Corruption. Football. Lithuania.
When the Lithuanian national football (soccer) team lost in a 0-1 game to Bosnia-Herzegovina on October 13, they lost their chance to vie for the 2014 World Cup. They were part of Group G in the qualifying rounds. Greece was the other Group G team that made it to Brazil.
None of the three Baltic nations has ever qualified for the global football championship finals. The Lithuanian national team is currently ranked number 106 in the world, just below Iran and the Central African Republic, but above Ethiopia and Kenya. Lithuania has won the Baltic Cup ten times since its inauguration in 1928.
Unfortunately, the Lithuanian football league may be better known for something else: corruption.
A survey of players by Transparency International (TI) last year found that one-fifth of all football players know or suspect they’ve played in fixed matches. Fully 15 percent of all football players admitted they’ve been approached to fix a match.
More than half the football players surveyed believe it’s a common practice, but the majority of them don’t think it’s important.
TI ran an educational campaign called “Staying Onside” from 2013-14 against corruption in football. The Lithuanian chapter of TI participated, along with Germany, Greece, France, Italy, Norway, Poland, Portugal and the UK. One of its major goals was to get national football leagues to work and cooperate with their local anti-corruption bodies.
According to TI, one major cause of corruption in sports is when players or officials gamble or otherwise find themselves in financial problems. Robert O’Conner at the well-respected AFR football blog puts a much of the blame on a mix of weak labor laws and low private investment in Lithuania's local clubs. Employment law in that country still hasn’t come out of the Soviet shadow, leaving professional athletes uncertain of their legal rights. At the same time, the transition from state to private support for football has left the league underfunded.
These problems aren’t unique to Lithuania. Neither is the problem of match-fixing. But those shenanigans pale in comparison to rampant corruption in the International Olympic Committee and in football’s global governing body, FIFA.
If you haven't yet, watch John Oliver’s rant on FIFA. And here's a timeline summarizing the most recent allegations that Qatar bought off FIFA officials in order to get the 2022 World Cup.
Football in 120 heat, what could go wrong? At least there will be beer when "the beautiful game" arrives in Qatar.
If you look at a map of the Baltic region, you might notice a funny little piece of land sandwiched between Lithuania and Poland that isn't marked with a country name. That's Kaliningrad (Калининград in Russian), also known as Königsberg when it was under German rule for many years. It's a small piece of land that was was the scene of bitter fighting during World War II and eventually ended up as part of the Soviet Union. During the Soviet era Kaliningrad was never integrated into one of its neighboring Soviet states. After the breakup of the Soviet Union, it remained disconnected part of Russia.
Today it's a port city of about a million people, where Russia houses its Baltic Sea fleet. It's Russia's only ice-free port in Europe, and Russia is serious about its ports. Some analysts believe one big reason Russia has remained steadfast in its support of Syria's murderer-in-chief Bashar al-Assad is because he lets them use the port of Latakia, which gives Russia access to the Mediterranean Sea.
In the past few weeks, Lithuania has reported several incidents of Russian ships interfering with Lithuanian ships in the Baltic Sea. Lithuania has submitted a formal complaint in the form of a "diplomatic note" to the Russian ambassador. Amid today's heightened tensions between Russia and Ukraine, this harassment is getting careful scrutiny.
This month also marks the 42nd annual Baltic Operations exercise (BALTOPS 2014) where military forces from the US, NATO and eleven other countries get together in the Baltic Sea and flex their muscles. It's primarily a naval exercise, but the US Air Force is participating as well.
It would appear that the US is just as serious about its own ports in foreign locales.
At the same time, the US Army is leading Saber Strike 2014, ground exercises in locations across Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, involving 4,700 military members from ten NATO countries. Here's the official Army-issued tri-fold brochure:
All three Baltic countries - Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia - are members of NATO.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov says these NATO maneuvers are hostile and intended as a threat to Russia, who in response has launched her own military maneuvers in the region. NATO and the Americans say these are longstanding annual festivities, not tied to recent events.
Then again, while in Poland last week, President Obama a billion dollar "European Reassurance Initiative" to increase US troop presence in the region. The name is as polysyllabic and professorial as our president. Maybe if he'd given it a shorter name with more hard consonants and better imagery (think Saber Strike!) he might have better luck getting it through Congress.
BALTOPS, not so much. Sounds like a brand of cheap candy.
Perhaps what's most interesting about these military maneuvers is how little coverage they're getting in the American press. A Google news search generates any number of pieces expressing outrage from outlets like Russia Today, ITAR-TASS and Voice of Russia.
Searches for BALTOPS and Saber Strike at the New York Times generated zero results. The same search at the Washington Post generated one AP story about Canadian participation. Even the Huffington Post didn't deliver. Not enough Kardashians?
As in 1989 and as in 1939, world history is playing out in the Baltic nations while no one watches.
How to make kushari
A few years back I had the good fortune to travel to Egypt on vacation. We hit all the usual, amazing places: the pyramids of Giza; the beautiful mosques of old Cairo; the tombs of the Valley of the Kings, Karnak, Luxor; and Abu Simbel.
Less than a week after we got back home, the country exploded in protests, and suddenly everyone around the world had heard of Tahrir Square.
