Posts Tagged ‘ Bulgaria ’

Balkan Connections

A railway company named Cargo 10 is ready this October 1st to open its newest project – a new train connection in the Balkans, from Ljubljana to Istanbul.  This project will provide the Western Balkans with trains that are faster, more modern, and in compliance with EU standards.  Cargo 10 was founded by Serbia, Slovenia, and Croatia, and Bosnia (FBiH and Republika Srpska separately) and Macedonia also decided to join.  The first step of the project, costing 100 million EUR, will be used for the restoration of the railway lines and the purchase of new electronic engines.  The second loan, valued at 200 million EUR, will be spent on the development of additional routes.  According to Radio Srbija, some of these projects will include,  “the modernization of railway line Belgrade-Subotica-Hungarian border, which is in the north line of Corridor 10. By the end of the year, works on the electrification of the Niš-Dimitrovgrad-Bulgarian border railway are to begin. Next year, two railway bridges, namely those in the towns of Paraćin and Novi Sad respectively, will be built. Negotiations with Russia on a loan of 600 million USD for the Belgrade railway junction and for the building of the Valjevo-Loznica railway are expected.”

Last December, Belgrade and Sarajevo reopened its direct railway connection after 17 years, which was a huge step for the region.  Trains in the former-Yugoslavia are old and slow, and in desperate need of modernization as these countries strive for EU membership.  Serbia’s visa restrictions were lifted at the end of last year, and BiH hopes to join the Schengen White List soon.  The countries in the area need more coordination and joint business ventures like Cargo 10 and travel around the region should be encouraged, for tourists from the rest of Europe as well as for citizens from these successor states.    Ticket prices will be much cheaper and travel times will decrease by about one third, which will result in further economic development of the countries involved.  I believe that Southeast Europe needs a physical connection like this railway line in order to overcome differences of the past and to forge ahead to a prosperous and stable future.


BBC article about the Belgrade-Serbia line (opened in 2009)

EUobserver and Radio Srbija on the Cargo 10 project


Wall of Exclusion

The wall and Roma settlement in Ostrovany, Slovakia

The small village of Ostrovany in Eastern Slovakia uses a concrete wall to separate a Roma settlement from the rest of the population.   The local council agreed to build the wall in 2008 as a response to complaints of criminal activity emerging from the Roma population.  The gray concrete wall, which cost 13,000 euros of public funds, is L-shaped, 150 meters long and 2.2 meters high.  The proposal for the wall apparently was supported by the Roma representative on the local council, and it was intended to become part of a complex that would include a kindergarten, primary school and community center.  It does not seem as if these features were ever built, and currently the wall stands as a concrete slab of exclusion.

The Roma of Ostrovany make up 2/3 of the village population.  They live in huts and shelters built illegitimately on private land without permission.  People live without running water, gas or sewage connections.  Roma make up around 350,000 of the population of Slovakia, or about 7% of the population.  They have shorter life expectancy, are more likely to be unemployed, and have higher infant mortality rates.

The non-Roma villagers claim that the wall prevents the Roma children from stealing from their gardens.  In 2008, an inhabitant of the Roma settlement murdered a shop assistant in the village.  During the summer of 2009, two Roma boys assaulted a 65 year old man who lost an eye, among other injuries.  Since these incidents, protests against “the Gypsy terror” ensued.  On the other hand, the Roma in the village claim that the wall turns their settlement into a zoo.  They compare the wall to the Berlin wall, stating that it doesn’t help anyone and should be taken down.

Inside a Roma hut in the village

Activists groups for Roma rights are outraged, calling Major Cyril Revak a racist.  Representatives from the Office of the Government Plenipotentiary for Roma Communities says that the wall does not solve the issue, and that local authorities should try to work with social workers to ease problems.  They feel that the wall should be classified as discrimination.   Reporters from the Roma Media Center (MECEM) attack the inactivity of politicians, and claim that the wall is an example of the “collective guilt principle.”  Similarly, the Institute of Roma Public Policy says that the wall makes all inhabitants of the settlement into thieves.  One sarcastic representative from the organization asks what happens now?  Can they cross it?  Can they leave?

Mayor Cyril Revak of the Ostrovany village feels pressure from both sides.  On the one hand, the citizens of nearby houses complain of criminal activity.  On the other hand, the Roma citizens feel humiliated by the wall.  He rejects accusations of discrimination, segregation, and racism, claiming that he only accepts criticism for the use of public funds for private property.  Previously there were fences in place, but they have deteriorated and so the wall was built as a replacement.

