The changes that took place in East-Central Europe in 1989 were not just an inflection point for people in the region. The lives of many outsiders were profoundly altered by what happened that year. I was 25 years old in January 1989 and living in Warsaw. I had no clear idea of what to do with my life. By the end of the year -- after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Ceausescu regime in Romania -- I was officially obsessed with the region.
My first stop in East-Central Europe, when I returned in March 1990 to establish the groundwork for the East-West Program of the American Friends Service Committee to set up an office in the region, was East Berlin. I arrived on the eve of the GDR's first (and only) democratic elections. And the first person I called was Fred Abrahams.
I didn't speak German, and I had few contacts in the GDR. Fred had contacted AFSC prior to leaving for Germany and offered his services. I eagerly took him up on the offer. He became my translator, my fixer, and a closer friend. We also conducted interviews together in Czechoslovakia. He went on to work in Prague, then in Albania and throughout the Balkans. He has written extensively on human rights issues in Eastern Europe and testified at The Hague against Slobodan Milosevic. Today he travels around the world for Human Rights Watch on fact-finding missions in crisis areas.
"I was lucky to have graduated from college in 1989," he told me in an interview in his apartment in Berlin in January. "And by chance, I studied German. But I totally believe -- and I hope to impart this to my children -- that you have to jump at these opportunities. And I was lucky enough to have good options: once-in-a-lifetime-type historic options. I didn't have to come to Germany. I didn't have to go to Prague with you. I didn't have to go to Albania. Each of those things was a decision."
In the GDR that March, people in the opposition movement told me about the Helsinki Citizens Assembly, an organization in Prague that would be bringing together political activists from East and West that fall to discuss the transformation of Europe from below. So, the first stop in Prague for Fred and me was the HCA offices where we talked with Ivan Fiala, who was once the head of the international department of the Czechoslovak Peace Committee. He had transitioned into working for an authentic NGO (I've put my description of that meeting below).
"We went to the Helsinki Citizens Assembly on Panksa Street -- through that courtyard, to the left, up the stairs, passed Majenka the octogenarian cleaning lady who was an institution there," Fred remembers. "We interviewed Ivan Fiala, who has since passed away. That place seemed like the most exciting organization I had ever seen. There were all these dissidents from the East and all these activists from the West. It was my world in one place. The office had Juliana Matrai and Dieter Esche, and Jan Kavan, all of them great characters. We walked out of there, and we walked down the steps one level, and you stopped to put your notebook in your bag. I was saying, 'That's great stuff, you know, I'd love to do some work for them.' And you said, 'Why don't you ask them? You should go ask them.' So I turned around and went back in and said to Ivan Fiala, 'Listen, do you guys need any help? I'll work for free. Could I be of assistance?' And he said, 'Actually, we could use help. That would be great.'"
There was an extraordinary sense of opportunity in the air during that spring of 1990 -- for individuals, for countries, for social movements. It was something more felt than understood.
"It's amusing to think back on those times now and what I didn't understand," Fred told me. "There were large chunks of it that were un- or under-appreciated by me. I felt like the spirit of the dissident movement was going to prevail, and for me, that was what the HCA was about. Maybe I couldn't articulate what that meant in terms of policies, but it was something that I smelled more than tasted -- if that's the right distinction. I was enthralled with a group of people who would risk their wellbeing because they believed in something, and I hoped that this constructive passion for their countries and societies would permeate across Europe. It was that spirit that I found compelling.
We talked about Albanian politics, the best ways of handling secret police files, and what it was like to be the Forrest Gump of Eastern Europe.
Under what auspices did you go to Albania in 1993? Open Society?
It was a summer project to help open a student newspaper at the university in Tirana. We got money from Columbia University. We raised a little money from something called the IMF, the International Media Fund, and we got some support from Soros. That's how I met my friend, Fron Nahzi, because he was the director of the foundation's Albania office at the time. We went to Tirana for the summer. The university let us in, gave us an office, and the IMF provided a couple Apple computers to train the students. And we got the first issue out. Then they shut us down two days after the first issue!
At the time, Albanian President Sali Berisha was proposing a media law, which was draconian or "not up to international standards," as I might phrase it now. The students wrote an editorial that was against the new law. I asked a professor at the arts academy, a former political prisoner, if he knew a good, talented student because we should have some cartoons in this paper. There were no cartoons or drawings in Albanian papers at the time. He said, "I know this student, she's really, really good." We met her, me and at least one of the Albanian students, and we explained that we needed an editorial cartoon. We explained the press law. We said, "This law, they say it's to help the press, but it's really not good." And she was like, "Mmhm, mmhm." I walked away thinking, "This will be interesting." She came back with an awesome cartoon. She cut three or four figures out of newsprint and had them in contorted positions. You could tell the arms and legs were cut from newspaper. Then she drew this huge boot stomping down on them. I said, "Wow, that's good!" It was really well done, maybe not so subtle, but this law wasn't subtle, and so we ran it.
