Google News ignores the Balkans

Google News offers news from an impressive number of countries. It even honors the linguistic divisions of some countries: there is Google News België and Google News Belgique. The latter one extensively uses French media, like Le Monde, but that should only please the francophone Walloons. Google News België, in turn, also has articles from the Dutch press. The same goes for Suisse and Schweiz (Switzerland).
Something like that could perfectly work in the Balkans, or in the Serbo-Croatian speaking countries. There is a vast array of media, papers, portals and other "news" sites. Maybe not as much as in the rest of Europe, but still enough for Google News Balkans. After all, there is Google News Czech Republic and Hungary. How many people speak Czech anyway? 12 million, according to Wikipedia. Far less than the approximately 20 million speakers of Croatian, Bosnian, Montenegrin, Serbian of whatever alternative name you want to give to the language of the Western Balkan peoples. Google News Croatia will be called "Google Vijesti", Google News Serbia "Google Vesti". By drawing from a variety of Balkan sources (from Vreme to Dnevni Avaz to Jutarnji list) Google could naturally confront its readers with different, dissenting, neighborly opinions. Serbian papers and magazines are almost absent form the Croatian market (and vice versa, I believe) so foreign news is an online affair anyway. Do something with it, Google people.

Comrade Tito and king Boudewijn (2)

A man who is suspected of planning to kill Belgium queen Fabiola has been arrested. John B., a Belgian of Scottish descent, claimed to have images of Tito and Boudewijn having sex in a cellar in Belgrade. Click here for more details.
Update: John B. is a free man again. He was interrogated but denied to have anything to do with the Tito-Boudewijn case. The police are still investigating his typewriter, with which he might have written the threat letter.

Who is who on Croatian Crescent

I recently installed Google Analytics on my weblog and decided to share some data with you. Or rather, data about you if you are a regular reader of this blog. By the way, I have absolutely no idea who's actually following this blog. I secretly hope I have a small but faithful group of readers, but so far this blog is basically one-way traffic. That sounds better than saying I wish for more comments. Anyway, feel free to unburden your soul. Most of you live in these countries.
Slightly over 80 percent of you use a Windows operating system. Only 1 out of 20 use Linux, and I suspect that's me (Ubuntu 9.04). The top 10 of search terms shows an interesting mix of personalities: two dead people and a sex bomb. I am not sure should I cry of laugh about this. If I want to get rich from the adds on this site, I'd better devote the entire blog to Nives Celzijus. I do understand now why entertainment, sex and showbiz dominate the front pages of newspapers here (Jutarnji list, Večernji list, not to mention 24Sata). It sells. As a Croat you need to read Serbian newspapers (Danas) or magazines (Vreme, NIN) if you refuse to pay a euro for a lot of garbage and a bit of real news.
Other interesting search terms are "sushi" and "IKEA". You can eat sushi in two restaurants in Zagreb: Takenoko and Sora. Sora is located on the top floor of the "skycraper" on Zagreb's main square. It offers a fantastic view over Zagreb. The food is so-so (I got a deep fried sushi - a culinary novelty), but very expensive. I'd rather go to the local wok restaurant, if Zagreb had one...
For IKEA you still need to go to Graz. The good thing is you can get a VAT tax refund and an unforgettable experience.

