Archive | Balkans

From Iron Curtain to Open Shutters

Posted on 09 February 2010 by admin

As part of our special coverage of the 20th anniversary of the fall of communism in Central and Eastern Europe, TOL asked readers to send us photos that in some fashion captured the changes of the past 20 years, in four areas: everyday life, industry and economy, landscapes and cityscapes, and politics and democracy. We received hundreds of entries from 29 countries depicting work, play, decay, regeneration, youth, and age in the countries of the former Soviet bloc.

The top prize, 200 euros, went to Giorgos Doganis for his photo of children walking from an apartment block in the city of Bobruisk, Belarus; three runners-up, winners in their individual categories, received 50 euros each. The slide show below features those images along with the others rated most highly by our judges.

For each picture the photographer’s name and current home city are listed in the caption. Thanks to all those who participated in the contest, and congratulations to the winners.

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Romanian Holiday

Posted on 23 December 2009 by admin

By Sinziana Demian

CLUJ-NAPOCA, Romania | It’s Christmastime in Cluj-Napoca, but here, and throughout Romania, the holidays bring more than the hustle and bustle of frantic shopping and snow-hampered commutes. This year Romanians are also celebrating 20 years since winning their freedom – if “celebrating” is the right word.

“It feels like much of what we fought for during that glorious December has been overshadowed by frustration that democracy did not instantly bring gratification for everyone,” says Nicolae Badescu, a 59-year-old engineer who was out in the streets of this western Romanian city during the revolution of 1989. Continue reading …

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Ion Iliescu

Posted on 22 December 2009 by admin

Divisive Romanian leader who succeeded Ceausescu, 1930-

Ion Iliescu was the dominant political figure of post-1989 Romania, and the most divisive. For many, the achievements of his three terms as president (1990-1992, 1992-1996, and 2000-2004) – notably ushering Romania into NATO and laying for groundwork European Union membership – will always be overshadowed by a perception that he failed to follow through on the commitment in his December 1989 “Communique to the Country to demolish the vestiges of the totalitarian state.

Trained as an engineer, Iliescu studied in Moscow in the 1950s and upon returning home quickly climbed the Communist Party ladder, serving as minister for youth issues from 1967 to 1971. But when he began to display what he has termed “a critical attitude towards the dogmas of the cultural revolution,” he was pushed out of politics, ending up in charge of a technical publishing house.

iliescu-elena

Iliescu (right) with Elena Ceausescu in 1976, before he fell out of favor with Romania's Communist elite.

His reputation as an outsider proved invaluable in December 1989, when the selling tide of popular protest that began with peaceful demonstrations in support of Timisoara minister Laszlo Tokes culminated in the arrest and execution of communist leader Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife. Iliescu’s history of dissent from the ruling ideology and his solid professional standing were the credentials that catapulted him to the forefront of the National Salvation Front umbrella movement.

But his presidency began under unfavorable auspices. Throughout the spring of 1990, crowds of students and young people protested daily on Bucharest’s University Square, aiming much of their ire at the former communist officials, Iliescu above all, who had returned to positions of power. Iliescu responded by bringing in miners from the Jiu Valley to quell the demonstrations; they trashed public buildings and attacked protesters and passersby alike, on one occasion leaving seven dead and more than 1,000 injured, by the official count.

Iliescu publicly thanked the miners for restoring order, and at the end of his presidency he pardoned one of their leaders, Miron Cozma, who had been sentenced to 18 years in prison in 1999. Public outrage forced Iliescu to revoke the decision. After leaving office he was twice put on trial on charges of genocide, instigation of war, and complicity to torture. In June 2009 he was found not guilty of all charges.

Iliescu’s legacy continues to divide Romanian society. Protesters heckled him with shouts of “assassin” and “Judas” during the 2008 commemoration of the December revolution and again on his birthday on 3 March 2009. Current President Traian Basescu has called his predecessor “a specialist in coups d’état” – an allusion not only to the controversy surrounding Iliescu’s accession to power but also the Romanian parliament’s failed 2007 impeachment of Basescu, which he blames on Iliescu’s Social Democratic Party.

Though he officially retired from politics last year, Iliescu maintains his voice in Romanian affairs politics through his blog. In a 12 October speech to the Romanian Academy, Iliescu took aim at contemporary national discontent, saying it springs from “the polluted minds of people with complexes” – people he said took no responsibility for the country’s political situation until after 1989, when it became safe to dissent.

Ioana Caloianu

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Northwest Passage

Posted on 11 December 2009 by admin

vratsa300By Diana Ivanova

[Editor’s note: A native of Bulgaria’s Montana province, journalist and poet Diana Ivanova is working on projects that explore personal and collective memories of the socialist period. This article is drawn from one such project with students in the region. Photo of Vratsa by Elena Chochkova.]

