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Posts Tagged ‘Eastern Europe’

[This piece appeared Sept. 2 on Transitions.]

Guards lead sick inmates in the hallway of the Jilava prison hospital. (Photo: mjj)

Romania’s prisons are slowly gaining ground on tuberculosis, but the prognosis on AIDS is less encouraging.

by Petru Zoltan and Michael J. Jordan

JILAVA, Romania | In 2007, Octavian Balescu was sentenced to seven years in jail for trying to sell less than half a gram of heroin.

He was thrown into Romania’s Jilava prison, just outside the capital, Bucharest. Jilava, once notorious for its inhumane treatment of prisoners, is where, in November 1940, Romania’s fascist leader Marshal Ion Antonescu and his Legionnaires executed 64 opponents. And it was where, during four decades of communism, the paranoid regime of Nicolae Ceausescu would send anyone it deemed a threat.

Today, Romanian prisoners are surely better off. With the country a new member of the EU, it has adopted Western-style prisoner rights, of which inmates are informed.

Still, prisoners have something to fear: Jilava could make them gravely ill, as it has done to Balescu. “My most basic right is to do my time without getting sick,” he said. But somewhere along the way, he contracted tuberculosis and landed in the Jilava prison hospital, the largest in the Romanian prison system.

His plight is hardly surprising in Romania, which has the highest TB rate among the 27 EU countries. Observers say the prison system is a primary source of infection, not only for the inmates, but for their visitors and their jailers as well.

There’s positive news, though. Romania’s TB rate is declining, and officials continue to reverse a Ceausescu policy built on lies. They are no longer denying the problem exists and are accepting Western assistance. (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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[The following appeared June 10 on The Mantle.]

Hungary's 19th-century Parliament ... now stands in Slovakia. (Photo: mjj)

 

BRATISLAVA – There’s nothing that nationalists in Central Europe relish more than to commemorate an historic injustice, harping on their victimization. If it falls during an election season, even better.

The 90-year-old Treaty of Trianon – which dismembered the old Kingdom of Hungary, carving up its land and its people – has resurfaced in an ugly spat between Slovakia and Hungary, influencing Slovakia’s upcoming June 12 elections. In the middle of this scrum is the half-million-strong Hungarian minority in Slovakia.

In a land once known to the Magyars as “Upper Lands,” it also poisons what just may be the worst neighborly relations of any ex-Communist countries to join the European Union.

The fact it comes on Trianon’s anniversary, on the eve of Slovakia’s national election, creates almost perfect-storm conditions for petty but dangerous politics. What caught my eye, though, is how similar the tactics are by mainstream nationalists and extremists on both sides.

This comes from someone with a fairly unique perspective: during my 17 years of reporting from the region, I’ve lived in both countries. I try to appreciate the narratives of both nations.

Preserving identity at the Hungarian school in Bratislava: Viki M, Viki V, Dia, Mate, Andrea. (Photo: mjj)

Bratislava, known to Hungarians as Pozsony, served as Hungary’s capital during the first half of the 19th century. This is why I commemorated Trianon with a short walk from my home to the city’s greatest living symbol of Hungarian identity, the Magyar alapiskola es gimnazium – the Hungarian-language primary and high school. The elegant, 130-year-old building dominates an entire block downtown.

It’s there I met a quintet of 18-year-olds stung by the slings and arrows fired from both sides of the mighty Danube: the ethnic Hungarians of Slovakia. It may have been their great-grandparents sheared from the motherland in 1920, but they’re savvy to their quandary today.

“In my family we say, ‘Yeah, both sides are just using us,’” says Andrea Menyhartova. (more…)

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[The following appeared May 22 in The Mantle.]

BRATISLAVA – Slovakia, like its neighbors in Central Europe, has one of the tiniest percentages of Muslims in the European Union: an estimated 5,000 in a population of 5.4 million.

Yet that doesn’t mean off-the-beaten-path Slovakia isn’t worried by trends across the Western half of the continent.

It sees France, which this month moved a step closer to banning the full-faced veil; Belgium, which last month did the same; Sweden, still besieged over a cartoon of Mohammad; and Switzerland, which barred minarets six months ago and has one canton trying to forbid the full-body burqa.

Slovakia wants no part of that.

