Bulgarian blockade

More than 100 MPs have been escorted out of the Bulgarian parliament after being trapped inside by protesters

Spending the night trapped at work. It is not how most people would like to enjoy their evening but for scores of MPs in the Bulgarian capital, Sofia, that is exactly how they passed Tuesday night. Anti-government demonstrators besieged their building in a show of anger against what they see as their corrupt leaders.  There have been regular mass demonstrations in Bulgaria throughout this first half of the year and the protesters have already secured one major victory, as the previous centre-right government headed by the GERB party quit in February.

But times have not got any easier for the current ruling Socialists as they, too, are facing calls to leave office. The tipping point for the protests was the appointment of Delyan Peevski to lead the national security agency. A colourful media mogul, many people seem to have felt this was a shady move that illustrated the winks and nudges that they believe characterise the relationship between politicians and businessmen in the Eastern European country.

The protesters have several grievances: along with Mr Peevski’s appointment, the demonstrations are in opposition to electricity price rises and have grown into more general laments against a corrupt political class. Bulgarian politics is not usually on a news editor’s list of hot topics that will set the audience or readers’ minds alight. But what happened overnight was an interesting spin on a more widespread public anger and distrust towards their politicians. Yes, it’s a good story and there are good pictures but there will be some who simply ask…isn’t it really a case of ‘same old EU’?

Calling for your government to resign is a popular chant throughout the continent, with Greece, Portugal and Italy still wavering, leaders such as Mariano Rajoy (Spain; alleged slush fund payments) and Francois Hollande (France; plummeting opinion poll ratings) under intense domestic pressure. Moreover, the lead beacon of monetary stability, Germany, is set to induce a new nervousness across the eurozone when elections are held there in the autumn. The continent has seen two years of marching, burning, rioting (everywhere), new governments, ousted governments, planned technocratic governments (Italy, Greece), countries about to leave the euro (Greece, eternally), others joining the single currency (Latvia) and so on. When you bear all this in mind, maybe it’s no surprise and maybe it does, in fact, speak volumes about the European malaise that the barricading of Bulgarian MPs in parliament by anti-corruption demonstrators only months after previous demonstrations got rid of the previous government was a story that many people missed.

You can’t have your pierogi and eat them

Poland is treading water at home and abroad

Sitting in the sun in the Rynek Glowny (Main Square) in Krakow a couple of weeks ago, large cheese pretzel in one hand and newspaper in the other, I revelled in the Polish summer. The young workers I spoke to, however, presented me with a slightly gloomier view. Their excitement for politics (if it ever existed) is waning. Donald Tusk, the current Polish prime minister, is also the present leader of the EU, after taking over the rotating six-month chair last month. It should be a chance for Warsaw to press home significant continental plans, especially in the security and regional development sectors. But the country is at a crossroads and unsure which road to take.

It is hard to manage being both national leader and head of the EU successfully and Mr Tusk has at least one eye on the general elections due in October. The EU is meant to be a discursive meeting-point for cross-border agreements and joint directives. Overly competitive states are often sidelined. The UK is a prime example with one foot in (membership) and one foot out (eurozone). Poland is doing the same dance at the moment: happily striding forth in the presidency but with the zloty still the only tender in its tills.

Raising the issue of the single currency brings shakes of the head and frowns among the twenty-somethings, though these negative opinions may be a snap reaction to the current financial crisis. The zloty itself is putting young Polish workers at a fork in the road of their own. Many have headed over to the UK to earn more for their work than the rates at home will offer. However, the global downturn, the following recession and subsequent US debt arguments, slow growth and eurozone crisis have led to many Poles returning home. One Polak I spoke to in London told me that public works projects and general urban construction plans in Poland are suffering – all the architects, surveyors and builders have gone to the UK. According to the UK’s Office for National Statistics, “immigration was highest in 2007 at 96,000 Polish citizens, but this declined to 39,000 in 2009”.

Mr Tusk has reassured Brussels his country will join the single currency despite that move probably being several years away. He has high European ambitions but must not neglect the opportunity to use domestic development to make Poland a regional leader. Young Poles seem bored by their politics: opposition leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski was scoffed at; Tusk himself dismissed as a lightweight; the sudden death of Andrzej Lepper came as a shock but he was seen as an outcast. Mr Tusk has the chance to be a progressive reformer driving business and education reforms at home and his energy, security and development policies in Europe but it seems that, with concern in Brussels and apathy at home, he needs to decide which side of the fence to come down on first.

A universal throne

How monarchies cross religious and political boundaries

All you have to do is glance at the guest list for the British royal wedding between Prince William and Kate Middleton on 29 April.

