Eastern European Express

I'm an artist, teacher and writer who left the U.S. in the summer of 2006. Currently, I'm living in Budapest, Hungary. This blog is about my experience living and working in Eastern Europe and the Caucases. For those interested in my art, you can find it at www.leahkohlenberg.com.

Monday, March 31, 2008

The Democracy No One Wants to Happen

Dear Friends,

You might have read a little something in the papers about martial law being declared in Armenia this Sunday, March 1, 2008.

It was much worse than that: this latest outbreak is a serious repression of human rights with a regime that is becoming increasingly dictatorial.

I know, because for a night, I watched angry crowds toss molotov cocktails, cars explode juts a street down from, AKA 47 rifle fire whiz past my front door and tank-fired tracers shot in the air over my head.

Earlier that day, I watched as crowds of police with batons rushed at crowds in the streets, beating people randomly and violently. I walked past a pool of blood shed by soldiers attacking people leaving the scene of a protest. In Armenia, they don't use tear gas, which hurts but wears off quickly -- this was brutal, metal-meets-head submission.

For those of you whom I've lost touch with, in the last few months I've moved to Armenia, where I've been working with journalists to cover the presidential elections here.

The truth is that no one really wanted a revolution in Armenia -- except for the 20-30,000 Armenians who protested the results of a grossly unfair presidential election on Feb. 19.

Despite blatant cheating committed most egregiously by the ruling party now in power, the international observing organization, though, OSCE, rubber-stamped the election, calling it "fair and meeting international standards." The US government, which has actively supported this regime, has not raised a finger to suggest the results were unfair.

Only a few people were wholeheartedly in support of the opposition candidate, the country's first president, Levon Ter-Petrosyan, who was himself associated with bad leadership. Most were concerned about the hi-jacking of elections by ruling powers to stay in power, the absolute blatant disregard for the process. So they marched, they sang, they camped out in sub-zero temperatures in front of the State Opera House.

When the ruling party tried to hold a dueling rally earlier this week, they failed. People attending the rally of the ruling party's presidential candidate, Serge Sarksian, were state employees mostly forced there by threat of being fired from their jobs to attend. The rally fizzled, people turning away for a promised pop concert, as eager Ter-Petrosyan supporters filled the streets and blocked the traffic, shouting the slogans. Some even joined the opposition hordes.

On 5 a.m. Saturday morning, police planted quite obviously new weapons, from grenades to guns, next to sleeping protesters, then forced a confrontation.

By the time I arrived at 8 a.m, thousands of troops had cordoned off the area. I saw blood, I saw a TV cameraman taken into a van and driven away, and I was harassed by cops when I tried to look at the former protest zone. Later, riot police with billy clubs were sent to subdue the growing crowds, beating people mercilessly. I vividly recall watching a young man thrown to the street in front of a mini-bus, as these special forces surrounded him, kicking and beating him with sticks. I was across the street, mere yards away, as were hundreds of people -- but none of us could do anything, unless we wanted to get beaten ourselves. Its a very helpless feeling.

This was nasty to watch, but necessary -- It's important to witness because the government in power here is vastly spinning the events of the weekend, likening the attacks to a few problem, drug-addicted malcontents.

By the afternoon, people had gathered at another park, and busses were used to block off city streets. They got madder and madder, and as the night came on, the thousands became ten thousands, and people got more and more angry. We watched as drunk young men stalked down the street with bricks, sticks or pipes in their hands.

Explosions began going off at 10:30 -- and gunfire was fired into the air and into the crowd. I tell you, I've been in riots and protests before, but I've never been so afraid for my own life and the life of everyone on the street. Whomever you ran into, he meant business.

Tanks rolled into the streets at 2 am, and martial law was declared. That includes a complete press blackout -- no media can write anything but official government statements for the next 20 days. They can't cover the court trials challenging the elections, or any other news, except what the government wants to hear. The government wins, and it's not fair.

if you are interested in more ...

Below is one of the best local news sources on the events of the weekend, www.armenianow.com

For details on why people are so pissed off, read the election content project I headed at www.amnewsservice.org

And here is a great new york times story: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/02/world/europe/02armenia.html?fta=y

And attached are some pictures.

Much love to all of you, hope this is of interest to you.


Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Armenian "Elections" (And we Use This Term Loosely)

Hi folks,

Below is part 1 of a two-part personal journal on my experience covering so-called free and democratic elections in Armenia this past May. Please take a look -- I think it raises a lot of questions not only about the veractiy of the elections process itself, but how the U.S. goes along with it as long as it fits bigger foreign policy objectives. Not a big surprise, I know. Just details.

Besides that, you can read about Armenia's own "Lion King" (to your right in the photo). Ah, good times.


ROAD BETWEEN YEREVAN AND GYUMRI, Armenia – It's the yellow tape on the road that makes us stop.

Men in trench coats and dark sunglasses are everywhere, screaming at the driver of the car I'm riding in to pull over to the other side, to keep moving, go on, don't ask questions. As we zip past the scene, the four of us in the car try to puzzle out what happened.

“Someone has gotten killed,” theorizes Tatevik, a fresh-faced twentysomething recent college grad who is managing logistics for my trip (she studied education and Italian in Connecticut for a year, and speaks a comforting American-accented English sprinkled with a lot of “likes” and “you knows”). Tatevik works for IREX, a U.S.-government funded agency which has hired me many times in the past five years to come to Armenia as a journalist trainer.

And she is right. A few miles down the road, I get a call from John Hughes, a veteran American journalist who lives in Yerevan and started the Armenian-English language online news magazine, ArmeniaNow.com, four year ago.

“Looks like the mayor of Gyumri was shot last night,” he says. “He was driving home from a meeting when a car drove up next to his and three guys in machine guns shot up the car. He is in the hospital, three of his guys have been killed.”

He sounds not one bit surprised. Parliamentary elections are one month away, on May 12. Welcome to Armenia, where the start of the political season is nearly always marked by a hail of bullets and a body count.

Armenia's most prominent political aspirant keeps lions in his basement. That's right. Real lions.

