Tag Archive | "history"

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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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Restaging a Revolution

Posted on 17 December 2009 by admin

Currently in production, the independent feature film Listopad tells the fact-based tale of three Prague teenagers caught up in the seismic events of November 1989. In this TOL podcast, Daniela Ivanova talks to director Gary Griffin and producer Jeffrey Brown about the film’s inspiration and aims, the potential pitfalls for American artists tackling Czech history, and re-creating a seminal scene of the Velvet Revolution on the streets of Prague 20 years later.

Listen to the podcast or download it here.

You can read an abridged print version of this interview at the Transitions Online main site.

Director Gary Griffin (sitting, far right) films a re-enactment of the 17 November 1989 demonstration that sparked the Velvet Revolution.

Director Gary Griffin (sitting, far right) films a re-enactment of the 17 November 1989 demonstration that sparked the Velvet Revolution. Photograph courtesy of the filmmakers.

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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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‘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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Fedor Gal

Posted on 25 November 2009 by admin

Slovak-born sociologist, publisher, and writer, 1945–

Slovak among Czechs, federalist vainly trying to stop the “velvet divorce,” Jewish intellectual who helped start a phenomenally successful private TV station – Fedor Gal’s life in the past 20 years has been a study in contrasts.

Gal was born in 1945 in Terezin, the Jewish ghetto in northern Bohemia where his pregnant mother had been transported from Slovakia in the last stages of World War II. His father died a month later in Germany during a forced march of concentration camp inmates, a journey Gal retraced for the 2009 documentary Krátka dlouhá cesta (Short Long Journey).

Gal (right) with fellow Public Against Violence leaders Milan Knazko and Jan Budaj in 1990.

Gal (right) with fellow Public Against Violence leaders Milan Knazko and Jan Budaj in 1990.

Gal went on to study chemical engineering and economics at universities in Bratislava and Prague. According to his website, in the mid-1980s he became one of the first scientific researchers to break loose from the rigid academic system and work on a freelance basis.

The quick fall of Czechoslovakia’s communist government and the rush to fill the resulting power vacuum made Gal a leading figure in Slovak politics, and by his own account a target for much vitriol and bigotry.

Along with figures such as actor Milan Knazko, lawyer Vladimir Meciar, and dissident activist Jan Budaj, Gal helped transform the main Slovak dissident group, Public Against Violence (VPN), from a free-floating anti-regime coalition into a broad-based political movement that easily won the first democratic vote in June 1990. Recently, on his own website, Gal recalled the welter of emotion and released tensions that accompanied the Velvet Revolution: “So many illusions, so much euphoric enthusiasm, naivety, amateurism, and at the same time human hyena-ism, collected frustrations, egoism broke through in the course of days and weeks to the surface of our daily lives.”

But the euphoria for Gal was short-lived. As splits began to appear in the VPN between the nationalist wing around Meciar and a more federalist-inclined faction, he found himself at the receiving end of grotesque anti-Semitic caricatures published in hard-line communist and nationalist newspapers. Disgusted, he decided to leave Slovakia and has lived on the Czech side of the former federation ever since.

Established in Prague, he returned to his academic career for a time, but more significantly, became part of the group that won the first license for a private television station in the former Czechoslovakia. Nova launched in Prague in 1994 with a diet of foreign shows, sensationalist news, and late-night porn, becoming by far the most-watched Czech station for many years and earning Gal enough money to devote his days to publishing (through the G plus G publishing house he started with his son Robert) and writing. He has published a string of books on travel, spirituality, and popular science, as well as collections of essays.

This year Gal jumped headlong into the pool of revolutionary retrospection, co-producing a series of online video documentaries on the events of 1989 and ‘90 for the Slovak magazine Tyzden. His own view of the legacy of the past 20 years was expressed in an April discussion at the Catholic University of Ruzomberok, Slovakia. “Democracy is not freedom,” Gal said, “only an environment where it is better to fly than during communism.”

