Friday, July 13, 2007

Belarus: dispatch 2

Here are some more tidbits and reflections from ADT's recent trip to Belarus, from which he returned safe and sound to Israel only a few days ago. Never one to take things easy, my buddy just got his full sailing license and is set to join the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) in a month. He'll surely be the oldest member of the infantry, meaning that in addition to dealing with the physical and psychological strain of being in the military, he will have to entrust his life to 18-20 year olds. Let's wish him well.

Here are some observations I've made from other places I've visited and observed over the past week:

--I fully expected to be plagued by the local militzia. Recurrent nightmares of my experiences in Uzbekistan, Russia, and Georgia prepared me for this reality. However, after 6 days here in Minsk, I've been shocked by the opposite. There's a strong police presence, but they pretty much keep to themselves. In fact, I've only been approached by them twice. Once, on the first day as the main thoroughfare was closed off due to a presidential motorcade, I failed to use the underground pedestrian crossing, and jaywalked over the railing. The traffic cop had a fit screaming at me in Russian. The second was the following day in the colossal square in front of the Palace of the Republic. I got a 1/2 liter of Baltika beer and decided to do the local thing and just drink in the middle of the city in the middle of the day. My mistake was that I committed the indecency of sitting on the ground of the square (the only shade I could find). A cop approached me and told me in Russian (very politely) that I must move to the adjacent bench to enjoy my beer.

-- Visiting the World War II museum in Minsk (called the Museum of the Great Patriotic War). The descriptions were solely in Russian which made understanding it a visual experience. I think I got the crux of the message which was: Belarus got royally FUCKED in World War II. At the junction of the advancing German army from Berlin and the Red Army from Moscow, the city got totally razed. By some estimates, 1 out of every 3 Belarussians was killed in the war, and nearly 40% of the pre-war population was Jewish (now it's only a few thousand). For this reason, Minsk looks and feels like it's brand new. Though it's one of the oldest cities in Europe, every existing building dates back from the late 1940s and 50s.

--Tonight will be my second night at the ballet. They're putting on Swan Lake. I saw a stunning performance of Carmela (I think that's what it was) three nights ago. It was far and away superior to other shows I've seen in other CIS states. The theatre was about 2/3 full (not a bad showing relatively) and the entire presentation and ambience were delightful. Apart from these obvious trappings of culture and civilization, Minsk is an immaculate city. It seems Belarussians don't litter and don't jaywalk. A burgeoning consumer culture and Western advertising along with throngs of well dressed Belarussians create a very civilized and elegant image.
Of course, at times the neatly packaged, pretty capital city exposes another side...the side that we hear a lot more spoken about in the "West." As I was walking through the park to return to my hotel after the independence day festivities (unbeknownst to me, I had landed the day before the biggest holiday in Belarus and my hotel room overlooked the festivities), I witnessed a group of uniformed military police kicking the shit out of two teenagers. I was the only pedestrian walking by, and saw them dropkick the two, and pound them repeatedly while they were on the ground with their boots until they were bloodied and beaten. I tried not to stare and continue on my way, but it was hard. As I crossed the bridge, I realized they were following me and experienced some pangs of fear, one of the first times I can ever recall experiencing fear while traveling. Thankfully, they turned the other way soon after, and nothing more came of it.

--The girls here are stunningly gorgeous. Hands down, the hottest girls (in great abundance) that I've ever seen across 6 continents. It seems nearly all of them are engaged in 1 of three competitions at any given moment: tightest pants, shortest skirt, or highest heels. With no puritanical religion to speak of, flesh is the only religion they subscribe to. I had illusions of possibly meeting and hooking up with some, but that has proven to be quite difficult. The inability to communicate in its most basic form and share a simple word makes that nearly impossible. Unless, of course you're willing to pay for it--which is quite easy. In all 6 of the Soviet-style hotels in Minsk, all of them are swarming with prostitutes (even in the really nice, fancy one). I made the mistake of sitting in one of their chairs, and got accosted for it. But, not before, she offered to sleep with me for $150 "for once" or $300 "for the two times." Some discount. At a place where the average monthly income is less than the "one time," I wanted to slap her for her presumptuousness. Though i don't think she cared too much about my rejection. They do quite well for themselves. It seems they capitalize on the fact that non-Russian speaking foreigners are completely helpless. Though any given girl passing on the street is twice as attractive as the best looking prostitute, they are completely untouchable. And after seeing the throngs of scantily clad, stunning Slavic women, you're so horny that you're nearly trembling. In other words, it seems the prostitutes do quite well here.

