Friday, February 22, 2008

Tough Night in Belgrade

I write this in the Munich airport, on the last leg of my journey back to Belgrade, likely for the last time. Over the past few days I’ve heard about the protests in Belgrade, aimed particularly at the US Embassy and other countries that supported Kosovo’s independence. Reading it in the newspaper is one thing; seeing it on TV escalates the reality more when you see a building personally frequented set on fire and its flag burned. I’m sure once I pass through Knez Miloša street (otherwise known as “Embassy Row” due to the large number of embassies concentrated here) the reality will become even more vivid. I presume the building in which my paintings are exhibited was not affected, but I cannot be sure.

Although I believe that the riots will be short-lived, questions of safety do come up. Will other institutions such as the school be targeted, with its large number of diplomatic students? How about other places frequented by expats? A McDonald’s and Nike store, both symbols of foreign-owned companies, were already vandalized. I hope that the government will step in and take an active role in quelling the violent protests. If it chooses not to or is unable, outside forces such as the UN may intervene – something certainly not palatable to Serbs. Upcoming reactions will determine whether Serbia chooses a path towards increasing nationalism and further isolationism within the international community, or moving towards integration within the EU.


Back in Belgrade, a taxi driver was waiting for me. He shared with me a bit about the events of yesterday and his reflections. He was fine with the large number of people who gathered outside of the Parliament building to protest peacefully (around 300,000 people). It was only at night that a small number who attacked the embassies. He condemned the attacks and wished that the protesters would have signed petitions or written letters to the western embassies - a much more peaceful action. Watching the events unfold on TV, his memories were taken back to the start of the NATO bombing. With two young children though, he has much more to be concerned about. Although he believed that the unrest would be short-lived, he expressed a recent urge to leave with his family to another country where there was peace and economic opportunity.

I will keep a low profile for the next week or so, just in case. School was canceled today as a precaution. Having said that, I do feel safe.

Kosovo Announces its Independence

(written Sunday, Feb. 17)

So now it is official. Kosovo has declared its independence from Serbia. Not that it was unexpected. It came at a difficult time for Boris Tadić, newly elected and trying to balance his pro-Western stance with that of maintaining a unified Serbia. Serbs I talked to are opposed to the independence, but have resigned to the inevitable – what the West wants, the West gets. Issues such as a growing disparity between wages and costs (housing has particularly gone up in recent years), unemployment (currently around 20%), etc. are much more pressing on their minds. Echoed by many a Serb though (including young adults) is a sentiment for the “good ‘ol days of Yugoslavia” when standards of living were high, educational systems were excellent, its citizens enjoyed freedom of travel, and the country held an elevated political status.

It will be interesting to see what, if any repercussions there are for other countries that have “breakaway” regions or groups seeking their own nation. Not surprisingly, many of these countries (including several in the EU) were against the ratification of Kosovo’s independence. Will the Baltic region maintain its stability – Bosnia, Romania and former Russian states? Will Albania, now emboldened by its acquisition of Serbian territory, expand its quest for a “greater Albania” and seek to also add land from Macedonia?

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The Pressures of 4-yr Old Kindergarten

One of the side benefits about teaching overseas is that you become much more informed geographically and regarding the news of countries/regions in which you've taught and/or interviewed. Now my eyes/ears are perked up regarding news in India. Here is one such story, taken from the Herald Tribune:

I have been told that Indians place a high value on education. Imagine though, that the school that your 4 year old child gets into is believed to make or break their future. Families, desperate to get their child into a top private school, will do anything to make it happen - offer prayers, set aside bribe money, and spend many restless nights worrying. Some apply for around 15 schools for their pre-kindergarten child, all in the hopes of getting in to the most desirable one. This is their chance to make a better life for their child - even if it means taking out hefty loans just to fund the education of their pint-sized offspring. Getting into the top school also carries the "designer label" affect and sends a message about the status of the family and what social class you're in.