VRATSA, Bulgaria | “Teacher, you disappointed me when you said you were with the Communists!”

The dialogue occurs in Vratsa, a town in northwestern Bulgaria. It’s a 10th-grader’s reaction to his teacher’s recollection about her father: a member of the Bulgarian Communist Party in 1989, he thought the protesters in the streets of Sofia wanted to plunge the country into chaos.

The exchange is part of 1989: Mapping the Northwest, a project of the New Culture Foundation, a network of writers, artists, and new media designers in the region. The student’s comment is tongue-in-cheek, but it stays with me – maybe because I have a similar story. Continue reading …

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Fast-Forward, Rewind

Posted on 11 December 2009 by admin

By Christopher Walker

Twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the landscape for media freedom in Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union offers a decidedly mixed picture. Two divergent narratives have emerged: one, for the new democracies of Central Europe, the Baltic states, and those in southeastern Europe, is that of impressive but fitful progress. The other, a far grimmer story, is what might be characterized as the near complete reassertion of authoritarian media control in much of the former Soviet Union that has accompanied a broader assault on democratic institutions in the region.

This Jekyll and Hyde pattern of media development is starkly on display in analyses by the media and democracy monitor Freedom House and in numerous reports by other press monitors over the past two decades. Continue reading …

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‘The Big Excursion’

Posted on 02 December 2009 by admin

By Francesco Martino/Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso

EDIRNE, Turkey | Rasim Ozgur’s eyes are framed by deep wrinkles, but they still shine with intensity as he recalls the events of May 1989.

“I was beaten twice until I bled and lost consciousness,” says Ozgur, a painter and sculptor who now teaches art at the University of Izmir. “The men from the milicija told me that if they saw me talking to ‘reported’ people they would kill me. Then one day they told me, ‘You’re about to emigrate. You choose: Austria or Sweden.’ I got ready. I had no choice. On the 29th, though, Zhivkov announced that the borders with Turkey would be opened. I packed and left with my family. A week later I crossed the border, right here, in Edirne.”

Today this city on the Thracian plain, for centuries the gateway from the Balkans into Turkey (and, from 1365 to 1453, the Ottoman Empire’s capital), has the sleepy and somewhat provincial look of a decayed capital, mirrored in the city’s two rivers, the Maritza and the Tundzha. There is no outward sign of the tragedy for which it was the stage two decades ago. Continue reading …

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Emil Koshlukov

Posted on 25 November 2009 by admin

koshlukov1989-2Bulgarian student leader and liberal politician, 1965–

Earlier this year viewers of Bulgarian VIP-Brother, the country’s version of the U.K. reality show Celebrity Big Brother, were treated to a joke:

A Greek boy at the beach boasts to a Bulgarian playmate, “We have bananas and oranges at home!” The Bulgarian boy runs tearfully home to his father. “Well,” the man consoles his son, “tell him that when the Greeks build themselves socialism, they won’t have bananas and oranges anymore.”

On TV, Emil Koshlukov told the joke after his reality-show housemate Todor Slavkov – grandson of Todor Zhivkov, Bulgaria’s last communist ruler – expressed nostalgia for the old regime. When Koshlukov told that joke some 25 years earlier, he was tossed in jail.

Known as a liberal and an idealist, Koshlukov has a place in modern Bulgarian legend as the student-rebel imprisoned in the 1980s on charges of anti-establishment activity for telling political jokes. Freed in 1989, the 24-year-old dissident was at the microphone on 14 December of that year when a 15,000-strong crowd formed a human ring around the National Assembly in Sofia. As Bulgaria’s Communist Party retreated and agreed to hold round table talks with the opposition, the 24-year-old called for an end to mandatory instruction of students in communism and Marxism-Leninism.

Of the students’ role in the Bulgarian revolution, Koshlukov would later describe a kind of love-in powered by cheap vodka and homemade rakia. “The whole country knew us,” he said. “The girls treated us like stars when we visited other universities.”

Koshlukov’s transition from student leader to national politician looked promising in the spring of 1990, when he participated in the round table talks, but it was interrupted by a dramatic event – a fire at Socialist Party headquarters in August. Fleeing what he said were false allegations that he was responsible, Koshlukov made his way to the United States, where he enrolled in university and kept in touch with Bulgaria’s new, democratically elected president, Zhelyu Zhelev.