--I'm fairly certain the hotels treat them (the whores) better here than they do the foreigners. The hotels and receptionists act like they're doing you a huge favor by allowing you to spend money to stay there. They're universally unfriendly, detest hearing English, and usually would prefer to just say "niet" instead of trying to help you out and finding you a room. The hotel I'm staying in now has a large strip bar that they advertise in all their publications. It's called "Texas," and shows scantily clad girls in cowboy hats, belts, and boots. Keep in mind, these are all government run, official hotels. You gotta love governments that say how much they hate American influence, and then actively capitalize on the absurdity of that very image. But that's Belarus for you.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Communication, propaganda, and EU

It’s tough being communications commissioner Margot Wallstrom these days. Sure, she's youngish, kind of cute and has a popular blog. But still, her mission to improve communication and participation between the EU and its vast, disenchanted citizenry is not easily accomplished, despite the urgent constitutional task at hand:

"We need them on board, we cannot do without them in 2007. [This year] is not enough to have a project for the political elite, citizens have to be there,” she claims.

And so, in the latest example of the EU’s efforts to improve its image and reach out to ordinary citizens, the EU has announced that it is working hard on… improving its image and reaching out to ordinary citizens.

This well-intentioned program is probably doomed, of course, for the same reason that most EU programs are doomed: they infringe upon the sovereignty of the mighty nation states—who have technically agreed to support the organization whose evolution they then thwart at nearly every turn.

Given this inevitable problem, the commissioner will—logically-- publish a paper in the Fall on how to "structure debate" with citizens. Once again, a good idea gets shredded in the vicious circle of EU logic:

While MEPs are generally supportive of the idea, member states are reluctant to let the commission go down this path believing communication is more of a national domain and concerned that Brussels will spread "propaganda."

Ah-ha! So let me get this straight. The EU and its member states agree that a great gap exists between the organization and its vast, non-elite membership. Essentially, the EU needs to warm up to its citizens, and vice versa. But at the same time, states are not only weary of letting the EU fully address the issue, but, to the contrary, continue to allow domestic politics to make the EU look even worse. Dios mio man!

But there’s a silver lining to this stormcloud. Isn't this a hopeful sign that, finally, after years of blissfully ignorant childhood, the EU is beginning to display the traits of intelligence and self-awareness for which human adults are known?:

Member states also made it clear they were going to do everything possible to secure a new look treaty document that did not have to be put to a referendum again – with both France and the Netherlands keen to avoid the unpredictable ratification path.

See? They’re learning from their mistakes! If the people vote you down, then for the love of mother Mary and baby Jesus don’t let them vote next time. ‘Elite-driven project’ certainly doesn’t sound good, but if it’s the only thing that works—I mean, if the people don’t know what’s good for them—then whose fault is that? 

Well, it’s the people’s fault for being reactionary and scared. And it's the EU’s fault for its aforementioned communication issues, and for generally not giving any attention to its social realm until now (Jacques Delors infamously regretted this error).

So if its both of their fault, then what happens? C'est pas evident. But I think we can all agree that the political elite understand the situation a bit better than the rest of the lot. So at the risk of alienating their constituencies, they’re going to push through the constitution and that will be that. This is called leadership. Vision. Even if you, the citizen, don’t see it that way.

Jeez, it was so much easier back when propaganda wasn’t a bad word!

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

BELARUS I: arrival, the joint

The following is the first installment of ADT's adventures in Belarus, which as we mentioned is a the last sketchy country in Europe (if you consider Albania non-sketchy). ADT, the author of Voices of Wanderlust: 5 years and 70 countries of globe-trotting and soul-searching, will post more Belarus and euro adventures in the near future.


