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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.

(more…)

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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.

(more…)

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[This article appeared Sept. 15, 2011, on Transitions Online in Prague. It was republished Sept. 16 on Roma Transitions, and republished Sept. 22 on The Mantle.]

After years of debate, the EU unveils its first high-level policy document on the Roma. Now it’s up to national governments to fill in the outline.

By Michael J. Jordan 15 September 2011

BUDAPEST | Angela Kocze has been a firsthand witness to all the calamities that have befallen her fellow Roma over the two decades since Central and Eastern Europe rid itself of communist rule.

Nevertheless, Kocze is the rare voice to somehow muster “cautious optimism” about the first unified European Union policy to target the plight of the Roma, Europe’s largest, most-despised and most-marginalized minority.

Angela Kocze (Photo: mjj)

She even swallows a grain of salt in that it’s Hungary, her homeland, that claims the new EU Framework for National Roma Integration Strategies as a crowning achievement of its just-concluded stint in the presidency of the European Union. Budapest can only hope Western partners will look more kindly upon its six-month reign, which was tainted from the outset by Hungary’s suffocating new media law.

Kocze, a research fellow in the Hungarian Academy of Sciences’ Institute for National and Ethnic Minorities, has for years heard empty – even insincere – promises from Budapest to do something about the subpar education, employment, health, and housing from which many Roma are unable to escape.

Meanwhile, the country has seen the dramatic rise of an openly racist, far-right party. In a not-entirely-unrelated development, nine Hungarian Roma have been murdered in suspected racist attacks, including a man and his 5-year-old son shot as they fled their fire-bombed home.

Yet the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban – despite a number of overtures to the far right over the years – seems to have adopted a new stance, promoting the idea that “Hungarians should not see Roma as a problem, but as an opportunity,” Kocze says. “Something new has started, and there’s an opportunity right now that can be exploited.”

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[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 podcast aired on Oct. 5, 2010, by the World Policy Institute.]

World Policy on Air podcast: Michael Jordan

Michael Jordan, a journalist based in Central Europe and author of “The Roots of Hate,” published in the World Policy Journal’s Fall 2010 edition, believes that the ruling Fidesz party, the overwhelming winners in Sunday’s nationwide municipal elections, must now make good on their promises for prosperity and jobs if they are to cement their center-right hold on their nation.

At the same time, they must also reconcile Hungarian distrust of the Roma with obligations to the European Union. He also discusses the factors leading to the power of the right-wing in Central Europe. Finally, Jordan describes his experiences in Hong Kong teaching mainland Chinese journalists how to blog.

Jordan is a guest of World Policy Journal editor David A. Andelman on the weekly World Policy on Air podcast.

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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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[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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