We know this is true because Tony Halpin, a British journalist, co-founder of ArmeniaNow.com and the current London Times bureau chief for Moscow, has seen them. He also locked wrists with the political newcomer and former world champion arm-wrestler who might well become Armenia's next prime minister.

“Ouch,” says Tony, laughing and shaking his arm in mock pain. “That was tough.”

The leader of Armenia's new Prosperous Armenia party is Gagik Tsarukyan, one of Armenia's richest and toughest men. The origin of his wealth is mysterious, though during the Soviet era, he was known as a “black entrepeneur,” buying and selling hard-to-get goods. He has a substantial number of well-equipped computer campaign offices and giant campaign posters in every town, showing his large smiling head perched atop a preternaturally thick neck. His nickname is Dodi, but only his friends are allowed to use it: there is a rumor that one man was nearly beaten to death by Tsarukyan's bodyguards for referring to him by that name.

He is also closely aligned with president Robert Kocharian, and it's widely known that his year-old party will be part of the pro-government faction led by Kocharian's Republican Party, which now holds the majority of seats in parliament. Voters might consider Prospereous Armenia to be a more palatable choice, possibly, than the Republicans because of Tsarukyan's robust strength and his newness to politics. But even the simplest person understands that a vote for Prosperous Armenia is a vote for a friend of the president – a very good friend.

Still, the Prosperous Armenia Party is taking no chances. Party officers have been trading cash for passport numbers to use on voting day and giving away free wheat seeds and other goodies in the more traditional form of vote-buying so prevalent in new democracies like Armenia.

Certainly, Tsarukyan's party isn't the only one buying votes. ArmeniaNow reporters amassed what we jokingly call in the office “How much is your vote worth?” On it virtually every political party can be found trading votes for such items as a new clothes shopping spree, a free trip to the local bathhouse, a hair dryer, or a fixed leaky roof. But Prosperous Armenia is the only one with the unlimited cash needed to make the most impact.

Two days before the election, Halpin and ArmeniaNow reporter Suren Mouselyan followed Tsarukyan to the poor town of Abovian, where he grew up. They watched him vow before the crowd to run a free and fair election, and promised not to buy votes.

“But out of the goodness of my heart, here are two ambulances for the town,” Tsarukyan announced one minute later. The crowd cheered loudly. After all, they aren't stupid. Every Armenian knows the most effective way to get public services in the country is through a private person's wallet.

Suren, a serious young man with a British journalism education, says that after the speech, he and Tony muscled their way to Tsarukyan through a crowd of people, trying to press written letters into his pocket, begging favors or simply singing his praises.

Leaning against his chauffeur-driven SUV, Tsarukyan agreeably answered a few of Tony's questions before extending the invitation to visit him at home on election day.

“Tony asked something like “Are you afraid of election fraud?”” Suren recalled. “Tsarukyan looked at me, after I translated it, and said: “I am not afraid of anything.” As if saying to me: Explain to this Brit, who doesn't know the extent of my power, that I'm not afraid of anything in this country.”

Gyumri, when we arrive an hour past the scene of the shooting, looks like it always does: devastated.

In 1988, the city was hit by a 6.9-scale earthquake that leveled most of what was once Armenia's cultural capital, killing 25,000 and leaving more than 500,000 homeless. Nineteen years and billions of dollars in international aid later (American public aid and private donations alone numbered $34.5 million), the city has seen only marginal improvement. Wonder what happened to all that money?

A gangland style shot-up mayor on the side of the road would indicate it might not all have gone through the legal channels.

Gyumri is an extreme representation of the cross that Armenians living in this rocky, landlocked Caucasian country must bear. “Politician” in Armenia can be an euphemism for “criminal”, just another way for the local “chiefs” to get their hands on money intended for public use. It's so obvious, no one really bothers to hide it. I mean, how can one hide a city full of cracked-up buildings and split sidewalks, anyway? Or the massive, ostentatious mansions where the leaders live?

The average Armenian isn't fooled. That's the message we've gotten from a story turned into ArmeniaNow.com by a Gyumri reporter named Samvel, a thin, nervous workhorse of a man who comes to have his story edited around 10 p.m., after a full day of reporting. The story is full of comments from Gyumri residents saying the same thing: we don't trust anyone, we don't trust any politicians, it doesn't matter whom we vote for.

There are two problems with the story. One is that the text is a jumbled mess of sentences, hard to understand. The other is that the three stories we commissioned from different parts of the country all say the exact same thing.

This is where my job comes in. I've been hired to work with John and his staff at ArmeniaNow to train new potential regional recruits like Samvel. My salary is paid by the US government based on the theory that a true democracy needs a credible, informative, factually based press.

Specifically, that means I'm working with the journalists not only on how to restructure their writing, but to move beyond the obvious and defeatist. If we talk about corruption, we discuss it in concrete terms, not vague generalities that make you want to throw your hands up and cry “uncle.”

That is what I'm supposed to be doing in Gyumri on the day after the mayor has gotten shot. Though ultimately, it will be red tape that will stop my work, not the yellow crime tape littering the road.

“Long live the kingdom of the mayor,” the old woman said.

We are rewriting Samvel's story. At this stage, I draw questions out of him and type a new story in my computer. My translator, Nune, helps Samvel and I understand each other, and reads the story out as I write it for Samvel's approval. Later, she will translate it into written Armenian for ArmeniaNow's website. This is, I've found, the best way to model good writing and editing. It is, in fact, the way I learned to write, sitting with patient editors, when I was a green reporter working in such far-flung places as New Hampshire, North Carolina or Hong Kong.

“She said that?” I ask Samvel, who nods his head up and down vigorously. “Why?”

It turns out that at the end of March, just three weeks before our visit, the Gyumri mayor and the now-deceased prime minister – both supporters of President Robert Kocharian's Republican party, which runs the country – made an announcement in a big theatre in Gyumri.

(The prime minister has since died -- of a heart attack, no foul play suspected).

The mayor and prime minister gave away the keys to five new homes bought with their private money to five homeless Gyumri families, including the old lady. The “donation” was made on behalf of the president's Republican Party.