He returned to Bulgaria in the late 1990s, not intending to take up politics again, but in 2001 he was lured back to the national stage to join the rising centrist National Movement Simeon II (NDSV), which governed from 2001 to 2005 under the premiership of former king in exile Simeon Saxe-Coburg. Internal disagreements led Koshlukov to quit the NDSV in 2004 and found the liberal New Time party. New Time fielded candidates in the 2005 parliamentary balloting but failed to elect any candidates. In the 2009 elections to the European and Bulgarian parliaments, Koshlukov headed the list for a coalition of New Time and the centrist LIDER (Liberal Initiative for Democratic European Government), which did not win a seat in either assembly. Observers attributed the poor showing to the unpopularity of LIDER founder Hristo Kovachki, a wealthy business mogul the government has pursued on tax-fraud charges.

The former anti-communist dissident is an outspoken critic of Bulgaria’s current leadership. “State capitalism has become oligarchism,” Koshlukov wrote in the daily Monitor in April 2007. Calling the country “only a democracy on paper,” he likened its leaders to the flamboyant, transvestite Bulgarian pop star Azis: “They are a travesty of what politicians should be – they talk like Azis sings.”

Daniela Ivanova

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Mircea Dinescu

Posted on 20 November 2009 by admin

Romanian poet and late-blooming dissident, 1950-

DinescuAn acclaimed poet in the 1970s and ’80s, Mircea Dinescu felt the sting of Romania’s communist regime just as it was dying, played a significant role in the 1989 revolution, and became widely known as a media mogul in the years that followed, maintaining his place as a fierce yet lyrical foe of conformity.

A journalism graduate of the Communist Party’s Stefan Gheorghiu Academy, Dinescu was catapulted into the cultural spotlight in 1971 with the publication of his first book of poetry. A prolific writer, he also served as of the prominent magazine Romania Literara (Literary Romania) and was a member of the Writers’ Union. According to literary critic Alex Stefanescu, Dinescu’s success was partly due to the support of “protectors” from the Communist Party. Secret police documents published in Cartea Alba a Securitatii (White Book of the Securitate) testify to the poet’s support and even enthusiasm for the Ceausescu regime.

Dinescu’s downfall came in March 1989 when, in an interview with the French newspaper Liberation, he acidly criticized Ceausescu and praised Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms. He was fired from editorial post and placed under house arrest.

Nine months later he got his comeuppance. On 22 December, Dinescu took part in the peaceful seizure of Romanian Television. It was he who announced to the country that afternoon that Ceausescu and his wife had fled Bucharest.

A member of the newly founded National Salvation Front, Dinescu also became chairman of the Writers’ Union in 1990. He was forced to resign this position in 1994 in the wake of a scandal over a donated printing press that was diverted for the use of a foundation he chaired.

Dinescu invested earnings from his writing into media ownership, co-founding the influential satirical newspaper Academia Catavencu and buying or investing in several other publications, including the highbrow cultural magazine Dilema Veche. He also hosts a political talk show on the television channel Realitatea TV.

Both Dinescu’s poems and his on-air persona bear the mark of his sarcastic, inventive, and often shocking style. His 1976 volume Proprietarul de poduri (The Owner of Bridges) marked a sharp change in his youthful writing towards a subversive, politically charged lyricism that criticized the poverty and oppression of life in Romania. Years later the status quo under the new regime brought out Dinescu’s disappointment with the changes, or lack of changes, since 1989: “No revolution can change the world anymore,” he wrote. In a postmodern letter to Vaclav Havel, Dinescu describes how revolutions devour their children, while “the dissidents are unemployed/ and the protesters now queue at McDonald’s.”

His liberal use of slang and colloquialism led the prominent philosopher Gabriel Liiceanu to dub Dinescu “the symbol and flag bearer of the Romanian suburbs,” a compliment to his authenticity and his reputation as a cultural hero.

Ioana Caloianu

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Brotherhood Was Not Enough

Posted on 20 November 2009 by admin

By Tihomir Loza

Even though you couldn’t tell from media coverage in the region and internationally, 20 or so years ago communism collapsed in the former Yugoslavia, too.

The 20th anniversary of the momentous events of 1989 in Eastern Europe has been rightly framed mostly in celebratory terms. But there are very few things to celebrate in this regard in the former Yugoslavia.

The main action of 1989 was indeed elsewhere. The stumbling of the Yugoslav League of Communists in the late 1980s and its definitive end in January 1990 fade into near insignificance when looked upon against the backdrop of the fall of the Berlin Wall or the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia or indeed the overthrow of the Ceausescu regime in Romania.

