How Poland Became Europe’s Most Dynamic Economy

My story on Poland’s unlikely economic success has just been published in Bloomberg Businessweek.

The oldest coffee shop in Warsaw has been in operation nearly without interruption since the end of the 18th century. In the upstairs room, a young Frédéric Chopin played one of his last concerts before emigrating to Paris. During the Nazi occupation from 1939 to 1945, the cafe was strictly for Germans. When the city rose up at the end of the war, the building, like much of the old city around it, was completely destroyed—then reconstructed from photographs in the years following. The cafe was state-owned under communism and privatized in 1989 after the fall of the Iron Curtain, sold to a journalist and a jazz musician. “And now,” says Polish businessman Adam Ringer, sitting in the cafe in early October, “it’s been bought by an international company.”

Ringer, 64, reopened the cafe earlier this year under the name Green Caffè Nero, a coffee chain co-owned by Ringer, another Polish partner, and the U.K.-based chain Caffe Nero. “Here you have the whole history of Poland,” he says. “Look at that wall. Each brick is different. They were gathered from the ruins of prewar Warsaw.” Although they’re always aware of the past, Ringer and his countrymen are charging ahead. Revenue at most of his chain’s locations is up 10 percent from the year before, and the company is in the midst of a rapid expansion. “People are much richer than they were, and you can easily feel it,” he says.

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Even Political Expulsion Can’t Take Berlusconi out of Politics

Bloomberg Businessweek has just published my story on Silvio Berlusconi’s expulsion from the Italian senate.

It wasn’t the first time that journalists sat down to write Silvio Berlusconi’s political obituary, and Italy’s former prime minister was making it clear he’d do his best to ensure it wouldn’t be the last. Even as the Italian senate prepared to expel him, the media mogul was promising a crowd of supporters in front of his house in central Rome that he was far from through with politics. “We’re here on a bitter day, a day of mourning for democracy,” he said. “Now, none of us can be sure of our rights, of our liberty, and so we mustn’t give up the fight.”

Things have never looked so grim for Berlusconi. Sentenced in August to a year of community service for tax fraud, he also faces a 6-year ban from public office. His party suffered a schism last month when his onetime lieutenant refused to join his attempt to bring down the government. Other charges, including a conviction under appeal for paying for sex with a minor and abusing his office to cover it up, are looming ever closer. The loss of his senate seat strips Berlusconi of his parliamentary immunity, opening the possibility that a judge could put him under precautionary arrest.

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Can a Tribe Sue for Copyright? The Maasai Want Royalties for Use of Their Name

Bloomberg Businessweek has just published my story on an effort by the Maasai to grab control of their intellectual property.

Sometimes, to get your point across to the Maasai people of Kenya and Tanzania, you have to talk in cows. Lawrence ole Mbelati, a tribesman, stands in front of a group of about 70 Maasai leaders and elders from a district in northern Tanzania, holding a picture of a red-and-brown fountain pen. Introduced in 2003 by Italian pen maker Delta, it was part of the company’s “Indigenous People” luxury line. Called Maasai, it retailed for upwards of $600. “That’s like three or four good cows,” ole Mbelati, 35, tells the group.

Ole Mbelati, who works for a Kenyan nongovernmental organization, has driven down from Nairobi. He’s speaking in Maa, the Maasai language, but wears jeans and a polo shirt. Most of the elders have come in the clothes they wear every day: bright red shukas, wrapped around them like togas. Some have sneakers on, but many wear homemade sandals crafted from tire treads. The women, as well as some men, wear intricately beaded earrings, necklaces, and armbands. They sit in a concrete building usually used for classes in veterinary medicine. Many have placed black wooden rods, the mark of a chief, on the table. A few hold up mobile phones, recording ole Mbelati as he explains the ways in which others are profiting at the tribe’s expense. “Whose name is being used?” he asks. “It’s the Maasai name. Who is becoming strong economically? The people who are using the Maasai name.”

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Iceland Prosecutor Investigates, Convicts Bankers for Financial Crimes

Bloomberg Businessweek has just published my story on the Icelandic prosecutor that’s going after the country’s bankers.

Ólafur Hauksson didn’t even apply for his job the first time it was offered. It was late 2008, and Iceland was in the early throes of financial meltdown. The island nation’s three largest banks had gone under, pulling in their wake an economy that had floated high on the back of a swollen financial sector. The króna was spiraling downward, kept from plummeting to the bottom only by emergency capital controls. Unemployment was surging. The population was riotous, pelting the parliament building in downtown Reykjavik with eggs, tomatoes, and yogurt.

The country’s panicked politicians responded by promising investigations. In December 2008, two months into the meltdown, Parliament appointed a three-member committee to study the cause of the crash and created a new legal body to look into suspicions of criminal activity related to the banks’ collapse. When a call for applications came for a leader of the new body, the Office of the Special Prosecutor, the government didn’t receive a single résumé.

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Against the Odds, Finding a Job in Greece

Bloomberg Businessweek has just published the epilogue to my story on Greek unemployment.

In July, for a cover story in Bloomberg Businessweek, I followed a 29-year-old Greek woman named Tina Stratigaki for a week as she searched for a job. Mostly, there was little to do. She showed me how she searched the job listings and how she applied for openings, but I also was able to join her for one of the nine interviews she’s managed to get since the contract for her previous posting expired at the beginning of the year. Some 2,000 applicants had turned out for 21 positions, sitting for an hour-long test and returning for an interview. For Stratigaki, the position was as ideal as they come in today’s Greece, a two-year contract as a social worker in a local government office. At the end of the interview, she was told that she would have an answer by the end of the month.

The end of July came and went without news.

