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January 12 2014

Hockey, Diving for Crosses and Other Christmas-in-January Traditions

For Christians of the Western hemisphere, Christmas comes a little earlier than for their counterparts in Eastern Europe, North Africa and other countries. According to the Gregorian calendar, one of many man-made concepts to measure time and the calendar the globe uses today, Christ was born during the night between December 24 and December 25 just a little over 2,000 years ago. According to the Julian calendar, still used by many religious organizations in the world, those dates correspond to January 6 and January 7.

Among those who celebrate Christmas on those January dates are most Orthodox and Coptic Christians, from Eastern Europe to Egypt and Ethiopia. We called on the wonderfully diverse team of over 700 Global Voices authors to share their favorite local Orthodox and Coptic Christmas traditions and learned that the world is indeed a festive place, long after the Western world has taken down their Christmas stockings and stripped their Christmas trees.

Markos Lemma from Ethiopia explains how a game of hockey is the centerpiece in this North African country's Christmas celebrations:

Christmas falls on December 29 of the Ethiopian calendar (January 7 according to the Gregorian calendar). Ledet (Christmas), it is celebrated seriously by a church service that goes on throughout the night after 43 days fasting known as Tsome Gahad (Advent), with a spectacular procession, which begins at 6 a.m. and lasts until 9 a.m. After the mass service, people go home to break the fast with the meat of chicken or lamb or beef accompanied with injera and the traditional drinks (i.e. tella or tej). Traditionally, young men played a game similar to hockey called genna on this day and now Christmas has also come to be known by that name.

The case in Serbia is far from similar, but followers of the Orthodox faith in Serbia, Montenegro, and Bosnia-Herzegovina celebrate Christmas Eve on January 6, the last day of the same 40-day fast observed in Ethiopia, and then break that fast on Christmas Day, January 7, with a similar family feast abundant with meats of all sorts and special Christmas dishes. Different regions of these countries have somewhat different traditions, but this author chose to share one particular tradition that the vast majority of Orthodox families still uphold in this part of Southeast Europe:

On Christmas Day, January 7 according to the Julian calendar, Orthodox Serb households welcome a young male or male child, called a Položajnik, into the house in the early morning. The young male is usually a younger cousin, grandson or neighbor and he should be the first to enter the house that day. He brings in a wreath or bundle of small well dried oak branch tips, hay and such, called a Badnjak, with him and uses it to light the fire. In urban households, most of which don't have a fireplace, the stove is used to light the Badnjak. As sparks from the dried leaves and branches float around, he chants “As many sparks, that much health; as many sparks, that much wealth; as many sparks, that much love; as many sparks, that much luck…”, in no particular order. Different communities and families have their own versions of this ditty. The položajnik is considered a representation of health, prosperity and all things good. He brings luck, health, and love into the home. He then receives a gift from the family and joins them for Christmas breakfast.

Expat blogger David Bailey, better known as “An Englishman in the Balkans”, posted this video explaining the traditional breaking of the Christmas bread, known as the Česnica, on Christmas day in an Orthodox home in Bosnia. The Česnica, however, takes on different shapes throughout the region and in the Vojvodina region of Serbia, for example, is very sweet, resembling baklava more than bread.

The traditional Christmas greeting in Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Montenegro is “Christ is born!”, to which the proper response is “Truly He is born”. Coincidentally, Lebanon, a country relatively far from Eastern Europe, now uses the same Christmas greeting. Thalia Rahme explains:

In Lebanon … its becoming more and more trendy to say the formula you just mentioned as in reaction to the secularization of Christmas

While usually we used to say that in Easter – Christ is risen, Indeed he is risen – now we also say [it on] Christmas – Christ is Born, Indeed He is born.

Lebanon seems to be a particularly special case when it comes to calendars and Christmas celebrations, with a plethora of faiths and traditions truly all its own. Thalia managed to unravel some of the marvels of Lebanese Christmas for us:

Lebanese Orthodox celebrate Christmas with Catholics on December 24.

Only Armenians Orthodox do have it on January 6 and, since it happens to be Epiphany for us Catholics [marking the baptism of Jesus], it's a kind of double celebration and an official holiday in Lebanon as part of giving each community its rights.

We have a small Coptic and Orthodox community and [an] Ethiopian one who celebrate it on January 7.

On the other hand, Armenian Orthodox choose to celebrate their Easter with us Catholics, but this is not the case for other Orthodox communities [...] but this year Easter for both Catholics and Orthodox is falling on the same date

At the mention of the marking of the Epiphany, many other Eastern Europeans chimed in with their stories of this frequently forgotten, not-so-minor Christian holiday. Global Voices’ veteran author from Bulgaria Rayna St. wrote in to say this:

For the French, January 6 is Epiphany so people eat Galette des Rois (and yes, it's yummy).

For Bulgarians, January 6 is also Epiphany, also called Yordanovden, when everyone named Yordan/ka, Daniel/a, Bogomil/a, Bojidar/a celebrate. The day's name is also Bogoyavlenie (God's appearance) and it is believed to be the day when Jesus Christ was baptized in the Jordan River. When He came out of the waters, the skies opened and there was a voice saying, “You are my beloved Son, all my good will is in You” or something along these lines.

The most exciting moment of this nowadays is the ritual that accompanies this day: the priest throws a cross in the river and young men jump in to fetch it. As you may imagine, it's quite sporty as temperatures in Bulgaria differ from Jordan… :) So, when a guy catches the cross, he is believed to be blessed, fortunate, and to have iron health for the coming year. The priest also goes through houses and, in my region at least, fills in the rooms with tamyan smoke (a specific kind of wax mixture) so it chases away bad spirits. Bogoyavlenie is actually the last one of the Dirty Days and only meatless dishes are served for dinner.

Interestingly enough, while a common Christmas date may not be something all Eastern European Christians share, swimming for crosses in ice cold waters on Epiphany is. This tradition is also the same as Rayna describes in Russia, Serbia, Montenegro and other countries of the region. The dates of when they mark the Epiphany and break the January ice, however, do differ, with those who follow the Julian calendar coming in 13 days “late” again.