Betsy Mead

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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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Josef Glemp

Posted on 23 November 2009 by admin

Former primate of Poland, 1929-

Glemp_JózefToday the role of the Catholic Church in Polish statecraft is a matter of some debate, but 20 years ago it would have been unthinkable to overlook the church in the political arena. The ruling Communists recognized the church as a hostile yet powerful player; for Solidarity, it was a potent if at times uncertain ally.

In 1989 Josef Glemp was in his eighth year as the head of the Polish church, steering a careful course between the regime and opposition through difficult times, most notably the introduction of martial law in 1981 and the 1984 murder by state security officers of the popular dissident priest Jerzy Popieluszko. While Lech Walesa viewed the interests of the church and Solidarity as the same, some dissidents suspected the Catholic leadership was too willing to settle for peaceful coexistence with the Communist government.

But according to some historians, by 1989 Glemp recognized that an agreement with the regime was possible, and he didn’t want it to happen without church involvement. The primate played an important role in preparations for the Round Table, which paved the way for the multiparty elections of 4 June 1989. Following the peaceful transition of power, Glemp came to be seen less as a conservative unwilling to confront the regime in support of the opposition and more as a long-term strategist whose non-confrontational approach helped smooth the road to democracy.

Glemp, who had been made a cardinal by Pope John Paul II in 1983, remained the primate of the Polish church until 2006, and as such played a role in the key social and cultural controversies of post-communist Poland. He has been dogged for yeas by allegations of antisemitism, accused by Jewish groups of insensitivity to their concerns during the rancorous arguments over the construction of a Catholic convent outside Auschwitz in 1989 and the unauthorized erection of crosses near the camp nine years laters.

His attitudes toward Poland’s all-but-vanished Jewish community resurfaced in the firestorm over Neighbors, [] a 2001 book detailing how Catholic Poles massacred hundreds of Jews in the town of Jedwabne during World War II. Pre-war conflicts between Poles and Jews had an “economic basis,” Glemp told the Catholic news agency KAI. “Jews were cleverer, and they knew how to take advantage of Poles. That, in any case, was the perception.”

In 2005 Glemp was publicly critical of the Catholic and stridently conservative Radio Maryja, saying it was causing a rift in the church. Politics intervened again just as he was leaving office, when the man named to succeed him as archbishop of Warsaw, Stanislaw Wielgus, was accused of collaboration with the communist-era secret police. Glemp defended Wielgus, saying the accusations against him were exaggerated, but Wielgus resigned only a month after his appointment.

Through the two decades of democracy, as the Polish Catholic Church gradually receded from its former position as the dominant reference point for many social groups, Glemp’s influence faded, but his presence is still felt. This year, remarkably for any cleric – much less a cardinal – he appeared in a feature film, playing himself in the biopic Popieluszko. In the view of some commentators, Glemp’s screen appearance was an act of homage to the charismatic priest by a church leader who had been criticized in the past for not doing enough to protect Popieluszko in the tense period leading up to his murder.

Wojciech Kosc

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Remembering ’89: Michal Horacek

Posted on 23 November 2009 by admin

horacekWhen Civic Forum emerged as the driving political force of the Velvet Revolution, its views were often relayed to the world by Michal Horacek. Then a 37-year-old journalist and co-founder (with singer Michael Kocab) of the civic initiative Most (Bridge), Horacek was a spokesman for Civic Forum and a key figure in talks with the tottering Communist regime. He would go on to become a successful lyricist, publicist, businessman, and public intellectual.

Horacek was never a darling of the Communist Party. At 22 he was expelled from journalism studies and jailed for forging an exit visa for the United States. Living in mid-70s Czechoslovakia, he says now, was like “living in a forced-labor camp, where one was constantly being discouraged from making a personal dream come true, even discouraging from dreaming itself. Risking a jail sentence then did not – and still doesn’t – strike me as risking so much.“

After his release, Horacek obtained a fake certification of mental illness, which enabled him avoid the unwanted attention from the authorities. In 1977 he started publishing abroad, and he eventually managed to secure a World Press Institute scholarship, which he used to study at Macalester College in Minnesota in 1984. Upon his return he went to work for the magazine Mlady svet (Young World), published articles abroad, and produced albums with the composer Petr Hapka.

