawks. I figured, he needs to know just how cool this over-sized jersey really is. He caught my drift … and wore it as pajamas last night.)

With the jersey tucked under my arm, I moved on to a café: time for some espresso. I plugged in at a table next to three pleasant-looking young women. Speaking Hungarian. Their mother tongue. So pleasant to my ear, since I hear it every day, between my wife and our kids, and often between our sons. (Me, only when I scold them – in code.)

(more…)

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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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1968: Ladislav Bielik's image, on display exactly 40 years later in Bratislava, is a poignant symbol of Moscow's aggression. (Photo: mjj)

[This piece appeared Aug. 22, 2008, in the Christian Science Monitor.]

Ladislav Bielik’s iconic image of a Slovak baring his chest to the barrel of a Soviet tank is part of a commemorative exhibit 40 years ago to the day.

By Michael J. Jordan | Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

BRATISLAVA, SLOVAKIA – Before the 1989 photo of a Chinese man confronting tanks in Tiananmen Square, there was the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia captured by Ladislav Bielik’s iconic image of a protester in Bratislava baring his chest to the barrel of a Soviet tank – 40 years ago Thursday.

The moment is brought to life here in Slovakia’s capital, where Bielik’s sequential batch of 185 photos are featured in a photo exhibit on the same square where ordinary citizens confronted the Soviets that morning.

Bielik, whose office was just around the corner, shot them the morning of Aug. 21, only hours after tanks rolled in to snuff out a glimmer of democratic reform known as the Prague Spring.

“You can read a history book about what happened then, or someone will say ‘There were tanks here,’ but when you see these photos, you know it was real,” says student Tanya Takacova, born just before the 1989 collapse of communist Czechoslovakia.

While Bielik’s photos drive the Slovak narrative of that Soviet-led invasion, some cannot resist drawing broader parallels between Moscow’s aggression then and its recent invasion of Georgia.

“This is no longer 1968 and the invasion of Czechoslovakia, when a great power invaded a small neighbor and overthrew its government,” said US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice last week in criticism of Moscow.

Radio Prague quoted one Czech man as saying, “Russia never changes…. They’re incapable of being free, so they don’t want anyone else to enjoy their freedom.” (more…)

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The author says it was "gratifying" to see his sons Kende, far left, and Miksa, second from left, "find their Jewishness a comfortable fit" at a Jewish camp in Hungary. (Photo: mjj)

The author says it was "gratifying" to see his sons Kende, far left, and Miksa, second from left, "find their Jewishness a comfortable fit" at a Jewish camp in Hungary. (Photo: mjj)

By Michael J. Jordan · June 23, 2008

 

 

SZARVAS, HUNGARY (JTA) – A friend told me recently about an article he had read proposing that one way to encourage children to eat salad is to drizzle a dab of dressing on top. This way, they would associate healthy eating with something positive rather than the parental harangue, “Because it’s good for you.”

 

I was reminded of this advice earlier this month when we immersed our two sons, ages 6 and 4, in their first meaningful Jewish experience: five days at the renowned international Camp Szarvas in southeastern Hungary.

 

On this occasion, though, instead of the hundreds of Jewish youth from across Central-Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union who gather here each summer at this Jewish oasis, it was Family Week for Hungarian Jewish families with young children.

 

It was particularly important for my boys to have a positive experience, as my Hungarian wife and I have agreed to raise them with dual identities: Hungarian and Jewish – with a dash of American. And while Agi has held up her end of the deal, I – a tribal agnostic – need to offer up some Jewish substance. Or, as we say in journalism, “show, don’t tell” what being a Jew means to me. (more…)

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The capture of nuclear materials in Slovakia last week raises security questions about borderless travel.

 

By Michael J. Jordan |

Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

from the December 4, 2007 edition

 

BRATISLAVA, SLOVAKIA – The capture of over a pound of powderized uranium in Slovakia last week has served as a sharp reminder to Europe, though nuclear experts have cast doubt on the assertion by local law-enforcement officials that terrorists could have used it for a “dirty bomb.”

 

The incident comes just weeks before Slovakia, Hungary, and seven other recent European Union inductees — some of which are former Soviet states – join the passport-free Schengen zone on Dec. 21.

 

As the EU’s borderless travel area expands, the arrest has brought renewed attention to unsecured nuclear material from former Soviet states.

 

“We seem to be immune to understanding that this is worrisome, [saying] ‘Oh well, it’s not enough for a nuclear weapon, or radioactive enough for a dirty bomb,'” says Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Washington.

 

“Enriched uranium at any level is a worry; even if low-enriched uranium, it should be a wake-up call of the danger that someone who might be covertly enriching to make a bomb’s worth of highly enriched uranium could get a hold of this as fresh feed to accelerate their enrichment efforts.”

(more…)

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By Michael J. Jordan |

Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

from the May 15, 2007 edition

 

BRATISLAVA, SLOVAKIA – Two years ago this week, Uzbekistan’s security forces opened fire on antigovernment demonstrators in the city of Andijan, killing 187 people. That’s the official number. The actual figure was likely hundreds more, say most observers.

 

With the anniversary of the “Andijan massacre,” one would expect Western journalists to flood into this ex-Soviet republic. They would be expected to write stories about how a predominantly Muslim nation in Central Asia that Washington had enlisted in its “War on Terror” had since clamped down on dissent.

 

They would likely note that Freedom House, the pro-democracy watchdog based in Washington, now ranks Uzbekistan as among “the worst of the worst” abusers of human rights and civil liberties in the world.

 

Instead, Uzbek President Islam Karimov has effectively gagged the media. Besides persecuting independent local journalists and blocking critical news websites, Tashkent has barred entry to most foreign correspondents.

 

“It’s easily explained: [Mr.] Karimov doesn’t want any foreign witness to what’s going on,” says Elsa Vidal, head of the Europe desk for the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders.

 

Yet, Uzbeks are puzzled – and upset – by this lack of foreign coverage. Revealing the depth of their isolation, one Uzbek journalist asked me at a recent videoconference to mark World Press Freedom Day, “Why are no foreign journalists in Uzbekistan? Not interested?” (more…)

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