IPS Blog

Venezuela’s Presidential Elections: The Battle Continues

Increasingly violent challenges to the legitimacy of the recent Venezuelan presidential elections have resulted in 7 deaths and 61 injuries since the April 14th election.

The “stolen votes” claimed by narrowly defeated opposition leader Henrique Capriles and his supporters as the reason behind (and excuse for) their encouragement of the deadly protests have no discernible factual basis, yet the United States continues to back Capriles in hopes that he will unseat Maduro and put an end to Chavismo.

Event panelistsOn April 22, 2013, at the Institute for Policy Studies, official election observers Alex Main of the Center for Economic and Policy Research and Dan Kovalik of the National Lawyers Guild described their personal encounters with the reliability of the sophisticated Venezuelan election system – and with the persistence of anti-leftist U.S. interference in Latin America. The discussion between Main, Kovalik, and a diverse 30-person audience composed of community members, government officials, policy analysts, and students produced several key insights, all of which are conspicuously absent from the narrative constructed by Capriles-leaning mainstream U.S. news sources:

Venezuela’s election system is excellent.

Last year, Jimmy Carter described the Venezuelan election system as “the best in the world” for its multiple layers of safeguards against error and election-rigging. Venezuelan voters register at polling stations by thumbprint, cast their ballots electronically, and then receive a paper receipt listing the name of the candidate for whom they voted. Before leaving the polling station, voters must leave the paper receipt in a designated box.

54% of polling stations then undergo an auditing process, during which these paper receipts are separated by candidate, counted by hand, re-counted, and then checked against the electronic polling results. This 54% audit has already been completed for the April 14th elections.

Further legitimizing the results produced by the well-honed election process is the remarkably high voter turnout: an impressive 79% of the eligible voting population cast ballots in the 2013 Venezuelan presidential election.

The oppositions’ claims of fraud are blatantly fictitious.

During the IPS presentation, Main described how Capriles supporters have published pictures Audienceof sealed ballot-receipt boxes from past elections being destroyed, claiming they are un-audited boxes from this election.

Main also noted the sudden spurt of destructive attacks on health clinics by the opposition after false but widely circulated rumors suggested ballot-receipt boxes were being horded in the buildings to prevent the completion of a 100% audit.

A report released Saturday by Venezuela’s National Electoral Council dismisses all of Capriles’ claims as false, and notes that “there is no single record of irregularities in the signed records that were endorsed by all witnesses.”

The U.S. call for a re-count builds upon decades of anti-leftist U.S. meddling in Latin American affairs.

Maduro’s victory represents a continuation of Chavez’s leftist administration – and chavismo represents the liberation of Venezuela from U.S. dominance. The United States’ support for Capriles, and its refusal to recognize the reliability of Venezuela’s lauded election system, is a bold-faced display of its willingness to re-establish American influence in the United States’ “backyard”, as Secretary John Kerry recently – and tellingly – referred to Latin America.

The slim margin by which Maduro won the Venezuelan presidency highlights intensifying ideological divisions within the country. But whether Maduro will be able to maintain political continuity as Chavez’s standard-bearer is a question to be decided within Venezuela’s own borders, by its own highly reliable electoral system – and not by U.S. interference.

Listen to the opening presentations.

Rock the Regime: The Velvet Revolution

Cross-posted from JohnFeffer.com. John is currently traveling in Eastern Europe and observing its transformations since 1989.

Tanga

Tanga

In Bratislava, as the Velvet Revolution unfolded in November 1989, musicians played a key role in the Czechoslovak opposition movement. Yes, they participated in the demonstrations and spoke out against the communist authorities. But their main contribution was more prosaic: amps. The dissident community, which had been silenced for decades, needed to get their voices heard by the hundreds of thousands of people crowding the public squares. And the musicians provided that amplification.

In Bulgaria, during the 1970s, oppositional voices were even rarer. The country never experienced a “socialism with a human face” experiment, as Czechoslovakia did in 1968 under Alexander Dubcek. There was no student movement. There wasn’t a lot of samizdat.

But there was rock ‘n roll.

Konstantin Markov was a leading figure in the Bulgarian rock scene in the 1970s and 1980s with the band Tangra. Bulgaria was no Yugoslavia. It wasn’t easy to form a band and tour the country, especially if you were playing Western-style heavy metal and New Wave. But youth culture was irrepressible.

“All these institutions — management, cultural institutions, media (at that time we had only one TV program and two radio channels, state-owned)—they had very strict regulations,” he told me in Sofia back in October. “They tried to keep all these kinds of music out of their programs. But at the same time there was a huge demand. People really liked this music, and it was a symbol of freedom to them. It was very difficult to completely suppress it. We were quite clever in going around the institutions and all these obstacles.”

Tangra circled the country, doing gigs even when the audiences were miniscule. They gradually built up their reputation until they were doing two concerts a day. There was censorship and harassment from the secret police. But they managed to get their message across.

“There was no way to get on stage and say that all this is bullshit, that this system is nothing,” Konstantin Markov continued. “Unless you wanted to commit suicide! But actually our biggest success came when we started singing in Bulgarian. At the beginning it was Deep Purple, hard rock stuff. But then, we started singing in Bulgarian and we had a very strong message. It wasn’t completely clear at the beginning, but if you read the text several times and if you thought about it, then you could figure out what we wanted to say. And that was our biggest reward.”

Tangra left Bulgaria before the changes in 1989, but Konstantin Markov returned to Sofia in time to see the regime change. He created a radio station called Tangra and continues to be involved in the music scene. And he remains upbeat.

“I haven’t lost my hope—which is very important,” he concluded. “I wish that most people could keep their hope for the future in the same way they had it 20 years ago. When you see pictures of rallies of that time, it was absolutely unbelievable.”

The Interview

When you think back to 1989, and what has changed from 1989 until today, how would you evaluate those changes here in Bulgaria on a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 being most dissatisfied and 10 being the most satisfied?

According to your scale, I’d say 7. During this period many things happened and many didn’t. Actually people hoped that all this would happen in a very short time, in a few years. And nobody believed it when somebody said, “You know, this will take 10 years, 20 years.” That looked like an incredibly long period of time. During all these years I’d say the bottom line is: it’s all been positive. There are some people who think that “in the good old days” it was much better for them. But I think most of the changes that happened to this country during these years are positive. No doubt about it. And there is nothing to compare Bulgaria in 1989 and 2012. Nothing, absolutely nothing.

Over the same period of time, 1989 to today, how would evaluate what’s happened to you personally, on the same scale from 1 to 10, with 1 being most dissatisfied and 10 being the most satisfied?

