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Tucson Weekly Travelin' Man

Former Tucson mayor Tom Volgy's eastern approaches.

By Emil Franzi

JANUARY 20, 1998:  In 1992 former Tucson Mayor Tom Volgy and two other members of the National Democratic Institute (NDI) were in the Ukrainian city of Dnepopetrovsk, population 1.5 million. They were the first westerners there for a couple of generations, and the populace stared at them as if they were Martians.

The Ukraine had been a dumping ground for just about everything nasty during the Soviet era, and Dnepopetrovsk was no exception. The city's 38 smokestacks belched a chemical soup that kept the downtown dark all day long.

The town was so polluted that Volgy felt it best to eat and drink nothing; he brushed his teeth from a small bottle of orange juice during the 36 hours he was there.

On a tour, Volgy and another international worker were driven by a large pond, and the driver told them it was a nuclear waste depository. Incredulous, Volgy asked if they just dumped containers of hazardous waste in the pond. The response: "What containers?"

"I noticed crops planted next to the pond and asked what they were growing," Volgy recalls. "The driver told us, 'Mutants.' "

The town's mayor asked Volgy to draft a leash law. Noting the look on Volgy's face, he added, "Do you think our problems are bigger than loose dogs?"

Yes, Volgy replied.

"What would you have us do?" the mayor asked.

Volgy paused and then said, "Bulldoze the entire city and move all the people away."

"I can't do that," the mayor replied. "What I can do is something about people who let their animals run loose. Will you help?"

Volgy wrote the ordinance.

Volgy, who was Tucson's mayor from 1987 to 1991, is a lot like former U.S. President Jimmy Carter. Carter has become, through his genuine belief in public service, one of our finest former presidents. Volgy has become one of our best former mayors. Like Carter, Volgy has devoted a great portion of his life to volunteer public service. And like Carter, Volgy does it by spending a lot of time on the road.

Volgy works with a variety of public and private agencies, including the U.S. Information Agency (USIA); NDI, the "non-partisan" section of the Democratic National Committee, which has a GOP counterpart, NRI (both are funded by Congress); and International Executive Service Corps (IESC), which recruits volunteer executives, mostly CEOs, to train foreign leaders.

A University of Arizona professor of political science, Volgy serves without pay, helping a dozen new governments in former iron-curtain countries handle their new freedom and independence. He's become Tucson's Johnny Appleseed of democracy and market economics everywhere from Kazakstan to Estonia. And from the start he's possesed more insight into these countries than most other Americans: Volgy is a native of Hungary. When he was 10, his parents fled Budapest during the short-lived 1956 Hungarian Revolution.

Volgy has been at the UA since 1971, collecting a Ph.D. in 1972. A Democrat, he was elected to the Tucson City Council in 1977. Re-elected in 1981 and 1985, he resigned to run for mayor. He didn't seek re-election, but ran for Congress in 1991 in the special election to fill the retiring Mo Udall's seat. Volgy was defeated in a multiple primary by the current District 2 representative, Democrat Ed Pastor.

Volgy began his involvement with other governments while still in local office. He looked upon the often abused Sister Cities program as something more than a free travel scheme for pols and their cronies, instead choosing to use it for its stated purposes--building trade relations between regions and countries. During Volgy's council tenure, Tucson added Pecs in Hungary and Fiesole in Tuscany to its sister cities' roster.

And it was during Volgy's mayoral term that his first major foreign gig occurred, as the Soviet Union began to teeter. Tucson also acquired Almaata (now Almaty--the name translates to "apple"), population 1.5 million, and the capital of Kazakstan, as a sister city.

"This was an area previously closed to foreigners, and about which we knew little," Volgy says. "Imagine my shock on getting off the plane and being greeted by 10,000 people and a mayor who spoke fluent Hungarian. He knew my background, and they all knew a whole lot more about us than we did about them. Many Kazaks had studied in Budapest, and the Kazak language contains about 2,000 Hungarian words, proving a long-ago connection. I spent two-and-a-half hours briefing the American Ambassador while I was there."

