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Best of TOL for 2018

Our favorite stories of the year. 31 December 2018
Uncivil War

Croatia rejects The Hague’s shock therapy, and gains a new saint.

By Uffe Andersen
10 January 2018

“For the first time, I was not ashamed of landing in Zagreb,” a journalist from Croatia’s Vecernji list wrote after being one of the first to arrive at the capital’s new airport in March last year.

 

But apart a number of technical problems that soon surfaced, Croats now have more serious reason to feel awkward about their new, expensive airport – because they chose to name it after Franjo Tudjman.

 

Tudjman in 1989 founded what is still Croatia’s leading party, the Croatian Democratic Union, HDZ, and through the 1991-1995 wars led the country to its independence from Yugoslavia as its president until his death in 1999. He’s regarded as the country’s Founding Father, and across Croatia 300 monuments have been raised to him, and countless streets and squares carry his name. Against this background, it was natural to christen the country’s new pride, its main airport, after him.

 

 

The Museum of Anti-Terrorist Operations

What was thought as a way to remember the victims of a bloody conflict, and point fingers at the enemy, might turn out to be a unique instrument of identity-building in Ukraine. 

By Abel Polese

28 February 2018

 

How far can an elite go in its efforts, voluntary and involuntary, to foster a national identity in a given context? From mega-events and massive public projects to national singing and tourism brochures, a team of scholars, myself included, have been exploring a number of ways to boost national identity in post-Soviet countries.

 

We’ve looked at identity markers perpetuated by non-political actors – a new fashion or habit that goes viral nationally, or a social movement with which a large portion of the population identifies. We’ve studied political measures conceived for other purposes that end up affecting the identity of a large percentage of a national population.

 

But we had never considered nation-building through terrorism – or, more specifically, through an anti-terrorist narrative.

 

 

The Delicate Art of Urban Activism in Eastern Europe

At a diverse gathering in Prague, a heated discussion ensues on the virtues and pitfalls of “going mainstream.”

By Kate Syme-Lamont

26 March 2018

 

“Projects that rely on public funding are fragile,” a veteran organizer of civic projects tells the room. “You need to take the issue out of the shadows and put it in people’s faces. You need to explain why it’s important.”

 

“But [going mainstream] can have drawbacks,” a young Georgian woman intervenes. “When the protest turned into a trendy issue … many people turned up but the question for us was: ‘Do they know what’s happening, or are they just here to party?’ ” She was talking about Panorama Tbilisi, a massive business center planned for downtown Tbilisi that is bankrolled by former Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili. The project has been criticized for violating historic and natural landscape preservation regulations.

 

 

The Disinformation Conundrum

Despite expectations, fake news appears to have played a relatively minor role during the recent Czech presidential elections. But that doesn’t mean the popularity of such “alternative” sites should be ignored or the reasons why so many Czechs are willing to take the bait.

By Jonas Syrovatka

28 March 2018

 

It was no secret – even months before the January 2018 presidential elections – that disinformation would be a factor during the campaign to challenge the incumbent, Milos Zeman. As early as July 2017, a full six months before the elections, the media reported on the spread of rumors that Jiri Drahos, the leading challenger in opinion polls, had cooperated with the Czechoslovak secret police (StB) during the communist era. Zeman’s pro-Russian orientation – including his statements questioning Western policy toward Russia and his penchant for choosing advisors with close ties to Moscow – heightened fears of external interference.

 

In the end, Zeman successfully defended his presidential seat over Drahos in the second round, leaning heavily on a populist, anti-immigration platform. Given the relatively low margin of victory (around 175,000 votes), it’s worth taking a look back to assess the major themes of disinformation, their spread, and their possible influence on the outcome of the elections.

 

 

A Moscow Apartment House, Possessed by History

Czarist tycoons, revolutionary artists, and Soviet squatters all feature in Russian scholar Dmitry Oparin’s new book.

By Vladimir Kozolov

5 April 2018

 

The subtitle of 10 Bolshaya Sadovaya, "A History of a Moscow Apartment Building, Told by Its Residents," is a bit of an understatement. The history of the building in question, just a couple of kilometers from the Kremlin, is closely interwoven with dramatic – and often tragic – events in Russia's history.

 

As a result, what might have been just a collection of stories about the building's residents turns into a larger, more powerful narrative that, in the hands of Russian academic Dmitry Oparin, goes far beyond merely telling the story of the building or those who lived there.

 

 

Out of Sight, Out of Mind

Refugee labor, including children, toil away in Turkish sweatshops with apparently little scrutiny from the authorities.