Croatian alphabet costs money

The Croatian alphabet has a number of diacritic marks that modify the pronunciation of a letter. Or better: a letter with a diacritic mark is a separate letter by itself. The letters are often transcribed in translations, so that the word četnik becomes chetnik, ustaša ustasha, Jelačić Jellachich (in older books), and so on. The Jelačić-Jellachich case shows the problem of transliteration. There is no combination of English letters that can express the difference between ć and č. It's fair to say that the difference is small, and that many young Croats frequently mix them up. Serbs swear there is an audible difference between ć and č, but Croats are more relaxed about it. Other such letters are š, đ and ž. One of my favorite words is učvršćenje. Words without diacritic marks can be difficult to pronounce too, as strpljiv shows.
Computers and SMS servers cannot always deal with these letters. If you send an SMS containing the word šunka your mobile will convert it into shunka and proceed the message to the server. The server sends it to the recipient's phone, which in turn converts shunka to šunka. Anyone who can count sees that shunka has one letter more than šunka. And that is the heart of the matter. One SMS can contain 160 characters. So, if you have used up all your characters for one SMS and click send, you will pay for two text messages. Transliteration makes words longer, so you can cross the 160 character limit without knowing it.
I searched a bit in Wikipedia and learned that many more languages use letters with diacritic marks. Sending text messages in Czech should be very expensive, as that language has the following letters: á é í ó ú ý č ď ě ň ř š ť ž ů.
As a matter of fact, not many Croats use diacritic marks in text messages. They simply write sunka or, if they are purists, shunka. Teletext doesn't use diacritic marks either, although I don't quite understand why. Maybe teletext is considered so twentieth century that no one cares.
Serbs also transliterate (or: phoneticize) the other way around, a very annoying habit if I may say so and confusing at first sight. Who the hell are Vilijam Batler Jejts, Džordž Bernard Šo and Vinston Čerčil? Hint: all won the Nobel prize in Literature.

Local elections (3)

Sunday is the second and decisive round of the local elections. In Zagreb, Osijek, Velika Gorica, Split and Dubrovnik (and some smaller towns) voters will decide which candidate they like best. The campaigns have been dirty and election rules have been violated. People who abstained from voting in Dubrovnik's first round received a letter from the HDZ party to support HDZ candidate Dubravka Šuica in the second round. How does HDZ know who voted and who did not? Aren't those lists supposed to be secret?
In a move to boost her popularity incumbent Dubrovnik mayor Šuica had "Parking pass holders only" signs removed, copying Zagreb's mayor Milan Bandić. I think one should have much disdain for voters to think that such cheap moves attract them, but in the Croatian take-and-give political culture this might work.
Milan Bandić sent me a nice postcard yesterday. It is a copy of the photo above, showing Bandić and his "achievements". It says "Citizens know", meaning that they know that Bandić built a brigde, an apartment block, a roundabout, laid out a public park, and so on. Truly impressive. But I was really amazed to see the Museum of Contemporary Art on the postcard. Zagreb is probably the only European capital without a functioning Museum of Contemporary Art. Since time immemorial the old museum is closed, pending the opening of the new museum in Novi Zagreb. When that new museum will be opened - no one knows, not even Bandić.
If a man like Berlusconi can be reelected in Italy, I don't see why Bandić wouldn't win the second round in Zagreb. I would just recommend Bandić to speak standard Croatian, and a bit slower please. You are completely incomprehensible to people who learned Croatian as a second language.

Heat wave

The exceptional high temperatures have caused the death of four elderly people in Sisak. The heat was too much for them while waiting for the bus. Sisak's meteorological station recorded a temperature of 31 degrees around three in the afternoon.
More east, in Slavonia, farmers are desperately waiting for rain. The catastrophic drought threatens to ruin their crops in a very early period of the year. The average quantity of precipitation in April is around 80 liters per square meter, but this April saw only 10 liters. Some plant deceases that had not been around for years have reappeared due to the exceptional meteorological circumstances. It should rain heavily later this week, but many are afraid it will be too little too late.

A walk in the woods

As a continental town Zagreb has no beaches, but it has a green mountain range, Medvednica. It doesn't really make up for the lack of a sea, but it offers a bit of coolness in this exceptionally hot spring. When I went hiking in Medvednica, on the 10th of April, it thought it was pretty warm already, but today's 30 degrees make April feel like a mild winter.
Nature was in full bloom, and even mankind in Croatia had undergone a remarkable change. After seeing "Maintenance in progress. Sorry for the inconvenience", I think Croatia is indeed getting ready for EU entry.
The fact that the message it in English only, shows that warnings and excuses like these are alien to the Croatian spirit, but let's not be too critical for a change.
Then follows the tradition chaos at Črnomerec, a bus station that looks like it could be anywhere from Vladivostok to Skopje to Warsaw.
After you get off from the bus (in Gornje Vrapče, at the foot of Medvednica) you quickly realize time passes slower here. Sometimes you get the feeling you are witnessing a scene that fits a horror movie.