Horacek continued making music after the revolution (his latest collaboration with Hapka, the verse opera Kudykam, premiered in October at Prague’s State Opera); a horse-racing enthusiast, he also founded Fortuna, the country’s first legal bookmaking firm. More recently he has entered academia as a teacher and doctoral candidate (in anthropology). In this e-mail interview with TOL contributor Lucie Kavanova, Horacek discussed his memories of 1989 and its impact on his life.

TOL: How did you manage to get your articles published abroad before 1989? What did you write about?

Horacek: I simply wrote them using my typewriter, put the result in an envelope, and mailed it to Australia, U.K., U.S.A. Such envelopes might have been opened by a secret-service officer from time to time – but that was not my problem. My problem was to put a feature together. In fact, all of my articles reached the magazines I was writing for. From the point of view of the Communist regime, they were harmless: I was writing about the history of horse racing and the thoroughbred horse.

How did your studies at the Macalester College change your life? How did you manage to get the Communist Party´s permission to study abroad then?

The Soviet Union and its satellites signed the Helsinki agreement. Therefore they had to observe the mutual visits of the closest kin, provided the sibling or parent lived in the West “legally” (meaning they did not “desert the camp of peace and socialism”). I was simply lucky. My sister got married and was legally living in France. On paper, I was going to visit her. In fact, I went to study in America. Those studies changed my life fundamentally; I got introduced to a world in which truth was observed as something not owned by a central committee of a party, but as an ideal courted and individually sought by anyone who felt like courting and seeking it.

Did you face any problems from the party when writing your columns called “Letters of Love and Hate” for Mlady Svet?

Sure I did. The magazine was being published by the Socialist Youth Union and many a member of its leadership protested against what I was writing. But I got another lucky break: the editor-in-chief was a stubborn, weathered woman capable of defending what she had approved of (my writing).

Where were you when the Berlin Wall fell, in terms of both your life and also literally, when it happened?

I was writing for what was then Czechoslovakia’s most popular weekly magazine, Mladý svět (circulation over 500,000) and also writing song lyrics. Two of my albums co-written with the composer Petr Hapka became best-sellers (selling over 150 000 copies each – something unthinkable today). I was living in three-bedroom apartment in Prague. When the Berlin Wall was being taken down I was busy preparing MOST, the civic initiative looking for providing grounds for eventual dialogue between the Communist Party and its opponents.

What were your thoughts and feelings at the time? What impact did you expect it to have on your country and you personally?

Thoughts were few, feelings many. In a time of such an upheaval the welled-up dreams burst the dam. I expected what I had never been able to truly expect: living in a country respecting the individual, observing the free-market rules, offering anybody a chance to seek and achieve a true knowledge, read whatever I feel like reading, formulating an opinion and freely stat[ing] it . . . and much more. All of that was eventually fully achieved. I do feel lucky.

What do you feel now when looking back at the Most initiative?

Pride. We did bring the two antagonistic parties together for talks, minimizing the very real chance of a bloodshed. And we did shake the monolithic nature of a totalitarian regime which can be totalitarian only when talking in one voice. When Prime Minister Ladislav Adamec did sit at the same table with Vaclav Havel, who had been jailed only months before, that monolith was gone. And, with it, the grip of the Communist Party over our lives.

Had the wall and the regime not fallen, how would your life have been different?

It would be a life of an aging inmate, frustrated at the loss of chances one living in a free world may expect to take. I would never [have achieved] material wealth, never traveled the world, never studied anthropology, never written what I eventually did write. Thank God for the miracle of anno domini 1989.

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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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