But back to Christmas in that region. Busy with following Ukraine's 2013 Euromaidan protests, which continued throughout the Christmas holidays and into 2014, Tetyana Bohdanova set aside a few moments from these worrying events to fill us in on how Christmas is traditionally celebrated by Orthodox followers in this country when they aren't out in the streets holding anti-government rallies by the hundreds of thousands:

In Ukraine most people celebrate Christmas on the 7th of January, according to the Julian calendar. On Christmas Eve, January 6, we gather for a traditional dinner that consists of 12 meatless dishes honoring the 12 Apostles. The dinner may begin only after the first star appears in the sky indicating that Christ has been born.

Another Christmas tradition is Vertep, which originally included a puppet theater representing Nativity scenes. A contemporary version, however, refers to a group of people acting out the story of Christ’s birth. Vertep also commonly includes folk characters and singing of Christmas carols. This year Ukrainian Vertep has been influenced by the political turmoil in the country. Among dressed up actors one may recognize Biblical and folk figures along with contemporary politicians, who are not necessarily represented by the good characters!

Tetyana Lokot, also from Ukraine, echoed what Tetyana Bohdanova had to say about caroling and added video evidence of this community holiday tradition:

One [tradition] is caroling – going around singing carols and bringing people the good news, for which carolers sometimes get candy and small change. It is typical for carolers to dress up in national costumes and go in groups, and the carols’ tunes and texts have been carried through generations. One of the most popular ones, and certainly my favorite, is Schedryk (known in English as Carol of the Bells), an old Ukrainian song. [The video] is a recent version from 2011 by Oleh Skrypka, a Ukrainian musician. The cartoon that goes along with it is strangely hinting at the Euromaidan spirit of 2013 and 2014, but also reminds us that we are all kids at heart :)

While Orthodox Coptic Christians account for the largest Christian community in Egypt, they form an even larger percentage of the Ethiopian community. Befekadu Hailu from Ethiopia reminds us that many of us may not even be in the same year, much less on the same date:

As you may know, our [Ethiopian] calendar is also different so we didn't start a new year with most of you. We started 2006 in September and this is the 2006th birthday of Jesus. We are just celebrating Christmas tomorrow [January 7] – which is a public holiday. The Orthodox Christians will also complete their 40 days of fasting season tomorrow. So, it will also be a day of eating much meat products. People spend it at home and as usual coffee ceremony, holiday food, family gatherings are the features of the holiday.

Thus, we end this quick journey through what may be a belated Christmas to some, where we began – in North Africa, with a traditional Christmas song performed by an Ethiopian choir. May your Christmases be as plentiful, warm, and well-rehearsed as theirs, wherever and whenever you choose to celebrate them. In the meantime, some of us are off to prepare for Orthodox New Year's Eve, coming up on January 13 – and you're all invited!

December 23 2013

DIY Galaksija Computer, Bedrock of Serbia's IT Industry, Turns 30

Voja Antonić and his colleague Jova Regasek putting together the Galaksija prototype in 1983. Public domain.

Voja Antonić and his colleague Jova Regasek putting together the Galaksija prototype in 1983. Public domain.

The Galaksija (Galaxy) computer, created by inventor and author Voja Antonić in 1983 with detailed instructions for anyone to put together a personal computer with standard parts, is nothing less than legendary in the former Yugoslavia. The DIY home computer may not have matched the quality or high-tech readiness of most brand name computing machines of the time, but it inspired a country and a generation to plunge deeper and farther into the IT industry that was just beginning to develop worldwide.

As legend would have it, in the summer of 1983, a young journalist with a flare for all things tech and scientific, Voja Antonić, was vacationing in Montenegro. At the time, importing computers and such machinery into Yugoslavia was close to impossible for the average citizen due to complicated customs laws and licenses. Such technology didn't come cheap in the 1980s either. A standard PC in 1983 cost about an average Yugoslav worker's monthly salary, which was among the highest in Europe at the time.

Cover of the January 1984 edition of

Cover of the January 1984 edition of “Računari u vašoj kući” magazine. Public domain.

Antonić plunged into some summer reading on the Montenegrin coast that year about a new brand-name computer that had just been released on the global market. As he looked at the schematic, he realized that most of the parts of standard PCs had become readily available at most hardware stores throughout the country. Within months, the young Antonić had put together a schematic for anyone who wanted to build a do-it-yourself computer. He then contacted a few manufacturers of such parts and partnered with them to create DIY packages with all the necessary parts that any ordinary consumer could order for and put together at home.

Initially, the team involved believed they could sell as much as several hundred of the Galaksija kits, a number they thought to be highly optimistic but possible. Antonić knew he would also have to publish the schematic in a place where wider audiences could see it, for those who didn't want to order the ready to build Galaksija kit, but would rather purchase the parts on their own. He teamed up with Dejan Ristanović, who was barely 20 years old at the time and putting together a magazine about the latest in PC technology, “Računari u vašoj kući” (“Computers in Your Home”). Together, Ristanović and Antonić released the full diagram and instructions for the Galaksija personal computer in the first January 1984 edition of the magazine, published in December of 1983. Within a year or so, over 8,000 Galaksija kits were sold in Yugoslavia, while the number of those who purchased parts on their own and used the schematic to build their custom Galaksija were never recorded. That same year, Galaksija computers were introduced into elementary schools throughout the country. The year was 1984.

A tech revolution was incited. Ristanović, Antonić and their team also used radio and television to promote the Galaksija and everything computer-related, teaching average users how to customize both their hardware and tweak code here and there. The video below is one of  Antonić's countless popular television appearances in which he sat down to explain some gaming basics to Galaksija and other PC users:

Thirty years later, Antonić is a world-renowned inventor, speaker and writer, while Ristanović is the editor-in-chief of one of the country's most popular geek magazines, PC Press, and co-founder of one of the first Internet providers in Serbia. Today, Serbia is known among those in the IT industry as a place of great potential and well-rounded developers and innovators, despite the recent decades of political, social and economic troubles. In a recent post, Eurogamer.net elaborated on how the Galaksija revolutionized the use of personal computers on several levels. Radio DJ Zoran Modli came upon the idea at the time to distribute software for the Galaksija and other similar machines – through the radio ether. As the Eurogamer.net article explains:

Like the ZX Spectrum and other computers of the time, programs were loaded onto the Galaksija from an audiocassette recorder. This gave Jova Regasek, the editor of Računari, an idea for a bold experiment. He got in touch with Zoran Modli, who hosted the show Ventilator 202 on Radio Belgrade. Modli's show was a mix of local bands and contemporary chart music, but he also had an interest in computers, and Regasek's idea was to broadcast the sound of a computer program that listeners could tape and then load up on their home machines. In effect, this was wireless downloading long before the days of wi-fi.

