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Posts Tagged ‘Bulgaria’

[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.

(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 Aug. 13, 2010, on The Mantle.]

 

PRAGUE – I’m no war correspondent. (Though, rubber bullets whizzing overhead, in a night-time street battle during Albania’s 1997 civil unrest, wasn’t exactly fluffy feature-writing. Read here, here and here.)

A Romani man in the Hungarian town of Heves describes the widespread unemployment his community faces. (Photo: mjj)

In fact, in recent years the only time my reporting from Central and Eastern Europe turns “dangerous” is when I enter Roma neighborhoods. At least, that’s what everyone seems to tell me: “Don’t go in that Gypsy ghetto – you won’t get out alive!”

It’s one of the ugliest stereotypes of a heavily stereotyped minority: the Roma are so savage, the mere sight of an outsider gadjo on their street will unleash the beast within. Yet here I am, unscathed, after exploring Roma quarters in Romania, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Kosovo, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic.

I don’t doubt isolated incidence of violence, where, say, local police or media perhaps went in provocatively, were surrounded and attacked. Centuries of victimization make Roma understandably suspicious of the majority population’s intentions.

Or, an ordinary person may wind up in the wrong place, wrong time. The most tragic example: in October 2006, a Hungarian teacher driving through the northeast village of Olaszliszka struck a Romani girl with his car. Some say she wasn’t hit, let alone injured. Who knows? Nevertheless, the incensed crowd of Roma beat the motorist to death – while his two daughters watched.

As journalists, we have a simple but ethical duty: if one source bad-mouths, or even demonizes, another, we must give the second side a chance to defend itself. Even if that means overcoming our own fears, implanted and fanned by others. With that in mind, I’ve devised a strategy for reporters to enter Roma neighborhoods – and win over their denizens. I shared this with two participants from my latest journalism training in Prague. (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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Hungarian Guardsman garb on Election Day. (Photo: AP)

[This piece appeared April 16 in Transitions Online.]

MOSONMAGYAROVAR, Hungary – It hasn’t gone unnoticed in Europe that the real story of Hungary’s April 11 elections wasn’t just that the right-wing Fidesz party ousted the tiresome Socialists to return to power amid economic hardship. It was that Jobbik, a self-described “radical” party, strategically and successfully scape-goated the country’s large Roma and Jewish minorities to win 17 percent of the vote.

Not only did the number soar past the 5 percent threshold to enter Parliament, it was triple the high-water mark achieved by an earlier Hungarian far-right party in 1998.

For the European Union, there ought to be concern that it also represents the greatest triumph of any openly anti-minority party among the 10 ex-Communist states who are its newest EU members.

Let me explain why this is bad for Hungary, which for years was a leading light amid the region’s entire post-1989 transition from dictatorship to democracy. I say this as a foreign correspondent sitting next door in Slovakia, but also lived it first-hand in Budapest, from the mid- to late-1990s.

First, the fact a whopping two-thirds of Hungarian voters thrust rightward – Fidesz secured 53 percent of the ballots; the Socialists, just 19 – does not threaten to upend a 20-year-old democracy.

However, the quality of Hungarian democracy is sickly indeed. The drumbeat of years of political incitement has imbedded a hatred that even drives apart some family and friends. Not to mention what it’s done to swathes of society.

Anti-minority barbs may lead elsewhere. The past two years have seen six Hungarian Roma murdered. On the flip side, in September 2006, several Roma beat to death a Hungarian motorist, while his children watched, after he hit and injured a Romani girl. Last February, in a pub fight, a Rom stabbed and killed a renowned Romanian handball player, competing in the Hungarian league.

Hungary is hardly unique. (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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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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Heavy snow paralyzed much of Bucharest, causing schools to close for THREE days. (Photo: mjj)

BUCHAREST, Romania – One of my very worst habits is being late. In Romania, though, I’ve found kindred spirits.