The hiking trails are sometimes in good sometimes in bad condition, but what's really tricky are the terrible road marks. Judging by the condoms on the ground, open spaces in Medvednica are a favorite spot for youngsters.

The many brooks that run along the slopes Medvednica down to Zagreb are an excuse why Zagreb still doesn't have subway. Currents beneath the surface would render building an underground impossible. The real reason, of course, lies in the lack of money and skills, but blaming a brook is easier.
After a nice walk the outskirts of Zagreb reveals themselves, as do the large estates of Zagreb's upper class. Knowing that Croatia's coast is only a good hour driving from Zagreb, one marvels at the diversity of this small country.
Unfortunately, no one is paying for these nice words. I just feel like being on the Mediterranean coast now, sipping wine under a palm tree and eating fried squid rings.

Wolfram Alpha reduces Croatia

It is clear now: the Brits have started a war against Croatia. After negative reports and articles, the Brit Stephen Wolfram (the guy behind search engine Wolfram Alpha) tries to rewrite Croatian history and enlarge Slovenia at the expense of Croatia. Take a look at Wolfram's map of Croatia.
You will notice that Slovenia gained the northern part of Istria and in that way secured its access to international waters. And who was president of Croatia in 1994? Franjo, sorry, dr. Franjo Tuđman, you would say. But no! It's Milan Martić, according to Wolfram. A četnik! (says Večernji list).
To stop Wolfram from further tarnishing Croatia, I invite you to report any (deliberate? malicious?) mistakes and any information that might reveal this Great British-Slovenian-Serbian-German conspiracy. German? Yes. Look at the far East of Croatia and find out that some Croatian territory (around Ilok) was rendered to Serbia. The village of Nijemci was always safely in Croatian territory, but it now dangerously close to the Serbian border. Nijemci is Croatian for "Germans". And guess what? Stephen Wolfram's parents were German Jews. I expect the village will soon be spelled "Nemci".

Smear campaigns

I woke up this morning with Croatian Radio 1 playing Fleetwood Mac's "Little lies". A little later an angry sounding man started to talk about some American of Croatian descent who's all the time trying to blacken Croatia in the foreign press. This frustrated American-Croatian unsuccessfully tried to buy some real estate and directed his anger against Croatia by writing about corruption in our beautiful homeland. Or something like that, I was half asleep.
Now I understand why the HR1 (Hrvatski radio - prvi program) speaker was so upset. The Wall Street Journal Europa featured an unfavorable article about Croatia. A few quotes:
"Croatia remains wracked by corruption, smuggling and organized crime. If it is a model for the Balkans, then the whole region is condemned to failure."
"Given Croatia's dismal performance, it's hard to see why it deserves the EU's praise. In Croatia, it has become quite dangerous for journalists, political opponents and entrepreneurs to raise the issue of political corruption."
"Instead of continuing to send cash, it might be a better idea for the EU to send judges and prosecutors who can assist in strengthening the rule of law and an independent judiciary."
"[T]he EU now risks importing the treacherous Balkan Route and its trappings of organized crime and corruption into the world's largest trading block."
What should I say about this? It's probably true. As far as I can understand (my Croatian is not fluent) something is wrong with the political culture here. You can see it in the details. Yesterday, prime minister Ivo Sanader refused to answer questions from MP's, for example, how many students actually pay a tuition fee. Instead he congratulated the opposition with its miserable elections results. In Britain Sanader's refusal the play the democratic game would be called contempt of parliament, but in Croatia all eyes are focused on the second round of the local elections (31 May).
The good news is that Natasha Srdoc, author of the WSJ article, is still around. She runs the moribund Adriatic Institute for Public Policy, which offers little more than links to some (mostly old) newspaper articles written by others. In a half-socialist country like Croatia the Adriatic Institute could promote the free market, liberty, free trade and so on. It could take a stance against the "let me study forever at your expense" students that block the faculties. It could tell ordinary Croatian consumers that they pay way too much for everyday products because of the unholy alliance between the government and (big) businesses. It could...
Let me end with a positive note. "President Mahinda Rajapaksa met Croatian President Stjepan Mesic on the sidelines of the Group of Eleven (G-11) Meeting at the Dead Sea in Jordan last Saturday. The two leaders agreed to further consolidate economic cooperation between Sri Lanka and Croatia. They agreed that much potential exists for cooperation in the fields of port development and shipbuilding. They also referred to the long-standing bilateral relations existing between the two countries emanating from the friendly relations established between Sri Lanka and former Yugoslavia within the framework of the Non-Aligned Movement. They pledged their commitment to expand these historic relations into new areas of cooperation in the future." I know a "new area": a Sri Lankan restaurant in Zagreb. Spice us up!

