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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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[The following commentary appeared June 6, 2011, in Harvard’s Nieman Reports.] It was republished June 10 on The Mantle.]

BRATISLAVA, Slovakia – Western intervention in Libya – and in the Arab Spring itself – has revived debate over “exporting our values,” especially the kinder, gentler, non-militaristic forms of soft power.

Then along comes James Miller’s exquisitely timed broadside, “Questioning the Western Approach to Training,” against one of those soft-power instruments – Western journalism training – in the Spring 2011 issue of Harvard’s prestigious Nieman Reports. (Full disclosure: I’m a contributor to the magazine.)

I’m compelled to respond because Miller – a Visiting Professor at the Center for the Study of Global Media and Democracy, Goldsmiths, University of London, on sabbatical from Hampshire College – sounds like he’d dispatch with overseas journalism educators like me. There it is, in black and white, when he derides “media missionaries.”

I do indeed preach the gospel, whether to university students in post-Communist Slovakia and Czech Republic, or in Hong Kong to Chinese students from the heavily censored mainland, or to minority Roma (a.k.a. “Gypsy”) journalists in the Balkans, or to hundreds of international participants in a biennial foreign-correspondent training course in Prague. I’m not unlike the proselytizing, wholesome-looking Mormons I see around the globe, in their white shirts and black name-tags. Except I do my sermonizing in the classroom, about what I call serious, responsible journalism.

In his essay, Miller writes, “This is a time of unprecedented international efforts to codify and inculcate Western-style news reporting and editing – to train on a global scale what its proponents assertively call ‘world journalism’ – in places quite different from American newsrooms and classrooms, with nothing like the journalistic or political-cultural history of North America and Western Europe.” It’s unclear if he’s calling for a less-Western, more sensitive style to such training, or urging that it be scaled down altogether. Both views are wrong.

He cites the case of post-Communist Eastern Europe – a place I know well, after 16 years as a foreign correspondent out here. “Cold War modernization theory,” says Miller, has fostered “a surprisingly idealized version of mainstream journalism” as a “necessary means of democratization.”

My question for Professor Miller: What’s wrong with that?

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[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 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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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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