In the year of Galaksija's 30th anniversary, every school in Serbia is equipped with computers for students, the Internet penetration rate was close to 65 percent in 2012, and visitors are often surprised to find that wifi is readily available almost anywhere in every city and town in the country. Over one-third of the country's adult population uses the Internet daily, and the statistics are just as or more impressive for Montenegro, Croatia, Macedonia and Slovenia, with Bosnia-Herzegovina lagging somewhat. With much to make up for after the turmoil of the last two decades and the global IT industry developing rapidly, the region has yet to catch up with some other high-tech markets. With the Galaxy to mark its past, many are confident that the region has a bright future ahead.

October 28 2013

Construction of 1 Billion Euro Resort Begins in Montenegro

One of the planned marinas and residential areas in Luštica Bay; image from promotional press package by Orascom Development, public domain.

One of the planned marinas and residential areas in Luštica Bay; image from promotional press package by Orascom Development, public domain.

Luštica Bay, near Tivat on the Montenegrin coast, is being developed by Swiss Orascom Development into a large-scale resort bay and marina. The resort is a colossal undertaking in the small Adriatic country and will spread across a 6.8 million square meter coastal area. The total value of the project is estimated at some 1 billion euro (1.4 billion US dollars). The company has already invested more than EUR 30 million in the project. Balkans.com gives more details:

Luštica Bay envisages construction of 7 hotels, over 500 residential villas and townhouses, over 1,000 apartments, 2 marinas with mooring and docking support facilities, a Gary Player-designed signature 18-hole golf course, spas and wellness centres, conference centre and year-round amenities including shops, an international school and medical facilities.
Luštica Bay is a joint initiative between Orascom Development Holding (90%) and the Government of Montenegro (10%).

Serbia: Jovanka Broz, Widow of Tito, Dies Isolated and Forgotten

She was a revolutionary, a commended war veteran, a style icon and first lady to the leader of the only socialist country in the world that refused to be a Soviet satellite. Jovanka Broz (nee Budisavljević), widow of Marshall Josip Broz Tito, passed away in Belgrade [en] on October 20, 2013. On Saturday, October 23, Jovanka Broz was honored with a state funeral in Serbia's capital and buried in the mausoleum known as “The House of Flowers” [en] next to her husband, a full 33 years after his death.

President Josip Broz Tito and Mrs. Broz, President Richard Nixon and Mrs. Nixon overlooking arrival ceremony on the South Lawn from the South Balcony of the White House; photo form the  White House Photo Office Collection, public domain.

President Josip Broz Tito and Mrs. Broz, President Richard Nixon and Mrs. Nixon overlooking arrival ceremony on the South Lawn from the South Balcony of the White House; photo form the White House Photo Office Collection, public domain.

Jovanka Broz spent a lifetime being loved, hated, praised and criticized by many. Few and far apart are those who had no opinion of her at all. Born into a family of humble means in Lika (Croatia), she joined the revolutionary partisan forces at the age of 17 and soon became one of Tito's secretaries. Their whirlwind romance began sometime during the Second World War and they were married in 1952, when she was 28 and Tito 60.

Although 30 years her powerful husband's junior, Jovanka was decisive, opinionated and had tremendous influence over her husband at times. Those who met her through diplomatic and political circles claim that she was a highly intelligent woman of elegant poise. There were also those in Yugoslavia and, more recently Serbia, who criticized her spending habits, along with her husband's, who was a well-known hedonist of expensive taste. The video below shows Tito and Jovanka Broz at the height of his power in 1971, during a state visit to US President Richard Nixon.

Jovanka enjoyed a jet-set lifestyle while she was first lady of the Socialist Federative Republic of Yugoslavia, but lived the last 30 years of her life as a recluse in Belgrade in poverty, never inheriting any part of her late husband's estate or receiving much from the state. Reports began emerging in 2005 on blogs and later in media about the conditions in which the former first lady was living in – with no heat, a leaking roof, doors that wouldn't lock, in an old house in the once high-end Belgrade neighborhood of Dedinje that was, essentially, falling apart. Since her death, the blog Bašta Balkana quoted [sr] one of these reports from 2005, when they visited Jovanka, describing the poor state of the house she was living in and a conversation with Jovanka's sister, Nada. The reporter asked:

- Živi li vaša sestra ovde potpuno sama i bez grejanja?! Kako je moguće da se nadležni godinama oglušuju da joj stvore elementarne uslove za život?!

- U ovoj ledari, moja sestra živi sama i to godinama traje – odgovara Nada. – Ponekad ostane i bez struje, nekad se prekinu telefonske veze, plafon prokišnjava. Ali nije samo ona ugrožena. Njenu sudbinu dele i njene komšije. I oni su danima bez grejanja.

- Does your sister really live here all alone and without heating?! How is it possible that the [institutions] responsible for this are ignoring to provide basic living conditions for her?!

- In this icebox, my sister lives alone and it has been like this for years – Nada responds. – Sometimes she is left without electricity too, sometimes the telephone lines go out, the ceiling leaks. But she is not the only one at risk. Her neighbors share this fate with her. They are also left without heating for days.

The government then reacted fairly quickly after these reports and some assistance and reparations were provided for Jovanka and her neighbors occasionally over the next few years. Jovanka remained as far from the the public eye as she could, although media interest had been raised. In the months prior to her death, knowing that her health was rapidly declining, the former first lady of Yugoslavia decided to publish her memoirs, as recorder by author Žarko Jokanović. The book, titled “My Life, My Truth”, was released just three weeks before she died [sr] and is being sold at newsstands at the price of 449 dinars (4 euro or 5.50 US dollars).

