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[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 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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Just one of the regal touches at the king's home; this from his front gate. (Photo: mjj)

SIBIU, Romania — It’s not often you get a chance to interview royalty. Especially when that king inherited the throne from a father who anointed himself king. So, I’m blogging about him twice. (See below: “The King and Carrie Bradshaw.”)

Saturday afternoon, the self-proclaimed King of the Gypsies, Florin Cioaba, graciously sat with us for two hours. (I brought a modest box of chocolates, as a token of appreciation.)

Sure, he barely stifled his yawns during our chat. But he also tolerated us, as we peppered him about early-teen marriage among the “Kalderash” Roma. Including, his own daughter’s media circus of a wedding in 2003.

What we were especially curious about, even more than the king’s opinion, was his daughter’s. After all, Ana-Maria is now a young woman of 19 or 20, married nearly seven years. (With one son, aged 4.) What does she think today about teen marriage? About her own marriage? And what about pressure on her community, from both Bucharest and Brussels, to change this tradition?

Our team – Romani journalist Petru Zoltan, our spirited Romanian interpreter, Lavinia Gliga, and I, the journalism trainer – dropped in on the king without warning. This was Petru’s idea, as he assumes the role of guru of all things related to the so-called “Gypsy mentality.”

Petru had interviewed Cioaba once before, as an investigative reporter for Romanian newspaper National Journal. He predicted that if we pre-arranged a meeting, the king would dodge us somehow. I trusted Petru’s take, so we drove four hours to historic Sibiu, banking on this gamble that he would for sure be home when we came a-knockin’. Then, talk to us.

Yet this is exactly what happened … (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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Kalderash leader Ion Mihai, here outside his church, explained teen marriage in language I related to. (Photo: mjj)

TARGU JIU, Romania – Beyond ugly stereotypes of the Roma (known more pejoratively as “Gypsies”) across Central and Eastern Europe, outsiders like me have also heard about early-teen marriage among certain Roma groups.

I’ve learned about the parental obsession with a daughter’s virginity: if a bride is discovered to have already been deflowered, it unleashes shame for the whole family. For proof, the bloodied sheet is publicly displayed.

From a Western-liberal perspective, I also suspected this was more a feature of a patriarchal society that sees its men bent on keeping their womenfolk barefoot, pregnant and subservient.

Today, though, I had an epiphany about why these fathers are doing what their doing. And as a fellow father, I began to understand them.

The revelation happened here in the city of Targu Jiu, best known as the hometown of sculptor Constantin Brâncuşi. The city is also the scene of a great tragedy, say the local community of “Kalderash” Roma.

(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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