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February 27 2014

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February 14 2014

A Visitor Describes How it Feels to be Mugged by Bulgarian Police

Central Bus Station Sofia. Photo by Nikola Gruev, published on Wikipedia under CC-BY license.

Central Bus Station in Sofia. Photo by Nikola Gruev, used under Creative Commons-BY license.

Political scientist and blogger Anastas Vangeli described his experience of extortion by Bulgarian policemen on his way from Macedonia to Poland, in a Facebook post. On February 9, 2014, two armed officers “detained” him at a secluded area of the main bus station in Sofia, until he gave them some money. In conclusion, he wrote:

This was probably one of the most disappointing experiences in my lifetime. What added to the disappointment, however, were the comments and the double victimization by people when I told them this happened:

  • I was asking for it since I look “like a foreigner” and rich
  • I was asking for it since I was bragging with my China books and looked rich
  • I was supposed to know and expect this kind of things
  • I was supposed to hold my grounds better, e.g. not let them take me to a room, not let them get my money
  • I am supposed not to complain, as this stuff happens every day and I am not special

These are all statements that not speak only of the reality of omnipresent corruption and abuse of office and power, but about the complete lack of empathy, or even consciousness that one day it might be you. Moreover, it is an indicator that people have given up the hope that things will change; but also the responsibility that they should contribute to such change. At the end of the day, the state holds the monopoly of the use of force; I was mugged by those who are supposed to protect me (even though I don’t have a Bulgarian passport – no pun intended). So all kinds of relativizing comments are completely out of place on this.

These reactions are consistent with one of the key characteristics of “backsliding from democracy,” exposed at the Seventh Assembly of the World Movement for Democracy, held in Lima, in October 2012:

“…corruption becomes so widespread that citizens accept is as a norm.”

People commenting (in various languages) on Vangeli's Facebook post about the incident reminisced that such a “toll for foreigners” was common Bulgarian police practice during the dismal 1990s – but that they had not expected its resurgence in this day and age. Some of the commenters related similar experiences from other countries, from Russia to Kenya. Activist Besim Nebiu wrote:

Notice how they immediately asked you if you have a flight to catch at the airport. That gave them the ‘upper hand’ in dealing with you. A friend of mine who lives in Kenya, once wrote a blog post, in which he describes how corrupt police have “opportunity cost” (8 hours shifts in which they try to maximize revenue). They usually avoid “difficult customers,” so any strategy of acting dumb and not too upset should work, after 15 minutes, they give up on you, and move to someone easier to deal with.

Special Winter uniform of Bulgarian Border Police. Source: Ministry of Interior.

Special Winter uniform of Bulgarian Border Police presented [bg] on the website of Ministry of Interior Affairs. According to the victim, the officers in question wore green and carried badges of common police (“Ohranitelna Politsiya”), which according to the Ministry wears dark blue uniforms.

Bulgarian blogger Komitata translated Vangeli's post within his post [bg] titled “They Protect Us and It's No Theater,” which includes opinions about the local context of wasted state resources on questionable police actions praised by the relevant minister:

Системата на МВР не е реформирана. Предното неслужебно правителство положи големи усилия, но поради липса на решителност и политическа воля, реформите останаха скромни и далеч не необратими.

The system of the Ministry of Internal Affairs is not reformed. The previous government invested great efforts, but due to lack of decisiveness and political will, the reforms remain modest and far from irreversible.

In his post, Komitata also referred to Twitter discussion [bg] in which Bulgarians ask whether the police have the right to search them at the bus station, and pointed to information on citizen rights during police searches [bg].

February 13 2014

Welcome All to Russia's 2014 Olympic Hunger Games

President Putin at the Sochi Olympics opening ceremony. Anonymous image found online.

President Putin at the Sochi Olympics opening ceremony. Anonymous image found online.

As “toilet-gate” jokes[Global Voices report] and the hashtag #SochiProblems grow stale, another way to poke fun at Russia's hosting of the Winter Games has emerged: comparisons between the Olympics and the wildly popular Hunger Games franchise.

The Hunger Games story features a dictatorial leader, President Snow, who maintains control of a dystopic nation by forcing teenagers to compete in a televised tournament that must end in only one survivor. Of course, in practice, the Olympics has no similarities with the violence of this fictional death-match. For one, Olympians don't kill each other for their gold medals.

However, a combination of the word “Games” and President Putin's signature stern facial expressions (as well as his reputation as a strong authoritarian leader) has struck a chord with Internet users — enough to create numerous memes using Putin as the background for President Snow's quotations. One common meme a photo of Putin with the phrase “Welcome. Happy Hunger Games [to you.]” superimposed on the image:

“Welcome. Happy Hunger Games.” Anonymous image found online.

Other memes focus on a different aspect of the Hunger Games. There, the outfits of the characters from the ruling faction are notoriously flamboyant and appear ridiculous and frivolous to the working class of the fictional nation. One popular image currently circulating Twitter is of one of the women carrying country plaques during the opening ceremony, juxtaposed with a character from the recent Hunger Games movie who wears a somewhat similar retrofuturistic dress:

Character from the Hunger Games movie, and model carrying Argentina's plaque in the opening ceremony parade. Anonymous image found online.