So you think the editorial cartoon was what led to the newspaper being shut down.
It was a couple of things. It was the editorial. But the real issue was not the paper. The real issue was Fron Nahzi and the foundation, because the foundation was supporting the paper. It was a student newspaper with a circulation of 2,000. If we hadn't had financing, the circulation would have been two people! If Berisha had ignored it, it would've done nothing. But Berisha was already furious at Fron, because Fron had started criticizing him and had become close with the people Berisha kicked out of the ruling party. So Berisha saw this as an opportunity to stick it to Fron. The paper was closed, and we were kicked out of the university.
I didn't understand it was about Fron. We thought, "Hey, we came here to set up a newspaper and you just shut us down?" We went to the U.S. embassy and said, "This is IMF money, which is U.S. government money. This is nuts!" But the United States was backing Berisha 100 percent. And they said, "Just stay calm. Don't make a big deal, let me look into it for you. These deans, you know how they do crazy things." But we were so pissed off that we wrote a press release that condemned the shutting down of the newspaper. Of course the opposition newspaper loved it: "three American students got kicked out of the university." Then the evening news read a statement denouncing the Soros Foundation and Fron for meddling in university affairs. From there it escalated. Berisha wrote a letter to Soros, saying "Your guy has to go," and he actually accused Fron of having ties to Serbian intelligence. I saw the exchange of letters. Soros was good on that one. He said, "Well, prove it. That's a serious allegation." Which they never did. But Fron was squeezed out. It was quite clear to me that Soros had to choose between his foundation and his director. And he chose. When the director left, so did the soul of the office.
What did you do for the rest of your time? You were supposed be running a student newspaper!
Fron was kicked out, but we thought, "Forget it, we want to stay." It was only a summer project, but we decided to defer for a year. At the same time, Soros and Fron were just setting up s Media Center in Tirana, so they hired us. Soros came to Albania, met Berisha and then they hired us at this media center. We continued the student newspaper out of the media center. The media center was the only place in the country besides ATA, the Albanian Telegraphic Agency, and the government, that had the wire services. In 1993, no journalist had access to international news. They could only get Albanian media, and an occasional Italian newspaper, plus Euronews on TV. That was a huge issue. There was a war in Yugoslavia and monumental issues going on in their own country, and they could only read the bullshit party newspapers. So it was a fight to get the Soros Media Center up and running with the satellite dish. And then any journalist could come in and read the wires. It's amazing to think about that time. Now, Albanians are all on Twitter.
I worked on that project for the year. Because I had interned at Helsinki Watch, I said to the organization, "I'm going to be in Albania for a while. If there's anything I can do for you while I'm there, just let me know." The woman who was Balkans researcher was completely obsessed with Bosnia. This was 1993. She had no time, so she welcomed anything I sent her. I was doing the media stuff and the media training, so I knew all the journalists and the editors, and I was on top of what was happening in the Albanian media. So I sent information for a press release on the media law and other attacks on journalists.
Then there was a HCA delegation to southern Albania to look at the status of the ethnic Greeks, which was an issue at that time. I set up their trip, and we went down there together. I went back and did a round of research on my own. When I got back to Columbia in 1994, I wrote a report about the ethnic Greeks of Albania for Helsinki Watch. They hadn't promised anything. They said, "Write it and we'll see." But anyway, it worked out. So that was my first report: The Ethnic Greeks of Albania. Then they asked, "Can you do something else on Albania? Or Macedonia?" I became a consultant.
When I graduated from Columbia, Human Rights Watch asked if I could do some Roma work. That lasted for about two years, and I did a big report on Roma rights in the Czech Republic. The key issue was the citizenship law. The government there was basically trying to strip citizenship from Roma, and it would have made a lot of people stateless. We did a big report on that, and the Czech government backed down. It wasn't just because of our work. There was a lot of pressure on them so they amended the law. After Roma work it was the pyramid schemes in Albania, then Kosovo in 1998 and 1999 and then Macedonia in 2000.
When you look at your professional trajectory, it's remarkable: you were just in these places at the right times.
Like the Forest Gump of Eastern Europe.
There are probably pictures of you with Havel, Berisha, in all the major events in the region. Do you think back on just how remarkable all that was? I mean, you could have stayed in San Francisco and continued on as Santa.
I'm completely appreciative of it. That's why I said, "I am a child of 1989." I was lucky to have graduated from college in 1989. And by chance, I studied German. But I totally believe--and I hope to impart this to my children--that you have to jump at these opportunities. And I was lucky enough to have good options: once-in-a-lifetime-type historic options. I didn't have to come to Germany. I didn't have to go to Prague with you. I didn't have to go to Albania. Each of those things was a decision.
Were there any decisions at this point that you regret you made?
To read the rest of the interview, click here.