Above all, I was 20 years younger at that time, and everything was new. But I’d say 7 again. At least 7, even more maybe. At that time nobody ever believed that such change could happen to the country and to him, to himself, personally.

When you look into the near future, the next couple of years here in Bulgaria, how do you feel about the prospects for the country? And the scale again is 1 to 10, with 1 being most pessimistic and 10 being most optimistic?

I’m afraid to be most optimistic, but I’d say 9.

Do you remember where you were when the Berlin Wall fell: what you were doing, what you were thinking when you heard the news, and whether you thought it would have major impact here in Bulgaria?

First of all, I couldn’t believe my ears. I used to listen to Radio Free Europe, BBC, Voice of America, all these stations. And when I heard the news on the radio, it was so incredible and unexpected, honestly I couldn’t believe it.

You were here is Sofia

Yes. At the beginning the official statement, it was kind of unclear. It wasn’t very clear because I think it wasn’t only unexpected to me but it was to everybody—the government included. But it was very exciting news, no doubt about it. And it was the beginning. Everybody felt that it was the beginning of a new era for these countries, for this world.

And you were a musician?

Yes, I’ve been a musician for many years. Actually, I’m an engineer, but I’ve never worked as an engineer. I used to be a musician in a very popular band here, a rock band, a touring band. I was the founder of the band. The name was Tangra, the old Bulgarian god of the Sun. The band was very popular and we used to tour a lot in the country and outside the country.

When was the band put together?

The late 1970s.

How would you describe the music?

At the beginning it was typical heavy metal. Then we started playing a kind of pop rock. Actually, this was the second period of the band. And then we changed to post-punk — new rock alternative, New Wave, new romantic — and this was the most successful. It was vey risky because people used to know us as kind of pop rock band. Suddenly we changed everything: look, style, stage performance, everything. But it was worth it.

And you founded the band when you were in school or…?

I’d just finished high school and I was quite lucky because I started playing with probably the most successful singer at the time in Bulgaria. I went to this audition and they liked me, so I started playing with their band. Emil Dimitrov. He was like Johnny Halliday in France. It was incredibly popular here in Bulgaria. At that time there was Emil Dimitrov and a very popular lady singer Lili Ivanova—she’s still performing. I started playing with her band, and this was for probably 5 or 6 years. And then I started my own band. It was 1976.

What was it like to have a rock band here in Bulgaria? Did you get a sense pretty early on that it was an entirely different experience having a rock band in Bulgaria compared to, say, France?

Yes, because I think there are two things that really affected that generation in Bulgaria. Number one is western music, and number two is jeans. For this generation, you can’t imagine what it used to look like to have a pair of jeans. It might sound funny, but it’s true.

Were there any obstacles to creating a hard rock band in Bulgaria?

Yes, lots. You know I could write a book about that.

You should write a book!

I don’t have time, to be honest. But it was really difficult, because officially you were not allowed to create a band. At the same time, all these institutions — management, cultural institutions, media (at that time we had only one TV program and two radio channels, state-owned)—they had very strict regulations. They tried to keep all these kinds of music out of their programs. But at the same time there was a huge demand. People really liked this music, and it was a symbol of freedom to them. It was very difficult to completely suppress it. We were quite clever in going around the institutions and all these obstacles.

And were you able to actually record music?

It was very difficult. At that time there were only two places to record, one was the national radio, which had quite a good facility by the way, and the other one was the state record plant. It was called Balkanton. And when you went there they told you, “Okay, but in order to record the whole record you have to take, let’s say, eight songs that belong to famous Bulgarian composers.” One of their first questions was “Are you a composer?” You needed to have a diploma to be a composer, which was very stupid. It’s very difficult to explain the difference between a composer and a songwriter. As you know, most of the bands had songwriters, not composers. So they told you, “You should take this, this, this, and this.” And most of these songs were very stupid. We had to redo them, completely in some cases, so that the original so-called composers didn’t recognize their songs. But this was one of the ways to get around the obstacles.

And there were so many other things. I’ll tell you something funny. Before you signed a contract with the management—there was one management, state-owned—you went to a kind of audition. They had to give you a grade. When we first went to this audition we were a four-piece band without keyboards: two guitars, drums, and a singer.

They said, “Where is your keyboard player? Why don’t you have a keyboard player?”

I said, “This is the band, this is the style.”

They said, “No. No way, you can’t perform without a keyboard player.”

So we recorded everything on a tape recorder, and we went back again. And they said, “Okay, it sounds very interesting, but where is the keyboard player? We hear some keyboard parts and synthesizers.

And we lied. We said that we had special pedals that change the sound of the guitars, blah, blah, blah.

This is funny, but some are very sad stories. For instance, you could get arrested. One morning you just got arrested. And it happened to me and to us several times.

You got arrested for…

For instance, one morning we got arrested by a special group of secret police—not the regular police. They started questioning us, “What did you do three months ago?” How could we remember? Every day we were in a different town. We said, “We don’t remember.” And then, it turned out that they had people that recorded everything on tape recorders, sometimes on video cameras: the reaction of the audience, what we said on stage. Sometimes it was very very stupid. I even don’t want to think about this. It was like 1984, George Orwell.

Were there accusations that you were spreading Western influence?

Oh yeah! This was the biggest threat, and this was the thing that they were most afraid of. That Western influence was coming through the music and the performances—which was true. And they knew that.

But how did you respond?

At a certain point they accused us of being neo-Fascists because we changed the look of the band. We had white shirts, black ties, and black pants. And suddenly they saw neo-Fascists on the stage. At the beginning we had very long hair, and the funny thing was that you were not allowed to have long hair. It was the middle of the 1980s when we completely changed the look of the band. We had short hair, and they didn’t know what to say. And most of the bands used to play with jeans, t-shirts, and all the typical accessories for rock bands. Suddenly we changed, and they didn’t know what to say.

How in those days did you get audiences?

It was word of mouth. The interesting thing is at the beginning, for instance, the halls were half empty. It was very difficult because in order to perform, you have to bring a certain amount of money to the management. There were cases where we played and it was absolutely clear we wouldn’t get any money from this concert—or barely any money, only enough for sandwiches. But we played, played, and played, and we circled around touring the country. All over the country. And no matter how many people were in the hall, we played as if it was full. And then the next time, the second time around we started, there were more, more, and more. A year later, we started doing two concerts a day. We had enough audience for two concerts. The halls were overcrowded! This was the biggest reward for what we’d done.

You said you also started touring outside of Bulgaria. Did you go to Yugoslavia? In those days, Yugoslavia had a pretty big rock scene.