Kazakstan, which has massive oil deposits, is an area two-thirds the size of the U.S. Roughly half of its 16 million people are ethnic Russians, a result of Soviet policies that shifted whole populations. It also contains about half a million Germans, some of whom may be descendants of WWII German POWs. "Most of them don't speak German," Volgy says, "but almost all have asked for permission to leave and go to Germany." He points out that could present a terrible drag on the German economy.

But perhaps Volgy's most personally meaningful assignment came in 1989 when he and former U.S. Senators Thomas Eagleton and Charles "Mac" Mathias led the American contingent of an international group overseeing the first free election in his native Hungary.

"I went back to the apartment building I'd grown up in. I immediately recalled the smell of axle grease used on the elevator. There was an elderly lady sitting in front who told those around her that the Americans seemed lost. I spoke to her in Hungarian and told her I used to live in the building, on the sixth floor, when I was a child. She asked who I was, and when I told her, she broke into tears. She'd been my baby-sitter. She produced a silver coin given her by my parents on an earlier visit."

Volgy's had other less dramatic travel moments. He visited the former Soviet Republic of Kyrgyzstan. And when the residents of the capitol city of Bishkek discovered he was once the mayor of Tucson, they became excited and asked him to bless their first western restaurant, named, oddly enough, the Tucson Restaurant. Volgy complied, only to discover the business was part of a chain operation being run in several countries by none other than former GOP City Councilman Emmett McLaughlin, who trains personnel for the venture here in Tucson.

Volgy isn't too keen on much of what passes for cuisine in these undeveloped nations. The Kazaks love their horses, he notes, but they also eat them. "If they give you a choice between mare's milk and camel, take camel--mare is much worse."

And then there's the widespread practice Volgy calls "hospitality terrorism."

"Central Asians drink as much or more than Russians, and alcoholism is rampant. I attended a luncheon that began at 11:30 a.m. and lasted until 9:30 p.m.--10 hours and no less than 22 toasts," he recalls. "You're expected to down straight vodka every time. One member of our party, a city manager from Michigan, was air-lifted out with alcohol poisoning. I collapsed at the end; the natives went on partying into the night."

Volgy also has a warm spot for the Frankfort Sheraton and the buffet there. "It's the entrance to civilization. After a week of cold showers and strange chow, you can take a hot bath and eat real food."

Tom Volgy speaks flawless English--not bad for an immigrant kid who didn't speak a word of it when he landed in Corpus Christi, Texas. He attributes his English skills to the full-immersion treatment he received from the Texas public school system. "I was 10 years old and the teacher and the entire class constantly ridiculed me. It was frightening and humiliating. I learned from fear and hatred. To this day, I'm hesitant to converse in any language I don't fully know."

Besides English and Hungarian, Volgy is fluent in French and Spanish, and he's familiar with Russian and German.

He's been to more than a dozen countries, and another portion of the programs in which he's participating involves hosting and training leaders from many of those countries here in Tucson. Part of that program involves the Tucson-based Santa Cruz Institute and its executive director, Michael Palmbach, who's gone along on many of these trips.

"All former eastern block countries have some things in common," Volgy points out. "They have no concept of how the marketplace works and no idea how prices are established; they don't initially grasp how American democracy could possibly work with so many different decentralized governments with no real training for elected leaders; and they all want to see an Indian reservation when they come here."

The fascination with reservations is a result of years of exposure to propaganda claiming the U.S. imprisoned Native Americans behind barbed wire in concentration camps. "It takes them a while to recognize that we aren't faking it and the people they're meeting are really Native Americans and there are no camps," Volgy says.

He tells one story about some obstinate Ukrainians who simply refused to believe him when he explained the qualifications for becoming mayor of Tucson--being old enough, having legal residency, and getting the most votes. The Ukrainians didn't believe you could be a mayor without formal, scientific government training on how to do it. And, he adds, many leaders from former communist countries find it hard to believe the U.S. government isn't responsible for things like food distribution, wondering how all those supermarkets get stocked without state allocations.

Ukraine, like many newly independent nations, is striving to restore its heritage. Few still speak Ukrainian, but many Ukrainians who live in Canada have preserved their language, and have now been asked to return and help teach it to the natives. Volgy tells the story of a wealthy Canadian returning to his Ukrainian birthplace. The man was embarrassed by his rusty language skills and apologized to his cab driver for speaking Ukrainian with a Canadian accent. The cabbie replied, "We all hope to soon be speaking Ukrainian with a Canadian accent."