Yet it would be wrong to say that Yugoslavia was one of those countries that the collapse of communism just happened to. Continue reading …

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Velvet Cinema

Posted on 12 November 2009 by admin

By Daniela Ivanova

For some prominent film festivals in Central and Eastern Europe, the 20th anniversary of the mostly peaceful revolutions that emancipated the region from the crumbling clutches of communism were an occasion to dust off old documentary reels.

February’s Berlin International Film Festival offered a retrospective look at the years before and after the change, poetically titled “After Winter Comes Spring,” featuring, among other works, Helke Misselwitz’ Adieu Winter, a documentary about women of various walks of life in East Germany in 1988, and Polish documentarian Jozef Robakowski’s From My Window, which consists of footage shot from his Lodz flat between 1978 and 2000. “The Velvet Generation Comes of Age” at the Prague edition of the One World festival of human-rights documentaries offered the late Jan Spata’s The Greatest Wish, which juxtaposes young people’s dreams in 1964 and 1989, and acclaimed surrealist animator Jan Svankmajer’s allegorical short The Death of Stalinism in Bohemia.

Moving eastward, though, the commemorative relay slowed down. Festivals in Sarajevo, Warsaw, Bucharest, Budapest, and Sofia paid scant attention, while the Moscow International Film Festival delved further back for a program marking 70 years since the start of World War II.

This lack of attention to the events of 20 years ago is reflected in the output of filmmakers in the region; films dealing with the anti-communist revolutions of two decades past are a relative rarity.

The reasons, experts say, range from aesthetic to sociopolitical. “The notion that a film’s characters can and should be reduced to mere ciphers for the historical and social changes that happen around them is a Marxist one,” says Andrew Horton, former editor in chief of Kinoeye, a now-defunct website that focused on Central and Eastern European film. “Hardly shocking, then, that directors [in the region] have rejected it so overwhelmingly.”

HOORAY FOR HOLLYWOOD

In throwing off old ideological strictures, many of the region’s filmmakers eagerly embraced mainstream techniques, even in films dealing with 1989, adopting the Western model of history as entertainment where “the political changes are more or less background,” according to John Cunningham, a specialist in Central European cinema at Britain’s Sheffield Hallam University.


With its Velvet Revolution subplot, the Oscar-winning Kolya was the first feature film – and to date the most internationally popular – to deal directly with the events of 1989.

Such was the case with the biggest international hit set in the revolutionary period, Czech director Jan Sverak’s Kolya (1996). With its endearing story of a Russian boy invading the life of an aging roue amid the heavy anti-Soviet mood of late-’89 Prague, the film charmed Western audiences and won the Oscar for Best Foreign-Language Film, but Czech critics still harbor misgivings about its sugary Hollywood approach.

In a similar vein, Polish director Juliusz Machulski’s How Much Does a Trojan Horse Weigh? (2008) is a whimsical family comedy involving a time warp to and from the last years of communism and conveys the simple message that things are a lot better now than they were then. The film was Poland’s third-biggest hit last year, according to boxoffice.pl, although its 155,000 viewers was half the total for the leader, Tomasz Konecki’s Ladies, a sort of Polish Sex and the City firmly anchored in the country’s capitalist present.

Reflecting on Hungarian cinema, Horton views the Hollywood influence as a positive development.

“Personally, I think most of the films ‘about communism’ have been some of the worst to have been released in the post-1989 period,” he writes in an e-mail. “Many young filmmakers seem to be inspired by the power of American film to reach its audience through easy-to-relate-to characters, an accessible storyline, and a strong setting immersed in popular culture, and this kind of film-making is what they aspire to.

“I don’t see that as necessarily a bad thing, even if this approach to filmmaking seems to be a work in progress for Hungarian directors. At least it’s trying to build a relationship with young Hungarian audiences after decades of declining cinema attendance.”

The internationally recognized Romanian New Wave is the outlier, producing films that have poked and prodded at unwieldy and controversial recent history to wide acclaim. Three of the four Romanian films released in 2006 – Corneliu Porumboiu’s 12:08 East of Bucharest, Radu Muntean’s The Paper Will Be Blue, and Catalin Mitulescu’s How I Celebrated the End of the World – offer intimate and wryly funny explorations of the events of December 1989, while Tales from the Golden Age, the new film from Cannes Film Festival prize-winner Christian Mungiu (4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days), is an omnibus of seriocomic stories set in the late Ceausescu years.

Porumboiu’s film, which won the Camera d’Or for best first feature at the 2006 Cannes festival, is emblematic of the Romanian approach, tackling the topic with depth, subtlety, and deceptive simplicity. The title refers to the town of Vaslui (where the director is from) and the precise moment Nicolae Ceausescu fled Bucharest in his helicopter – if there were no protests in Vaslui before 12:08 p.m. on 22 December 1989, did the revolution actually happen there? (The movie’s Romanian title translates as, “Was There or Wasn’t There?”) The final scene of a snowy Christmas Eve leaves audiences guessing as to the significance of this question for the ordinary townspeople.