“But here is the problem,” explains Samvel, through the translator. “There are still 3000-5000 people living homeless or in marginalized housing since the earthquake, and nothing is being done to help them.”

In fact, he continues, eyes flashing with anger, the Republican-led government is actually selling off blocks of dormitories where families have been living for years, effectively evicting them from the only homes they have.

“And yet,” I say to him. “People will vote for the Republican party quite simply because the mayor gave someone a house seven weeks before the election – a house he paid for with his private money?”

Yes, Samvel nods.

“They call him the king?” I said.

Again, Samvel's head bobs assent.

“Jesus,” I tell him. “A few people here grab all the public resources for themselves, and when they dribble it back, people are grateful?”

Another nod. We sit quietly for a minute in the hotel lobby, delicate little white cups of sourj, or Armenian coffee, cooling on the table in front of us.

“That's feudalism,” I say, finally.

Samvel listens intently to the translation.

“Exactly,” he says wearily. “Exactly.”


“What if the politician is just trying to be nice and do a good thing?”

These words come from a middle-aged TV station director in a workshop on how to interview political figures during an election period.

I have asked him to play the role of a local parliamentarian cutting the ribbon in a poor village for two private roads built with privately donated money a month before an election. Furthermore, in this hypothetical scenario, I have reminded his colleagues that this parliamentarian should be asked what happened to public funds allocated by parliament to fix roads in the village two years ago. Sound familiar?

As his colleagues begin to pepper him with questions, the station director, like the best method actor, gets into his role and becomes genuinely upset.

“I'm trying to help you,” he says to them. Afterwards, he admonishes the reporters, telling them they were “too mean” to him, and cynical.

In a way, his reaction is not surprising. He runs what is officially known as an independent television station, but in reality, his station is funded directly by the government and is subject to political pressure from the powers that be in Armenia – in this case, the Republican party. After all, during the Soviet era, the news media was merely a mouthpiece for government words. Though Armenia is officially a democracy, the government is made up of the same people from communist times, and they run the country as they would during the communist era, or before it even – as their own personal fiefdom.

It is a week since my trip to Gyumri. I am teaching this workshop in a basement conference room in Yerevan's nicest hotel, the Marriott, a grand, glowing, circular building located in the capital's main square.

I don't generally like workshops. The Marriott feels far, far away from the troubles of Gyumri and people in the rest of Armenia – or even from the people living outside the four-block radius of Yerevan's posh city center. Talking theory between elegant buffet lunches isn't as effective as working in the field, editing stories that will go into Armenian-language publications. But it is important for IREX, the organization that runs the US media development program here in Armenia, to show what people in the development world call “deliverables.” So I try to give good workshop.

I am not allowed to use any actual politicians in my interviewing exercises. This is understandable. In Armenia, as well as elsewhere in the former Soviet Union, government-supported projects are assumed to be espousing the views of that government – just as it was during the soviet era. But nothing is stopping me from recreating a very familiar scenario.

The journalists bite.

“It's a bribe, isn't it?” Asks one television reporter. “It's a type of election bribe.”

“Yes,” I say. “But it's the worse kind. Because it's used to manipulate how voters will feel about a person, it's not a direct business transaction.”

“Can we call it a bribe, then?” the reporter asks.

This is not so clear. If it's technically charity, can we call it bribery? If no one is being forced to vote, just persuaded, what do you call it?


Tuesday, February 13, 2007

I don’t know why you say goodbye, we say “hallo”

BUDAPEST – “When women and minorities are hired over white men, we call it ‘positive discrimination.’"

It is too early in the morning, and I’m sitting in the board room of Exxon’s Budapest office, blearily facing four chipper Hungarian employees who gather twice a week to learn English before work. I rub my eyes and tell them the English phrase is affirmative action. They look confused, but insist the same term in Hungarian is positive discrimination. I am having a hard time believing it. The term sounds too politically incorrect.

Maybe it’s a mistranslation? I ask.

Oh no, I am assured. In Hungarian, the words are positiv discriminazi (pronounced poh-see-teev dee-scree-mee-nat-see).

“Yes, you know,” explains a bespectacled young man, a brainy blond computer tech. “If a woman or a minority is hired for a position, its still discrimination, but it’s positive for them.”

I cannot begin to explain to them how funny this sounds to an American ear. I find myself often charmed, occasionally appalled and always entertained by my students frequently since I moved to Budapest in mid-September, particularly when it comes to doing the one job I swore I would never, ever do – teaching English.

“See you later, hallo!”

In Hungary, it’s not hard for a foreigner like me to feel like a stranger in a strange land. Everything is done in the opposite order – from the postal addresses, which list city and zip code first, then the street name, and finally the street number – to names, which are listed last name, then first name. Even the computer keyboard is just a little funky – the”y” and the “z” key are in opposite places, to accommodate all the extra vowel sounds that make Hungarian so challenging to pronounce.

Because the standard greeting – szia – is also the standard sign off, the alternative greeting hallo is just as likely to be said if you are coming or going.

Of course, I’ve lived overseas before, for four years in Asia, so I’m used to not fitting in and needing to adapt. But there is something a little surreal about being in Budapest, where my Pan-Hungarian-Romanian roots help me blend in until I try to talk. There is a confusing … well, fusion … of familiar and unfamiliar elements makes me feel oddly off-kilter, rather than extremely odd.

Quite frankly, it suits my current mood, because these days, I feel little backwards myself.

Ten years ago I was working for Time Magazine and then as a journalist trainer, where I was flown to exotic locations like Ulaanbaatar, Tbilisi and Yerevan to teach newswriting and editing. At that time, I had multiple job offers and many opportunities, but strangely, I began turning them down. When friends were shocked because I refused to even interview with the Asian Wall Street Journal for a travel-writing job, I didn’t even question it. I was looking for something different: what, exactly, I didn’t know, but I was seeking something else.

Four years ago, I found that something else when I began doing visual art. Suddenly, the energy I poured into my paid work was going into my art work, as I began struggling to learn to draw, paint, and otherwise render what I see, think, feel and believe. Sounds admirable, yes? But in truth, it is equal parts freeing and frightening to become an artist. As if sensing my lack of commitment, my former profession ceased to serve me as it had of old. Jobs that I could once get at the snap of a finger eluded me – and most of the ones I could obtain were full-time and too draining. I needed money. So I thought I’d try different types of work, something a little less taxing, a little less mentally stimulating, to balance out the intense hours I was spending painting.

