Here’s a quiz for all you Eastern bloc/Central Asia hands: what country sits on the Black Sea wedged between Ukraine and Russia, is fighting a separatist insurgency, and has an authoritarian ruler?

Give up? It’s Turgistan, capital Turgisia.

Or so it is in the fictitious world of Borgen, the latest Danish drama to take over British television. The program is a crisis-by-crisis look at the trials of the country’s first woman prime minister. A recent episode took a soupcon of Transdniester, a dash of Kazakhstan (Ms. Prime Minister hosts the evil president of Turgistan as he takes over the reins of the Organization for Security, Democracy, and Development), and a smidgen of, say, Uzbekistan (something like 70 of the president’s critics had disappeared), and dropped it into a blender. The only thing missing was vast hydrocarbon reserves.

Just as President Alexander Grozin arrives for a state visit, famous Turgistani poet and dissident Vladimir Bayanov shows up in Denmark. To some, he’s a freedom fighter. To Grozin, he’s a terrorist behind the recent bombing of a police station.

Grozin wants Bayanov in his clutches and uses Turgistan’s planned purchase of 1 billion euros worth of wind turbines from a Danish company to press Copenhagen to detain the poet/terrorist.

Will the idealistic and liberal-minded prime minister (Denmark’s Jed Bartlett) hand him over?

The effect is a power’s-eye view of the kind of summit that usually has human rights workers picketing and writing opinion columns.

In the television version, we know what will happen in the end, but the writers do what they can to add a shade of gray – maybe Bayanov really was behind the bombing. Doesn’t that give him something to answer for?

Borgen only has an hour, but with its focus on the moral and political vise the prime minister finds herself in, it has a go at what a royal headache some of the post-Soviet autocracies are for Europe’s democrats (“It is in the DNA of my people to listen to a leader,” – or something like that – the overbearing Turgistani tells the appalled Dane).

But it also takes a poke at the Western functionaries – and there are some in the fictional Danish cabinet – who are willing to weigh the worth of a person’s life against an economic bonanza for their country, as well as the fringe politicians who can afford to be the loudest voice of conscience, considering they’ll never have to make the tough decisions that come with having real power.

Not for nothing did the show’s creators make their prime minister the leader of the Moderate Party.

Borgen airs in the UK Saturdays on BBC 4 and is available on the BBC’s iplayer.

Barbara Frye

Barbara Frye is Transitions Online’s managing editor. Email:

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