I planned to go to Belarus with my then-girlfriend, on a family trip to return to the city of her birth along with her parents (she moved to the states when she was 9, and to israel when she was 24). Two weeks before the trip, we broke up which left me with the conondrum to go or not to go. Of course, as I've realized about myself, the inherent challenge and difficulty of the trip made it impossible to turn down...despite all the excellent reasons to stay in Tel Aviv and get my shit together.

I flew Belavian airlines on a plane chock full of Russian speakers. I'm fairly positive I was the only non-Belarussian/"tourist" on that flight. My first hint that I was entering a Russian speaking land was the guy next to me opening the overhead compartment mid-flight to brandish a huge bottle of vodka. He gave me a hefty shot as he proceeded to polish off nearly a third of the bottle (along with his wife.)

The airport was somewhat 3rd-worldish, but after buying my "obligatory" government health insurance ($4), I was on my way to the city. This is the 8th CIS (former USSR) state that I've visited in the past few years, and quite possibly, takes the cake on the strangest. As with most perspectives on things, this one changes dramatically as soon as you've been here and see it first-hand. I'm now sitting in a modern western-style internet cafe in a brand spanking new underground mall beneath the gargantuan government building in Lenin square, just a block away from the imposing KGB building (still in use).


I spent the first two days having conversations with myself to prevent insanity from creeping in. The level of spoken english here is quite possibly the lowest I've ever encountered. My level of Russian (currently about 7.5 words) is about 6x as much as anyone's english on the streets. On the 3rd day, I attempted to change my circumstances and suceeded quite well. It involved two visits to the far-away Israeli Cultural Center and the Israeli embassy. Unbeknowest to me until much later that day, I needed to go to the embassy just to get security clearance to get past the Russian (non-Hebrew) speaking thugs at the front door of the cultural center, and speak with a very helpful, attractive Hebrew-speaking lady in the back office.

A couple hours later, they drove me in their diplomatic-plated car to the Jewish community center in Minsk, a large, heavily guarded complex of buildings funded solely by the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC.) Inside, there's a quaint Jewish museum (the only one in Belarus, obviously) with pictures and documentation through the years. It was easy to get an idea of what has happened to the Jewish community throughout Belarus by walking around. The two main "exhibits" were 1) An old wooden doorpost on whose side you can see the indentation from where the mezuzah once stood, and 2) Original torah scrolls from a synagogue that were recovered from a guy's attic years after the War. The guy (non Jewish) took them from destroyed synagogue because he said they seemed like a good, strong material...suitable for insulating his roof. And so he used them for decades until his son came across them in the attic. He gave them up to the Jewish community of Belarus only after the Joint (JDC) agreed to fix his roof in exchange. These two exhibits were also the only ones with English translations. The second one, incidentally, was of particular interest. I read the town's name, Smilovitz, and remember my grandma saying the name of her hometown, and it sounding very familiar. And that's how it came to pass that I would explore my roots on this Belarussian trip...through an amazing series of events that led me to that one caption.

With the help of the Joint, I would find myself in Smilovitz three days later, meeting with and having lunch with two of the remaining five Jews in the city. Twenty five years after my great grandparents left Smilovitz, the entire Jewish community of thousands were wiped out in a mass execution by the Nazis. These two adorable grandmothers are nearly all that remains of a once thriving community. After they fed us to oblivion, and tried to marry me off to one of their granddaughters, they took us (me and an American girl I met on a JDC grant) to the old Jewish cemetary and memorial. The cemetary is all overgrown and unkempt, but the Hebrew writing on the tombstones was still clear. An old woman was gathering hay among the stones to bring to her farmhouse a few meters away. The mist and biting wind just added to the surreal atmosphere of it all. Our next stop was the execution pit where all of Smilovitz's Jews were murdered. I was shocked to find out that a local man was allowed to build his home and garden on half of the site. The other half is overgrown grass and a large Soviet monument, memorializing the "Soviet martyrs." In typical Soviet style, it paid homage to the Soviets who were murdered and completely downplayed the Jewish carnage. After reading and seeing similar things take place throughout the death camps in Poland, I wasn't too surprised by this. On the way back to Minsk, the driver took us to the large concentration camp, one of the largest in the entire Nazi ring. They've since used the space as a municipal garbage dump. A tiny memorial (written only in Belarussian) is all that remains. The smell of compost made it difficult to stay for too long.