The state has effectively capped its Muslim community with a combination of legalistic and bureaucratic hurdles: tight rules in immigration, asylum and residency. The community, meanwhile, says authorities in the capital, Bratislava, have for years blocked it from building the country’s first mosque.

It’s not just that post-Communist Slovakia has enough of its own troubles, from economic crisis to inter-ethnic tensions with its two largest minorities. And it’s not necessarily anti-Muslim sentiment, though the post-9/11 era has surely injected a dose of Islamophobia into this deeply Catholic nation.

Mohamad Safwan Hasna has one hunch why. The Syrian-born head of The Islamic Foundation of Slovakia has lived here for 20 years, speaks fluent Slovak, and married a local Muslim convert.

“I have to be diplomatic,” Hasna says with a smile. “The Slovaks are conservative. They’re not interested in others. They don’t feel the need to learn about other cultures. It’s something about the mentality. But the youth are more open-minded and curious.”

Hasna is speaking to me after he sat on a panel discussion about the meaning of religious symbols. (Like the rare head scarf spotted on a Muslim woman in Bratislava.) The chat is part of a broader series of events, “The Week of New Minorities,” organized by a local human-rights group, the Milan Simecka Foundation. Simecka’s Laco Oravec has another explanation: xenophobia.

(more…)

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[The following appeared May 14 in The Mantle.]

PRAGUE, Czech Republic – Beyond the fact Prague is one of Europe’s great cities, you can’t walk down a street here – or anywhere in ex-Communist Eastern Europe, for that matter – and not spot a metaphor that illuminates how dramatically life has changed here, twenty years later.

A bilingual preschool in Prague. (Photo: mjj)

And if I didn’t have this blog, there’d be no one for me to tell. (Sniff, sniff.)

This week’s window onto the transition comes courtesy of Czech education. I was in Prague for a workshop on how to use multimedia journalism to better explain education issues in a more compelling way. My partner, the multimedia guy, and I, a print guy, showed eight colleagues how to assemble a written and visual project for the Prague-based magazine, Transitions Online.

And what a unique crop of journalists it was: six young women from post-Communist Eastern Europe, one from South Africa, and a fellow from Kenya. Divided into three teams, each was handed a pocket-sized video camera to use here, then take back home to produce more journalism for TOL.

I could go on for hours about how challenging this shoulder-to-shoulder training was for all of us, but more blog-worthy were the three faces of Czech education it revealed:

A Roma-specialized school in Prague. (Photo: mjj)

*The widening gender gap in the IT industry, and how little is done to encourage more women to pursue well-paying jobs in software or hardware development.

*That more and more Czechs are savvy enough about their children’ future – and enjoy the deep enough pockets – to send their kids to a growing number of bilingual preschools.

*A network of nine Czech schools that specialize in teaching Romani students, in a country that even the European Court of Human Rights condemned in 2007 for anti-Roma segregation in schools.

(more…)

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[The following appeared May 1 in The Mantle.]

BRATISLAVA – Peter is a young Slovak journalist, just 21, and splits his time between writing for the financial-advice pages of a leading economic paper and finishing his university degree.

When I was a greenhorn reporter like him – in the inland deserts of Southern California – I, too, could be intimidated by an imperious, tough-talking official. So I wasn’t surprised to hear of Peter’s recent struggle to extract information from a spokesman for the Slovak social-insurance agency whom he says is “famous for answering by saying nothing.” But the flak happens to be close to the ruling party in government, as is the agency boss.

When Peter’s article appeared, the spokesman hit him with five pages full of complaints. Only a few cited minor factual errors, says Peter; the rest read like he was simply irritated with the article itself.

“Don’t worry,” Peter’s editor told him. “I’ll handle it.”

That’s apparently not enough for the young reporter, who didn’t want to be further identified, or his paper either, since the matter is yet to be resolved.

“I want to learn how to speak with people like this, to be sure of what my rights are,” says Peter.

That’s why he was among the dozens of journalists who attended the “Journalists in Conflict” conference this week in Bratislava – to mark World Press Freedom Day. Not war-zone conflict, but the sorts of conflict reporters run into with sources, employers, the audience, or their own self-interest.

The forum, though, opened a window onto the myriad issues affecting Slovakia and its post-Communist neighbors, from worsening economic pressures, to the various forms of political coercion. (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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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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Ion and Oana, standing in front of their village school, explained how their parents assimilated. (Photo: mjj)

TARGU JIU, Romania – In late 2006, an American Yiddishist in Vilnius, Lithuania, Dovid Katz, explained to me why language is the connective tissue for any tribe.