Yugoslavia was a completely different country. At that time, Yugoslavia was from some points of view even better than in the West. It was a huge scene there: very talented musicians and very good bands. But they were free. Rock n’ roll equals freedom. At that time, in certain neighborhoods of Sofia, it was possible to watch Yugoslav television.

Really, just certain neighborhoods?

Certain neighborhoods because the signal came from quite far away. Theoretically, it was not possible. But the reality was that in certain neighborhoods it was possible to watch. You can’t imagine: we started making huge antennas. And then the police came and told us to take off the antenna. But it was like a window to the world. At that time Yugoslavia had really good TV programs: concerts, movies, theatre, news programs. This was one of the ways besides BBC, VOA, and Free Europe to get informed, to be connected to the outside world.

Do you remember the first concert you did outside of Bulgaria?

I started touring with Emil Dimitrov and Lili Ivanova, and they used to play a lot abroad. They used to do three concerts a day. I’m not talking about club performances, but real concerts. And with my band, we used to make between 250 and 350 concerts a year. Yes, it was really intensive, and this went on for years. So you see many things. You see actually the backside of the coin, because you cannot see this kind of stuff if you are, let’s say, a tourist.

What was the most interesting experience you had in this part of the world?

We used to go, at that time, to East Germany, Hungary, Czechoslovakia. We toured Russia a lot. Then because the band was very good, we were invited to Switzerland for one rock festival. Then we went to Canada. Then, after the middle of the 1980s, we decided we should leave the country, because it was very difficult to play. We started having problems with the officials.

It became more difficult than between 1979 and 1983.

Yes, because they realized the power of the music and the message, especially the new trends. As I told you the post-punk and new rock alternative, it was different music than Deep Purple. At a certain point, they kind of accepted Deep Purple. But after that it was beyond their imagination, and they decided it was too dangerous.

And there were some ridiculous things. They accused us of taking drugs and doing some wild things on the stage. It absolutely wasn’t true. Actually we were banned several times. And they erased all of our recordings on the radio and on national TV. That’s why we don’t have very many recordings now.

I’ll tell you something that might sound unbelievable, but it’s true. We had a concert in one town, and the roadies were doing the sound check. We were in the hotel cafe, and we wanted to have a cup of coffee. The whole band was there, and suddenly we realized that they served the other tables next to us and not ours. And it probably took more than 45 minutes to wait for the coffee, which was ridiculous and we were late, so we decided to go. A few months later, I found out through some people that we were quite lucky because they decided to put something in our coffee in order to make it look like we were drugged. And they could use this to cut relations with the band. It was only a question of a few minutes that they were late in organizing this.

There were several things like this, and we decided to leave Bulgaria. And there was another reason: the “revival process,” which is a very stupid phrase. This was when they changed the names of the Turks. And there were the first signs of economical difficulties for the country, for instance, shortages of electricity and fuel, especially in these areas with the Turks. It was very sad. They were not allowed to go from one place to another. There were many restrictions.. People couldn’t come to our concerts. Or, if they came, suddenly in the middle of the concert the electricity stopped and they’d have to leave the concert in full darkness. So we decided to quit, and we started again from zero in Scandinavia.

In which country?

In the beginning it was in Norway, at a restaurant. We were very popular here, and suddenly we started playing in restaurants. But it was also very exciting because we decided to do everything possible to get out of the restaurant scene, and to move to clubs and discotheques. And actually we managed to do this in four years. We toured a lot, all over Scandinavia. The band was really good and we invested a lot in our business. Because this is a business, no doubt about it. We bought the latest instruments, we bought a big van with beds, and we started from zero.

And you were singing in English?

Yes, in English. You know, the management company that we used to work with, they put “Tangra England” on the posters. They didn’t announce us as a Bulgarian band. At the end we used to tour clubs in the Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, Denmark, Belgium, all of these countries.

And were there folks from the Bulgarian diaspora who came to the concerts as well?

Not very many. Only a few. You play for the locals, and this is interesting because nobody knows you. Here in this country, if you ask somebody from these generations if they know Tangra, you will see their reaction. Everybody used to know us here, but there we were completely unknown.

Did you change your music at all?

Yes, of course, at the beginning we started playing covers and evergreens. This was for the restaurant scene. It was an incredible experience as a musician because you discover completely different kinds of music. But then we started playing our own stuff in English, plus covers for the clubs.

Covers of what kind of music?

Duran Duran, Dire Straits, U2, this kind of stuff. At that time, New Wave rock was very popular.

And you came back to Bulgaria…

It was the end of the 1990s. In those first years in Scandinavia, they asked for a contract and work permit for six months. That’s how it used to work. But a few years later they start asking you at each place for a particular contract and work permit. These were the first signs of Schengen, and it was very difficult to play clubs, because you were playing a different place every night. And when the owner or the manager came and said, “We like you, can you come in a month, on this date?” you didn’t know what to say because you were not sure whether by then you would have a signed contract. It became very difficult.

So the only way out was to go back to the restaurants in Norway—which was too much. And this is how the band split. They decided to stay there, and I came back here. It was 1989, right when the change happened. The big change, the so-called change.

You have good timing! Do you remember when you came back?

It was right before November. Must have been, let’s say, September or October, or something.

Things were already beginning to change a little bit of course, but not here necessarily.

Not here, no. There were some signs, but nobody believed it. It was like, you know, a total shock. One morning when there was a program on the radio, and it was the first time they said bad things about Todor Zhivkov, it was incredible: you couldn’t believe what you were hearing. I still remember, we used to live in a different place at that time in the center of Sofia. And there was some graffiti against Zhivkov that appeared overnight—at that time we didn’t think that it was suspicious, but actually it was part of the whole thing. It was unbelievable. He was on top for maybe 35 years and then suddenly his comrades took him down.

Do you think music played ultimately played a role in the transformations that took place in this region?

You might not believe this but yes. This was our biggest reward. Because there was no way to get on stage and say that all this is bullshit, that this system is nothing. Unless you wanted to commit suicide! But actually our biggest success came when we started singing in Bulgarian. At the beginning it was Deep Purple, hard rock stuff. But then, we started singing in Bulgarian and we had a very strong message. It wasn’t completely clear at the beginning, but if you read the text several times and if you thought about it, then you could figure out what we wanted to say. And that was our biggest reward.

We had such strong fans. They used to follow the band. You’d see them one day, and suddenly there they were the next day in the first rows of the hall. They got the message. And they started dressing our way. At that time it was very new and unexpected, and very provocative. At certain points I wonder how we managed to do that, to be honest. Maybe we were just such strong believers in all this. Talking now, it’s only touching the surface. But deep under the surface it was a very difficult life, not only because we were traveling musicians, but because of the circumstances, the whole environment. You had to have a really strong will to go through with all this and to be at the same time a good performer. But the people got the message. They used to sing our songs, not only because of the music but because of the text. Many of our texts were censored, many times.