---ADT, 7 July 2007

EU puts pedal to metal

While EU politics may be a non-stop process, press coverage of the EU is usually a cyclical phenomenon. Granted, in a media-saturated world like ours one can always find news, especially about an organization as vast as the EU. But it remains noticeable how, in the depths of the lull between big summits and important ministerial meetings, real news tends to give way to speculation and prediction. It’s the down time, where academics can concentrate on their policy papers and thinktanks publish formal suggestions on "how to go forward." Everyone waits for the spectacle of the next meeting of powerful people at a palace. Then, a week before the summit, the press comes to town and starts hyping the thing up like it was the Cannes film festival—which it is, in a way.

All the heads of state come out, impeccably dressed, accompanied by their wives. They greet each other heartily (BFF!), pose for the cameras, make hopeful statements, and disappear into the palace for a smashing meal. And whereas 10 years ago the press might've taken time to react to the proceedings, today’s growing EU news industry, and their accompanying gaggle of bloggers, are more akin to play-by-plan commentators at a weekend-long sporting event. They’re not allowed in the stadium, but they’ve got anonymous sources and telescopic lenses. The drama in its full complexity is made public, as if on tape delay. All we have to do is sit at our computers and absorb it all. It’s like being there, but better, because you don’t have to wear that annoying translation earpiece and pretend to pay attention the whole time. Au contraire! You can stay home with 8 other tabs open, some music on, and munch on some crackers while awaiting the latest development:

Polish delegation refuses to cooperate!
Drunken Sarko makes 11th hour phone call to recalcitrant Poles!
Merkel struggles to remain level-headed host!
Gordon Brown tries to be useful despite fact that he will be hated at home for whatever he does!
Zapatero contributes ideas but continues to look exceedingly awkward!
Will the leaders pull together and save the constitution with the coup de grace of longer calling it a constitution? Or will the EU fall on its own sword and drown in a pool of its own mixed blood?

It’s all very exciting, tu vois. It’s not Lost or 24, but it’s better, because it’s REAL. The last-minute fireworks of the Brussels summit will now set up an intriguing Portuguese presidency. As mentioned here, the Portuguese face the Sysephean task of pushing the constitutional boulder to level ground—we’ll all be rooting for them!

In the meantime, the press has another week to cover the fallout from Brussels, do a bit of speculating (with which they have not wasted their time) and can then turn to building back up the hype for kickoff in Lisbon in two weeks:

Will the little Portuguese manage such a great historic responsibility?
Will Sarko flub EU financial regulations in order to fulfill domestic campaign promises?
Will the Polish twins fuck up their country, or are two heads really better than one?
Will the deconstitutionalized Constitution finally get approved so we can move on with our lives?

The EU press will be sure to keep you abreast, and I will be happy to untangle the exciting details for you. Can you feel the excitement, people? It's like the fuckin' NBA playoffs!

coming soon: Belarus

In the first installment of our hard-hitting series on euro countries that are totally fucked up, undercover agent ADT infiltrates Belarus, the last dictatorship in Europe. ADT has travelled the world and currently lives in the Middle East. We have had the fortune of serving our country on joint operations over the last few years, and despite the nefarious elements encountered in Eastern Europe, we always came out on top. (We had guns.) Unfortunately we never made it to Belarus, because they wouldn't let us in, and because, as our commander told us, "you look too Jewish." I'm still not sure what he meant by that, but it's a shame because apparently this country is dirt cheap, way interesting, slightly sketchy, and full of hot chicks! ADT, you get all the good jobs!

Installment the first to be posted later today, so keep calm, people.

Meanwhile, for those of you looking for a primer on the world of Lukashenko, there's some useful info at this virtual guide , plus Belarus Inside, and then there's the continually updated Belarus News feed. Here is a (the?) Belarus blog. Finally, check out Indymedia Belarus, which I'm pretty sure is illegal in that country, which effectively means that people posting on this site are risking their lives to tell you the truth (check out the State Terror section on the left menu).

So do some browsing and you'll hear first-hand from ADT in two shakes of a Mink's tail. Or a Minsk's tail? Ooooooh!!!!