“A bona fide linguistic community must have streets where that language is spoken,” Katz said during the interview.

I’ve now seen this theory in action in the Romanian city of Targu Jiu. In the neighborhood of “Meteor,” the Kalderash Roma live together, practice the same traditions, and their womenfolk dress distinctively: vibrant skirt, head scarf and hair braided down the front. Just as important, though, is that they’re speaking their mother tongue, Romani.

Just outside of Targu Jiu is the quiet village of Ceauru, which is populated by both Roma and Romanians. The Roma here have a unique history, says the director of the local school, Cornel Somacu. He himself is Romanian, but he tells us he’s researched this because so many of his students, including some of his highest-achieving girls, are Roma.

For centuries, the Roma here were slaves owned by the local monastery. After emancipation in the 19th century, many remained in the village, living on separate sides from the ethnic Romanians. That continued until 1950, says Somacu, when the new Communist regime wanted to build a power plant nearby. The authorities uprooted the entire village, Roma and Romanians alike, and resettled them in new housing and new neighborhoods with utter disregard for who lived next to whom.

“This also mixed up the mentalities,” he says …

Just like the Jews of Eastern Europe and other ethnic groups I’ve written about, Communist pressure to conform created this “Lost Generation” of children whose parents refused to transmit unique cultural traits. (more…)

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Armed guards escort TB-infected patients in the Jilava prison hospital. (Photo: mjj)

JILAVA, Romania – I’ve now lived in ex-Communist Eastern Europe for most of the 20-year transition to democracy. And try as I might, I’ll never fully appreciate what it was like to live under dictatorship.

I can, however, imagine those farthest from human rights were the fellows thrown behind bars of a Communist-era prison.

Which is why it’s been so jarring to hear of a revolution apparently taking place within Romania’s prison system. Two decades after its police state crumbled, prisoners are reaping the harvest of democratization, after learning about their newfound human rights and related protections. Which leads me to a mind-boggling revelation: prisoners may feel more empowered than the ordinary Romanian on the street. (Not that we had the time to explore that angle.)

Today we visited the Bucharest prison, located in fact in the nearby village of Jilava. More specifically, we toured the Jilava prison hospital.

This was a visit arranged by my reporting colleague, Petru Zoltan, stemming from his interest in the Romanian prison-system’s struggle to contain the spread of HIV and tuberculosis within its walls. A serious, meaningful idea, I thought. Moreover, how the most disproportionately arrested people within the prisons – the Roma – are presumably also the most disproportionately infected.

(more…)

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Butcher Josef Kosina provides service to a customer. (Photo: mjj)

Private ownership and profit incentive have changed the taste of Prague’s eateries in post-Communist Czech Republic.

By Michael J. Jordan, Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / December 17, 2009

PRAGUE — Salamis hang like chimes, sausages are stacked into pyramids, and the refrigerator holds not only the Czech soda, Kofola, but newcomers Gatorade, Pepsi, and Schweppes.

In the old days, a Prague butcher shop like this would offer slabs of gristly bacon with just a rumor of meat, or an entire dead chicken, leaving customers to deal with feathers and evisceration.

Today, butcher Josef Kosina does it for them, engaging in light banter as he trims the fat and whacks the chicken into easy-to-cook chunks. “We’re responding to customer demand, to give better service,” says Mr. Kosina, cleaver in hand.

Among all the changes in Eastern Europe since the Iron Curtain parted 20 years ago, gastronomic culture – from higher-quality food to slick advertising, and from the rise of customer service to the onslaught of obesity – opens a window onto how the post-Communist lifestyle has Westernized.

Older generations remember deprivations of the past, the rations and shortages, long lines, and empty shelves. People who subsisted for centuries on what they pulled from the ground, plucked from a tree, or cooked from a beast grew accustomed to subpar, state-produced goods – gruffly served.

Today, private ownership and profit motive have revolutionized the region. Aisles and aisles of store shelves are stocked with a dizzying range of local and pricey imported products, especially in the ubiquitous Western “hypermarkets.” Some have separate Asian or Mexican sections. Oranges are a year-round option, as are kiwis, coconuts, and pineapples. Where there was once a lone brand of toilet paper or cereal (tasting like the cardboard in which it was boxed) dozens now jostle for primacy, glorified by Western-style marketing.