Can you give me an example of what your text was, and what happened to it?

For instance, there was a song with the name “Be what you are, be who you are.” Originally it was like this: I wanted to go to university, but instead of me they accepted somebody else. It’s very difficult to translate this, because it was the typical Communist idiocy. There were some rules that the sons and daughters of so-called anti-Fascist fighters were accepted in the university without competition, and we said this in our song. It was immediately censored. We managed to change the words and keep the meaning the same: you might be very talented, but in reality somebody else could take your place in life.

Were you ever tempted to change the lyrics in concert?

We tried that. But as I told you we realized that there were people in the audience recording and writing reports after each concert. So it was very dangerous. But there were many other ways to get the message across. And I think people got the message. You know, the most powerful message was freedom. Freedom of mind. That’s why the audience liked us. Otherwise it was not possible. I want to declare this clearly: it was not possible. Absolutely not possible.

Were there other rock bands at that time?

There were a lot of very popular bands: Shturtsite (The Crickets), for instance. They were very popular too, and had some good songs, and they were fans of ours. And they had problems, but maybe not as many as we used to have. Especially in the 1980s, we were something new, with this post-punk. And we created a new message. There were some others, but not more than four or five professional touring bands. Other bands played in clubs, discotheques, and restaurants.

You came back to Bulgaria just prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the fall of Todor Zhivkov. What were you thinking when you came back and your band mates stayed behind in Norway, and suddenly there were different possibilities?

Number one was the feeling of freedom. I think this is the most important. It was everywhere, in the air, freedom after all these years of suppression and restrictions. Suddenly, you could feel it and see it in people’s eyes.

The country was completely destroyed. It was corrupt. The worst time was the fall and the winter of 1990. Suddenly there was nothing in the shops, no electricity, no fuel, no bread, no milk, nothing. But there was hope, and this is the most important. Hope for the future. Probably it wasn’t really realistic. As I told you, when somebody said it would take ages to become a normal state, nobody wanted to believe that. At that time, there were several big rallies and meetings in the center of Sofia. And it was clearly visible that people didn’t have anything to eat, but you could see hope for the future in their eyes. And it was really exciting because suddenly it was up to you to decide what to do. It wasn’t up to somebody else or the Party. This was the most important thing in those years.

Those first years weren’t very good for Bulgarian music, especially for rock. Which was kind of strange, because there was freedom everywhere, in all directions. I was surprised because I expected some new bands to emerge. But this actually didn’t happen. My explanation is that, first of all, rock music and popular music are like mirrors of life that reflect whatever happens. At that time people were more concerned about food than music. Everything was destroyed. All social life was destroyed. All the structures during these years, like management companies, were suddenly gone. It was not possible, for instance, to organize tours, and there were no bands. Many people left, especially young people, because they didn’t see any possibilities here. Some succeeded, some didn’t, but many people left. At the same time others decided to stay.

And I decided to come back here. Most of my friends thought I was crazy. They thought, you know, this guy is either really crazy or he is a loser. And I got married. I met my wife, Laura, in Paris, and from Paris we decided to come here in 1990 — instead of 99.9% of my friends who went to the States. We didn’t have any problems to go there, but for some reason I didn’t. Actually Bulgaria is my country. No matter what happens, it’s my country. So I was quite lucky that my wife accepted this crazy proposal to move here, but I don’t regret it. I think we both don’t regret it.

What did you do musically when you returned?

Nothing. There was no music, no music scene, nothing. Of course, we tried many things. Most of them failed. But in 1992, we started the first private radio station. Me and a friend of mine, Kiril Maritchkov, who is a bass player, the leader of Shturtsite, the other band I told you about. It was very exciting. The name of the radio station was Tangra, the same name as our band. It was a kind of smooth transition away from the band. It was actually a rock station. It was our dream. This time we played for many people on the air. We played whatever we wanted, and we again sent a very strong message. This time it was possible to say whatever you think. It was up to you. So the station was very successful for about eight years.

But two years later, some things started happening here—like a lack of regulations. By the way, I used to be the chairman of the Association for Bulgarian Broadcasters for seven years, and before that I was a member of the board. So for almost 10 years I used to be in the union of the broadcasters. And in 10 years, the law changed 11 times. We used to meet lots of broadcasters from the West that wanted to invest money in the media here in Bulgaria. But when they saw the regulations and the law, they said, “No, forget it!” For instance, it is very strange to have a media outfit, an advertising agency, and a research firm all in the same company. So, guess who is first in the ratings, and guess how the money goes from the budgets of the advertising agencies? It was not possible to compete in a normal way.

The other thing was it suddenly became overcrowded. We warned the authorities that, for instance, in London there are 12 stations. In Sofia there were suddenly 33 or 35. And the market in Sofia is a very small fraction of the market in London. It’s not possible to sustain a business like this, and a radio station is a business. This was a period when media became part of other businesses. For instance, a radio station might become part of a company that deals with gas or oil. It was part of a larger process: the concentration of power, money, media.

I’ve seen a lot in the media. We used to negotiate all these laws and regulations with the parliament, with the authorities. And it was clear that they wanted to keep control. Different forces — political forces, parties, and businesses — wanted to have control. And they managed to establish this control. Now media is concentrated among only a few owners, or groups, and I think it’s used to manipulate peoples’ minds. The level of content in the newspapers is very low, full of rumors and celebrities. On the television there are shows like Big Brotherand shows with everybody singing. This is a very powerful tool to manipulate people’s minds.

Are you still involved in that world?

Not at all, and I don’t want to be. I don’t want to go back there. First of all, it’s very difficult to be independent, and throughout my whole life I was independent. Even throughout the worst years of Communism, I was independent. Somehow I managed to maintain my own situation – through friends, family. Now it’s very difficult to be independent. It’s almost impossible.

Are you still involved in music in any way?

That’s how I make my living actually. I have a studio. I went back to the roots. I record a lot of soundtracks: for movies, for theater, for advertising. I do a lot of what’s called sound imaging for TV and radio. I do music for sound libraries. Probably half of my work is for companies in the West. And this is how I make my living. I don’t feel regrets about anything, to be honest. I have enjoyed my life. No matter in what circumstances and environment. The most important is to be in balance with yourself, and this is how you have enough strength to survive.

What’s your impression of the music scene today in Bulgaria?

I think there are two tendencies in today’s Bulgarian music. There are some examples of good music, which is quite competitive with Western music: very well-produced songs with good messages. Unfortunately there are not very many. In the middle is popcorn. This is pop music with no message, no personal attitude, that’s only copy and paste. At the same time there is an overwhelming amount of so-called pop folk.