I’ve only been in snow-covered Bucharest for 24 hours, yet have already managed to be late for several appointments – the brutal combination of horrendous traffic and slick roads only partly to blame. But our team has also been kept waiting for several other meetings.

In each case, reporting partner Petru Zoltan or my interpreter, journalist Lavinia Gliga, has reassured me with a smiling declaration: “This is Romania!”

History-rich Romania is one of the most colorful characters of all the ex-Communist Eastern Europeans. And this sentiment seems a charming mix of Romanian resignation and optimism: things will surely be fouled up, but it just may work out in the end. It also reflects serious self-deprecating humor.

A popular Romanian TV host became famous for his sign-off: “We live in Romania, and that takes up all of our time.” Later, Lavinia would further illustrate the dark humor when explaining a fascinating photo we saw: the Romanian photographer had superimposed a map of Europe over a human buttocks, with his homeland smack in the, um, rectum. (more…)

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Election monitor Rayna Dzhipova explains to officials in an ethnic-Turkish village the potential violations she saw during the July 5 elections. (Photo: mjj)

[This piece appeared Oct. 13, 2009, in Transitions.]

Bulgarians know well that “Buying and Selling Votes is a Crime,” but views on who the main culprits are depend on social affinities.

by Michael J. Jordan and Ognyan Isaev

RAZGRAD, Bulgaria | The urgent call pipes into Rayna Dzhipova’s cell phone as she drives through the Bulgarian countryside. “They’re giving away cheese in Vladimirovtsi!” she exclaims, flooring the accelerator toward the remote village in the country’s northeast. Dashing across bumpy rural roads, past sunflower fields and donkey-drawn carts, she hopes to catch the vote-buyers red-handed.

During the 5 July parliamentary elections, Dzhipova has an unusual role: roving watchdog, patrolling the anticipated “hotspots” heavily populated by ethnic Turks and Roma – a favorite target of vote-buyers. While the vote-selling phenomenon cuts across ethnic and economic lines here, Turks are typically pressured by their community to vote for the ethnic-Turkish party, and the Roma – many of whom are destitute and hold few hopes that any party will improve their lot – are particularly vulnerable.

“I tell people, ‘You cannot blame anyone for your situation if you haven’t used your right and voted,’ ” says Dzhipova, 23, an ethnic Bulgarian who hails from the Turkish-majority city of Razgrad.

With the help of monitors like Dzhipova, the European Union’s poorest and reputedly most corrupt member has finally produced a rare bit of good news for both Bulgaria and Brussels. According to a newly released report by the Civil Society Coalition for a Free and Democratic Vote, public awareness and high turnout – some 60 percent – successfully diluted the corrosive effect of vote-buying this time around. (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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'Iron Meggy': Bulgaria has entrusted diplomat Meglena Plugchieva to clean up corruption of EU aid. Massive amounts of EU assistance are being withheld until reforms are made. (Photo: mjj)

'Iron Meggy': Bulgaria has entrusted diplomat Meglena Plugchieva to clean up corruption of EU aid. Massive amounts of EU assistance are being withheld until reforms are made. (Photo: mjj)

Frustrations mount over Bulgaria – the most violent, corrupt, and poorest of EU members. Aid is being withheld as reform promises are made (and broken). Can it be fixed?

 

By Michael J. Jordan|

Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

From the December 31, 2008 edition

 

SOFIA, BULGARIA – This spring, after Bulgaria recalled Meglena Plugchieva from her ambassadorship in Berlin to clean up widespread corruption and misuse of European Union funds, she warned fellow ministers they must act to prevent the loss of massive funding from Brussels.

 

But Ms. Plugchieva also vowed to stand up to Western criticism that singles out her nation’s ills. “Bulgaria is not the cradle of corruption,” she said. “Germany also has its corruption-related scandals.”

 

The “double standard” defense, though, wasn’t enough to deter a stinging financial slap delivered last month by a European Commission angry after millions of euros in development assistance had been siphoned off and a string of high-profile corruption and murder investigations resulted in no convictions.

