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In looking over this year’s crop of favorites, chosen by TOL’s staff, we notice a distinct difference from last year’s. Overall, the stories they tell are less dire this time – there are no children marooned in god-forsaken Lithuanian orphanages, no women left behind in Kyrgyzstan to defend their embattled homesteads singlehandedly.
Not to push too hard for a common theme, but if these stories have one it is this: many of them glimpse societies or groups that are no longer thinking about their very survival. They now have other things on their mind.
In Russia, the middle class is helping to revive an ancient wine industry – and turning its wit against a backward-looking regime. In Georgia, a surprisingly robust environmental movement is fighting long odds against regressive measures that include the establishment of a hunting season on endangered species.
In Central Europe, thousands of cyber-savvy citizens are smacking down Internet regulations as an attack on their freedoms. And in Lithuania, some boys are staying in school who once would have been pushed into smuggling rings to help support their families.
Which is not to say that the existential battles are over in TOL’s coverage regions. In Bosnia, the major religions are doing their best to carve out territories in ways that must make fans of ecumenicalism – and peace – wary, while in Uzbekistan, the elite’s preoccupation with wealth and its trappings rests on a foundation of grinding poverty and oppression for most citizens.
But prosperity and those needs that sit farther up Maslow’s famous pyramid are also part of the story of every country in transition.
Russia’s wineries are on the rebound as the rising middle class rediscovers a taste for a long-neglected local product.
by Nikolay Protsenko
9 January 2012
ROSTOV ON DON, Russia | For many years Russia was a blank spot on the world wine map, even though the country has a long tradition of winemaking and large vineyards dot its Black Sea and lower Don regions. That is changing rapidly as wine writers discover the products of local wineries, or rediscover wines known throughout Europe in pre-revolutionary times. Several Russian wineries won medals and prizes at prestigious European exhibitions in 2010. These wines come from large industrial producers. The scant few boutique winemakers in Russia say they, too, can make a splash, but only when the thicket of regulations on making and distributing wine is cut back. Read more.
Protests across Central Europe suggest a disconnect between the masses and politicians, who cling to an elitist view of policy-making.
by Martin Ehl
7 February 2012
It’s easy to laugh at Lucie Gallova, the main organizer of the recent protests against corrupt politicians in Slovakia. In an interview with the SME newspaper, she said people should be able to elect and fire their politicians through the Internet, just as she would like to use the Web to create a new constitution. But any smile at such political naivety should freeze on the lips, considering how and why people have been protesting over the past few weeks in Central Europe – so much so that not even the bitter cold has deterred them. Read more.
If Ukrainians are so apathetic and disillusioned, where are all those demonstrators coming from?
by Yegor Vasylyev
9 February 2012
KYIV | Lena, 14, stands at the roadside waving a green flag. As she shivers in clothes that are no match for the Kyiv winter, cars pass by, their drivers paying little attention to her or her flag.
Lena lives in Troeshina, a suburb of Kyiv notorious for crime and drug abuse. To name the political party she has come to the city center to support, she needs a quick glance at her flag. Her friends are also here, she points out: some are waving the same flag as hers, while others have gone for different colors. Read more.
Hunting for tourists, Tbilisi lifts protections for animals widely considered endangered.
by Tsira Gvasalia
17 February 2012
TBILISI | When Georgia’s hunting season opened last month, hunters were allowed, for the first time, to train their sights on several threatened species.
The decision by the Energy and Natural Resources Ministry to permit hunting for animals on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s list of threatened species, commonly called the Red List, is part of Tbilisi’s efforts to promote tourism. Read more.
After a long absence, satire is back, even as the authorities seek to co-opt and marginalize it.
by Alexander Kolesnichenko
19 April 2012
MOSCOW | Shortly after parliamentary elections in December, Russians noticed an advertisement for a curious new vodka on the Internet. Bottles of Churovka, it said, held 0.497 liters of “genuine 146 percent alcohol” that was “falsified in Russia” and “produced with real magic.” It was an obvious spoof playing on the name of the elections commission chief, Vladimir Churov, and alluding to evidence of widespread fraud: the ruling United Russia Party’s 49.7 percent result, one region’s 146 percent turnout – a number later acknowledged to be flawed – and President Dmitri Medvedev’s praise of Churov as a “magician. Read more.
Baku’s splurge on the musical extravaganza dwarfs that of past hosts – and might carry a cost in clean water and pension payments.
by Shahla Sultanova
20 April 2012
BAKU | Ask Hikmet Hasanov to name the biggest problem his family faces, and he will talk about water. Every day, like their neighbors, they must fetch a new supply from an artesian well, one of the few sources of water in their village of Kemerli, in the far northwest corner of Azerbaijan. Read more.
The numbers say that fewer children are skipping school to help with the illegal trade.
by Linas Jegelevicius
29 May 2012
PAGEGIAI, Lithuania | Just a couple of years ago, it was not unusual for groups of boys at the high school in Lumpenai, a few kilometers from the Lithuanian-Russian border, to run out of class as the teacher looked on helplessly.
The command usually came as an SMS to a boy as young as 15, using a pre-paid, easily disposable phone card, and even the teachers would know the content: the cargo is about to cross the border and “schuchers and cuckoos” – snitches and lookouts in Lithuanian prison jargon – are needed. Read more.
Albanian border-jumpers ask, who will save the collapsing EU, if not us?
by Witold Szabłowski
29 June 2012
KONISPOL, Albania | The village consists of a few dozen houses picturesquely scattered across green hills. You can stay overnight in almost any of them; it costs a few euros. At any one of them you can also ask for someone to guide you across the border – as the crow flies it’s less than two kilometers from Konispol to Greece.
“My great-grandfather used to guide people across the mountains in the Turkish era,” boasts Jani, who earns money as a guide himself. In the strictest secrecy Jani tells me that he shows his customers the way to Igoumenitsa, 29 kilometers from Konispol, and sometimes even to Ioannina, 55 kilometers away. Read more.
More than 15 years after the war ended, some find a new way to stake out territory and assert their differences.
by Tihomir Loza and Berina Pekmezovic
9 August 2012
They are everywhere. Often lavishly built and ridiculously tall, some look like architectural pranks. Sometimes they are built on former school or kindergarten grounds or in the front yards of houses whose owners have been chased off. Often they glitter in their unseemly opulence right in the middle of a neighborhood that has obviously seen better days. Very occasionally you come across one whose modesty and sense of human purpose reassures somewhat. Read more.
While much of Uzbekistan picks cotton, fashion-forward designers show a different side of the country, with the Karimov regime's support. A TOL slide show.
by Dengiz Uralov
31 October 2012
Uzbekistan's biggest annual cultural event, Style.Uz Art Week, ran from 4 to 9 October in venues all over Tashkent. This seventh annual edition encompassed film and theater festivals, the Tashkent International Photo Biennale, exhibitions by global artists, and fashion shows featuring Italian, American, British, Spanish, and Japanese designers. There were also two shows spotlighting Uzbek designers, hosted by Gulnara Karimova – eldest daughter of President Islam Karimov, main patron of Art Week, and herself a designer with her own clothes and jewelry brand, Guli.
This showcase for Uzbek couture ironically coincides with the cotton harvest season, which began in mid-September. While the country’s elite and international guests were getting their first look at the latest creations of Tashkent’s young designers, many young people and civil servants were in the cotton fields, sent by the government from their homes and jobs to reap a crop that pours $715 million a year into state coffers, according to the national statistics agency. Read more.