I tried everything: bartending proved to be the most successful mainstay for me, but I also worked – often simultaneously – as a self-help book ghost writer, an acupuncturist front desk clerk, a catering assistant, a newsletter writer for a communications company, an assistant to the director of an after-school teen drop-in program at the YMCA, and a world history textbook writer, among many others. As my painting improved, I got poorer – I was making frequent runs to the food bank and struggling to keep up with my bills. And worse off, I felt torn: I wanted to use my brain and my hard-won experience as a journalism teacher and trainer, but I didn’t know how to do it without it bleeding too heavily into my studio time, my right-brained artistic life.

I remember running into a former journalism colleague from the online ABC news website while working as a bartender at the Seattle Art Museum. I could see the confusion in her eyes as she introduced me to her husband, and she never looked at me again that night. I understood how she felt. I had the same feeling about myself and my life. What had I done? Who was I now? Where am I going?

I began to feel like two people: inexperienced and fragile as an artist, on the same day I could confidently and with authority stride up to a podium and speak to 100 people about the status of journalism development work in the former Soviet Union.

This uneasy state of dichotomy is how I now live, so I moved to Budapest, where at least I have an excuse other than my own decisions for feeling backwards.

I don’t know if “hallo” means “hallo” or “goodbye,” or even what I’m saying “hallo” to.


“I wish you a hatful of it.”

Most of what I know about Budapest I learn through conversation with my students, and to a lesser degree from my ever-patient Hungarian teacher (lesser only because of my meager understanding of Hungarian). Take my favorites, the group that calls itself the Irish Pub – made up of two sisters, Ely and Agi, and Agi’s boyfriend, Akos – who want to learn enough English to be able to work and live in Dublin or some other more prosperous country in the European Union, to which Hungary is now bound.

We were comparing English and Hungarian sayings one day when they asked me:

”What do you tell someone when they are about to perform on stage?”

Break a leg, I replied.

Ah, it’s similar in Hungarian, said Agi. “Except we say break both your arms and legs.”

She looked only a little bit puzzled when I burst out laughing.

The Hungarians are not a light and easy group. They’ve been ruled and subjugated by many different leaders from Genghis Kahn on down the line, and watched their country dwindle to a fraction of its former glory since the middle ages and the Hapsburg rule They suffered staggering losses in WWII on the losing German side, including a near evaporation -- and unspoken complicity about it -- of their Jewish and gypsy populations. They still commemorate the 1956 revolution, in which many Hungarian protesters were ruthlessly killed by Soviet troops to suppress the rebellion against communist rule. These days, most hate communism, though some older folks miss the socialist aspect of it – free health care, guaranteed jobs, not too much thinking required.

In the 17 years of Hungarian independence, the country is now running to catch up with the rest of the world. People are up early here and work long hours. Evidence that Hungary has marketed itself through its skilled, relatively cheap labor force abounds: for example, IBM’s global human resources division is here, as well as a Microsoft campus. This human capital is the only thing, beyond paprika, that has put Hungary on the map. Most Hungarians are well aware that they are in the game only because they cost less than a worker in another, “more developed” country. And they aren’t, as one could imagine, exactly jumping up and down for joy about it.

Which must be why, in Hungarian, it’s considered lucky if you step in shit.

Budapest is in many ways a beautiful city, with its towering, somewhat crumbling baroque-style architecture. But what they don’t tell you in the guidebooks is that Budapest streets are full of dog shit. People here love their dogs, and the beloved creatures can be seen everywhere, picking their way through the streets in tiny dog sweaters and on little or long leashes, depending upon the breed. But people do not, as a rule, pick up the shit their dogs leave behind. Walking to the grocery store can become an obstacle course, a dance around steaming piles, streaming urine and the occasional splat of vomit (usually human, sometimes canine).

The Irish Pub group tells me it’s not only lucky to wish someone to step in shit. If you are really being magnanimous, you wish them a “hatful of it.”

“You don’t say this?” they ask me, shaking their heads in wonder.

I shake my head, too, but for an entirely different reason.

I have always, in my mind, looked down upon English teaching as something travelers did when they didn’t have other job skills. Hah. That was before I realized, once I excluded myself from my first set of job skills -- writing and editing really, really fast -- that I had little to offer the Central Europeans besides my status as a native speaker.

I immediately took on a gig as a teacher at an internationally renowned English language school in Budapest. What I discovered was two things: English teachers in Central Europe are akin to Mexican workers laboring in kitchens and on construction sites quasi-legally in the U.S. The work is low-paying and to get my money, I must ask a Hungarian language pornographic website to “invoice” the school for me as an independent contractor, so everyone can avoid paying taxes.

The other surprise was that I enjoy the actual teaching.

Where else could I get to talk to my students about gay marriage, bash George Bush and discuss salaries and how badly in debt U.S. citizens are on their credit cards (myself included, dear reader, I’m not pointing fingers)? Where else could I begin to learn about this new culture in which I was living? And I got it ... these students needed me, and other native speakers like me, to learn English. They needed it. Who else were they going to learn it from? I felt strangely called to help my students.

When Akos began interviewing for software developing jobs in the UK and Holland, we worked for hours on his interview skills. It wasn’t just to the English, but how to answer questions in a way the potential employers would expect (as of this writing, he’s on the verge of being offered at least one job in Holland – cross your fingers for him). My student Katalina, who runs the Swiss Airline office in Budapest, practices English-language powerpoint presentations she must make to company employees from all over Europe. I am generally interested in these little dramas – and am happy to leave once they are over, ready to shut myself into my studio for a few hours.

These days, I am doing a little bit of everything to survive: teaching English ten hours a week, teaching art for a few hours at the new studio-art school space where I now paint, and doing the occasional journalism training gig somewhere in the former Soviet Union. Its odd hours and an odd life, but somehow, the English teaching I enjoy more than I should. Or more than I thought I should.