Personally, I am cautious to call the Roma people themselves problematic, but I do think that their illegally built huts are problematic, and the issue is certainly not limited to Slovakia.  In January of this year, the Bourgas Municipality in Bulgaria ordered a settlement in the city of Slaveikov to be flattened.  The settlement consisted of 20 shacks/shelters near a railway line.  In 2009 the same village was ordered to be destroyed, but the Roma rebuilt their settlement in the area once again.  Debates about Roma communities often end up in heated arguments.  On a school trip to Budapest, my classmates and I listened to an employee of the Foreign Ministry speak of “The Roma Problem.”  He was quickly attacked for his use of language, and the argument erupted into a long and uncomfortable discussion over terminology.

I do not consider myself sufficiently educated or informed on Roma communities and I do not wish to make bold statements.  However, there was a problem in the village of Ostrovany, and I do not think it was effectively addressed by building a concrete wall.  Possibly this money would be better spent on guards, social workers, a community center, or some sort of educational use.  I agree with the representative from the Institute of Roma Public Policy- how far will an action such as this go?  Will their freedom of movement be restricted?  To me, the building of a wall seems dangerously close to creating a ghetto.  I do not think it is right for public funds to be used in this way, and if people want a fence around their garden to keep children out, they should build it themselves on their own property.  Albeit idealistic, I believe in educational campaigns and social work, and it seems as though the government of the village took hasty action to build this wall without trying other more inclusive programs first.  Hopefully other locations around Europe find better solutions than just razing communities or building a wall to keep the Roma out of sight and out of mind.

Roma children peeking over the wall

New Book, Old Disputes

The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia withdrew its recently published two-volume encyclopedia after the book’s contents infuriated all of the country’s neighbors. The country, an official EU candidate state since 2005 has a long-running dispute with bordering Greece over its name. The country of Greece objects to the name “Macedonia” because it coincides with that of the northernmost Greek province. Despite international mediation, the two countries cannot come to an agreement, which does not bode well for the Macedonia to finally become a full member of the European community.

The Region of Macedonia

This month with the release of a new encyclopedia, Macedonia further aggravated the tension with neighboring Greece as well as with other bordering countries. Following angry reactions, including the burning of the Macedonian flag in Kosovo, the Macedonian Academy of Sciences and Art (MANU) recently decided to remove its ‘Macedonian Encyclopedia’ from library shelves. Greece feels that Macedonia is misrepresenting large periods of ancient history. Bulgaria is angered over the volume’s depiction of Macedonia’s struggle against the Ottoman Empire in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

The most angered are the ethnic Albanian population of Macedonia and the Kosovars, as the encyclopedia uses derogatory names for Albanians and claims they “settled” on the land in the 16th century. However, it is widely accepted that Albanians are descendants of ancient Illiryan tribes, who settled in those lands in approximately 1,000 BC. Also, the encyclopedia states that ethnic Albanian leader Ali Ahmeti, now leader of the Democratic Union for the Integration of Macedonia, is suspected of war crimes when he has never been indicted. The United States and the United Kingdom urged Macedonia to remove the book from publication.

MANU is now hastily re-writing some parts of the encyclopedia, but the episode does not help the country’s foreign relations or international reputation. The relatively new country is struggling to form some kind of national identity in a region of the world where borders are constantly shifting. Dispute over land is an all too familiar problem in the Balkans. How far back into history can a nation make its claims when the region is constantly evolving?

When a country defines its national heritage, it picks and chooses the information it wants to present as an identity to the outside world. History is subjective. As a similar example, Serbia and Albania’s dispute over Kosovo unsurprisingly affects the teaching of history to young students in the area. The high school history textbooks in Serbian enclaves in Kosovo are drastically different from the textbooks in neighboring Albanian classrooms. Organizations such as Southeast European Joint History Project (JHP) and EUROCLIO work with historians in the region to write alternative textbooks for the Balkans, depicting a variety of perspectives. Hopefully this method becomes popular, because otherwise centuries of prejudices and disputes are passed down to the countries’ youngest generations, perpetuating conflict.

The complicated history of the Balkans makes the region fascinating from an outsider’s perspective. Centuries of overlapping histories of these geographically small nations make forging a national identity difficult. Writing the encyclopedia, Macedonia attempted to define its national heritage by distinguishing itself from neighboring countries. Unfortunately Macedonia’s encyclopedia was insulting to many of its closest neighbors. The encyclopedia is damaging for the country’s reputation and goals to join the European Union. Perhaps Macedonia should have skipped writing the national encyclopedia and instead focus on trying to put an end to their name dispute with Greece.

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