Blogger David Bailey, a British expat living in the Balkans, quoted what Serbian Prime Minister Ivica Dačić said at Jovanka Broz's state funeral on Saturday, wondering whether the PM's words were hollow or heartfelt:

The absence of a religious funeral service was the wish of Jovanka and her family.

Serbia’s Prime Minister Ivica Dacic led the tributes at the funeral ceremony, saying: “Today marks the departure of the last icon of the former Yugoslavia.” He said it was time to admit that the treatment she received after the death of her husband was a “sin”.

On social networks these days, there is no majority opinion on who or what Jovanka Broz was. Some say she was “an icon” [photos], “a heroine”, others call her “a leech” and “a fake”, while a few simply lament the country's disregard for its own history and its neglect of Jovanka Broz in recent decades. There are very few in-betweens and no particular hashtags to follow, but people are visibly talking about her passing which, in many ways, gives closure to an era that ended 30 years ago. Whatever their opinion or political affiliation, many social media users posted “Bella Ciao”, an Italian song often sung by the partisans of Italy and Yugoslavia before and during WWII, made popular by Giovanna Dafinni in the early 60′s and often tied to Jovanka Broz. Tetka, a popular Serbian portal, wrote in a post titled “Bella Ciao – The Song That Saw Jovanka Broz Off”:

A možda nam je ovim taktovima na svom poslednjem ispraćaju poslala poruku o ujedinjenju, ideji koja je sve nas na prostorima bivše zemlje razjedinila do krvavih ratova jer ova pesma u Italiji i jeste postala popularna kao pesma u kojoj je ujedinjena jedna ideja.[...]

Koliko je ova pesma popularna i danas kao himna pobune, dočaraće vam podatak da su ove godine u Turskoj, buneći se zbog planova da se na mestu poslednjih “zelenih pluća grada” u Istanbulu grad tržni centar, mladi koji su protestovali protov ove odluke premijera Erdogana pevali ovu pesmu.[...]

Jovanke Broz srpska javnost se setila tek kada je dospela u bolnicu i to onda kada više nije sama mogla da donosi odluke. Dok je mogla, odbijala je lečenje kao da je jedva čekala da ode sa ovog sveta, iz društva koje ju je stavilo u izlolaciju i zaboravilo je.

Or perhaps in her last farewell she sent us a message about uniting through these beats, an idea that divided all of us on the territory of this former country through bloody wars, because this song became popular in Italy as the song that unites one idea.[...]

A fact from this year from Turkey will demonstrate the popularity of this song as a revolutionary anthem, where young protesters, rising up against the building of a shopping center in the place of the last “green lungs of the city”, sang this song as they protested this decision by Prime Minister Erdogan.[...]

The Serbian public only remembered Jovanka Broz when she ended up in hospital and even this was when she could no longer make her own decisions. While she could, she refused treatment, as if she could hardly wait to leave this world, this society that put her in isolation and forgot her.

October 16 2013

Bosnia-Herzegovina's World Cup Qualifying Win Unites Region in Celebration

Fans celebrated the historic win on the streets of Sarajevo throughout the night; image courtesy of Bosnia-Herzegovina national team's

Fans celebrated the historic win on the streets of Sarajevo throughout the night. Image courtesy of Bosnia-Herzegovina national team's “Zmajevi” Facebook fan page, used with permission.

Some 12 hours after Bosnia-Herzegovina secured its direct qualification to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, Bosnians are still celebrating this historic moment. Social networks are flooded with comments of joy from Bosnians and support from other nations.

Last night and today, October 16, 2013, no one can tell by looking at social networks and regional news sites that Bosnia still has a very troubled political life, or that the EU is threatening the small Balkan country with sanctions. The only topic on people's minds and timelines is that of Bosnia-Herzegovina's 1-0 win over Lithuania in the World Cup qualifiers. Even the official Twitter account of the OSCE Mission to Bosnia-Herzegovina dropped all other matters last night to announce the team's win:

All across Bosnia-Herzegovina, fans are emotional about their countries historical placement in the largest sporting event in the world. Twitter user @samrich_ from Sarajevo says:

My dad is crying, [I swear] on my life. #BosnaiHercegovina #Brazil #BiH #Bosnia #Football

— Morning star (@samrich_) October 15, 2013

This win came, almost “miraculously” as some on social networks put it, on the Kurban Bayrami religious holiday widely celebrated in Bosnia-Herzegovina, also known throughout the Muslim world as the feast of sacrifice. Some social media users gave the traditional Bayrami holiday greeting used to commemorate the end of Bayram and Hajj “Bayram Sherif Mubarek Olsun” (“May the holy Bayram be blessed”) a World Cup twist, and no one seemed to take offense. On the contrary, tweets like this one from Nikola Bajčetić from Montenegro were greeted with humor and good spirits:

BRAZIL SHERIF MUBAREK OLSUN ! :))) Many congratulations #BiH ! #fudbal

— Nikola Bajcetic (@Nikola_MNE) October 15, 2013

The match seems to have brought the entire troubled region together, as Serbian, Croatian and Montenegrin fans congratulated Bosnia-Herzegovina and celebrated the win with them online. After last night's 2-0 loss to Scotland, Croatia still has a slim chance of qualifying in the playoffs. Serbia, however, lost any chance of making it through to the World Cup several months ago after possibly one of the worst qualifying campaigns in its sporting history. But Serbia beat Macedonia 5-1 on October 15, 2013, thus sinking any dreams Macedonians may have had of reaching Brazil next summer. Fans from all three countries, amid their own losses, joined in celebrating Bosnia-Herzegovina's unique win. Nikola Radović from Montenegro joined in by saying:

While I'm losing my voice at Podgorica stadium for #CrnaGora [#Montenegro], I'm getting word that #BiH is off to Brazil. I'll root for them. Bravo Bosnia!

— Nikola Radovic (@NowitzkiCt) October 15, 2013

Bosnia-Herzegovina's national football team now faces the likes of England, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain and other top teams in Brazil next year and has an unlikely chance of getting very far in the competition. However, many say that further results for Bosnia at the World Cup are now irrelevant, as this is the country's first time to qualify as an independent nation, a historic moment worth more than any title. The video below shows what Sarajevo looked like throughout the night as people took to the streets to celebrate:

August 23 2013

Navalny's Montenegrin Kryptonite or Russia's Invulnerable Candidate?