By Davut Firat Turgut

2 May 2018

 

Halil Ahmed fled his home in Syria four years ago when he was just 12 years old. The war had finally come too close for comfort.

 

“When a bomb exploded close to my school, my father told me that I would have to leave and go to Turkey,” he said. “Crossing the border wasn’t really hard. There were many refugees fleeing Syria at that time, and I was one of them.”

 

Once in Istanbul, he was reunited with his older brother, who helped him find a job in a shoe-making workshop.

 

 

Temporarily “Home” 

A personal story of domestic violence illustrates the value of housing for the victims, but Moldova still has far to go before the country reaches European standards in tackling the problem.

By Victoria Borta

10 July 2018

 

It was a usual February evening, without snow, numbingly cold. Corina, a young woman with a sun-kissed face and coal-black hair, had just gotten off work and was heading home. She arrived in front of her apartment building, climbed the stairs, and entered her boyfriend’s apartment. In the hallway she tripped over a travelling bag.

 

“You have 15 minutes to leave the house,” she heard.

 

The ultimatum did not come from the person with whom she had shared a bed for the past three years and conceived a daughter, but from his brother. “There weren’t many questions,” the young woman remembers. She took her little girl, grabbed the bag, and left, bent under the weight of the luggage.

 


Between Polesie and the Cosmos: Diary of Escape Becomes a Hit in Belarus

Wake up! A postmodern Thoreau urges his fast-growing fan club.

By Olga Bubich

7 August 2018

 

In Belarus, they call Radio Prudok a “reality project”: a literary, social-media, and now theatrical venture that has brought its 35-year-old author Andrus Horvat quick and unexpected fame. In less than two years, the journalism graduate and former caretaker at the Yanka Kupala National Theater became a figure known to every young Minsk intellectual – winner of three prestigious awards, the second edition of his novel almost sold out in a few days, tickets for the theatrical premier gone in six hours.

 

“If I had a 100 billion dollars, I would not give it away to the poor and the sick. I would build a spaceship and fly to space. I would live in space all by myself. I would not think about people. I would watch the celestial bodies and water my ficus,” the new star of Belarusian literature, wrote on his Facebook page (which he has since deleted). He is the author of a diary-like novel based on his social network entries, which hundreds of avid readers actively commented on.

 

 

A Centenary to Celebrate ... Or Not? 

One hundred years since the end of World War I is an ambiguous anniversary for many in Central Europe, where statehood and identity have long been subject to integration or empire. 

By Martin Ehl

7 November 2018

 

Marking a momentous anniversary is never easy, but 100 years after the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian empire, Central European countries are facing an especially complicated celebration. A fragile EU, rising tides of nationalism and populism, and growing distrust toward governing elites pose more than simple problems of etiquette; they prompt the question as to whether there is anything to celebrate at all.

 

Poland, for example, is into its third year of a conservative government which, on the one hand, stresses the importance of EU membership; public opinion supports the EU, too, to an overwhelming degree – about 70 to 80 percent in favor. On the other hand, this same government refuses to accept EU common rules in the context of changes to the judiciary system; and this government also uses the language of national sovereignty.

 

 

Bulgaria’s Long War Lesson

In this season of World War I remembrance, can the country finally reap a harvest of common sense, grown out of its 20th-century defeats?

By Boyko Vassilev

22 November 2018

 

This is the war Bulgarians should not have forgotten.

 

World War I brought disastrous consequences for almost every European country, but Bulgaria had an additional disadvantage in being among the losers. The Balkan country lost territory, over 100,000 men, and 2.25 billion gold francs in reparations. It faced hundreds of thousands of refugees and ruined relations with almost all of its neighbors.

 

And this was not all. Bulgaria saw its national dream broken, its Revival brought to a halt and its economic boom stymied. Substantial military victories in the wars after the country's liberation – in 1885, 1912, 1913, and 1917 – were nullified by unfortunate strategic decisions during World War I. The nation's energy had been dissipated. A deep inner rift opened, kicking off with a soldiers’ mutiny in 1918, and – some historians claim – starting a civil war which has lasted a hundred years and is still going on today.

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The Moldovan Diaries is a multimedia, interactive examination of the country's ethnic, religious, social and political identities by Paolo Paterlini and Cesare De Giglio.

This innovative approach to story telling gives voice to ordinary people and takes the reader on the virtual trip across Moldovan rural and urban landscapes. 

It is a unique and intimate map of the nation.

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