Local elections (2)

Croats cast their vote in local elections yesterday. A summary of the results, ordered by the size of towns.
In Zagreb incumbent mayor and swanky social democrat Milan Bandić goes to the next round, in which he will have to fight independent candidate Josip Kregar, dean of Zagreb's Law faculty. Bandić received 48 percent of the votes, a bit short for a win in the first round.
Entrepeneur Željko Kerum got 40 percent of the votes in Split. His main contender Ranko Ostojić (social democrat) follows with 35 percent. Both men (Croatian politics is to a large degree, unfortunately, men's business) will have a face-off in the second round.
No second round in Rijeka, Croatia's largest port. Social democrat Vojko Obersnel won a safe majority of the votes.
Osijek will have a second round in two weeks. The contenders are incumbent right-wing mayor Anto Đapić and Krešimir Bubalo, member of Branimir Glavaš HDSSB party. Glavaš was sentenced to ten years last week after he was found guilty of war crimes against Serbian civilians in Osijek.
All other towns have much less than 100.000 inhabitants. Only in these smaller towns some HDZ mayors managed to secure their seats (HDZ is the ruling party in national politics). HDZ president Jadranka Kosor said that her party won the vast majority of the counties, for what it's worth. Croatia has 21 counties (županije), an administrative unit that does not hold a lot of power.
High-ranking HDZ-member Andrija Hebrang, former minister of Defense and Health, was not surprised that his party did not win in the bigger towns. "In the centre of the city live either the voters or descendants of people who were privileged during communism." The electorate Hebrang likes better gathered last week in Bleiburg for a commemoration. In 1945 Tito's partisans killed there a great number of fascists, ustaše, četniks and also some innocent people. Hebrang gave a speech in Bleiburg, a bunch of clergymen said that if "Bleiburg is no genocide, then what is genocide?", and several people were arrested for wearing fascist symbols.

Comrade Tito and king Boudewijn

A short post in the "weird stories" category. Belgium queen Fabiola received a threatening letter, written in bad French, that accuses her of having poisened her (late) husband king Boudewijn (Baudouin for Francophones). Her motive was her husband's sexual affair with Tito in the marshal's basement in Belgrade. The author of the letter claims to have pictures of Tito and Boudewijn doing what they did and predicts that Fabiola will be shot dead on 21 June with a crossbow. The story sounds too crazy to be true, although monarchs are capable of doing incredible things.
On Brijuni, a group of beautiful islands off the Istrian coast, not far from Pula, I saw many images of Tito meeting with world leaders, kings and queens. There is, among many other things, a museum dedicated to Tito and a zoo where gifts (elephants, zebra's) from foreign guests have long outlived their masters. I took a photo of Tito prudishly shaking hands with Dutch queen Juliana, the two being watched by Juliana's husband Bernard, himself a notorious womanizer.