When Alexey Navalny decided to run for the Moscow Mayor’s office, he probably expected to learn a lot about his enemies—the various masters and minions of Kremlin politics. Certainly, that has happened. As regular as clockwork, he has blogged exposés [ru] about incumbent Mayor Sergey Sobyanin’s luxurious apartments, which he suspiciously registered in his daughters’ names. More recently, Navalny’s campaign has played up [ru] Vladimir Putin’s sloppy attention to procedural details, which required the President to issue written permission for Sobyanin’s candidacy after the latter’s “resignation.” (The Kremlin later offered up a slapdash [ru] substitute.)

One thing Navalny perhaps didn’t anticipate was learning something compromising about himself. That happened two days ago, when information emerged showing Navalny’s ownership of an active real estate company in Montenegro, established in 2007 and undeclared when he registered as a candidate for the mayor’s race. The party responsible for digging up this data was a website called “FLB” (Free Lance Bureau, an established RuNet resource for damaging investigative reporting), but one blogger, Stanislav Apetyan (LiveJournal’s infamous “Politrash”), was the man responsible for whipping up the media storm that followed.

Navalny's Kryptonite? Image created by author using image captures from YouTube.

How super is Navalny? Image created by author using image captures from YouTube.

Apetyan made a name for himself in late 2011, when he blogged detailed analyses [ru] of Navalny’s email archives, which RuNet bogeyman “Hacker Hell” stole and published that year. In July 2012, in response to Navalny’s attacks on Investigative Committee head Alexander Bastrykin’s foreign property holdings, Apetyan accused [ru] Navalny of harboring similarly extravagant tastes, highlighting excerpts from the hacked emails, wherein Navalny discussed his wish to invest 350 thousand Euros in a real estate venture in Montenegro.

When FLB revealed evidence [ru] that Navalny did indeed help found a limited liability company in the city of Podgorica, Apetyan was already well versed in the subject.

In his first post [ru] on the scandal, Apetyan republished excerpts from the hacked emails that addressed Navalny’s real estate plans, and linked to the materials FLB discovered online. FLB found the information by searching for Navalny’s name on OpenCorporates.com (“the open database of the corporate world”), which indexed data from the Montenegrin government’s official website for its Central Register of Business Entities. On the latter website, Navalny is listed as a cofounder of “MRD Company,” a construction firm established in November 2007 and “active” today. Curiously, the registry lists no financial records for MRD (a detail Apetyan duly omitted).

Eager to generate public interest, Apetyan titled his blog post, “They Might Remove Navalny from the Election Because Of His Company in Montenegro.”

Navalny’s team was quick to respond, sensing the danger of these allegations. His campaign manager, Leonid Volkov, worked through the night, tweeting [ru] into the morning hours requests for assistance from experts in “Joomla,” the content management system used to build the Montenegrins’ Central Register website. The next day, Volkov published a long refutation [ru] of Apetyan’s accusations, claiming that Navalny owned no businesses registered in Montenegro. Additionally, he accused Apetyan and his “Nashist” allies of exploiting the Register’s coding vulnerabilities, and uploading the compromising data about Navalny themselves. As proof, Volkov pointed to the fact that the Register was out of service at the time he was writing (something Apetyan later accused him of orchestrating), and linked to a still-active page on the Register’s domain that appears to be a hacked advertisement for Ray Ban sunglasses.

Volkov also took aim at OpenCorporates.com, highlighting the presence of hyperlinks to the FSB and Kremlin in MRD’s “related Web links” section. This, Volkov claimed, was evidence of Russian authorities’ “embarrassing and clumsy work.”

As it happens, OpenCorporates aggregates only the business information of government registries. The data Volkov singled out as evidence of a government conspiracy was in fact submitted by anonymous Internet users, presumably as a prank, after the story broke in the news. In a response, Apetyan explained [ru] that the Montenegrin government’s website only recently connected itself aggregators like OpenCorporates, which finally made it accessible to Google indexing, earlier this year. That, he says, is why researchers are only now learning about the real estate firm. (Before Google saw it, only someone searching the Register’s archives could have discovered Navalny’s company.)

Two days after the initial revelations, and a day after Volkov’s claim that hackers had planted the incriminating information, Montenegro’s Tax Administration confirmed the existence of MRD Company and Navalny’s cofounding role, denying any hacker intrusions on its website. The tax authorities’ official statement (prompted by “Article 28” of its “Media Law,” which concerns corrections of misinformation in the press) says that Navalny signed the company’s “statute” and “founding contact” (sic), and provided copies of his passport. The press release also identifies several procedural errors in the company’s registration, noting a failure to submit paperwork to the “Central registry of taxpayers” and the absence of any “profit or tax liabilities” declarations.

Clearly embarrassed, Volkov responded [ru] hours later, no longer disputing the real estate company’s existence, but adamant that Navalny had no knowledge of its registration. The “sensible” explanation, Volkov wrote, is that Navalny shared and signed certain documents in 2007, when he was considering the purchase of land in Montenegro, unaware that it would be used to register what then was only a hypothetical business. Anxious to return to the rhetoric of the mayoral campaign, Volkov concludes his post with sloganeering, writing, “The main thing is that this is our election campaign and our victory!”

Stanislav Apetyan, 23 June 2013, screen capture from YouTube.

Stanislav Apetyan, 23 June 2013, screen capture from YouTube.

While Apetyan at first propagated the idea that the Montenegrin business might endanger Navalny’s candidacy, most observers doubted the odds that this scandal (or any other) would cost Navalny his place on the September 8 ballot. Indeed, the wide consensus that Sobyanin is protecting Navalny’s candidacy is a major catalyst for conspiracy theories surrounding the latter’s release from prison last month. To the relief, but perhaps not the surprise, of many, Moscow’s election commission ended speculation in an August 22 press release [ru], stating that Navalny’s Montenegrin real estate company does not violate Russian election law [ru], which bars elected officials only from owning foreign land and holding foreign accounts.