Character from the Hunger Games movie (left), and model carrying Argentina's plaque in the opening ceremony parade (right). Anonymous image found online.

There is serious meaning behind the silly outfit comparisons — the Sochi Games, which are estimated to have cost over $40 billion, have been plagued by allegations of corruption [Global Voices report], horrible working conditions and lack of payment for the possibly illegal workers. The idea of an under-class looking with horror at the waste of the “Capitol” can be seen as an allegory for Russia's poor and disadvantaged watching the most expensive Games in history take place right in front of them, yet out of reach. One Twitter user wrote:

It's true. Same sh*t, the people are going hungry and poor, while the government is happy

Another user eschewed subtlety and embraced hyperbole in making his comparison:

The Hunger Games, like the Olympics, are controlled by the authorities, to entertain the slaves, and maintain an eternal president — all those who disagree are ruthlessly killed!

Not all comparison are this negative — most of bloggers take a humorous approach. One Twitter user humorously suggested that the Olympic Games would be improved if they were turned into Hunger Games for government officials:

It would be better if instead of the Olympics they stage Hunger Games … between members of parliament.

In some ways, this lighthearted approach to poking fun of the Olympics is a breath of fresh air compared to some of the harsher memes [Global Voices report] out there. At the same time, the RuNet has become a confusing hodgepodge of articles criticizing Sochi, and articles criticizing the critics, until the real point of the Olympic Games, athleticism and national pride, is almost completely buried in a pile of meta-criticism. 

February 11 2014

Prisoners Lists Stir Informbiro Memories in Former Yugoslav Republics

The recent publishing of lists of prisoners of Goli Otok, victims of communist purges in Yugoslavia from 1949 to 1956, has reignited dormant debates and opened some old wounds, across all the former Yugoslav republics.

Goli Otok is a Croatian island that was used as a prison camp during the so-called “Informbiro era” – the post-World War II breakdown between the communist leaderships of Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union. For many Yugoslavs, “Tito's historical ‘No!’ to Stalin” was a source of pride, especially because it solidified their country's role as an intermediary between the Western and Eastern Bloc. The purges that were part of the clash officially included persecution of alleged “pro-Soviet communists”. According to the victims and dissidents of the time, this was often just an excuse by the country's power-mongers to get rid of anyone they disliked for any reason and, thus, people of many other political affiliations were sent to the notorious camp.

Prison area of Goli Otok. Photo by Wikipedia (CC BY-SA).

Abandoned prison area of Goli Otok. Photo by Wikipedia (CC BY-SA).

During the last two months of 2013, Croatian portal Novi Plamen (New Flame) published two lists compiled by UDBA (Yugoslav State Security Service) from the State Archive of Croatia – the list of the 413 people [hr] who died in the camps, and the list of all 16,101 prisoners [hr] who had served sentences there. The second link spread widely through social networks and then through news portals in all six former Yugoslav republics.

Scan of the second page of Goli Otok prisoner list, displaying names, birthdates and codes for municipality, ethnicity, type of crime, dates of start and end of emprisonment... Published by Novi Plamen.

Scan of the second page of Goli Otok prisoner list, displaying names, birthdates and codes for municipality, ethnicity, type of crime, dates of start and end of emprisonment… Published by Novi Plamen.

Slovenian right-wing blogger Pavel noted [si] that the publishing of the lists coincided with the recent December 9, 2013, death of Jovo Kapičić [sr], who had allegedly been the man in charge of Goli Otok. In an August 2013 interview, Kapičić, a Serb, claimed [sr] that the Serbs had made up the majority of prisoners at the camp.

Twitter user ‏@flusteredcooler from Montenegro commented on this issue as well and, while people from all of the former Yugoslav republics often claim that their nationals made up the majority of those sentenced to serve time at Goli Otok, he noticed:

Legend says that most of the population of Goli Otok consisted of Montenegrins? The lists show that it was Yugoslavia in a nutshell [representing everybody]

A senior Macedonian blogger, among the oldest members of the local blogosphere, and a World War II anti-fascist resistance veteran, Buv (“Owl”), posted an announcement [mk] by the Association of former Goli Otok prisoners, advising caution in relation to the lists and offering first-hand consultations to all interested parties:

Темата за “голооточаните“.“информбировците“затвореници што ја издржувале казната во логорот Голи Оток е дел од пошироката историска тема за конфликтот меѓу СССР и СФРЈ.Не може да се зборува за казнениците на Голи Оток,без да се разгледуваат во комлесот на историските збиднувања.

Независно од тоа колку биле свесни/идејно свесни/за својот однос кон конкретните настани,учесниците во збиднувањата,што подоцна се нашле на Голи Оток,се учесници во еден политички судир кој има исклучително историско значење,за нив,за нивната земја,за пошироките светски движења.