In any event, here I am now.


Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Wine and Molotov Cocktails: Anatomy of a Budapest riot

BUDAPEST, Hungary - On Hungary's most important national holiday Monday, my roommate Robin, an American college student, and I are sitting outside a small pub drinking wine and talking politics with two young Hungarian lawyers we've just met, Noemi and Attila.

That is, until a tear gas cannister lands directly in front of us.

We grab our drinks, eyes streaming and cheeks stinging with pain, and run inside the restaurant. We watch through clear glass doors as a line of riot police advance down Rákóczi Utca, a major thoroughfare that has been blocked by protesters since about 4 p.m. People scatter in all directions. Some run inside, including one bearded,long-haired man who hides in the back. The police bang on the pub door, argue with the owner for a few minutes, then walk away without entering.

I look around at my companions. Noemi and Robin are both 24 years old, young women who are viewing their first major world event. Their eyes shine with excitement well after the effects of the tear gas have faded.

Robin's video of us getting tear gassed in Budapest.


On this fiftieth anniversary commemorating Hungary's failed rebellion of 1956, brutally crushed by the Soviets, the focus is on current politics, not history. It's been just a month since Hungarian Radio played tapes of Hungarian Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány admitting that he and his socialist party "lied to the people morning, noon and night."

Since then, nearly every day the former communist party's opponents have gathered in the streets in front of the Parliament Building for protests that launched two days of small riots but which have mostly remained peaceful. The waning interest in the gatherings was refueled once again two weeks ago by a no-confidence vote proposed and survived by Gyurcsány, who knew he had the support of parliament behind him.

"Fuck You Gyurcsány" read one of the signs, held by a greasy-looking leather-coat clad protester, that I saw at one of the daily gatherings in front of Parliament last thursday. Right next to him was a prim middle-aged woman, waving a Hungarian flag and singing patriotic songs. They made an odd pairing, but the protests have continued to draw a strange mix: a moderate rightist party called Fidesz, and more extreme groups associated with both anti-semetic skinhead tendencies.

They all want something similar: for Gyurcsány to resign and his socialist party, recently re-elected for a four-year term, to lose its grasp on parliament.

Our new acquaintances Noemi and Attila are the former, they explain.

That's how they came to be sitting at the pub on Rákóczi Utca, watching what started out as a peaceful, 40,000 strong Fidesz protest during Monday's holiday turn into a stand-off between riot police armed with tear gas and rubber bullets and a few thousand protesters, who are burning garbage cans, throwing glass bottles and screaming Hungarian epiteths.

"We do support Fidesz," says Noemi, a spunky, well-dressed, attractive blond. "But I think this has become ... how do you say? ridiculous."

Attila, her boyfriend, simply shakes his head. He hates the communists, he says, because they ruined his mother and grandparents' lives. But this conflict, which he sees as pointless, only makes him sad. As attorneys in the process of being hired by the police department, they feel sympathy for the police, even though the police are currently defending a government they don't like.

So they don't participate, but like us, they watch. And sometimes get a little too close to the action.


I had found the protests, about a mile from where I live, by following the long line of police cars and ambulances that wailed through the streets by my flat. I push forward as a crush of people ran back, and find myself suddenly facing a glittering, serpentine line of policemen. I look to the left and see blood on the ground --someone injured, though not seriously, by a tear gas container, I'm later told. I hear a whistling sound, and run the other direction. This tear gas cannister doesn't land near me, but I still feel a little stinging in my eyes.

I run down a side street and call Robin. "You are studying European History," I say. "Come out here and see it happen."

She joins me, and we stand for two hours. So do the police, holding the line, not advancing, but occasionally firing tear gas or rubber bullets at the crowd. So do the protesters, who stand just far enough away to avoid the worst of the gas. Then we sit, introduce ourselves to Noemi and Attila, order glasses of wine, and wait.

A German tourist tries surreptiously to take our photograph, but Noemi quickly puts a stop to it, grabbing the camera and viewing the picture before asking him to delete it. "We work for the police," she says, smiling apologetically afterwards. "I think maybe we shouldn't be in any photos."

The column of police officers advances suddenly, without warning. Within minutes, the streets are cleared.


Attila gets a call on his cell phone. He hangs up and looks disturbed.

"My friends say four people have died on the Erzebet Bridge," he says. The protest we have seen is tiny, apparently, in comparison to the larger group a mile down the road.

I am skeptical, but Robin and I decid to check it out. We bid goodbye to Attila and Noemi, who wander off in a different direction, possibly to go dancing.

We walk down Rákóczi's now empty sidewalks, save for the dozens of police wandering about. We walk past bricks smashed by protesters for throwing at police, a still smouldering garbage can, a stone wall with a chunk torn out of it's side. It's eerily quiet, until we turn down a side street and walk down Vaci Utca, a fashionable shopping street that is the last place one would imagine a protest to be located.

We turn the corner and suddenly, there it is, right next to the bridge: it's 10:30 p.m. and we have come upon an impressive barricade, built with pieces of scrap wood and metal. Once again, a line of police holds steady, occasionally lobbing tear gas to control the crowds.

One of the protesters, seeing us try to navigate the barrier, politely offers his hand so we can step across and join the two or three thousand people on the other side. Another comes up, unbidden, and repeats the rumor that four people have died tonight.

"The first," he says in shaky English, "was an old lady. The police run her over. The second, a young boy, 7 years old, gets shot in the face."

The information just doesn't ring true, which we confirm when we run into a journalist friend a few minutes later. Michael Logan is a Scottish journalist who has covered the protests for a German Press Agency and the Christian Science Monitor. Mike has been in Budapest two years, and knows enough Hungarian to conduct most of his interviews exclusively in it.

"That's rubbish," he says. "I've been here all night, and haven't seen anything. Just look around, does this look like a particularly riled up crowd, which has just seen four deaths?"

And he's right. The crowd seems oddly calm, despite the fact that a fairly efficient group at the front of the barricades is making, lighting and tossing molotov cocktails. There is enough of an expanse between the barricaded protesters and the police, though, that these homemade bombs don't make much of an impact.