Spoiled students on strike

The social democrats try to warm the electorate for the upcoming local elections with manekenke or models (I wonder how many Croats know of the Dutch origin of this word - photo Jutarnji list). Political and educational temperatures ran high already. The economic recession and budgetary problems forced the Croatian government to cut the salaries of a public sector workers.
Public sector workers aren't happy with that and will start a strike on 13 May that should culminate in a big demonstration on the 16th, pre-election day. I am not sure whether the great number of workers that are, almost as a habit, on sick leave will join in, but striking nurses, professors, teachers and others who work in Croatia's monstrously big public sector should cause serious problems for ordinary citizens.
The expected strike of university staff will not have too great consequences as many students are on strike themselves for almost three weeks now. It is an almost nation-wide strike (Pula, Rijeka, Split) but the center is, of course, Zagreb. The core of the striking students study at the Faculty of Philosophy. Other than its name suggests, this faculty is the largest and most important faculty in the country and is a true monolith. You can study there everything from art history, Japanology, Turkish, psychology, sociology, linguistics to literature and archeology. There is so much to choose that 2 out of 3 students never make up their mind and leave higher eduction without finishing their studies. The rest, 1 out of 3, finishes on average after seven years.
An intolerable situation, you would say. But then you haven't met Croatian students yet. Instead of protesting against the chronic shortage of study materials, books, electronic journals and likewise, they protest against paying a small tuition fee and demand free education instead. With pathetic slogans like "Znanje nije roba" (Knowledge is not a commodity) and "Jedan svijet, jedna borba" (One world, one struggle) they try to shift the financial burden of their protracted studies to the rest of the Croatian population, which is not particularly wealthy. One should know that students pay only 16 euro per month for a room in a dorm (2 students per room), 70 cents for a dinner in the student restaurant (including a drink) and nothing for public transportation. Cinemas, theaters, museums and anything that is remotely connected to a student's life are available at reduced prices. Minister of Education Dragan Primorac offered free eduction for all students who successfully get a degree, but the students didn't go along. Everything should be "free" for "everybody".
There is no such a thing as a free lunch, said Milton Friedman, but as the students also protest against capitalism, privatization and liberalism, anything that makes economic sense will fall on deaf ears. Croatia, by the way, has preciously little of either capitalism, privatization or liberalism.

War crimes and a war of words

Branimir Glavaš, a right wing politician and former general, has been sentenced to ten years in jail for committing war crimes against Serbian civilians in 1991 in his home town Osijek. As a member of parliament, Glavaš still enjoys parliamentary immunity, so he could not be arrested and brought to jail. It is expected that the Croatian parliament will lift Glavaš immunity today, but the convict decided not to wait for that moment. He fled to Bosnia, his second homeland of which he is a national too.
The sentencing of Glavaš (image source) came a week before the local elections. Glavaš enjoys some measure of popularity and the ruling HDZ party is afraid that his sympathizers will turn their anger about the conviction of their war hero against the HDZ. Prime minister Ivo Sanadar therefore said that the Supreme Court joined the election campaign. The president of the court reacted by saying that Sanader has crossed the line between politics and judiciary, a line he is not allowed to cross.
Branimir Glavaš has launched, from Bosnia, his own campaign against Sanadar. He called him a "monster that gave away everything we fought for". Glavaš's supporters in Bosnia burned HDZ flags. How popular the HDZ is in Bosnia, is quite relevant for politics in Croatia. Croats in Bosnia constitute a distinct electoral constituency, and they have voted massively for HDZ so far.
Glavaš's own party, the Croatian Democratic Assembly of Slavonia and Baranja (HDSSB) is strong in Osijek, but no national factor. HDSSB president Vladimir Šišljagić, a former officer in the Jugoslav National Army, announced a "war of exhaustion" against Ivo Sanadar. Another high ranking HDSSB mocked Sanader's business activities in Austria (from 1987 to 1991) while Croatia was at war: "I would recommend Sanader not to speak about war veterans, because he was filming porno movies in Austria while we were defending Croatia."
The political war is far from over. On 17 May, when local elections are being held, the first battle will take place.