Like turbo-folk in Serbia?

There you go. Serbia is a relatively good example. But also music from Turkey, India, Pakistan that’s very low quality. They’re everywhere in the media, because they follow the recipes of music from American or British pop music. But it’s a kind of distorted image of this music, and it’s very simple, for simple people. And it’s popular. I don’t care about this music. It’s not my music. But you cannot pretend that it doesn’t exist. It’s here, and it’s successful.

In Bulgaria there are two groups of people. One group follows turbo-pop folk. The other group are fans of rock music. Surprisingly there aren’t many new Bulgarian rock bands. But you can see these people at the concerts of the big stars. The halls are full. They have extremely intelligent reactions. And most of the artists who come once here, want to come back again. They really enjoy the reaction of the audience. You can see families at these concerts. Normally you would only see only youngsters, but in these concerts you can see fathers and sons.

We went to a Lady Gaga concert, which was incredible. There were, I think, 16,000 people. It was full! And people were singing with her, and she got really excited.

You talked about the concentration of power and ownership. Do you think any of that has changed over the last 10 years? Have you seen any improvement in either the conduct of government or in the political-economic infrastructure?

We have regulations here, but the point is to implement them. In another country, when you see a one-way street, it’s one-way street. But in our case it’s not a one-way street. Somebody could go against the sign. This is very frustrating. There is also quite a high level of corruption, which is another big problem for this country.

And I think that one of the most important things that was supposed to happen, but never happened in full, was to open the archives of the former secret service. The whole social, political, and economic way of life used to be dominated by the secret service and the Communist party. The whole so-called change was to change ownership and to change the power. And this was the reason of the whole thing. At a certain point it became clear to the Communist elite that the whole country wasn’t going in the right direction, and it was inevitable that this was the end. The most important thing for them was to transfer the power from political power into financial power. For normal people it became very difficult to start a serious business. I know only a few people who are not connected to the former elite who managed to start successful businesses. Most of these businesses actually belong to people from the past, in one way or another. Or to their sons, or daughters. And this was their goal.

The other thing is the court system. Every day you see people get arrested for something. I’m talking about criminals, obvious criminals. And a few days later, they are released. It’s really frustrating, and it sends the wrong message. It says that I can do whatever I want, but I won’t be punished for it.

A culture of impunity.

Yes. That’s why it’s frustrating that the archives were never really opened. Germany did it the right way. The Czech Republic and Hungary, they also did it, and it was very important for society to know who is who and why suddenly some people became millionaires or billionaires. If this had happened, I’m sure the whole country would have gone in quite a different way, or many changes would have happened a lot earlier than now.

But now, and probably you see this too, there are quite many changes, especially in the past few years. I think there is some hope for the country. I know some hard-working people who managed to succeed as businessmen – in a honest way. Which is quite different, and a lot more difficult.

Can you identify other hopeful signs?

Yes, there are many. Some of them are very simple. For instance, only a few hundred meters away from here there is a big construction on the road going on. And they are working hard for 24 hours. It might look simple, but it has never happened so far. And there are, I think, maybe even seven road construction projects going on at the same time all over in the city.

The other interesting thing is you see some young people who decided to stay here, and they are different. Their faces are different. Some of them are very intelligent young people — hardworking, innovative — and this is the future generation.

Another thing is when you go, for instance, to some small towns in Bulgaria, everybody is talking about the lack of money, the lack of this and that, but at the same time you see nice new houses, small enterprises. For instance, I was in Plovdiv a few weeks ago, and you can see many relatively small enterprises that are modern enterprises. Some of them are probably owned by businessmen from the West, but it doesn’t matter, they’re here and Bulgarians are working in them. You can see many things happening in the cities, especially with European money used in the right way. You can see the streets are changing, which is very important, the infrastructure. And gradually, the whole look of the town changes, and this is what gives me hope for the future.

I’m talking about simple things. I’m not talking about the nuclear power plant, which is a big thing. I’m talking about, for instance, a place called, Better House, which is a very interesting way of connecting young people, innovative people. It’s this big place that offers rooms for business meetings, for working individuals with their laptops, and this is the new young generation. Things like this started happening in the past few years. It wasn’t like that between, let’s say, 2000 and 2005. So some of these people are coming back to Bulgaria, and they are bringing new culture, new ways of thinking and working.

At the end of the day Bulgaria is a nice country. It has beautiful nature, the climate is really good, agriculture could be a very important part of the economy if developed in the right way (and if this had started 20 years ago, we would be in a completely different situation today).

I think the current government—despite many mistakes—is from this point of view the best so far. Up until recently we saw only few results, and this time we can see many things happening. I’m not politically involved in any party, but I would like to be as objective as possible. And there is no doubt that you can see many changes: in the metro system, the public transportation.

So, I haven’t lost my hope—which is very important. I wish that most people could keep their hope for the future in the same way they had it 20 years ago. When you see pictures of rallies of that time, it was absolutely unbelievable. There was one rally, when you see the people’s faces, when you look at people’s faces at that time, you almost want to cry. Because you see tears in in their eyes. Happy faces, despite all they’ve gone through.

Sofia, September 26, 2012

Emphasis Added: The Foreign Policy Week in Pieces (5/2)

As if Iran Isn’t Noticing

[Philip Coyle of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation] worries that the overall effect of the White House’s about-face on nuclear weapons policy could prove counterproductive. “We don’t want more nuclear weapons in the world,” he says. “We’re asking North Korea to stop its program. We’re asking Iran to stop its program. And in the same breath we’re gutting our nuclear nonproliferation by 15 or 20 percent. That would send a confusing message to the rest of the world.”

How Obama Learned to Love the Bomb, Erika Eichelberger and Dana Liebelson, Mother Jones

Arms Race Gives Way to Network Race

The fundamental dynamic of the Cold War was an arms race to build nuclear weapons; conflict today is primarily driven by an “organizational race” to build networks. Terrorists, insurgents, and other militants focus on the creation of dispersed cells. … Intelligence, law enforcement, and military organizations strive to network their information flows, the aim being to mine “big data” to illuminate enemy cells, then to use this knowledge to eliminate them. In Boston last week, both aspects of this organizational race were evident – the small cell and big data – and both had their innings.

Small Cells vs. Big Data, John Arquilla, Foreign Policy

NORK: We’re Not Chumps

[North Korea] is well aware of the fate of the “axis of evil”: Iraq was invaded and occupied, and Iran is suffocating under the weight of economic sanctions and facing a possible Israeli or U.S. attack. From North Korea’s point of view, the only thing that Iraq and Iran have in common is that neither of them developed nuclear weapons.

