By Svetla Dimitrova
2011 was a tense and difficult year for most countries across the globe, including the 13 in Southeast Europe. Hopes for financial stability did not materialise as the economic crisis in the developed nations, particularly those in Europe, not only failed to abate, but deepened.
The year was also marked by a surge in social and pro-democracy protests globally — from the anti-austerity demonstrations in Greece, Spain and other European nations, to Occupy Wall Street in the United States, and the mass anti-government rallies in the Arab world and even Russia. In November, Time magazine announced “The Protester” as its person of the year.
Earth welcomed its 7 billionth citizen on October 31st. By that time it had witnessed the deaths of thousands of people killed in conflict zones, areas hit by natural disasters, or in the popular uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa.
Turkey was struck by two strong earthquakes towards the end of the year. Over 650 people were killed and thousands of others were left homeless in the country’s largely Kurdish-populated southeastern province of Van following a 7.2-magnitude tremor on October 23rd and another measuring 5.6 only a few days later.
“In Europe, over the last ten years, natural disasters have killed 100,000 people and caused damage worth 150 billion euros,” EU Commissioner for International Co-operation, Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Response Kristalina Georgieva wrote in her blog on December 20th.
Yet, she noted, “This year the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear incident that hit Japan caused more damage than any other natural disaster ever recorded.”
The March 11th 9.0 magnitude earthquake was the most powerful ever recorded in the country, triggering a 10m-high tsunami. These, combined with a string of strong aftershocks, caused a series of explosions at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
The death toll from the disaster had climbed to nearly 15,700 in mid-August, when the number of those still unaccounted for stood at close to 4,700.
The Fukushima incident sparked concerns that its impact could prove worse than that of the Chernobyl explosion in April 1986 and rekindled anti-nuclear attitudes in Europe. Following a wave of mass protests, Germany said in May it would phase out all of its reactors by 2022.
The disaster in Japan also prompted calls for the abandonment of plans for the construction of new atomic power facilities in seismically active regions in Bulgaria and Turkey. In April, hundreds of Turks formed a human chain in the city of Mersin to protest Ankara’s decision to build the country’s first atomic plant in Akkuyu.
While Bulgaria has been sending mixed signals about the future of the Belene nuclear power plant project, Turkey has not hinted it might abandon its plans on either the Akkuyu plant, or the second one in Sinop.
In December 2010, a street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in a provincial city in Tunisia to protest his mistreatment by police. That unleashed a chain of anti-government, pro-democracy street protests, first in Tunisia, then across the Middle East and North Africa. The wave of demonstrations in Tunisia and Egypt led to the departure from politics of the two countries’ long-ruling presidents, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak, in early 2011.
The pro-democracy demonstrations in neighbouring Libya eventually escalated into a full-blown civil war, which ended following the capture and killing of the country’s self-proclaimed leader Muammar Gaddafi in his hometown of Sirte on October 20th.
With the dust in the three North African countries not fully settled yet, the situation in Syria continued to deteriorate in 2011. At the end of the year, there was not even a hint that President Bashar al-Assad would keep his promise to halt the government forces’ crackdown on opponents of his regime.
In July and August, groups of anti-Gaddafi protestors stormed the Libyan embassies in the capitals of several Balkan countries, including Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), Bulgaria, Greece, Serbia and Turkey.
Bulgarian Foreign Minister Nickolay Mladenov said he prefers to call the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa this year by the term “Arab Awakening”, rather than the popularly used Arab Spring.
“The Arab Awakening … is a revolution about many things — jobs, democracy, justice, but primarily it’s about human dignity,” he told SETimes on December 29th. “Just like the countries of Southeast Europe, which came out of dictatorships in the 1990s, today people in the Middle East and North Africa are looking to build their new states and societies.”
The events of the past two decades in the Balkans can serve as a lesson of what should be avoided in the aftermath of long years of dictatorship, he noted.
The process of the break-up of the former Yugoslavia “unleashed a horde of ethnic and religious tensions that had been simmering for half a century,” said Mladenov. “The Arab world is a mosaic of cultures and traditions with vibrant non-Muslim communities that have been part of its heritage for ages. It is important to preserve and protect this diversity.”
Bulgaria was one of the positive examples that others should learn from, he added, noting that “with a vibrant ethnic Turkish and Muslim minority, my country steered clear of the troubles that engulfed our neighbours in former Yugoslavia.”
That was one of the reasons why his ministry established the Sofia Platform as “a tool to bring together activists, politicians and journalists from the Middle East and North Africa, with counterparts from Central and East Europe to study experience in transition,” Mladenov said.
“Hopefully, our Arab friends will avoid at least some of the mistakes that we made and build on our successes.”
Turkey was actively involved in diplomatic efforts to end the bloodshed in Libya and discontinued its contacts with Damascus over Assad’s refusal to stop using arms against protestors.