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Best of TOL for 2013

Our favorite stories of the year. by TOL 20 December 2013

Among the Mugat

A Tashkent photographer penetrates the secretive world of Central Asia’s last nomads.

By Dengiz Uralov

24 January 2013

 

TASHKENT | In Uzbekistan, the Mugat are outcasts, at best ignored, at worst reviled. A distinct ethnic group that has remained nomadic even as modernity took root in the region, they are widely called “gypsies” here, as they are in Tajikistan and Kazakhstan. Wandering through cities and villages, scraping a living from fortune-telling, seasonal work, recycling bottles, or begging, they are considered dirty or cursed.

 

Their way of life is in some ways similar to that of European Roma, but the groups share no ties, other than the possibility that both emigrated out of India centuries ago. According to anthropologists, there is considerable evidence of an Indian origin for the Mugat – for example, they have preserved a caste system. But outsiders know little about day-to-day life among the Mugat. Also known among themselves as Lyuli, they maintain a rigidly closed society. Read more.

 

Unfriendly Fire

A soldier’s suspicious death spurs public anger in Azerbaijan, and brings grieving parents into the streets.

by Shahla Sultanova

28 January 2013

 

BAKU | He was the only one left. The protest was ending. A few police milled about, maintaining discipline; a few activists happily discussed the day's high points; the journalists packed up their stuff to go. But the old man was still there, sitting on a bench, holding a portrait of a young man in military uniform.

 

The quiet, lone protest got the attention of passersby, some of whom stopped and asked: Who’s the young man? My son, the man explained, killed during his army service. Read more.

 

Why Do Russian Judges Act That Way?

An expert on the Russian judiciary explains why the country’s judges can’t – or won’t – exercise their independence.

By Sergei Chernov

6 February 2013

 

In the past 12 months Russia has seen a number of highly politicized trials – cases based on debatable evidence, conducted with questionable procedures, and invariably resulting in guilty verdicts.

 

The Pussy Riot trial, arising from the feminist punk collective’s performance of an anti-Putin protest song at a Moscow cathedral, sent two members of the group to a prison colony for two years on charges of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.” The judge, Marina Syrova, refused to hear defense witnesses and ignored defense evidence, and a lawyer for the defendants said they were denied adequate food and sleep during the course of the trial. Read more.

 

Out in the Street

TOL slide show: After getting thousands of disadvantaged kids out of Soviet-era institutions, Georgia faces an increasingly visible tribe of children living largely on the street.

By Onnik Krikorian

6 March 2013

 

TBILISI | In 2004, some 5,200 Georgian children were living in Soviet-era institutions for underprivileged and disabled minors. Today, there are just 100, seemingly a sign that Georgia’s ambitious Child Action Plan – which aimed to reintegrate socially vulnerable kids into their biological families or, failing that, get them into foster care or alternative types of support – has worked. By contrast, neighboring Armenia, with a somewhat smaller population, still houses 4,900 kids, most of whom have families, at its aging children’s homes. Read more.

 

A First in History

In Serbia, an eighth-grade Roma student upends expectations and beats long odds to become a nationwide history whiz.

By Uffe Andersen

5 July 2013

 

KONAK, Serbia | Stefan Radu is no longer a student at the Vuk Karadzic primary school in the tiny village of Konak in northeastern Serbia. Unlike so many other Roma, however, he has not dropped out – he’s merely moved on. On 26 June, Stefan received his primary school diploma, and in September he will attend high school in a town 25 miles away.

 

But at the small ceremony in a classroom in Konak, Stefan was given not one but a handful of certificates, making him so special that national media in Serbia have told his story. Read more.

 

Why Aren’t Hungarians Protesting?

Perhaps they simply don’t want democracy.

By Balint Szlanko

17 July 2013

 

What with a shrinking economy, above-10-percent unemployment, political corruption, and a government that displays a sometimes unbelievable arrogance, surely there are plenty of reasons for Hungarians to be out on the street?

 

Yet in a summer that has seen huge middle-class demonstrations in countries such as Turkey, Brazil, and even Bulgaria – all fed up with the ineptitude and arrogance of their elected rulers – Hungarians remain docile, apathetic, and frankly bored. Read more.

 

Sightings of Homo Sovieticus

A species once thought extinct turns out to be very much alive.

By Martin Ehl

30 July 2013

 

A report in the Polish newspaper Rzeczpospolita – that the Poles, according to sales figures, no longer enjoy their traditional drink, pure vodka – could have been just an anecdote. But anyone who has recently visited Poland knows that the Poles are becoming a nation of beer drinkers and, in this respect, are similar to other Central Europeans.

 

Coincidentally, I recently attended the traditional Visegrad Summer School in Krakow, where participants took a full day in the course of the two-week program to discuss the ties that bind Central Europeans – even if plenty of other things keep them apart. The popularity of beer is one of them, but don’t remind the Poles that the Pilsner Urquell sold in their country was produced in the Silesian city of Tychy until the production license was revoked for poor quality in 2011. Thanks to the Polish-Swedish sociologist Barbara Tornquist-Plewa and a debate with other experts, we didn't just stop at beverages and food but could discuss deeper bonds. Read more.

 

Belarus: No Beggars Allowed

The luckless and their helpers face persecution for threatening the myth of a prosperous country.

By Katerina Barushka

4 September 2013

 

In the tiny village of Aliaksandrauka, 200 kilometers (125 miles) from Minsk, ex-convict turned Catholic Alaksey Shchadrou bought three huts with donations from the church and turned them into a homeless shelter. Several times a month he drives to big cities to bring homeless people to the shelter, where he gives them food, a bed, and basic medical care. For this, he faces up to two years in prison.

 

In December 2011 the local KGB raided the shelter and confiscated all religious books, including Bibles. That turned out to be a warning: 18 months later prosecutors charged Shchadrou with running an organization without official registration. The shelter continues to operate pending the outcome of the investigation. Read more.

 

Georgia’s Great Land Giveaway Raises Unanswered Questions

A program meant to spur investment and job creation shows signs of nepotism and may have trampled on property rights.

By Maia Edilashvili

30 September 2013

 

TBILISI | Upon taking office in 2004, the government of President Mikheil Saakashvili launched a privatization effort to get the Georgian economy off the ground. Generally, assets were sold at market price, via tenders.

 

But at some point, and quietly, the government started off-loading property for a symbolic sum of 1 lari, or about 60 U.S. cents. That program was heavy with buildings or land in prime locations, suitable for tourism. The idea, officials later said, was to spur investment and create jobs for local people. Read more.

 

The Dramatic Rise and Fall of Mikheil Saakashvili

As he leaves the stage, many wonder how the passionate reformer gave way to the reviled megalomaniac.

By George Tarkhan-Mouravi

18 October 2013

 

The German sociologist Max Weber famously remarked almost a century ago, “The only man who has politics for a vocation is one who is certain that his spirit will not be broken if the world, when looked at from his point of view, proves too stupid or base to accept what he wishes to offer it, and who, when faced with all that obduracy, can still say ‘Nevertheless!’ despite everything.”

 

How better to describe Mikheil Saakashvili, whose stubborn optimism has taken him through 18 years in Georgian politics and nearly a decade as president? Read more.

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