Breaking Out the Bush Playbook on Korea, Conn Hallinan, Foreign Policy in Focus

Nuclear Energy: Just a Few Degrees of Separation From Nuclear Weapons

… the Western approach toward Iran is that it does not make the necessary conceptual distinction between an indirect or latent nuclear capability and a drive to create nuclear weapons. Like other countries that possess a nuclear fuel cycle, such as Japan, Iran today has a latent nuclear capability that is a byproduct of its NPT-based nuclear progress, rather than a deliberate (i.e., illegal and clandestine) proliferation march. The mere suspicion that Iran’s capability will be misused in the future and bring Iran to the weaponization threshold cannot be the basis to deprive a country of its nuclear rights. … the West should focus on … on persuading Iran, through incentives and lack of security threats, to keep its indirect nuclear capability dormant indefinitely.

A proposed endgame for the Iranian nuclear crisis, Kaveh Afrasiabi, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists

The Word Terrorism Increasingly Applied to Muslims Only

… preconceived notions [hold] that terrorists or “jihadists,” a term often used interchangeably with the word “terrorist,” can only be Muslim. This is also akin to saying that other criminals or terrorists who are of other faiths cannot be true terrorists or that their criminal acts — such as mass shooting in a movie theater, or in a school, or a in a Sikh Temple, where scores of innocent people were massacred — cannot be described as terrorism.

Try Boston Marathon Bomber for His Crimes, Not His Religion or Nationality, Ali Younes, Focal Points

Did It Arrive on Pallets Like in Iraq?

All told, tens of millions of dollars have flowed from the C.I.A. to the office of President Hamid Karzai, according to current and former advisers to the Afghan leader. … Moreover, there is little evidence that the payments bought the influence the C.I.A. sought. Instead, some American officials said, the cash has fueled corruption and empowered warlords. … “The biggest source of corruption in Afghanistan,” one American official said, “was the United States.”

With Bags of Cash, C.I.A. Seeks Influence in Afghanistan, Matthew Rosenberg, the New York Times

Americans Will Never Fear Everyday Gun Violence Like They Do Terrorism

Cross-posted from Scholars & Rogues.

“Not that the events weren’t shocking and brutal,” concedes Scott Atran at Foreign Policy about the Boston Marathon bombing. But

… this law enforcement and media response, of course, is part of the overall U.S. reaction to terrorism since 9/11, when perhaps never in history have so few, armed with so few means, caused so much fear in so many. Indeed, as with the anarchists a century ago, last week’s response is precisely the outsized reaction that sponsors of terrorism have always counted on in order to terrorize. … Yet, despite the fact that the probability of [anyone] in the United States … being killed by a terrorist bomb is vastly smaller than being killed by an unregistered handgun … U.S. politicians and the public seem likely to continue to support uncritically the extravagant measures associated with an irrational policy of “zero tolerance” for terrorism, as opposed to much-more-than-zero tolerance for nearly all other threats of violence. Given the millions of dollars already spent on the Boston bombing investigation and the trillions that the national response to terrorism has cost in little more than a decade, the public deserves a more reasoned response.

The author’s points are indisputable. But he misses the point. Why exactly do we demonstrate “‘zero tolerance’ for terrorism, as opposed to much-more-than-zero tolerance for nearly all other threats of violence”? In fact, it’s a false equivalency. A terrorist act wreaked on American soil by a foreign faction is essentially an act of war seen as a threat to the sovereignty of the state. Indeed, in light of the number killed on 9/11, it was the equivalent of a one-day battle — if a wildly successful surprise attack — like the days of yore.

It’s true that “nearly all other threats of violence” comprise a broad range of events from domestic terrorism, such as the Oklahoma City bombing, to mass shootings, such as Virginia Tech, Newtown, et al, ad nauseam, to everyday murder. (American gun deaths are projected to outnumber traffic fatalities by 2015.) Needless to say, they vastly outnumber those killed by foreign terrorism in the United States. But they don’t threaten the “American way of life” except to the extent to which they provide a rationale for inroads into civil liberties, though arguably much less of one than foreign terrorist acts.

In fact, to many Americans, domestic killing affects their way of life only to the extent that especially outrageous examples such as Sandy Hook Elementary School threaten Americans’ “gun rights.”

In the end, one can’t help but wonder if it’s a perverse point of pride to many Americans that, in recent years, foreign forces, on domestic soil or overseas, kill less of us than we do ourselves. In other words, if we want to kill our own, it’s our business.

This Week in OtherWords: May 1, 2013

This week in OtherWords, Jo Comerford and Donald Kaul weigh in on the government’s reversal of sequester-driven cuts that inconvenienced air travelers as other budget woes hurt children, the elderly, and the unemployed.

Below, you’ll find a clickable summary of all our latest commentaries and a link to our new cartoon. Be sure to visit our blog, where we’ve been running bonus Jim Hightower commentaries. This week, you can catch his views on George W. Bush’s shiny new library.

If you haven’t already subscribed to our weekly newsletter, please do.

  1. The Internet Racket / Timothy Karr
    Phone and cable providers are reaping obscene profit margins from their dominance of the Internet market.
  2. The Path We Should Follow after Syria Crosses the Red Line / Don Kraus
    Working closely with the United Nations could help Obama avoid the horrendous mistakes Bush and Clinton made.
  3. Banking on the Poor / Andrew Korfhage
    Payday borrowers are trapped in a spiral of revolving loans and compounding penalties.
  4. Useless Baggage / Jo Comerford
    With their big fuss over aviation punctuality, lawmakers make it clear that they’re not feeling the pain felt by the majority of Americans.
  5. Flying Over an Act of Monumental Stupidity / Donald Kaul
    The great victims of this sequester will be our children, the unemployed, the poor and the elderly — all groups with feeble lobbies or no lobbies at all.
  6. Austerity Will Leave Us Crying ’96 Tears’ / Sam Pizzigati
    But America’s wealthy don’t seem to mind.
  7. A Parenting Priority / Jill Richardson
    Even when the kids complain, you’re doing right by them when you cook dinner and eat together.
  8. Narco-State Building / Jim Hightower
    After 11 years of U.S. military operations, Afghanistan produces 90 percent of the world’s poppies and 75 percent of the planet’s heroin.
  9. The War on Sex / William A. Collins
    Despite declines in teen pregnancy and abortion rates, some conservatives aren’t ready to celebrate.
  10. Obama and the Red Line / Khalil Bendib Cartoon
    Obama and the Red Line, an OtherWords cartoon by Khalil Bendib

    Obama and the Red Line, an OtherWords cartoon by Khalil Bendib

U.S. Explores Military Engagement With Burma’s Brutal Military

“The European Union revoked its economic and political sanctions against Burma on Monday,” reports Erica Kinetz for the Associated Press. She continues:

Australia revoked its travel and financial sanctions in June 2012. . . . The US has moved more slowly than the European Union and Australia in normalizing relations, which some business groups argue puts US investors at a competitive disadvantage.