In an overcrowded country where 40% of the population is under 18 and most of the rest under 30, there simply are not enough spaces for all children, particularly in the private schools. Sometimes, these young kids commute more than 65 km (40 miles) every day to go to a good or at least a well-regarded school. More private schools are sprouting up, but it still isn't enough. One International school received 2,014 applications for 112 pre-kindergarten seats. Some, hoping their money or influence will help get their child in (admission criteria is set by the school and does have preferential acceptance, such as girls, kids from single parents, or kids whose siblings already go to the school), try to exert their power or offer a "donation." One person who works at the electricity board threatened to cut off the school's power if a certain child was not admitted.

What kind of pressure these kids must be under to perform- and already at 4 years old!

A Day in the Belgrade Police Station

I walked through the metal detector at the entryway of a nondescript concrete Communist-era building. The pace through the detector was quite fast - I question whether anyone could even be singled out and searched. Following a quick check at the information desk, we headed over to a large room, framed by numbered windows. At nearly every window was a queue, ours being no exception. While waiting for my turn, I peered through the portions of glass windows not obscured by information and notices. Piled on desks and shelves were huge file folders containing worn-looking documents. By the outside window were some antiquated machines, some of which I did not even know what they were for.
When it was my turn, Goran, our school expeditor, spoke on my behalf, explaining that I needed a police clearance for my job in Chennai. With a smile, she gave us a form to fill out and wrote down some helpful information that would expedite the process at the next place, 5 floors up.
With nine people crammed into an elevator with a 5 person capacity, we waited until the next round. Standing in line again at this window, I could see similar bulging, worn file folders piled high on all book cases and available spots. Taking a look at the writing by the helpful lady downstairs, the worker quickly processed the form and directed us back down to the first lady. Waiting in line at the original booth, Goran instructed me to stay while he left to get something. Shortly thereafter, he returned with a chocolate bar and explained that this lady had expedited background checks on the school's custodial staff, saving each worker several hours of potentially lost work time. As the lady gave me the official, stamped document, Goran handed her the bar, thanking her again.
Considering the bureaucracy and visible amount of non-digitized paperwork , I was amazed at how quickly the process took - less than two hours. It wouldn't have been possible without Goran's know-how and the lady's helpfulness. Indeed, the chocolate bar was worth it!

That evening I took the police clearance document (written in Cyrillic) to a co-worker, whose husband is a lawyer and offered to do the official translation. Thanking him for his service, I took the tram back home, glad that the paperwork for the police clearance was now over

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Presidential Voting in Serbia

On this cloudless springlike Sunday, Serbs are casting their vote for President. Voting is quite heavy, as Serbs see this election's outcome as important in determining the future direction of Serbia.

Boris Tadic of the Democratic Party is seen as more Western-leaning. He sees the future of Serbia as part of the EU, supports economic reforms, and pledges cooperation with The Hague UN war crimes tribunal.

His opponent is Tomislav Nikolic, member of the Radical Party, which was an ally of Milosevic. Nikolic believes that Serbia, a country of "unfulfilled promises and great expectations," is better served by allying with Russia and China. He opposes the tribunal and has serious doubts about the country's relationship with the EU.

Both candidates oppose Kosovo's independence, but the Nikolic's party is reported to have said that it could take extreme measures against any country that recognizes Kosovo's independence. Tadic is in a tougher position, as his desire for the country's integration within the EU may be in direct conflict with this, perhaps forcing him to chose one over the other.

The Radical party has garnered more support this election, including citizens who are disenfranchised with how things are going, voting against political parties that have been in power the last seven years- and for the Radical Party which touts itself as against the status quo + standing up to the West. Others have become apathetic and will abstain from voting.

Although it is expected that the Albanian Kosovars will issue its declaration of independence in the next few weeks, how Serbia will react will likely depend on who sits alongside the current prime minister.

For a position that is largely ceremonial, it seems that Serbian citizens - and the world - are taking this election seriously.