That trickles down to the Prague butcher shop, one of three co-owned by Bohuslav Novy. He says his shop responds to demand with less-fatty meat, special cuts, and greater range, like beef, lamb, veal, and even rabbit. A new deli section offers salads, baguettes, and made-to-order sandwiches.

And if his butchers “aren’t polite and don’t smile at our customers,” says Mr. Novy, “we must tell them goodbye, of course.” (View original article here.)

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An archivist at the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes in Prague files some of the 280 million pages’ worth of secret-police reports. (Photo: mjj)

Twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, some in Eastern Europe miss the days of full employment and before free elections brought extremism.

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

From the November 8, 2009 edition

PRAGUE, CZECH REPUBLIC; and PARTIZÁNSKE, SLOVAKIA – In the airy lobby of the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes, George Santayana’s immortal words are a daily reminder to Czech staffers digitizing millions of Communist-era files: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Yet even the institute’s spokesman says his grandparents criticize the organization’s mission. They brush aside four decades of neighbors and co-workers spying on one another in the former Czechoslovakia and long wistfully for a time of full employment.

“My grandmother says the Com­munists were great, while my grandfather says we’re stupid to open the archives, because people don’t have jobs, which is more important than … history,” says Jiri Reichl.

On the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Germans and others across the world are celebrating the moment that clinched the end of the cold war. But the Czech Republic reflects another trend across Eastern Europe, 20 years into the traumatic shift from dictatorship to democracy: creeping nostalgia.

Each positive development of “democracy” ushered in negative consequences: Free-market competition brought soaring prices and joblessness; free elections brought extremist parties; free press brought incitement; free movement brought cross-border crime and westward “brain drain.” (more…)

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Topiary on Partizanske's main square pays homage to the product upon which the town was founded. (Photo: mjj)

In Partizanske, Slovakia, a mighty producer of shoes under socialism, the free-market transition remains a work in progress.

A TOL special report.

 

By Michael J. Jordan, 29 October 2009

Click here to see a slideshow about Partizanske. See more special coverage of the anniversary of the fall of the Iron Curtain at our 20 Years After website.

PARTIZANSKE, Slovakia | Julius Michnik speaks of two great loves in his life. One is his wife, Frantiska, with whom he’s spent the past 55 years. The other is the Bata shoe company, with whom he’s spent the last 66.

As a 15-year-old apprentice, Michnik recalls, he marveled at the rigorous quality control Czech shoe baron Tomas Bata’s disciples imposed in the Slovak town that bloomed around the company. This standard propelled “unbeatable, eternal Bata” upward in Czechoslovakia both before and during the communist period. At its peak the Partizanske plant employed nearly 16,000 people and turned out more than 30 million pairs of shoes a year, according to a history of the town published in 2000.

Today, that’s a distant memory. Most of the mile-long complex is a rusting hulk, with few signs of life on its vast grounds.

“I was very proud, and I’m still very proud, to have worked there,” says Michnik, president of the Bata “School of Work” Alumni Association. “But this would never have happened if Bata himself were here today. Or he would have shot himself.”

Twenty years after the collapse of communism, Partizanske is a microcosm of how classic one-company towns in Slovakia, and Eastern Europe itself, were devastated by the free-market transition. Blasted by Asian competitors, the city labors to recover and compete.

“Here was ‘Strong Bata’ and ‘Strong Socialism.’ Families didn’t have to struggle for anything, because the boss provided for all their needs,” says Mayor Jan Podmanicky. “How do you teach people to be independent and take responsibility for themselves? People from the outside can give you advice, but you have to change yourself.” (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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The Hungarians deserve credit for courage.

In 1956, a puny country of 10 million stood up to the mighty Soviet Empire, demanding reforms and an end to Stalinist repression. Moscow ordered in troops. More than 2,000 Hungarians were killed, another 200,000 fled into exile. (Including my father and his family.)

Then in 1989, as my Christian Science Monitor colleague Colin Woodard recently highlighted, the Hungarians literally snipped the first hole in the Iron Curtain.

I was delighted to be reminded of this tonight, way out here in the Far East. Walking through a campus lobby, I stumbled upon a Hungarian exhibit, connected to a symposium that’ll be held at HKBU later this week to commemorate the end of the Cold War twenty years ago.