Ова отклонување го направивме за да обрниме внимание на оние лесно искажани карактеристики што се даваат по повод на објавените списоци за голооточаните/информбировците/ и во други прилики.Без да се има во вид поширокиот контекст на случувањата,може паушално да се кажува се и сешто.Важноста на историската проблематика бара сериозен пристап.

Здружението Голи Оток,меѓу другото,ја има и таа задача да ја објасни,документира,да ја покаже историската вистина за настаните во кои независно од нивната волја се нашле и овие страдалници,што така строго ги казнила историјата.

The topic of the “inhabitants of Goli Otok,” the “Informbiro prisoners” is part of a larger historical topic about the conflict between the [USSR] and the [SFRY]. One cannot talk about the Goli Otok prisoners without taking into account the complexity of historical events.

Regardless of how much they were aware or ideologically involved in these concrete events, the participants who were detained on Goli Otok were engulfed in a political clash with exceptional historical importance, for them personally, for their country and the wider world movement.

We publish this notice to draw attention to the reactions that have been published with great ease after the lists of prisoners were exposed, as well at other occasions. Without taking into consideration the wider context of events, anyone can say anything without arguments. The importance of the historical issues requires a very serious approach.

The Goli Otok Association has the mission to explain, document and disclose the historical truth about the events which unwittingly encompassed these sufferers, who were so severely punished by history.

Informbiro activities left deep trauma in the collective former Yugoslav memory, parts of which were artistically expressed through popular cult movies like When Father Was Away on Business (1985) by then young Bosnian/Serbian director Emir Kusturica, and Happy New Year '49 (1986) by Macedonian director Stole Popov.

Russia's Patriotic Overdrive in Sochi?

Hans Woellke (left) and Julia Lipnitskaia (right) compared. Ashley Wagner's reaction-face meme responds. (Images mixed by Kevin Rothrock.)

Hans Woellke (left) and Julia Lipnitskaia (right) compared. Ashley Wagner's reaction-face meme responds. (Images mixed by Kevin Rothrock.)

The Soviet Union may have defeated Hitler, but modern-day Russia’s war against fascism wages on. In just the last month, Russian authorities have used their battle with “the rehabilitation of Nazism” as a pretext [ru] for attacks on three different media outlets.

In late January, Russia’s only independent TV station got into hot water, when it aired a survey asking viewers if the USSR could have saved more lives by abandoning Leningrad to the Germans. On February 7, 2014, a Russian Senator demanded [ru] that officials temporarily suspend the broadcasting of CNN, after it published a story (later deleted) calling the Brest Fortress World War II memorial in Belarus “one of the world’s ugliest monuments.”

Most recently, there is trouble at Echo of Moscow, Russia’s premier liberal radio station (and a major hub for opposition-leaning materials online), where satirist Victor Shenderovich (best known for creating a political puppet show that aired in the 1990s) published a controversial blog post [ru] about the politics of Russia hosting the Winter Olympics.

Speaking on the floor of parliament today, Vladimir Vasilyev, the deputy chairman of the Russian Duma, demanded that Echo of Moscow apologize for Shenderovich’s post. (Curiously, Vasilyev addressed only Echo of Moscow, though the text was originally published on the less-trafficked website Ezhednevnyi Zhurnal.) Echo’s chief editor, Alexey Venediktov, wasted no time refusing to apologize [ru], pointing out that Shenderovich’s piece was never broadcast over the radio and only appeared in his blog (hosted on Echo’s site). (Shenderovich has also refused to apologize [ru].)

The post in question, titled “Olympic War: Putin and the Girl on Skates,” describes how liberal oppositionists suffer from a certain “schizophrenia” during the Olympics, struggling to reconcile their love of Russia’s historical accomplishments (Tolstoy, constructivist art, and so on) with Vladimir Putin’s apparent exploitation of these feats to boost his own popularity. Most memorably, Shenderovich also likens fifteen-year-old Julia Lipnitskaia’s performance in Sochi this week to Hans Woellke’s triumph in the men’s shot put competition in the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin. “Something, however, prevents us from enjoying [Woellke’s] victory today,” Shenderovich adds, warning against pride in an authoritarian state’s Olympic athletes.

While many things undoubtedly do keep us from celebrating Woellke today (in the war, he served as a captain in the Waffen SS, and his murder precipitated the massacre of a village in Belarus in 1943), Shenderovich’s comparison has proved controversial for many Russians. Though the Internet-savvy might regard it as nothing more than quick service of Godwin’s law, Shenderovich’s decision to equate Russia’s newest national treasure—a charming adolescent girl, no less—with a Nazi jock couldn’t have come at a worse time.

With the Winter Games underway in Sochi now, Russia is (understandably) in patriotic overdrive. That means anyone toying with the World War II narrative—to this day, Russia’s most sacred unifying myth—better be careful. TV Rain’s survey about ditching Leningrad crossed the line. CNN’s mockery of the Brest Fortress went too far. Shenderovich seems to have committed an even greater sin by abusing young, pretty Lipnitskaia, but it’s possible that any of these offenses would have passed as minor kerfuffles, were it not for the Olympic adrenaline now filling the country’s veins.

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