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Comedian Beppe Grillo on Italy’s Political and Economic Future

Bloomberg Businessweek has just published my interview with Beppe Grillo.

You started as a comic.
I am still a comic, a fantastic one.

Were you always political?
No, I went through stages. First, a comic of jokes. Then I discovered jokes about politics. Then I discovered that politics passed through the products we have in our fridge, the yogurt that does 3,600 kilometers in a truck. Behind the everyday there was global politics. People came out of my shows saying, “He made us laugh, but also think. What should we do?” I tried to translate it into a political movement, the Meetups, which I took from Howard Dean. And we went ahead until the national elections, where we took 25 percent.

So it’s been an evolution, from jokester to political leader.
Exactly. But I’m always the same. My shows, now they call them speeches.

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Taxibeat’s Nikos Drandakis on Launching a Startup Amid the Greek Crisis

Bloomberg Businessweek has just published my interview with Taxibeat’s Nikos Drandakis.

What exactly does Taxibeat do?
Taxibeat is a mobile application that helps a consumer easily locate nearby taxis and choose the best available taxi based on the feedback that previous passengers have given. We introduce a reputation mechanism in the taxi industry, which is something that didn’t exist.

How did the drivers react to being rated?
When we launched, the crisis had already started in Athens. And most of the taxi drivers here had lost about 50 or 60 percent of their jobs. So they adopted us, because they hoped for new customers.

Taxibeat is cited as a rare Greek success story. Are you an outlier?
I tend to think of ourselves as starters of something new—not only us, but a small community of people in an ecosystem that is forming right now.

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Greece’s Unemployed Young: A Great Depression Steals the Nation’s Future

Bloomberg Businessweek has just published my cover story on the Greek youth unemployment crisis.

Outside an unmarked green metal door in the hallway of a suburban Athens high school, Tina Stratigaki waits for a job interview. It’s a Tuesday in mid-July. Stratigaki, 29, applied for the job as a social worker weeks ago and had taken an hour-long test the Friday before. Based on the list of applicants posted on the wall outside the exam, she estimates there were some 2,000 candidates for 21 open positions. This is the last interview she’s likely to get before Greece shuts down for the summer holidays. Her unemployment benefits—about €360 ($475) a month from her previous job working with disadvantaged women and children—have just run out. “I’m a little bit stressed,” she says.

Jobs of any kind are scarce in today’s Greece. Nearly six years of deep recession have swept away a quarter of the country’s gross domestic product, the kind of devastation usually seen only in times of war. In a country of 11 million people, the economy lost more than a million jobs as businesses shut their doors or shed staff. Unemployment has reached 27 percent—higher than the U.S. jobless rate during the Great Depression—and is expected to rise to 28 percent next year. Among the young, the figure is twice as high. Meanwhile, cuts to Greece’s bloated public sector are dumping ever more people onto the job market. In July, 25,000 public workers, including teachers, janitors, ministry employees, and municipal police, found out they would face large-scale reshuffling and possible dismissal. An additional 15,000 public workers are slated to lose their jobs by the end of 2014.

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Screwed in Cyprus

Bloomberg Businessweek has just published my story on the crisis in Cyprus.

Ionna Constantinou, a 24-year-old lawyer in Nicosia, Cyprus, was up early on March 16, packing her bags for a weekend holiday in London. She turned on her laptop and logged on to Facebook (FB). “You see people screaming, posting links, and you say, ‘What’s happening?’ ” she recalls. The news—that the leaders of the tiny island nation in the eastern Mediterranean had agreed to raid deposits in the country’s banks as part of a bailout deal—instantly upended Constantinou’s plans. She and her boyfriend, a lawyer named Simos Angelides, immediately canceled their flights. They waited for the banks to reopen, to see whether their savings would still be there. And like all Cypriots, they wondered whether the financial system was about to collapse and take their country down with it. “It was like an atomic bomb that fell,” says Angelides, 35. “Now we’re just living in the radiation.”

In the early hours of March 25, after more than a week of wrangling between officials in Nicosia and Brussels, Cyprus reached a deal that may have prevented it from tumbling out of the euro. In exchange for a €10 billion ($12.8 billion) bailout from the European Union, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund, the nation’s newly elected president, Nicos Anastasiades, agreed to shutter the second-largest bank, Cyprus Popular Bank, largely wiping out deposits above the insured limit of €100,000. Depositors in the country’s biggest bank, Bank of Cyprus (BOC:GA), could lose as much as 40 percent of their uninsured savings.

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As Cardinals Choose a New Pope, Romans Hope for a Spike in Business

Bloomberg Businessweek has just published my story on the papal conclave’s hoped for business boom.

In 2005, during the funeral of Pope John Paul II, the cobblestone streets near St. Peter’s Basilica flowed with the faithful. They had come to pay their respects to a charismatic pontiff who had defined the papacy for a generation. But they also needed to eat. “We were working 24 hours a day, making pizzas as fast as we could,” says Andrea Marotta, 23, who along with his father sells pizzas for €5 ($6.55) each at Pizza Panini San Pietro, a small storefront near the Vatican.

Today, the papacy is vacant once again. At the end of February, Pope Benedict XVI, who as a cardinal picked up parmesan and Coca-Cola (KO) at Marotta’s store, resigned, citing health reasons. The 115 cardinals who will choose the next pope have arrived. But not the masses. The last big event at the Vatican, the beatification of John Paul II in 2011, brought in an estimated €190 million in revenue for the city’s hotels and restaurants, another €30 million for public services such as the bus and the subway, and €15 million for its retail outlets, according to a study by the Monza and Brianza Chamber of Commerce.

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