Volgy has also spent some time training Latin Americans and has visited the nation of Guyana.

"The politics there consists of two Marxist factions," he says, "one based on those of black descent, the other Indian. I was a mediator. After gaining some confidence from them after frankly discussing American racial problems, the discussion got down to the real difference between the two cultures. Both are dark-skinned, both were subservient to their former British rulers, both even have similar diets. One of them finally pointed out the most outstanding difference--their hair."

Other encounters with Latinos involved sitting down with ex-Sandinistas and Contras right here in Tucson and trying for some common ground. "We ended up putting them out on a water irrigation project and letting them dig trenches together. It's a start."

Are there some countries that seem hopeless? Volgy says he has no plans to return to Moscow or most of Russia, and that one meeting with some former Yugoslavians was enough. "You can't do much in a place where the best claim of success is who murdered the least children."

He's participated in governance training in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Guyana, and Uzbekistan--once each; Estonia, Kyrgystan, Rumania, Russia, and Slovakia, twice each; Ukraine, three times; Hungary numerous times; and Kazakstan every year since 1988, with the next trip planned for May of 1998. "You build relationships and that draws you back," Volgy says.

The former mayor has also formed an exploratory committee for a possible run at the 5th Congressional District seat currently held by Republican Jim Kolbe. Even Kolbe would concede that Volgy would be a hell of an addition to the House Foreign Affairs Committee. As a Democratic challenger who won't accept any money from Political Action Committees, it's obvious that Volgy will be out-spent. But Kazakstan isn't the only place he's built some relationships, so Kolbe will have the first real race of his career since he defeated Jim McNulty in 1984.

None of Volgy's trips has exceeded nine days--he works them into his UA schedule, and into the local training he helps supply to foreign visitors. And there's one more personal complication: Like that earlier world traveler Teddy Roosevelt, who suffered from chronic sea-sickness, Volgy has a physical problem--he can't sleep on an airplane. As some of his flights take two days, one can imagine how good the Frankfurt Hilton looks to him on the way home.

The ultimate purpose of the many projects in which he's involved is to benefit to both the countries he serves as well as the United States, Volgy says.

"No economic system works without a stable political system. Investors, particularly from foreign countries, need to know what the rules are and that those rules will apply over a long period of time. We--the various groups I work with--are trying to do two things: Supply a model of democratic government and show how it works practically, and to show linkage between democratic government and a free-market economy. We're all better off if the world is a more predictable place.

"Even with its many imperfections, America works."

Tom Volgy has some pithy remarks about many of the countries he's worked in:

RUSSIA: "Moscow is like somebody's surreal view of the old wild west. The mob is all that's functional in many places. They'll either fall into line under a strong leader, or continue to disintegrate into regional entities."

HUNGARY: "It was always a western nation, its people are highly productive, and they'll probably do very well, although their suicide rate rivals Finland."

UKRAINE: "An environmental nightmare, but not totally without hope."

BULGARIA: "One of the few places where they actually like Russians. A large gypsy population still exists. We trained Bulgarian gypsies here in Tucson."

ESTONIA: "Better off than other Baltic states, primarily because of years of Finnish MTV and Finnish investment. In Estonia Finnish tourists are the 'Ugly Finn'--the equivalent of the 'Ugly American'--and they drink and carouse heavily, as opposed to their usual shyness at home. Estonia's biggest problem is a large Russian minority, which they despise."

SLOVAKIA: "They traded ethnic purity for economic development and really have neither. They're still over 10 percent Hungarian and are a long way from democracy."

CZECH REPUBLIC: "Like Hungary, they have no ethnic problems. But they got into the same robber-baron economy that has plagued others with reform at any cost, resulting in lowered wages."

RUMANIA: "They were late to change, with the real turnover of power from the old regime's leaders occurring two years ago with their first real election. They also have large minority populations of Gypsies and Hungarians."

UZBEKISTAN: "The governors chose to keep their power at the cost of reforms. Little has changed--and won't without a major revolution."

KYRGYSTAN: "The most aggressive at experimenting with democracy. It has a bad economy, and its potentially greatest resource--tourism--requires great foreign investment."

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