Given the apparent security of Navalny’s candidacy, it’s easy to wonder if bloggers and journalists have overblown the Montenegrin scandal. Some analysts, like Tatiana Stanovaya, however, have mused [ru] on Facebook that the timing of this attack raises the chances that Russian authorities now hope to damage Navalny’s reputation significantly enough to validate election results that show him in third place. While Navalny’s own pollsters claim [ru] he is on track to force a second round of voting (a one-on-one contest with Sobyanin), a Kremlin-friendly think tank recently reported [ru] that Navalny could possibly come in third in Moscow’s September election.

The institution responsible for this unexpected claim, the Civil Society Development Foundation, employs none other than Stanislav Apetyan.

July 26 2013

Anti-Gay Protesters Violently Disrupt Montenegro's First Pride Parade

Montenegro's first Gay Pride Parade ended in violence instead of tolerance with clashes between police forces and anti-LGBT protesters in Budva resulting in arrests, injuries and, finally, the evacuation of parade participants by boat because police forces could not guarantee safe passage for the participants through the city center.

Only about 40 people were part of the parade itself on July 24, 2013, but of about 2,000 people gathered along the parade route, some 500 actively and physically attempted to stop the event, according to Montenegro's Police Department [sr].

Some, like Mihail Efremov, commented on what was happening at the parade at the time on social media:

While Montenegro has had fairly liberal laws regarding LGBT matters since 1977, then as a part of the former Yugoslavia, LGBT and other non-conventional lifestyles are often frowned upon in everyday life and society. In November of 2012, Montenegrin Deputy Prime Minister Duško Marković announced that the government, however, would consider some form of legal recognition of gay marriages.

Netizens from the region and the world, as well as many mainstream media channels, reacted the day after to the incident that took place yesterday in Budva, one of the most popular tourist destinations on the Adriatic coast. Twitter user Jaz commented and posted a video of the event on Twitter:

This is a total disgrace http://t.co/ewoURfsu2d #SeaSidePride #EqualityForAll #Montenegro

Owners of cafes in the old city of Budva even called in a priest to purify the plateau where the Gay Pride Parade had passed. The clergyman who performed the ritual, Father Boris Radović, stated for media that “This was not a pride parade, but a parade of shame”, causing mostly ridicule and contempt from many social media users, like this tweet from user @talambasakobasa:

hahaha http://t.co/F2nMWC94yZ what's his relation to the more famous Radović [former politician known for extremist statements]; I see their wording is the same #Budva #Montenegro #paradacg #seasidepride

— talambasamikobasa (@talambasakobasa) July 25, 2013

Nenad Memić, a journalist and linguist from Sarajevo now living in Vienna, added on Twitter:

On Facebook, under hashtag#Montenegro, many reactions can be seen, the vast majority of which condemn yesterday's attacks on the parade and call for more tolerance for the LGBT community in Montenegro.

Perhaps this tweet from freelance journalist Alex Hoegberg sums it up best:

July 13 2013

Tragedy Ignites Online Friendship Between Romanians and Montenegrins

In one of the most tragic road accidents ever seen in Montenegro, 18 Romanian nationals lost their lives and 29 were injured on June 23, 2013 when a Romanian bus full of tourists ran off the Grlo bridge 30 kilometers away from the Montenegrin capital of Podgorica into a 40-meter-deep ravine of the Morača canyon.

News of the accident soon spread, and due to the generosity of the Montenegro people toward the victims and their families, so did an outpouring of messages of gratitude, empathy, solidarity and adoration soon ensued on social networks from both countries.

One of the most shared images on social networks related to this tragic event; image courtesy of Lazarica.

One of the most shared images on social networks related to this tragic event. Image by Lazarica.

On Facebook, two pages soon appeared to thank Montenegro's citizens for their help and support. The pages, titled Montenegro, Respectful Thanks [ro], with more than 5,000 fans to date, and Thank You, Montenegro [ro] are overflowing with messages of thanks from Romanian citizens and images of Montenegrin citizens lending a helping hand in the aftermath of the tragic incident.

Twitter also saw an abundance of messages and interactions of true friendship and connection. Messages like Catalin Iote‘s (@Catalin_IoteR5) from Romania became a common and heartwarming site on Twitter:

@Catalin_IoteR5#Montenegro you're the best! We, #Romania are so happy because you are near by us.

Twitter user Eliza (@CronicileElizei) from Romania also expressed her gratitude:

@CronicileElizei: I just wanted to thank to our wonderful friends in #Montenegro that helped our people injured in a bus accident.#Romania is really grateful!

Evelina (@MissEveBaroiu) from Bucharest, like many others, wanted to show her respect and renewed faith in humanity in the region:

@MissEveBaroiu: Respect Montenegro! Thank you for showing us that,regardless of race, nationality and language,we all are human beings! #Montenegro #Romania

Social media users from across Montenegro reciprocated the feeling of friendship, such as user Klausbites from Podgorica who included one of the most shared images from Romania related to this event, shown below:

Romania, your welcome! #montenegro #romania

One of the most shared images on social networks and blogs from Romania.

One of the most shared images on social networks and blogs from Romania.

Diplomats and public officials of the two countries are also collaborating extensively in the wake of this unfortunate event that brought the two countries closer together, while the survivors, mostly pensioners from Romania on holiday in Montenegro, were first treated in hospital in Podgorica, then transferred to Romania by the Romanian government.

May 24 2013

In Croatia and Serbia, Mixed Feelings About the EU

As Croatia prepares to enter the European Union officially on July 1 of this year, and Serbia awaits to finally receive a date to begin talks about EU entry, citizens of both countries express mixed feelings about EU integration.

Some young Croatian citizens are looking forward to being able to seek employment in EU countries and to the economic benefits some say the EU promises to bring. Twitter user @tash from Zagreb says [en]:

@EszterLzr haha i know, bad timing for EU and here ppl have mixed feeling ab it..and i just want to be able to go to work somewhere else

Others, like Aleksandar Holiga from Zagreb, look forward to traveling with more freedom to other EU countries [en]:

Flying to London tomorrow. For the last time ever required to fill that form and speak to immigration officer on the non-EU airport booth.

Pro-EU and anti-EU Croatian citizens are having spontaneous street debates in Zagreb on the eve of the 2012 European Union referendum. Photo by Marin Tomaš, copyright © Demotix (14/01/12).