 

Bulgaria’s case was putting the credibility of EU enlargement at stake: Brussels needed to send a message to those arguing against further expansion and to candidates banging on the door, including Croatia, Serbia, Albania, and Turkey. Just last month, EU officials warned Croatia that its failure to crack down on organized crime and corruption jeopardizes its chance to join the EU next year.

 

“Brussels needed to get serious, to show they’re not just taking a country’s word for fighting corruption,” says Katinka Barysch, deputy director of the Center for European Reform in London. “If they can’t do that with Bulgaria, how are you going to do that with the countries still queuing outside?”

 

(more…)

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Bulgarian potato farmer: Atanas Birnikov used European Union development aid to buy new machinery.

Bulgarian potato farmer: Atanas Birnikov used European Union development aid to buy new machinery.(Photo: mjj)

Failure to curb corruption means less assistance for some.

 

By Michael J. Jordan |

Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

from the December 31, 2008 edition

 

VELINGRAD, BULGARIA – When Atanas Birnikov was a child, his parents’ rolling farmland at the base of the Rodopi Mountains was seized by the communist regime.

 

Fifty years later, after Mr. Birnikov lost his job in the turbulence of the post-communist transition, he was able to reclaim these ancestral lands.

 

Now, Birnikov finds himself a rookie potato farmer. Reviving the farming tradition, he says, couldn’t have happened without funds from the European Union, which enabled him to repay huge bank loans for seeds and farm machinery.

 

“When you’re left out on the street, you have to figure out how to survive,” Birnikov said during the recent harvest, as several dozen seasonal workers he’s hired gathered spuds nearby. “Because we have such young farms, we need help to get on our feet.”

 

Birnikov is one of many Bulgarians benefiting from EU taxpayer assistance – the very funding that the EU has withdrawn because of Bulgaria’s failure to curb corruption. (more…)

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Bulgarian police cadets Elena Kolcheva and Danail Velichkov say they hope to improve the reputation of Bulgarian policing. (Photo: mjj)

Bulgarian police cadets Elena Kolcheva and Danail Velichkov say they hope to improve the reputation of Bulgarian policing. (Photo: mjj)

‘We need a moral cleansing of the system,’ says jurist Nelly Koutzkova.

 

By Michael J. Jordan |

Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

from the December 31, 2008 edition

 

SOFIA, BULGARIA – Many residents of the European Union’s most corrupt and violent member state say that apart from the uniforms there’s little difference between Bulgaria’s cops and mobsters. But over at the Simeonovo Police Academy, on the sprawling eastern edge of the capital, cadets Elena Kolcheva and Danail Velichkov are champing at the bit to get the bad guys.

 

“My family and friends don’t trust the police to be effective,” says Ms. Kolcheva, who’s ranked second in her class and hopes to someday investigate murders. “But now they see the younger generation is motivated to change the system.”

 

Brussels bemoans that as many as 150 assassinations over recent years have produced no prosecutions in Bulgaria. Locals blame a police and court system infested with bribery. A common joke in the business community here is, “we don’t invest in lawyers, we invest in judges.”

 

But there’s also a glimmer of hope that the next generation of police and judges will take a more professional approach to justice. Cadet Kolcheva says a major corruption conviction would embolden her and her fellow cadets. This view is shared by Nelly Koutzkova, former president of the Bulgarian Judges Association.

 

“A young colleague complained to me, ‘When I’m in the courtroom, I feel everyone look at me like I’m for sale,'” Ms. Koutzkova says. “We need a moral cleansing of the system, where even one prosecution would show people, inside and outside, there’s justice for the justices as well.” (more…)

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Bulgarian wrestler Hristo Stoilov (Photo: mjj)

Bulgarian wrestler Hristo Stoilov (Photo: mjj)

Despite the lure of easy money, Bulgaria’s Hristo Stoilov says he’s refused to use his muscles for criminal activity.