No more smoking

From tomorrow onwards, smoking in public places in Croatia is forbidden. Bars and pubs are considered public places, which means no more cigarettes while sipping your morning coffee. Personally, I think coffee shops are private businesses and therefore the owner should decide does he allow guests to smoke or not. However, being a non-smoker, I do hate the stench of smoky clothes after a beer with friends, so I am willing to compromise my principles. Non-smoking bars don't exist here, so basically you had the choice to get smoked or drink at home.
Smokers will face heavy fines (1000 kuna). If the waiter in the restaurant or cafe didn't urge the smoker to put out the cigarette, he will have to pay up to 15.000 kuna, and the owner of the place up to 150.000 kuna. That's more than 20.000 euro. I don't see that happening. Both smoking and breaking the rules are a way of life here, but let's be optimistic for a change. Only when winter starts again and we'll be forced to drink inside I'll have the opportunity to smell if the law is effective.

Free tram rides in Zagreb (2)

I don't dare to say there is a causal relationship, but after my previous post about riding the tram for free in Zagreb, ZET decided to extend the "free tram zone" to Kvatrić.
Kvatrić is of no interest to tourists, unless you are interested in urban planning failures and want to wonder how Zagreb's mayor Milan Bandić could ever brag that Kvatrić would turn into "Zagreb's most beautiful square". In fact it turned into a no man's land with inadequate public transportation. Someone should tell him that a square is more than just an empty space surrounded by buildings.
I don't know who lives around Kvatrić, but they seem to love watching television.I ask myself if someone will bother to remove this antenna jungle when Croatia switches to digital broadcasting in 2011.
Kvatrić, by the way, is short for Kvaternikov trg, named after Eugen Kvaternik (1825-1871), a politician and co-founder of the Croatian Party of Rights. Kvaternik led a unsuccessful rebellion against Austrian rule in Croatia in 1871. Some of his offspring would hold important positions in the fascist Independent State of Croatia, a Nazi puppet state.

Tito: what's left and what's right?

Josip Broz Tito
born May 7, 1892, Kumrovec, near Zagreb, Croatia, Austria-Hungary [now in Croatia]
died May 4, 1980, Ljubljana, Yugos. [now in Slovenia]
Yugoslav revolutionary and statesman

That is how the Encyclopedia Britannica starts its entry on Tito, who died today 29 years ago. Today's TV Kalendar featured a short item about Tito, otherwise I would have completely forgotten about it. Except for older generations (35+), no one in Croatia seems to pay much attention to the 4th of May, which does not mean that Tito and his legacy are forgotten all together. He, his partisan army, and their ustaše opponents regularly dominate the news. Last week's commemoration at the site of concentration camp Jasenovac led to the usual bickering between Croatian president Mesić, the catholic church, Croats with (too much) love for the homeland and historians. Mesić, referring to mass graves filled with bodies of victims of the partisans, said that Tito was no criminal and that his rule was not criminal.
What followed was the usual outcry. If murdering people is a crime, then those responsible for it are criminals, said the head of the Helsinki Committee. I can see the logic of that, but I would first like to know who the "victims" of the partisans are. Are these innocent, homeland-loving Croats who wanted to save their country from communism, or are these "victims" the very same people who tried to purify Croatia from Serbs, Jews and gypsies in the Second World War and set up Jasenovac?
Back to Tito. I accidentally visited Kumrovec last week, Tito's birthplace. Kumrovec has been turned into an ethno-village, with the humble dwellings of blacksmiths, farmers, craftsmen and so on. I was surprised to see that Tito's house was rather big.
And popular with tourists, who can also buy appropriate souvenirs.

Marshal Tito was a great friend of younger generations, so don't hesitate to bring you teenage boys and girls.
If you are in the region anyway, you could also visit the birthplace of Antun Augustinčić, the sculptor best known for his statue of Tito. Augustinčić was born on 4 May 1900 in Klanjec, at a stone's throw from Kumrovec. Guess who's the mayor of Klanjec? Žarko Broz.
Drive another twenty kilometers through the charming landscape of Zagorje and you will pass by Veliko Trgovišće, the birthplace of Franjo Tuđman, who was once proud to be a partisan but who also rounded down the number of victims of Jasenovac.