I was struck, though, by the exhibit’s very first sentence: “The Red Army occupied Hungary in the Second World War.”

Well, that’s only partly true. In fact, it was the Nazis who occupied Hungary first, in Spring 1944, which suited some Hungarians just fine. The Nazis and their Hungarian collaborators cleansed the countryside of hundreds of thousands of Jews. A Hungarian Nazi-puppet regime then continued the blood-letting – until the Soviet Red Army liberated the capital, Budapest, in January 1945.

That the Soviets then stayed on is another story.

I can imagine why the Hungarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, co-sponsor of the symposium, wants to keep hush-hush what else happened during World War II. And, why it prefers to paint Hungary as only a victim. Thousands of miles away from Hungary, the ministry will likely get away with this distortion.

But at least one observer has taken notice.

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This restored synagogue in Samorin, Slovakia, today houses an art exhibit. (Photo: mjj)

This restored synagogue in Samorin, Slovakia, today houses an art exhibit. (Photo: mjj)

The region’s Jewish communities are now largely gone, but a growing movement seeks to restore and protect the synagogues, cemeteries, and other remaining landmarks.

 

 

By Michael J. Jordan | Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor, June 25, 2009

 

BRATISLAVA, SLOVAKIA – For architectural historian Maros Borsky, the story begins five years ago.

 

He was documenting the synagogues of Slovakia, which, like the rest of post-Holocaust Eastern Europe, saw its countryside depopulated of Jews, with most provincial synagogues abandoned. Slovakia itself has seen a war-time community of 137,000 shrink to some 3,000 Jews today, with only five of 100-plus synagogues functioning.

 

In the course of his work, Mr. Borsky came across a donor who wanted to renovate a rural synagogue. But which one?

 

“I realized it’s important to create an audience for these synagogues, for Jews, non-Jews, locals, and tourists to learn there once was a community here – and what happened to it,” he says.

 

The result of Borsky’s work, the “Slovak Jewish Heritage Route” will soon connect 23 restored synagogues.

 

The Slovak project will be just one of scores discussed this weekend in Prague as representatives from 49 countries convene for the landmark Holocaust-Era Assets Conference. The agenda ranges from charting the progress made in returning Nazi-looted artwork and restituting Jewish property to caring for elderly survivors of the camps. (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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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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Governments and many Roma alike are reluctant to gather accurate information on Europe’s largest minority, but activists say a lack of data blocks progress.

 

By Michael J. Jordan

 

5 March 2008, Transitions Online/TOL

BRATISLAVA | Andrey Ivanov knows all about the Roma plight, as a former activist who ran a micro-lending program for Bulgarian Roma in the 1990s.

 

He saw then how difficult it was for both government agencies and non-governmental organizations to create truly effective policies and programs without official and reliable data on the scope of Romani poverty.

 

Today, as the human-development adviser to the U.N. Development Program regional office in Bratislava, Ivanov watches the curtain close on the third year of the vaunted Decade of Roma Inclusion. Questions loom about its prospects for success.

 

Accurate data is essential to establish benchmarks for measuring all efforts regarding Europe’s Roma, who number anywhere from 8 million to 15 million. This, observers say, also helps explain why most governments dodge the data: they shun the accountability.

 

“My favorite excuse from governments is, ‘I’m sorry, but the EU doesn’t allow us to collect data by ethnicity,’ ” says Ivanov, whose office shelves hold several files with precious ethnic data that UNDP itself has collected. “That’s not the point. The EU doesn’t forbid the collecting of data; it forbids abuse of that data – the tracking of individuals.” (more…)

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Lithuania: Daiva Malinauskiene, by a language trolley in Vilnius, got the idea after a trip to Spain five years ago, where she couldn’t communicate. (Photo: mjj)

Lithuania: Daiva Malinauskiene, by a language trolley in Vilnius, got the idea after a trip to Spain five years ago, where she couldn’t communicate. (Photo: mjj)

The ‘Learning by Moving’ project helps EU citizens learn the languages of their neighbors.

By Michael J. Jordan |

Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

from the May 9, 2007 edition

 

On a visit to southern Spain five years ago, Lithuanian Daiva Malinauskiene encountered a typical traveler’s problem: no one could give her directions in a language she understood.