Pro-EU and anti-EU Croatian citizens are having spontaneous street debates in Zagreb on the eve of the 2012 European Union referendum. Photo by Marin Tomaš, copyright © Demotix (14/01/12).

The majority, however, seems to be taking entry into the EU with a grain of salt. Goran Saravanja, a Croatian economist who blogs for Vecernji List daily, begins and ends his thoughts on the matter with simple, objective conclusions in a post titled “Facing Change: Croatia in EU” [hr]:

Prosječna osoba neće primijetiti veliku razliku u svom svakodnevnom okruženju na dan pristupanja Hrvatske EU. No, važne promjene nastupit će ubrzo. [...] Pristupanje EU samo po sebi neće automatski poboljšati kvalitetu domaćih institucija, kao ni razne politike niti njihovu provedbu. Ukoliko želimo da nam rast bude konstanta, nezaposlenost smanjena, a izvoz povećan, mi sami moramo provoditi reforme i (ne samo) ekonomsku politiku na kvalitetan način.

An average person won't notice a large difference in their everyday surroundings on the day of Croatia's entry into the EU. However, important changes will come quickly. [...] Entry into the EU in and of itself won't automatically improve the quality of domestic institutions, nor various political standpoints or their execution. If we want our growth to be constant, our unemployment lowered, and exports to grow, we must implement reforms ourselves and (not only) economic policy in a quality manner.

While Mr. Saravanja lists many of the benefits and opportunities that EU membership will bring Croatia, Zarko Plevnik in an editorial for Glas Slavonije [hr] (Slavonia is a Croatian region) questions how Croatian products will fare in the EU market because most are “unprotected”:

Gledajući i slušajući vijesti iz Hrvatske o tome kako svaki dan pronalazimo neki novi problem vezan uz naš ulazak u Europsku uniju, između ostalog, nameće se pitanje – što smo mi zaštitili od naših proizvoda prije ulaska u EU?

Watching and listening to the news from Croatia about how every day we encounter a new issue related to our entry into the European Union, among other things, the following question arises – what have we protected [trademarked] of our products prior to entry into the EU?

An article on the same site, titled “And This Is the European Union,” shows a picture of Greek farmers giving away fresh vegetables to their “class allies” [hr], or, rather, government employees.

Most social media users from Croatia seem to be skeptical about the benefits of EU membership.

Twitter user @ruzniuzorak says [hr]:

smorena sam ko europska unija

I'm bummed out like the European Union

User @nxyassa from Croatia comments [CRO]:

Glupost nema granice evo naprimjer EUROPSKA UNIJA

Stupidity has no limits [borders] for example the EUROPEAN UNION

User @cromarko from Zagreb quotes an article and adds his own opinion [hr]:

“Najvece priznanje ulaska RH u EU je sastanak s kraljicom”. Priznanje hah, sve sto cu reci je Sjeverna Irska! #freeireland #oneireland

“The greatest acknowledgement of [Croatia's] accession in the EU is a meeting with the Queen.” Acknowledgement hah, all I will say is, Northern Ireland! #freeireland #oneireland

In Serbia, social media users, bloggers and many journalists are just as skeptical. Considering the recent history of Serbia and Croatia, one might wonder at the lack of perhaps expected envy that might come from Serbia towards Croatia, as Croatia enters the EU, while Serbia is still on hold and waiting for talks on membership. Serbs, however, seem to be much more concerned with their own fate.

Twitter user @na_preporciju from Serbia says [sr]:

Evropska unija nam se pokakila na demokratiju i slobodu,
a naši Slepci ne znaju da povuku vodu.

The European Union pooped on our democracy and freedom, while our Blind Men don't know how to flush.

User @m2aja echoes [sr] what many Serbs are saying:

Britanc žele da napuste Evropsku uniju, a Srbija bi da ide…

Britons want to leave the European Union, while Serbs want to enter…

Even users like @luminous_pg from Montenegro, which began EU accession negotiations a year ago, view EU-related matters [sr] sarcastically:

Muče vas bolovi u vratu? Imate problema sa zglobovima? Zaboravite na vaše neprilike, uskoro ulazimo u EVROPSKU UNIJU!

Neck pain bothering you? Have problems with your joints? Forget all your troubles, we're entering the EUROPEAN UNION soon!

User @na_preporciju also comments [sr]:

Kad uđe Hrvatska Evropska unija zaključava vrata – od robijašnice.

When Croatia enters, the European Union will close the door – of the work camp.

Some, like the Beograd Cafe blog, see positives economic opportunities for Serbia in Croatia's entry into the EU [sr], reporting from the recent “CEFTA After Croatia's Entry Into EU” trade conference, where all of the regional countries’ representatives met to discuss the Central European Free Trade Agreement:

Ulazak Hrvatske u EU doneće Srbiji niz prednosti, kao što su dominantan položaj u CEFTA regionu i povećanje suficita u razmeni sa okolnim zemljama, a očekuje se i više investicija…

The entry of Croatia into the EU will bring Serbia several advantages, such as a dominant position in the CEFTA region and a larger sufficit in trade with surrounding countries, while more investments are also expected. [...]

A blog from Bosnia and Herzegovina also writes about the subject [bs] in a post titled “Due to Exiting CEFTA, Croatian Companies to Move Production to Bosnia and Herzegovina?”.

In general, both in Croatia and Serbia, people seem to have an “it is what it is” attitude about the European Union in general. Perhaps the tweet of one user, @Darac42, sums it up best [hr]:

Da da, bit ce taj EU hard landing za hrvate.. niti ne zasluzujemo bolje..

Yes, yes, that EU will be a hard landing for Croats.. and we don't deserve better..

April 15 2013

Running 1,000 Miles for Europe's Trafficked Children

Run For Love 1000

This month, Rob Martineau, Tom Stancliffe, and Guy Hacking are running 1,000 miles from Odessa to Dubrovnik, via Ukraine, Moldova, Romania, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Kosovo, Montenegro, and Croatia, as part of the Run For Love 1000 campaign, whose aim is to raise funds for Love146, a UK charity that “gives care and hope to trafficked children, and to raise awareness of the scale of human trafficking across Europe.” Follow their run on the RFL1000 website, on Facebook, and on Twitter; support the runners by donating here (215 donations have been made so far, with nearly £12,500 raised).