“The idea was to focus on history, personal stories, memories, on the fact that each and every one of us changes history in order to justify his or her own existence,” Porumboiu said.

“I don’t believe in History with a capital ‘H.’ After the revolution there are only two or three heroes and two or three anti-heroes in the history books, but you will never get this other perspective, of normal people and their personal experiences and stories related to that event. So this is what I was after in my movie. It’s built like a kaleidoscope, with lots of personal views and different fragments.”

INTO THE LIGHT

What Porumboiu has elsewhere called “the uncertainty of the grand revolutionary narrative” is another factor inhibiting a regional cinema-of-’89

“Possibly the variations in approach to the theme of 1989 are connected to how the oppositional struggle developed,” Sheffield Hallam’s Cunningham says. “In Hungary there have been a number of films about 1956, probably because of its heroic resonances and its centrality in national mythology, in comparison with 1989, which was a fairly muted affair. Similarly, in Poland there appear to be more films devoted to the period of martial law and the resistance to it than to 1989.”

The whimsical comedy How Much Does a Trojan Horse Weigh? casts a contemporary Polish woman back in time to the eve of regime change.

In tackling history, most filmmakers, particularly those of older generations, stick to themes more firmly rooted in national stories. Witness the most recent works by Andrzej Wajda and Istvan Svabo, respectively Poland’s and Hungary’s most revered living directors: Wajda’s Katyn (2007) re-creates the World War II-era Soviet massacre that still haunts Poland; Relatives (2006) is Svabo’s take on an infamous 1930s corruption scandal.

While their forebears look back, younger filmmakers cast a wary eye on the present. History as such matters little in Czech director Tomas Vorel’s entertainment cinema (2005’s Skritek, 2007’s Gympl) or Hungarian Benedek Fliegauf’s psychedelic social dramas Forest (2003) and Dealer (2004). Social reality as it is, and individual destinies, absurd as they are, make up the world of such films – what Cunningham describes as “the revolt against history and grand narratives and a craving almost for the here and now.”

The echoes of 1989 do reverberate through such films, if only faintly, in their take on the disillusioned social life of the transition. “This is how we Czechs deal with difficult times – we laugh,” says cinematographer Marek Jicha, who regularly works with Vorel. Their latest project, Catch the Billionaire, is a social grotesque about contemporary Czech capitalism in which profiteers and victims alike are left shorn of their dignity.

Far removed in tone, Polish director Krzysztof Krauze’s The Debt (1999) and Savior Square (2006), also function as allegories for the transition years, emotionally claustrophobic narratives about men and women pushed to the edge by unbridled cruelty in their everyday life. Young Bulgarian filmmakers have been engaging in a different kind of allegory: Sofia and Sarajevo festival honorees Mila from Mars (directed by Zornitsa Sophia, 2004) and Lady Zi (Georgy Diulgerov, 2005) center on abandoned girls who stumble out of orphanages and must survive on their own in an inhospitable and absurd environment.

To Jicha, that subtext is the essential story of 1989. Asked how he would interpret the Velvet Revolution on screen, he describes an old Celtic myth about a knight lured deep into the woods and over a precipice by an elusive, shining nymph. “The faster he goes, the faster the light goes, and he falls off the cliff,” Jicha says. “The revolution was that hope, that light, and the poor man is the Czech people.”

Perhaps it takes an outsider to see the light of idealism where Jicha and many of his peers see the flicker of misplaced hopes. American filmmaker Gary Keith Griffin, a Sundance Film Festival award-winner who was studying at Prague’s FAMU film school in the fall of 1989, is currently at work on Listopad (November).

Bucking the trend of approaching the anti-communist revolutions at oblique angles, Listopad takes on the history head on, dramatizing the real-life story of three teenage boys who took part in the tumultuous events on the streets of Prague. (It will even climax with an on-site reenactment of the pivotal student march of 17 November 1989, staged on the 20th anniversary of the actual event.) Griffin – who was there, too, 20 years ago, filming all the while – met the principals and heard their stories years later, while shooting a feature in the Czech Republic.

“There are always differing opinions about great political and historical events, but one thing is certain: the truth belongs to those in the front lines,” Griffin says in a director’s statement at the film’s website. “For me, a hero is a person who takes action not because they believe they will succeed, but because they know it is the right thing to do. For me, the people in the front lines of November 17th, 1989, armed with nothing more than their beliefs, are heroes. I believe we should tell their story.”

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