"I saw one guy with such bad aim that he threw it and it bounced off the wall and back at his feet," says Mike, chuckling.

So we stand for another two hours, waiting and watching. We see anti-semitic statements scrawled in the cement road, though it is hard to tell among the seemingly mild-mannered crowd who would be capable of the scrawls. Some of the far right shave their heads and wave Hungarian Nazi flags, but there don't seem to be many of these types out tonight.

The crowd begins quietly, subtly, to thin out. They've got to be to work tomorrow, after all. Another journalist, a Brit named Neal who is covering the protests for the Spectator, joins us. His friend, Tomas, a 37-year-old Hungarian who runs an art gallery, is bitter. "These people have no strength," Tomas says. "Hungarians have no strength."

Mike tells us he's heard a protester managed to start up and drive at least of the vintage tanks left on the streets as part of an official 1956 revolution display. We later see the tank being returned by large police truck to it's rightful place. "That's what happens when you leave a tank outside with the keys in the ignition," Mike says.

Neal and Mike surmise that the police are simply holding the line and giving much of the crowd the opportunity to disperse. They take turns guessing what time the inevitable charge will come.

We get beers at a 24 hour shop, and drink them in the street while we wait. Who knew that a riot could actually be boring?

In the end, the police move at about 1:30 a.m. We run down the fashionable Vaci Street alongside the remaining protesters, tear gas cannisters whizzing by, with the improbable vision of 50 police officers in full riot gear running half-heartedly after us.

Robin is filming, running and trying not to wipe her streaming eyes, which just spreads the tear gas more quickly. She is smiling the broadest smile I've ever seen on her.

"This is the most amazing night of my life," she says. She laughs, then apologizes. "I know it's not funny," she says, "but I feel alive. I am history, I'm not just reading about it."

And with that, we all head off to the pub for one last drink.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Protests in Budapest

NOTE: I moved to Budapest nearly two weeks ago, so this is my first post about the place. I'm actually still working on another Armenian piece, which will come out later in the week, but thought you all might want some perspective on what's happening here in Hungary.

BUDAPEST – This Saturday evening, as I walked out of my apartment building to head to the internet cafe, I saw a group of college students hoisting a Hungarian flag as they quietly walked down the street, headed in the direction of the parliament building.

A police car buzzed by them, slowed, and then jetted off.

Six days after thousands of people gathered to protest the day's news that their prime minister been caught on tape admitting he lied to win an election, and five days after a small number of protesters turned violent, people are still collecting in front of the parliament building to express their distrust of a government they perceive has failed them many times.

It's mostly a gentle, well-organized protest, despite the international hype over the burned cars, injured policeman and trashed state-owned tv station. There are port-o-potties, and tents with water, and people waving signs saying things like "new elections" and numerous speakers. Sometimes, a folk singer will get up and sing Hungarian protest songs, while teenagers giggle and old couples stroll around holding hands and families spread out picnics on blankets. This is not in any way to be compared to the scene of Hungary's revolutionary attempt of 1956, when the soviets bloodily crushed a rebellion against the communist government. (Though many news agencies have been ordered, quite pointlessly, to try and make the comparison anyway).

No, Hungary isn't burning, not even close. But people are upset and frustrated with politics, and it can be felt here, deeply, even by a casual interloper like me. While Americans have their Sept. 11, Hungarians now have their Sept. 18.


A caveat, here – I'm hardly the person to talk authoritatively on this topic. I just moved to Budapest a little under two weeks ago. I don't speak Hungarian, and I don't have a tv or radio. I don't know many Budapest residents, so I wasn't even aware when people began collecting Sunday in front of the monolithic, baroque-style parliament building in front of the Danube River. I didn't personally hear the tape that got everyone so mad, a tape containing a frank and some say foul-mouthed speech by Hungary's 45-year-old prime minister, in which he cajoled his party that they had done nothing for Hungary except to get elected and that they „lied to the people in the morning and in the evening.”

Because of all these things, I slept peacefully through the night as a couple hundred protesters began attacking the state-run television building, setting fire to cars, overwhelming the police force and smashing windows. They yelled that the PM should resign, they shouted that their bankrupt national soccer team, Fradi, should be put back in the premiere league, and a few were even heard to shout "dirty jews," for no apparent reason other than the instant reflex people have here to hate certain groups.

So with this caveat, I can only tell you the limited scope of what I know, which is what people here tell me. This violence, which most people view as a small sideshow, is not the point. The bigger, peaceful protest – this definitely means something.


Last Saturday, the day before the tape broke, I booked a walking tour of Budapest. As we trudged through the center of town, just six blocks south of the parliament building, a group of about 200 people gathered, listening to a speaker and waving signs on red pieces of paper.

Our guide, Szuszi, ushered us past. To our questions of "who are they?” she replied only

"They are in some kind of opposition, I think.”

Later, Szuszi explained to me that the ruling government party, the Hungarian Socialist Party, had recently proposed what were referred to as "austerity measures." In addition to paying 50 percent of their paycheck to taxes, the government now wanted to charge money for higher education and healthcare. This made Szuszi really upset.

"It isn't fair,” she said. "Now, how will poor families get their children educated?”

Szuszi guides tours only on the weekend, because she loves it. During the week, she works for IBM's global human resource division, which moved to Budapest two years ago to cut costs. Szuszi has no illusions about this job – she knows she has the job because she costs less than someone in another country. She says the job pays reasonably well for Budapest, but is well aware that there is no paid overtime, nor other benefits. She smiles a little bitterly. "We are cheap," she tells me.

Likewise, she explains, no one has illusions that Hungary is financially stable. Everyone knows that something had to be done to raise money, but the way in which the government had proposed it was too dramatic. It had led to huge political fights between the socialists and the leading opposition party, called the Young Democrats, who don't seem to have concrete plans of their own, but accuse the socialists of moving too far and too fast with their "austerity package." The fight between supporters of these two parties has been so intense at times, it has actually broken up families and long-time friendships.

All this political infighting, rather than policy making, has gotten Hungarians like Suszi distrustful of all government. "And they probably lie and steal money, too,” she said, as an afterthought.