Even more disturbing (emphasis added) . . .

Acting Assistant Secretary of State Joseph Yun told Congress Thursday that the US is “looking at ways to support nascent military engagement” with Burma, as way of encouraging “further political reforms.”

Military “engagement” with the army behind Burma’s brutal junta that officially lasted 49 years (until 2011)? Besides, isn’t that sort of putting the cart before the horse? In response, writes Ms. Kinetz, Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division said

… military engagement was “clearly premature.” Human Rights Watch says the military continues to target civilians and engage in torture, sexual slavery and extrajudicial killings.

“Why is there a presumption the Burmese military wants to reform?” he said. “What’s the evidentiary basis for that? Is this the US government and international community just seeing what they want to see?”

Burma as Capable of Scapegoating Muslims as Anybody

In a New York Times op-ed titled Are Myanmar’s Hopes Fading?, Aung Zaw, founder of Irrawaddy, reminded us about clashes last year “between Buddhists and Muslims in western Myanm [that] killed at least 180 people and displaced more than 120,000, mostly Rohingyas. Last month, violence spread to central Myanmar, killing dozens and leaving more than 13,000 homeless.” Many, he adds, “fear that the deadly anti-Muslim riots are no accident but the product of an effort led by army hard-liners to thwart both the reforms and Myanmar’s opening to the world.”

… I have no doubt that national officials bear some responsibility, and that the violence suggests a power struggle within the elite. Infighting between hard-line and moderate forces in the government, which took power two summers ago under the moderate general Thein Sein, is no secret. His cabinet, Parliament and the army remain dominated by holdovers from the regime of the former dictator Gen. Than Shwe. Many are resisting President Thein Sein’s reforms.

The generals who ruled the country for five decades control much of the nation’s wealth, and some are close to Chinese interests that stand to be eclipsed if Myanmar deepens economic ties to the West. The anti-Muslim violence is a useful distraction from Burmese grievances against China, whose heavy-handed economic activities have bred resentments across much of Southeast Asia.

Muslims, long a convenient scapegoat and exponentially more so since the advent of the likes of Al Qaeda, have become a casualty of hidebound forces attempting to retain power and their share of what China invests in Burma.

Try Boston Marathon Bomber for His Crimes, Not His Religion or Nationality

In the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing, the American political environment is increasingly moving toward placing Islam itself on public trial, not the actions of those who committed the crime. Mainstream American media outlets are increasingly focusing on the suspect’s faith and whether he was radicalized here at home or abroad in Russia. Fox News’ Sean Hannity criticized the Obama administration on his show for not using the term “war on terror” as he placed the “rise of radical Islamists” as the main threat to America’s national security. His guest conservative commentator Patrick Buchanan warned that “what we see is the rise or the resurrection of Islam.” He also added that the “great objective of Islam in that part of the world is to drive out the foreigners, the Jews, the Christians, Americans and imperialists.” Buchanan continued in an angry accusatory tone that “they have one God but Allah whom they are following to create the great Islamic world.”

Needless to say that the statements made by Hannity and Buchanan regarding Islam and Muslims are false, derogatory and are dangerous.

The mainstream American news media has then shifted its attention from the criminal act itself to the ethnicity and the religion of the suspects, in trying to find answers as to what pushed the bombers to commit their crimes. That might appear to be “logical” from the perspective of those who think that the “terrorist “designation is reserved for Muslims only.

But this type of logic is at best racist because it seeks to find evidence to support preconceived notions that terrorists or “jihadists,” a term often used interchangeably with the word “terrorist,” can only be Muslim. This is also akin to saying that other criminals or terrorists who are of other faiths cannot be true terrorists or that their criminal acts — such as mass shooting in a movie theater, or in a school, or a in a Sikh Temple, where scores of innocent people were massacred –cannot be described as terrorism.

Spin-off stories also emerged about concepts that are hardly understood by the average American about “Jihad” or “Radical Jihadists” or “Sharia law.” They feed the American stereotype of a beast — its new evil empire — that it should seek to destroy. Such public discussions have enhanced the public misconception about the foreignness of Islam or Muslims.

The public treatment of Muslims who commit crimes or terrorism acts is often different from those who are charged with the same or even worse crimes and happen to be Christian. The religions of the shooters in Sandy Hook massacre or the mass killing in the Colorado movie theater or the Sikh temple was never a public issue. None of those voices that try to vilify Islam attempted to ask the same questions about Christianity, the religion of those who committed those crimes, which at any event should not be the issue to start with.

Meanwhile some members of Congress, along with conservative pundits, objected to the Obama administration decision to charge the surviving suspect of the Marathon bombing, Dzhokhar Tasarnaev, in US civilian courts. They also objected to reading the suspect his Miranda warning, which gives him the right to remain silent and the right to an attorney. Instead, they wanted him to be charged with terrorism as a military combatant and in a military tribunal citing public safety concerns or the “ticking bomb scenario.”

The statement also cited the US Supreme Court decision Hamdi Vs. Rumsfeld in support of their argument

What the statement neglected to mention, however, is that Hamdi Vs. Rumsfeld was a sound defeat for the Bush administration, in which the Supreme Court ruled that government has no right to detain an American citizen without meaningful due process of the law. The Boston Marathon suspect, moreover, is an American citizen and arrested on American soil, not on a foreign battlefield. The government ended up not charging Yaser Esam Hamdi with any crime and was released to Saudi Arabia on the condition that he renounce his American citizenship. It is clear therefore that there are people here in America who feel that when it comes to crimes or acts of terrorism that have been committed by Muslims, we should be changing the US constitution around — as if the United States is a third-world banana republic — so they can be convicted regardless of their constitutional rights.

Ali Younes is a writer and analyst based in Washington D.C. He can be reached at: [email protected] and on Twitter at @clearali.

Emphasis Added: The Foreign Policy Week in Pieces (4/26)

Iraq’s War for Terrorists Sets up Branch Campus in Syria

Of especially grave concern is the movement into Syria of bomb makers and military tacticians. As Iraq’s jihad was for much of the past decade, Syria’s is now becoming the “destination jihad” du jour.

Iraq: Where Terrorists Go to School, Jessica Stern, the New York Times

Don’t Give Them Any Ideas!

