Eastern Europe in Transition

Eastern Europe in Transition

 

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The notion that such a diverse collection of countries in central and eastern Europe that were, until recently, converged under a dominating political and economic system intrigues me and as a journalist I try to explore how the societies are emerging (or not) from their Communist history. During the summer of 2013, I travelled from Budapest to Baku overland to take a closer look.



HUNGARY: UNCOMFORTABLE TRUTHS

Traditionally maligned throughout history, the Hungarian Roma, who comprise nearly 10% of the country, were hit particularly hard after the Soviet-era factories that employed them were quickly shut down during Hungary's bumpy transition to capitalism which plunged them into a vortex of poverty which many have struggled to escape ever since. The far-right party Jobbik is currently the third largest political force in the country and has exploited existing tensions between Roma and non-Roma communities with dangerous rhetoric. This toxic atmosphere was brought to an extreme between 2008-9 when a gang of neo-Nazi thugs carried out a murderous campaign of violence and intimidation of Roma families and whose subsequent trial we attended. Using the case as a springboard to investigate attitudes and realities, I made a trip around the country with Budapest-based photojournalist Helene Bienvenu which included visiting a Buddhist retreat in the Eastern Hungarian hills, unwittingly ending up in nationalist rock bar frequented by neo-Nazis and dancing with the kitchen staff in the city's premier Roma restaurant. Al Jazeera and The Atlantic published our work and I also broadcast live for Radio France International following the trial verdict. After a slightly tense interview with a government minister, I was asked if James Joyce's 'Ulysses' might be too intellectual for me.
 

   


BULGARIA'S RELENTLESS DISSENTERS

Unlike Czechoslovakia and Poland, Bulgaria did not have an extensive record of civil dissent during Communism. This all ended in the winter of 2012 when record numbers of people took to the streets to protest against rising energy bills, causing the government to fall. No sooner had the new parties taken power when a scandal around the appointment of a crony to a very powerful position. Mass action on the streets renewed and a macabre trend of self-immolation protests shocked the country. Protests are always an easy one for the media – lots of disgruntled citizens loudly converge in one convenient place to make things awkward for the government. Bulgaria was at least innovative; a range of dissenters from different ages and economic groups, late night piano playing, a siege of the parliament, even Roger Waters joined in the condemnation of the corruption and connections to organised crime of the political elite. There is always a question as to what protests prove, how representative of wider society they are and what they can achieve. But the sheer sound (I still have the trumpets and chants of 'Ostavka!' ('Resign!') ringing in my head, and the impressive duration of the revolt, which lasted over 100 days in a row, made this worthy, and even fun, to cover. My thanks go to the helpful people at the Association of European Journalists, Bulgaria branch for their help, and for the hedonistic European Voluntary Service students for the hangovers. Al Jazeera and RFI carried the reports.

 

 

                               

 

A32 RPT INT Bulgaria protests FV3'05"
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SOUTH OSSETIA: THE FENCE OF DISCORD

The region of South Ossetia was historically loyal to the Russian empire and these loyalties to the larger neighbour did not diminish after the fall of the USSR. Despite being an ethnically mixed area of Ossetians, Georgians and other minorities nestled in the shadow of the Caucasus mountains. This was severely ruptured following the conflict between Georgia and Russia in 2008 and an uneasy geopolitical limbo has reigned ever since.

In 2013, Russian soldiers began constructing a fence around what it considers to the border of South Ossetia, sometimes dividing whole villages and farms in half. We were very helpfully assisted by Lika Magania from the IDP Women Association “Consent” and somewhat helped by the European Union Monitoring Mission, until they went home for lunch early and left us with our taxi driver who we had paid for the whole day. In the morning, he was sightly wary of our proposal – 'drive us around the boundary of South Ossetia following the EUMM jeep' – but by the end he was a hardened veteran. When we told him to drive to Dvani, he asked whether the EUMM would join us, when we told him no, he sat up, put on his sunglasses, growled 'let's go' and put his foot on the gas, negotiating our way through the myriad police checkpoints with the coolness of a pro fixer. 

Georgia has some of the best food and wine in the world, which makes the feeling of imminent fiery death every time you go into a shared taxi slightly more manageable. I was working with the photojournalist Jacob Balzani and on our first night in Tbilisi we were treated to a grand Georgian feast (or 'supra'), carafes of Stalin's favourite wine, and Abkhazian toasts by colleagues and alumni from Rondine, an interesting organisation that runs an educational centre in a medieval Italian village for students from countries of conflict. Our reports appeared on Al Jazeera and Radio France International.


AZERBAIJAN's PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION:
THE GRAND ILLUSION

After first visiting Baku in 2011 to cover the country's hosting of the Eurovision Song Contest I became fascinated by the Azerbaijan government's insatiable appetite for oil-funded glamour versus its distaste for democracy. I dragged Jacob Balzani onto a night train from Tbilisi and soon we ended up being given sweets and smiles at a voting station, rendered nearly bankrupt by the city's only hostel, developed muddied trousers from hours of wandering around ghostly oilfields and the surrounding environmental catastrophe landscape, encountered dubious election monitors including Britain's most famous fascist and narrowly avoided being punched by the Baku police following an opposition rally. The number of wonderful people I could thank are too numerous and I maintain that Azerbaijan should be far more well known that is, both for reasons good and bad. Reports featured in Vice, Al Jazeera and Radio France International.

 

 

                               

 

A29 RPT Azerbaijan post elections violence
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