I heard this said many times over the past week whenever I met a Hungarian. It must have really rankled when the taped words "We lied to the public” were heard coming from the mouth of their leader. Depending on whether you were on the sides of the socialists or the opposition party, it was taken in very different ways. Regardless, there wasn't even a pretense that things are just fine.


On Tuesday afternoon, I wander by the parliament building. Though police stand in riot gear behind a fenced gate, a few hundred protesters mingle cheerfully, eating hot dogs and listening to worn-looking speakers. It has the relaxed feel of a social gathering or a company picnic.

A sign in English posted on the parliament gate warns that "due to a special parliament activity, no tours will be given of the building today."

I wait, but it all seems pretty low-key, so I soon wander off. I figure it's quieted down.

I figure wrong. That evening, as most of the protesters headed home for the night, a small band of youth wind up in another section of town. Again there are fights, pounding of policeman, some scrapping, some rock-throwing and window-breaking, in front of the office of the Prime Minister's Hungarian Socialist Party, which was the headquarters for the old communists.

Over and over again, for the next few nights, on every television set in every bar and restaurant, the tv news plays clips from the events, labeling it simply "Sept. 18" and "Sept. 19." People's eyes, including mine, are often glued to the screen.


Jim (not his real name) is 24, born in the US of Hungarian parents, now working in his father's company in Budapest. He's been to the protest in front of parliament every night this week.

"It's totally chill there," he says. Jim separates the larger group, the thousands he has been joining nightly, with those couple hundred involved in the violence on Sept. 18 and the 50 involved in the unrest on Sept. 19.

There is a theory, he says, that the government hired soccer hooligans to create the violence, to shed a poor light on what he calls the "legitimate, peaceful protests" down the street. He says the rumor is that the government lured them with promises that the poor, bankrupt Hungarian soccer team, Fradi, which recently had to drop down a league, would be injected with cash to build its reputation back up again.

"Why would protesters be yelling about the soccer team?" he says. "That doesn't make any sense."

Rumors like these are probably unfounded. Most likely, there was a small group of Hungarian extreme rightists and skinheads who took advantage of the protests to cause some trouble, and vent some of their bitterness out. The majority of people out protesting didn't participate in any violent acts.

Regardless, the point is not the violence, but the fact that pepole are continuing to gather every day on the streets. Jim says he and many other Hungarians are disgusted by the way their country is being run. Nothing makes sense, he says, and rules are designed to make it difficult for businessmen, and for the poor. He lists several examples, of fake companies created to avoid tax collection, the government giving bloated contracts to their friends. Cheating happens all the time, he says, and people are tired of it.

"This isn't just about the tapes," he says, shaking his head in frustration. "It's about 1956."

A time when Hungary was forced into a government it didn't choose, when the soviets quelled a rebellion with a bloody, iron fist. It's an experience, of course, Jim doesn't personally remember, but which he has inherited from his father's generation.

The issue, of course, is not so straightforward, according to Michael Logan, a journalist who has been covering Hungary for two years for a German news agency and the English-language Budapest Times.

It's not about 1956, he says. The problem is that if these political parties don't start acting more seriously, people will completely lose faith in the political system. That could cause a serious crisis down the road.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Armenian Journalism Antics

NOTE: Yes, I know Armenia technically isn't in Eastern Europe -- but it's not too far, and it's far enough away to be of interest to most of you, I think. I'll be posting once or twice more about the Caucasas region before I arrive in Budapest on Sept. 8-9. Enjoy!

YEREVAN, Armenia – If I showed you the following two sample leads, which one would you think was better?

The political situation in Armenia is in a crisis and is crashing down.


Nearly all of 100 Armenians surveyed on Yerevan’s streets yesterday said they planned to vote, but that they did not feel optimistic about politicians being able to solve the country’s many social and economic problems.

Most likely, you’d select the second answer: it’s succinct, clear, based on factual information and data research. But if you were in the group of 13 Armenian reporters who took a workshop with me last week, the response was different.

“The first lead is very dramatic, and very concrete,” says one junior reporter. About half the room agrees with her. Another one grumbles “both are bad.” The other half recognize the second lead contains more information, but they don’t like how it reads.

“No!” they shout, when I point out that the first lead is lacking in fact, is depressing, is vague and unclear and could be used to start just about any story in Armenia these days. “That’s how we feel about the second one.”

Welcome to the whacky field of journalism training. It’s unexpected, and a bit … well, it’s definitely a meeting of two different worlds. The biggest thing I’ve had the learn, in the eight-plus years that I’ve done this work, is to expect that this very argument will be made to me, no matter where I go in the former Soviet Union.

The trick is learning how to talk to people from across this divide, journalism professionals from a different world, and still be able to respect each other.

“No,” says my teacher, as I pick up a piece of charcoal, before I even lay a mark on the paper. “No,” he says again, as I, hesitantly, lower it a little. Then “No!” again, he takes the charcoal from my hand, impatient, and marks my paper himself. “Start here,” he says sternly, then walks away.

For perhaps the fifth or sixth time, I feel like a complete and total idiot, in front of a whole class of people who can draw better than I.

At 33, I was a successful journalist who was routinely flown around the world to train journalists in various countries in the former Soviet Union. Then I decided to become a painter. All of a sudden, after being a teacher and a so-called “expert” – a word I chafed at, but accepted – I was a beginner, and my ego didn’t take to it well.

Unlike most artists, I hadn’t spent my life drawing. My friend Carrie took me to an open studio figure drawing session, where I nervously started sketching nude men and women, worried that someone would call me out as a fraud. When nobody did, I kept going. But I soon knew that I had hit a limit in my ability to see, or perceive the objects in front of me. I needed to learn how to draw, so I began enrolling in classes.

My first proper beginning drawing class came this past winter. The teacher, named Yi Liang (pronounced “Ee lee-ang”) was Chinese, classically trained, a brilliant draftsman, and a fairly gentle soul. He was modest about his English – which was good enough – and humble about his work -- which was, quite frankly, incredible. He was exacting and demanded a lot from his students, just as I'm sure he'd been challenged at one of China's premiere art schools.