Sunday, July 8, 2007

EU vs US: Who lives better?

Ah, the eternal debate. A favorite cocktail conversation for us poor (er, rich) Americans in Europe, one that gets more entertaining with each round of drinks. Everywhere on this glorious continent I have lived and traveled, Europeans love to hate on the US, until they tell me they want to work or study there (as soon as Bush is out of office), or entertain themselves with our music and movies. But, this being a globalized world where our entertainment stuff is available to them, that fact doesn't really answer the question of who, in their own countries, lives better.

All this has recently been brought into focus by the release of M.Moore's "Sicko," which shows (if I understand correctly) just how shitty the American health care system is for the best country ever. I've always been stunned with the wretchedness of our system, and how clearly it reinforces the class stratification of our advanced capitalist society. But right now I don’t feel like making a valuable contribution to the debate. This is probably a good idea because I’m still on the fence anyway (though leaning toward Europe...until their social welfare system implodes), and because I have plenty of other work to do today. And because I'm not drunk yet. However, I figured I’d link to a recent fair-minded contribution to the debate by Timothy Egan, which can serve as a nice platform for future debates.

One highlight: Last year, Warren Buffett, third richest man in the world, was taxed at 17 percent. His receptionist paid nearly twice that, at 30 percent. There's American justice at work for you, people. Then again, let's not forget that pretty much everyone in Europe is taxed at over 30%, but the universal medical coverage is so mediocre or slow that those who can afford it opt to pay extra for private plans.

The debate, which should go through some interesting ups and downs in the near future as the US continues with a war on terror and weak dollar, and the EU tries to, er, function, and evolve successfully. For a longer and more detailed review of this issue, check out this Tony Judt piece in the NYRB, appropriately entitled "Europe vs America." I will do my best to expose ugly truths and hypocrisies without actually getting ill here and having to test the system first-hand.

EU symbols and euro identity

A less-remarked piece of fallout from the emergency constitutional compromise at the recent Brussels summit is the ditching of the European flag and anthem from the treaty. Interested as I am in the cultivation of a European identity, I couldn’t help but see this move as troubling. 

It could just be my sensitive side overreacting, but it seems like a real step backwards for a continent that needs to do everything in its power to foment a cross-cultural identity: a common feeling of “Europeanness” would be a great asset when politicians need to explain the complex balance between national and European issues. This is something that the elites and well-educated already understand, but a majority of the less cosmopolitan masses do not feel European, and do not think any sacrifice should be made to an invisible bureaucracy of unelected Brusselcrats. We’ve heard this argument before, even at the elite level of course, and it’s not going anywhere soon. But it’s my feeling that symbols and propaganda (especially the newer sexier EU film) are important factors in the struggle to show that, say, Latvians and Spaniards are in this thing together.

Or maybe they’re not. Instead of embracing relatively obvious items like the flag and anthem (Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” which seems a happy enough selection), their abandonment bodes ill for cooperation in much more complicated European endeavors. It doesn’t matter if Beethoven is the ideal composor, or if the flag looks cool enough (doesn't it need more stars by now?). What matters is the effect of national symbols on an aspiring EU. Hans-Gert Pottering, the speaker of the European parliament, has stated how wonderful it was to hear Ode to Joy played when he visited the Israeli Knesset. Understandably, he finds it “particularly disappointing that the European symbols, not least the flag and anthem, are to be taken out of the treaty.” Are EU members going to be received in silence while the brass band blows up for other countries?

How important are national symbols, anyway? Would the US—a country built on multiculturalism—be the same place without the flag, the anthem, and the nebulous idea of ‘freedom,’ which we seem to have appropriated as our specialty? Obviously these symbols play an important role in national identity formation and recognition—not only for Americans but for foreigners (though the latter have lately appropriated other symbols for the US, such as the dollar sign or the bomb).

I just don’t understand how the EU can expect to make progress in winning over euroskeptics across the continent in such a context. Maybe it’s a doomed project anyway. Or maybe I should just be happy that the document was rescued at all. Honestly, the whole thing is so damn complicated that it's quite impossible to predict the future of the EU. But member states should be awarded big karma points just for trying! (Instead, they'll probably be throttled by the cruel hammer of history.)