45 different members of foreign royal families were invited; from 25 different countries. There were representatives from absolute monarchies (Swaziland, Saudi Arabia), constitutional monarchies (Sweden, Spain) and excommunicated monarchies (Yugoslavia, Romania). Different European Christian denominations were on show: Lutheran (Queen Margrethe II of Denmark) and Eastern Orthodox (King Simeon II of Bulgaria). From Africa, there were Muslim (Moroccan Princess Lalla Salma) and Christian (Prince Seeiso of Lesotho) royals. And as for Asia, there were the Muslims from absolutist nations (Emir of Qatar) and Muslims from democracies (the Yang di-Pertuan Agong and Raja Permaisuri Agong of Malaysia), along with the Buddhist Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn of Thailand and Christian King of Tonga.

Far more countries have scrapped their palaces, tiaras and curtseys. But what can we learn from the ones who haven’t?

They span a broad politico-cultural spectrum, showing us that the monarchical system can be applied to differing extents across separate countries (think of the differences between Malaysia’s take on Islam and the Sunni teachings of Saudi Arabia: both Muslim monarchies, but with very different political agendas).

Monarchies can be a stabilising force for good in restive nations but this stability needs to be tempered by a willingness not to tamper with a country’s politics. Despite this, at times they can be wonderful mediators – think of the steady hand Spain’s King Juan Carlos provided during the rocky transition to democracy following the death of Franco in 1975. But sometimes the stability can become an overriding control and this is where the absolutist regimes suffer to maintain international credibility.

More trustworthiness is vested in those families which have taken a constitutional step-back. One area where they generally succeed is on the global stage. They act as patriotic symbols of their nation and can negotiate interests, discuss deals, or, seeing as many countries are more than ready to don rose-tinted glasses and think back to a former age, simply try to whip up attention for the oft-lampooned idea of a monarchy.

European monarchies have survived in more recent times by branching out from their inter-regal and cross-crown breeding. Mette-Marit Tjessem Hoiby, a single mother, met Norwegian Prince Haako at a rock concert before marrying him in 2001. In 2004 Australian Mary Donaldson married Denmark’s Crown Prince Frederik. And last week’s British royal wedding continued a tradition kicked-off in style by Grace Kelly’s marriage to Monaco’s Prince Rainier III in 1956.

Royal families have shown they can cross international political and religious boundaries. They also seem to have realised that they truly need to modernise and to understand and break down the remaining boundaries that still exist at home.

Reporting the dead: Part One

The Press Emblem Campaign (PEC) has published its end-of-year report and it does not make easy reading for journalists. This is the first part of a two-part blogpost analysing the data.

In 2010, 105 journalists were killed. Since 2006, 529 have died. The risky countries are not surprising. However, there are different reasons for the dangers faced by reporters and cameramen out on the roads.

There are two main sets of figures the PEC has released: this blogpost will look at this year’s figures and the next blogpost will analyse the global total of journalists’ deaths since 2006.

  • 2010 – Death toll: 105

a) The five most deadly countries in the last year

1 = Mexico and Pakistan 14 dead in both

With more than 3,000 people killed in Ciudad Juarez, a northern border town, this year alone, it is no great shock that the ‘war on drugs’ has claimed journalists’ lives in Mexico. The reporting of drugs deals and violence is often accompanied by death threats and in September the newspaper ‘El Diario de Juarez’ published a frank editorial to the gangs titled ‘What do you want from us?’ and agreed to print what the gangs wanted after one of its photographers was shot dead.

More than 3,000 died in violence in Pakistan last year. Militancy, tribal wars, US drone strikes and the Pakistani armed forces’ battles against Taliban insurgents have contributed to the rising deaths. Journalists covering the militancy have been shot as political, religious and international tensions grow.

3. Honduras 9

Since the 2009 coup, which installed Porfirio Lobo as the new premier, politically-motivated murders have been on the rise. In addition, the contagion of Mexico’s ‘war on drugs’ has spread to the country and that has caused further problems for journalists in the field.

4. Iraq 8

US combat operations ceased in Iraq this year but thousands of troops are still in the country training troops and aiding stabilisation policies. The insurgency has claimed 8 journalists’ lives this year alone.

5. The Philippines 6

Religious conflict in the mainly-Muslim south and the ferocious and deadly politics, where ethnicity, party allegiances, family ties and religion meet in a lethal mix, have created an unstable environment in which to report.

b) The deadliest nations in the rest of the world

Africa (14): Nigeria 4, Somalia 3, Angola 2, Uganda 2, Cameroon 1, DRC 1, Rwanda 1

Asia (16): Indonesia 3, Nepal 3, Afghanistan 2, Thailand 2, India 2, Bangladesh 1, Yemen 1, Israel/Gaza 1, Lebanon 1

Europe (11): Russia 5, Belarus 1, Bulgaria 1, Cyprus 1, Greece 1, Ukraine 1, Turkey 1

Latin America (13): Colombia 4, Brazil 4, Venezuela 2, Argentina 1, Ecuador 1, Guatemala 1