At first, I enjoyed the challenge, but quickly got in over my head. I found the issues of perspective particularly tricky, and my gentle teacher began to get impatient with me. First he would try to correct, but then, he began to consistently cut down my work. I miserably continued to try, and just as miserably, I continued to fail. I could tell Yi didn’t know what to do with me.

The more self-conscious I got, the more irritated my teacher would get, until, during the last class, the word “No” came out so many times that I was convinced I was a complete failure. I psychologically got smaller and smaller in the class, until I felt like absolutely nothing.


Lida was by far the oldest Armenian journalist in the group of reporters facing me a week ago. She’s been an editor of a regional newspaper for 30 years, and she writes and thinks in the old Soviet way. I know it well, because I’ve worked with her before. When I held a photo in front of her four years ago at a previous workshop and asked her for a fact about it she scrutinized it closely and came up with the following:

“It’s a picture of a man planting flowers in front of a skyscraper,” she began. “So the fact is that the man works for the city and he is proud of doing his job.”

I could not, at the time, convince her or any of her colleagues that what she’d stated wasn’t a fact, it was an assumption. In the soviet journalism world, people wrote what they were told to write, regardless of whether it was true or not. They wrote in a way to raise national pride. And they were actively discouraged from collecting information through independent observation. Even the fact that she was wrong about the photo didn’t perturb her: she knew what she saw in her own city, alright. “We know it, we know it,” she and her colleagues said.

But this time the situation for Lida is different.

Lida is the only reporter who has worked in the room during the soviet era: everyone else has been working for independent newspapers and news agencies for between two and ten years, on average – well after the soviets left. They ask more questions, they are more likely to look up voting records of their various politicians, they don’t want to portray everything perfectly. I watch Lida as Lida watches them, with a mixture of both interest and puzzlement.

The subject of this workshop is how to conduct and write about a straw poll – that is, a poll that isn’t statistically significant, but can help reporters guage how people might be feeling about a particular issue.

Our issue is parliamentary elections, which will happen next May. Because previous elections have been so corrupt and poorly managed, and there is virtually no opposition group ready to challenge the current leaders, we suspect – we assume -- people will be fairly cynical. We decide to design a set of questions checking voter attitudes towards their parliamentarian in particular, towards the government in general, and whether they plan to vote, and whether they’ve ever been offered a bribe for their vote.

Each journalist is assigned to a different neighborhood, and required to get 20 interviews, so we’ll have at least 200 respondents. Lida arrives back to the air-conditioned hotel a little before the rest of us, still panting from the 102-degree heat.

“I’ve never done anything like that,” she says. And she, unlike all the other reporters, stays with us for three more hours to help tally up the survey results. Maybe it's the air conditioning. Or maybe, for the first time, she wasn't sure what the results would show, and she wanted to see it.


In the spring, I signed up for another drawing class – this time, drawing the figure. I resigned myself to the fact that I’d suck again, and that I’d try to get out of it what I could. I even announced this to the group, when we made our introductions. Hi. I’ll be the worst student in the class.

But Mike, the American teacher, made it clear immediately things would be different from my somber winter quarter.

Mike was, like my teacher, Yi, very exacting. He was also a very good draftsman. But
Mike also knew that adult learners come to things differently than those naturally talented as artists and drawers from a young age. He had taught long enough to see those pitfalls. And while he would be sure to correct something if it wasn’t done right, he never stood behind me or anyone else in the class and said “no.” Mike was very positive, and he thrilled at any little achievement his students made. It was an infectious attitude.

Slowly, I began to unfurl from my tight ball of insecurity. Once, when we’d drawn a figure by pulling light tones out of a darkened paper, I asked Mike what he thought, cringing inside. He took me across the room to look at the drawing.

“What does it look like?” he said.

“It looks like a nude woman sitting on a stool,” I answered.

“Right,” he said. “And because you can see that from this far away, you’ve done a good job.”

When the course ended, I certainly wasn’t the best drawer in the class. But I didn’t care anymore. All I cared about was that I knew more about drawing, and that I wanted to continue to draw. Everything that I’d learned in Yi’s class came back to me, coalescing into something that would help me move forward. I still draw most days. And slowly, slowly, I’m getting better.


When I was asked to participate in the survey, I had to run around and talk to 20 people in a short amount of time. I had never done anything like that.

This was the lead to Lida’s news story, which I’d asked her and everyone else to write in class and read for critique. The instruction had been to find the most interesting fact from the survey results and use that in the first sentence of the story, and technically, she’d done just that – the most interesting fact to Lida was that she’d conducted the survey at all. She’d listened to what other people thought, rather than interjecting her own opinion.

I thought of Mike, I thought of Yi, and suddenly I realized we had progress.

“I can see that this is the most interesting thing to you, Lida,” I said. “That’s excellent, and you did follow the directions I gave you.

“But we’ve also got to think that if a thing is important, it’s not just important to us, it’s also important to the readers.”

I asked the other reporters, who had argued so vigorously against the leads I’d presented them, to weigh in. Did they like Lida’s lead? Why or why not?

A resounding set of ‘nos,’ and explanations, followed. Lida sat, nodding thoughtfully, as her colleagues told her it was the information in the survey that was most important to the readers, not that the survey had been done, or some vague generalization about the results. It was fascinating: all of sudden, the very thing they had argued me with at the beginning of class they were now supporting as if it was the best idea on the planet.

So she tried again:

A survey had been conducted with 200 Yerevan residents on the subject of Parliamentary elections on Aug. 16, 2006.

“That’s better,” I said in a private editing session I held with her, “but even more important than that your group conducted the survey, what did you find out?”

Together, we came up with this:

It’s a puzzle of the Armenian mind that 81 percent of people surveyed in Yerevan say they don’t trust the government, yet 70 percent of those same people plan to vote next May.

“Thank you so much, Leah, this was a great workshop!” said Lida, patting my shoulder and smiling at me as if I was one of her grandchildren who’d just done something clever. “I’m going to print this in my paper on Monday.”

Thanks Mike, Thanks Yi, I thought to myself, as she walked away. Thanks for teaching me not not only how to learn, but how to teach.