 

But rather than pass it off as an inevitable annoyance of travel within the European Union (EU), which has 23 official languages and 60 indigenous ones, she devised an unusual solution when she returned to Lithuania: the Learning by Moving project.

 

Today, on commuter-packed trolleys in the capital, Vilnius, the PA systems crackle with impromptu language lessons. “Is the post office far from here?” a voice asks cheerily, first in Lithuanian, then in English and Polish.

 

Passenger Ana Zagun spies the saddle slung over a plexiglass partition, pulls a brochure from its pocket, and follow along. “We’re in Europe now, so we must learn English,” says Ms. Zagun, who speaks Lithuanian, Polish, and Russian.

 

Launched last fall in this ex-Soviet republic, the project has since expanded to five other EU countries: Germany, Italy, Poland, Romania, and Malta. It’s one prong of a broader policy to promote multilingualism, as the 27-member Union struggles to cultivate a sense of “Europeanness” while respecting unique identities. (more…)

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A Lithuanian law serves as a litmus test for what punishments Europe will tolerate against former collaborators.

 

By Michael J. Jordan |

Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

from the May 1, 2007 edition

 

VILNIUS, LITHUANIAWhen Kestutis Dziautas enrolled in Moscow’s KGB college in 1985, he wasn’t aware, he says, of the Soviet secret police’s role in executing and imprisoning hundreds of thousands of fellow Lithuanians decades earlier. Likewise, he says, he didn’t know that KGB agents were still the feared foot soldiers of a ruthless regime.

 

But neither his claim of naiveté, nor the fact that he spent only four months working for the KGB before the fall of communism, was enough to spare him: A 1999 law aimed at punishing and rooting out ex-KGB operatives like Mr. Dziautas banned them from a wide range of public- and private-sector jobs for 10 years.

 

So Dziautas and three comrades took their case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg – and won. In 2004 and 2005 verdicts, the court declared Lithuania’s “KGB Act” a violation of the European Convention of Human Rights, specifically the right to work.

 

“I didn’t kill anyone, I didn’t deport anyone, I didn’t commit genocide. I felt like a rabbit upon which they were experimenting, making an example out of me,” says Dziautas, who says he was relegated to fishing and picking mushrooms.

 

Now, Lithuania is under mounting pressure from the Council of Europe to amend its law or face sanctions when the Council’s Committee of Ministers reconvenes in October. The Lithuanian parliament is leery of how the issue, debated again in early April without resolution, may tarnish the reputation of one of the EU’s newer members.

 

Cases like Dziautas’s highlight the struggle Lithuania and others in Central and Eastern Europe face, years into the postcommunist transition: if and how to punish those who persecuted on behalf of a cruel dictatorship and how to make peace with the past and move forward. (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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HIGH-TECH: Deimante Doksaite (l.) and Edita Pundziute (r.) update Lietuviams.com, a website they created to keep Lithuanian migrants connected to home. (Photo: mjj)

HIGH-TECH: Deimante Doksaite (l.) and Edita Pundziute (r.) update Lietuviams.com, a website they created to keep Lithuanian migrants connected to home. (Photo: mjj)

Eastern Europe wants them back.

 

By Michael J. Jordan |

Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

from the January 10, 2007 edition

 

VILNIUS, LITHUANIAMuch ado was made in Paris several years ago about the symbolic “Polish plumber” who was coming to steal jobs from les français. Now, it’s Eastern Europeans who are lamenting the loss of not only plumbers, but all service workers.

 

“If you want some repairs in your apartment, you can’t find anyone,” says Rita Stankeviciute, a sportswriter in Vilnius, Lithuania’s capital. “It’s ridiculous. Lines in the grocery stores are longer. When I used to need a taxi, it was always three minutes. Now it’s ‘In an hour.'”

 

As Western Europeans fret about a new wave of Eastern Europeans flooding their countries – this time from Romania and Bulgaria, the EU’s newest members – those nations have an opposite concern: how to bring those immigrants home.

 

For a small country like Lithuania, with a low birthrate but high rates of immigration, alcoholism, and suicide, the situation is particularly urgent. The former communist nation of 4 million has seen at least 400,000 people migrate west, whether to work construction in Dublin, pick strawberries in southern Spain, or conduct research in Scandinavia.

  

“We must invite them back,” says Zilvinas Beliauskas, director of the government- supported Returning Lithuanian Information Center. “We should consider them an integral part of the nation.”

(more…)

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