 

By Michael J. Jordan |

Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

from the December 31, 2008 edition

 

SOFIA, BULGARIA – While practicing takedown flips with a dummy, Hristo Stoilov’s phone rang. The wrestler, covered in sweat and wearing tights, listened for a minute, shook his head, then returned to grappling. Later, Mr. Stoilov explained the call was from a friend offering him “easy” money to rough up a debtor.

 

Although Stoilov’s thick muscles and steely presence might allow him to quickly earn the $200 fee for intimidating a debtor into paying, he says this is no way to live, not even if a single “visit” yields as much as he earns in two weeks as a personal trainer.

 

“I want to live a quiet life,” Stoilov says.

 

Wrestling, the national sport, once generated jobs, entertainment, and considerable national pride here during international tournaments. During communist times, with state-controlled dreck on television, most towns held Saturday night matches. And the state paid wages to some 50,000 wrestlers and coaches – in a country of only 8 million.

 

The postcommunist economic crisis left thousands of wrestlers unemployed, says Emil Budinov, a former national wrestling champion and now a coach.

 

“Imagine: you start winning medals, but then the system collapses and you’re left with nothing,” Mr. Budinov says. “But you’re a strong man, a brave man. So what do you do? You go out on the street.” (more…)

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A year after being released from prison in Libya, where courts had accused them infecting children with HIV, five nurses face tough living at home.

 

By Michael J. Jordan |

Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

from the November 19, 2008 edition

 

SOFIA, BULGARIA – For eight years, five Bulgarian nurses were locked in a Libyan prison, accused of intentionally infecting 426 Libyan children with HIV, and dreaming of the day they would get released and expose the charges as fraudulent.

 

But that day came and went more than a year ago, and now the nurses find themselves facing an increasingly stark reality as they adjust to life back in Bulgaria.

 

While they’re working with the producers of the Oscar-nominated “Hotel Rwanda” to make a film based on their story, the real life version has had anything but a Hollywood ending.

 

Although prominent Libyan authorities admitted that the nurses were tortured into confessing, some Bulgarians still believe that the nurses are guilty. Others view them as opportunistic, and trying to exploit their situation for unreasonable compensation. In reality, many of the nurses now say they’re struggling to make ends meet.

 

“I’m very disappointed in humankind,” says Valentina Siropulo, one of the nurses who has returned to the hospital she worked in before traveling to Libya. “Not only because of the way we were treated in Libya, but also the extreme negative reactions here in Bulgaria.”

(more…)

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Crusader: Bulgarian journalist Hristo Hristov has fought for more than a decade to uncover the truth about Georgi Markov's murder that took place in London 30 years ago. (Photo: mjj)

Crusader: Bulgarian journalist Hristo Hristov has fought for more than a decade to uncover the truth about Georgi Markov's murder that took place in London 30 years ago. (Photo: mjj)

The death of Bulgarian writer Georgi Markov in 1978 raises questions about Europe’s lingering ties to communism.

 

By Michael J. Jordan |

Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

from the October 28, 2008 edition

 

SOFIA, BULGARIA – While Bulgarian émigré Georgi Markov walked over Waterloo Bridge in London on Sept. 7, 1978, a passerby bumped into the well-known critic of his native government. A stinging pain shot through Mr. Markov’s calf, and four days later he was dead.

 

Investigators initially thought an assassin, hired by the communist regime in Bulgaria, jabbed him with a poison-tipped umbrella. But later reports suggested a spring-loaded pen, probably KGB-designed, had fired a ricin-tipped pellet into his leg.

 

Today much of the Markov murder remains shrouded in mystery. The case, however, is just one of many unsolved mysteries spurring intense debate in Eastern Europe between critics and defenders of the communist system.

 

 

Though the days of Soviet control are but a distant memory, revelations about who was once a spy or informant continues to rock the region. Many communist-era officials remain in power and continue to hold onto a number of secrets about the past, not only to protect themselves and their allies, but the reputation of the former dictatorships. (more…)

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