And everywhere I went there was kushari, the national dish of Egypt. Like ramen in Japan or burgers in America, you can find fancy kushari made with high quality ingredients at good restaurants, but you'll probably want to grab a greasy pile of deliciousness in a cardboard to-go container on the street or in a fast food place. It's easy to make, and all the ingredients are familiar and easy to find. I was so taken with it that I made this "prezipe" to show how to make it. Enjoy!
The Lithuanians among us
The first thing you'll learn when you write a book set in Lithuania, is just how many of your friends have some kind of Lithuanian family connection.
The Lithuanian-American Community organization estimates there are about 800,000 Americans of Lithuanian descent. Some of them are quite famous. Perhaps you’ve heard of
We've even got a Lithuanian-American Revolutionary War hero, Brigadier General Tadeusz Kościuszko (sometimes spelled Thaddeus Kosciuszko). He fought with the Americans, before returning home to fight for the Polish-Lithuanian army against the Russians. It's his name on the NYC subway's Kosciuszko Street Station.
There have been several waves of migration from Lithuania to the U.S. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, migration was more often for economic than political reasons. By World War I, roughly 300,000 Lithuanian immigrants lived in the United States. Large concentrations of Lithuanians settled in cities such as Baltimore, Boston, Detroit, Pittsburgh and Cleveland, although the largest group is in Chicago. The Windy City is home to the Balzekas Museum of Lithuanian Culture, located in the West Lawn neighborhood.
During World War II, when Germany and the Soviet Union carved up large chunks of eastern Europe as part of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact (more on that in a future post), Lithuania ended up under the Soviets, who kept control over the country after the war ended. From that point and up until Lithuania declared independence in 1990, emigration was driven more by politics.
Lithuanian-Americans have a special place in American literature as well. If you’ve ever read Upton Sinclair’s great classic, The Jungle, about poverty, exploitation and horrific working conditions in the Chicago meatpacking industry, then you’ve met a whole community of fictional Lithuanian-American immigrants in the family of Jurgis Rudkus, the novel’s main character.
So the next time you listen to Under the Bridge, enjoy an airplane flight without cigarette smoke or vote in an American election, remember, you have a Lithuanian to thank for that.
Californians went to the polls on Tuesday - well, at least a few of them did - and I was there to help. It was the first time I'd volunteered to be a poll worker, and what I learned that day confirmed much of what I'd believed about American-style democracy, and left me in wonder that the system works as well as it does.
The whole system runs on volunteers. It's fragile in ways I wouldn't have expected. During the week before the election, all the voting machines and materials are distributed to volunteers across the state, where they sit in cars and homes, waiting for election day. At the end of the day I rode to the local Registrar-Recorder's drop-off station in the passenger seat of another poll worker's car with all 73 votes from my precinct in my lap. The voting machine was in her trunk, tied down with rope; folded up voting booths were piled in her back seat. The miracle is that that system really does work.
Some poll workers are in it for the money. Some poll workers were there because, like me, they believe in democracy and the importance of our right to vote. The guy I spent the whole day working next to, on the other hand, was in his early 20s and had never voted before. He made it clear it was all about the money for him. Poll workers get about $100 for a 12-hour day, plus $25 if you show up for a two hour advance training. Then again, another guy in his early 20s who ran the other precinct table is a grad student in political science and has worked the polls "ever since I was young." He spent his down time reading W. Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage.
Some voters come with a single-minded mission to vote for one person in one race. A voter with two young children in tow asked me to show him how to vote, because this was his first time. As I flipped through the pages showing him all the choices and how to press down the InkaVote pen, he said, "No, I'm only here to vote for X-----." I flipped to the right page and showed him his candidate, even though I'd voted for someone else in that race.
Other voters are fairly clueless. One older voter with limited English spent over half an hour in the booth. When he dropped his ballot in the box, it was rejected because he'd voted for too many people in each race. I voided that ballot and sent him back with a fresh one, along with someone to show him how to vote for only one candidate per race. Another voter spent about twenty minutes in the booth before coming back to the table and asking for a voter pamphlet. "I don't know so much about the candidates," she admitted a little sheepishly.
Who's that sketchy "poll watcher" dude? A gentleman in a pin-striped shirt hung out with us most of the morning. He wore a name tag written in the first language of most voters in my precinct, which is written in a different alphabet from English. When he went over to "help" an elderly couple vote, I got the regional supervisor involved. She happened to be doing an inspection visit at the time. Most of the poll workers with me also spoke their language and could help the voters just fine. Eventually the official LA County Registrar-Recorders Guide for Poll Watchers was pulled out and read. Apparently poll watchers - even those working for political parties or individual candidates - can stand right next to voters and "help" them.
A poll worker's job is a lot like a firefighter's. My polling place was inside a fire station, which I'd thought would be pretty cool. Mostly, though, the firefighters ignored us, or seemed a little irritated at our presence. They had to rearrange their trucks, and we were in the way of their crossfit equipment. Most of what they did all day looked a lot like what we were doing: hanging out maintaining the equipment while waiting for something to happen. Then there would be a sudden rush of activity. In our case it might be three voters in line at a time. In their case, it might be a traffic accident calling for the Jaws of Life®.
Grownups love stickers too. Some voters took them with obvious pride. Others giggled, or looked a little embarrassed. But everyone took the "I Voted" sticker I offered them. Every single one.
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