February 20 2013

New e-Journal Highlights Balkan History and Archaeology

The inaugural issue of Haemus Journal, an academic e-journal devoted to the history and archaeology of the Balkan Peninsula, also covering a wide range of related interdisciplinary topics, was published recently. It follows the principles of Free and Open Access and publishes its content under a Creative Commons license.

Haemus-journal-1-2012-cover

Haemus journal Vol.1 (2012)
http://haemus.mk

(more…)

October 15 2012

Montenegro: General Elections 2012

BalkanInsight's live blog [en] of this past Sunday's parliamentary elections in Montenegro ends its coverage with this summary:

[…] No surprises in the Montenegro elections, if the preliminary results are confirmed. [Milo Djukanovic] looks set to continue to dominate the political landscape as he has done for more than two decades. […]

December 09 2011

Macedonia: Ajvar, Glorified

Jovana Tozija wrote lovingly about making ajvar, a traditional favorite winter provision in Macedonia and some other post-Ottoman countries.

August 05 2011

The Balkans: Over Half of the Population Uses the Internet

There are over 10.5 million Internet users in the Balkans/the former Yugoslavia, which makes up 51.7 percent of the region's population, according to a recent report [sr; see the table below].

The findings [.zip, sr] cited by Huge Media, in collaboration with Marko Tomić, a student from the Faculty of Organizational Sciences, University of Belgrade, show that Slovenia has the highest Internet service penetration (63.29 percent), while Bosnia and Herzegovina has the lowest (51.76 percent of Internet users).

It is interesting that over a half of the Serbian and Croatian population is on the Internet, and the authors of these findings consider [sr] that there's an incomplete research evaluation of Internet usage by the Statistical Office of the Republic of Serbia (RZS):

…As for the Internet users, we think that the RZS assessment is incomplete and does not include users of mobile internet. […they are] only examining a particular set of data that gives us information about a particular topic, but not the complete story that interests us.

Facebook is the most popular destination: over 70 percent of Internet users have a Facebook account in Serbia, and 63 percent - in Croatia:

The average time spent on Facebok is 25 minutes (both for Serbia and Croatia), and the average user in Serbia checks his/her Facebook account 16 times a day, while in Croatia it is 13 times a day.

[…]

The increasing number of Facebook users can be explained by non-residents of Serbia and Croatia using this social network during their travels.

The online social dynamics and the activities on Facebook do not differ much in other Balkan countries. Last year, we published the data on the Serbian young adults who spend the most of their time on Facebook, communicating with their friends (61 percent), “like”-ing their statuses (66 percent), sharing content and information (56 percent), writing private messages (47 percent), and playing games (22.4 percent).

Statistical and educational institutions in each of the Balkan countries could generate and use the data on the relevant online activities to detect and focus on their critical users, to adjust their policies and action plans based on the data.

It would be also interesting to see age distribution among users and other relevant demographics, as well as the analysis of online social interactions on other Internet services and social media sites.

Currently, research is being conducted on the social media usage among young adults, students, educators, and scholars in Serbia, but it is limited, in a way, as it cannot be considered a sample for the entire Balkan population. Each country could work on their local national data for cross-statistical area analyses for the future.

July 13 2011

Montenegro: Serbian not spoken here?

M. Bozinovich of Serbianna discusses a recent Montenegro census saying that 20% of Montenegrins no longer speak Serbian, and whether this is an actual result or caused by nationalism.

February 09 2011

The Balkans: Turbo-folk and Rock Mashups

Written by Filip Stojanovski

Mashup clips by YouTube user apostolski, which combine video footage of Coldplay, U2 and Queen with Serbian turbo-folk songs are poised to become the next big viral hit among Balkan social media users and bloggers [MKD]. Some have already “spilled over” into traditional media like TV call-in show Jadi burek [MKD], which “reuses” clips from the net.

December 07 2010

July 29 2010

The Balkans: Regional Lottery vs Nationalism

By Veronica Khokhlova

Belgraded writes about the planned revival of “the one big regional lottery” in the former Yugoslavia and does not “miss the opportunity to point out just how stupid nationalism is.”

July 14 2010

Montenegro: Hero's Welcome for YouTube Star

By Filip Stojanovski

YouTube star Ekrem Jevrić Gospoda was given a hero's welcome upon his arrival in his native Montenegro on July 11. His fame also grew when, allegedly unrelated to his status of YouTube star, he also took part in a photo-shoot for a renowned fashion brand.

At the Podgorica airport, Jevrić was greeted by local camp singer Purašević and “hundreds of fans and relatives,” while tens of entertainment portals and TV stations from the Balkans — including from Macedonia — reused a video from the event, also available on YouTube.

In the clip, apparently at a request of a female journalist, the singer-songwriter whose song about the daily grind ‘cursed' working women because they can't take care of children, explains that “Women work. All our women work all over the Gray World,* women work,” and adds that he's not really bothered by that fact.

But, the man whose video currently has over 3.9 million views on YouTube, complained that he didn't make any money from that, because he's not paid per view, so “it's all for nothing, all for free, and maybe in the future, later we'll make something.”

In addition, a few weeks ago, numerous Balkan portals spread the news that Jevrić shows up in a menswear photo-shoot as a tailor. One of them, SerbiaNet, also published [SER] an audio clip with an excerpt from a telephone interview [SER]. According to Jevrić:

I worked for a big and famous billionaire, with famous brands, called Dolce & Gabanna. I was standing in front of a pub [in my suit] and he was passing by and asked me “Are you an Italian?” I said “Excuse me, but I am not, but I am quite close to Italy.”

Then they said “Would you allow us to take photos of you and take your telephone number, and we'll call you in ten days if you are accepted.” And then they accepted me and offered 500 USD per day to work for them. I worked two days, and got a thousand dollars. A car would come to my house and take me there, and then take me back home by car, and so. They also told me that they might invite me again to work for them, and what do I know…

The interviewer also tried to provoke conservative Jevrić about the openly gay status of Dolce & Gabanna, but to his credit the singer-turned-model ignored the issue.

* Possibly this is a reference to the common South Slavic idiom “the White World,” meaning abroad, far away, used in folk stories.

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