[Novelist John] Le Carré is not a hunter himself, but he nodded at the people he knew and mounted a casual and running defense of fox hunting, as if he were doing color commentary from the 18th hole at the Masters. It’s an ancient part of the rural culture, he said. It’s egalitarian in this area (some 300 miles west-southwest of London), not an upper-class diversion. … “At least they aren’t hunting that poor goddamn thing with drones.”

John le Carré Has Not Mellowed With Age, Dwight Garner, the New York Times

Self-fulfilling Prophecy

Islamist terrorists provoke the governments they oppose into responding in ways that seem to prove that these governments want to humiliate or harm Muslims. Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, and “extraordinary rendition” have become for Muslim youth symbols of the United States’ belligerence and hypocrisy.

Mind Over Martyr, Jessica Stern, Foreign Affairs (PDF of entire article)

Putting Jihadists on the Couch

Self-awareness is not a characteristic of most terrorists. And to be effective those fighting them have to try to understand them better than they understand themselves.

The Terrorist Tipping Point: What Pushed the Tsarnaev Brothers to Violence?, Christopher Dickey, the Daily Beast

Nuclear Weapons No Shortcut to National Security

While the United States would like to be able to rely more on its European allies, many experts doubt that even the strongest among them, Britain and France, could carry out their part of another Libya operation now, and certainly not in a few years. Both are struggling to maintain their own nuclear deterrents as well as mobile, modern armed forces. The situation in Britain is so bad that American officials are quietly urging it to drop its expensive nuclear deterrent.

“Either they can be a nuclear power and nothing else or a real military partner,” a senior American official said.

Shrinking Europe Military Spending Stirs Concern, Steven Erlanger, the New York Times

You Don’t Know Squat

Cross-posted from JohnFeffer.com. John is currently traveling in Eastern Europe and observing its transformations since 1989.

TachelesIt was breathtaking. We emerged from the forest on the outskirts of Moscow and saw, looming above the tall grass, an enormous ruined palace.

It was 1985, and I was studying Russian at the Pushkin Institute. We heard a rumor about a grand edifice, the unfinished palace of Catherine the Great, that was moldering not far from where we were staying in Moscow. We took the subway to the end of the line, tramped through a forest and a field until we came upon the ruins of the great hall. The walls were still standing, and we walked the length of the building, avoiding the shrubs and underbrush and hoping to come across a small piece of history in a broken chair or scrap of wallpaper. We didn’t know that the Russian empress capriciously ordered her Tsaritsyno dismantled in 1785, when everything was done except for the interior decorations. The ruins, minus any of the accouterments, lay around for the next 200 years.

Enough of Tsaritsyno remained in the mid-1980s that you could more or less understand the scale and grandeur of the undertaking. But what was truly amazing was to happen upon this complex as if discovering the ruins of a long-forgotten Mayan temple in the jungles of Guatemala. There were no signs, no paths, no kiosks hawking souvenirs. It had simply become part of the landscape.

I experienced this same feeling in March 1990 when I encountered Tacheles in East Berlin. Originally a department store built in 1907-8 in the Jewish quarter of Berlin, the enormous five-story shopping arcade stretched from Friedrichstrasse to Oranienburger Strasse. Its tenure as a commercial space lasted only a few years prior to World War I. After that, it was a showroom for an electrical company, a central office for the Nazi SS, and a prison. During the communist period, the official trade union took over the structure, but the building gradually fell into disrepair.

In 1990, this glorious ruin was a perfect place to squat. There was a culture of squatting in East Berlin even during the communist era. Given the shortage of official university housing, students would frequently take over abandoned flats, mirroring the squat culture on the other side of the Wall in Kreuzberg. The Germans used the word instandbesetzen, a combination of renovating and occupying. When the Wall fell, squat culture expanded exponentially as people from East and West took over abandoned properties in East Berlin. In 1990, for instance, I spent an evening at one of the squat cafés in Prenzlauer Berg where I ate Indian food and listened to the Talking Heads, while cigarette smoke and political conversation swirled around me.

Tacheles — the squatters renamed the old department store after the Yiddish word for “straight talk” — was a much bigger undertaking. When I walked down Oranienberger Strasse and came upon this enormous structure — only a month after the first squatters took up residence to prevent impending demolition — I was amazed at all the activity going on inside. Artists were setting up studios. A movie theater was being restarted. There were cafes, performance spaces, and what seemed like unlimited room to create an alternative society.

Tacheles, February 2013

Tacheles, February 2013

And now in 2013, I returned to Berlin only a few months after the end of Tacheles. For 22 years, the punks and anarchists and hippies and artists and squatters of all types had hung on, sometimes quarreling, often creating art and music, always partying. But the writing — as opposed to the graffiti — was on the wall for squatting culture in Berlin. In 2009, police kicked out the anarcho-punk residents of the last open squat in the city at Brunnenstrasse 183. Tacheles hung on for a few more years before the owner HSH Nordbank finally evicted the remaining artists in September 2012. According to news reports, “before police arrived, two black-clad artists played a funeral march but bailiffs were able to clear the building without resistance.” It was a quiet end for what had been a bold and loud experiment.

Other squats have survived in different forms. In Prenzlauer Berg, I met several former squatters who now had titles to their apartments. In the same area, I happened on Adventure Playground, an innovative playground that started in April 1990. The wild area features an open fire, a forge, and a sand pit where children build their own structures (and destroy them). Through this remarkable oasis in the middle of the city, the spirit of pushing boundaries is being instilled in the next generation.

Then there’s the House of Democracy and Human Rights. In 1989, the East German political opposition demanded and received a piece of prime real estate at Friedrichstrasse 165, a former Party building. After the opposition did so poorly in East Germany’s first and only free elections in March 1990 — which was dominated by the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats — they fell further to the margins and lost control of their iconic location.

I was delighted, however, to visit the new location of the rechristened House of Democracy and Human Rights. In 1990, I could skip from one office to the next, interviewing most of the inhabitants in one day. In 2013, I was astounded by the number of organizations in the three linked buildings, so many that it would take several weeks of interviews to visit them all.

So, one door closes, and another one opens. The creative chaos of Tacheles has departed the shell of its building on Oranienberger Strasse, but its soul lives on in a 3-D version on line.

And that unfinished palace of Catherine the Great? It’s now finally finished, thanks to a controversial renovation project by the city of Moscow. I haven’t been back to Tsaritsyno since 1985. I’m sure that it’s a very beautiful complex of buildings, even if it lacks precise historical fidelity.

But there’s nothing like the feeling of urban discovery, when you stumble upon an awe-inspiring structure that makes you feel, if only for a few moments, as if you just discovered a lost city, a vanished civilization.

Page 16 of 234« First...10...1415161718...304050...Last »