Middle East & Balkans News Brief – 22 June 2011

News Summary


Damascus (Syria). The Voice of America reported that supporters and opponents of the Syrian government have clashed in several cities, and least seven people have been killed. Witnesses and human rights activists say Syrian security forces fired on anti-government crowds Tuesday, causing casualties in the central cities of Homs and Hama and the Mayadin district of Deir al-Zour. Demonstrations also erupted in the capital, Damascus.

Anti-government protesters went into the streets after pro-government rallies where thousands gathered to show support for President Bashir al-Assad. Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid al-Mualem ruled out the possibility for foreign intervention in his country and emphasized at the same time that Damascus wished to keep its friendly relations with its long-time ally Turkey. Turkey had recently outdistanced itself from Assad’s regime because of the violence used against insurgents. EU has extended sanctions against Syria to include four firms linked to the armed forces and to more people connected with the suppression of anti-government protests.

Cairo (Egypt). A Day of Wrath is organized by Hosni Mubarak’s supporters in Egyptian capital of Cairo. Organizers qualify as “intolerable” the media and public attacks against Mubarak, in which he is reportedly insulted and humiliated. There were clashes between the police and the protesters, who had  rallied in front of the Court’s building in Cairo. A few passers-by were wounded. Mubarak’s lawyer had told the media recently that his client was suffering cancer. Hosni Mubarak, 83, is currently under treatment in a Sharm El Sheikh hospital.

Kabul (Afghanistan). Reuters reports that US President Barack Obama is expected to unveil plans to remove about 5,000 U.S. troops from Afghanistan in July and up to 5,000 more by year-end as he lays out a broader withdrawal blueprint to Americans increasingly weary of the costly, decade-old war.Obama will announce the first phase of a promised drawdown and could also commit to removing by the end of 2012 the remainder of the 30,000 extra “surge” troops he ordered deployed 18 months ago, according to a congressional source and U.S. official familiar with the deliberations.

Аnkara (Turkey). Anatolia News Agency informs that the Turkish authorities have stripped a prominent Kurdish activist of the parliamentary seat he won in the 12 June polls, citing a terror-related conviction. Hatip Dicle, currently in jail awaiting trial in a separate case, had been expected to be freed after he was elected to parliament as an independent candidate from Diyarbakir, the largest city of the Kurdish-majority southeast.

The Higher Electoral Board however ruled that Dicle was not eligible to stand in the elections because of a 20-month jail sentence he had received under Turkey’s anti-terror law. The Court of Appeal upheld Dicle’s sentence just four days before the elections, when the list of candidates had been confirmed.

Dicle was convicted over a speech deemed “propaganda for an armed terrorist organisation” — a reference to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has led a bloody separatist insurgency in the southeast since 1984. Dicle was among 36 candidates who were elected to parliament with the backing of the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), Turkey’s main Kurdish political movement which is seen as close to the PKK. The BDP fielded them as independents to get around a 10-percent national threshold that parties are required to pass to enter parliament. Dicle, 57, was among the first Kurdish nationalists to win seats in Turkey’s parliament in 1991.

Ankara (Turkey).  HTV reports that Hamas’ leader Khaled Meshaal has arrived in Turkey, a day after PA president Mahmoud Abbas has started his official four-day visit. Currently Meshaal is Istanbul and it is not known whether he will meet with Abbas. According to the Turkish authorities, Abbas has “a private schedule” prior to his meetings with Turkish President Abdullah Gül, Prime Minister Recep Erdogan and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutuglu.

Aden (Yemen). One guard was killed and dozens of prisoners fled the central jail in Southwestern town of al-Mukalla after an attack Al Qaeda. According to Reuters, some of the prisoners were Al Qaeda militants.


Athens (Greece). Thousands of people rallied outside the parliament building during the debates on the no confidence vote to protest against both austerity measures and crooked politicians. The Greek government has survived a critical confidence vote in its attempt to secure support for additional austerity measures and avoid bankruptcy of the state. Prime Minister George Papandreou’s new cabinet was approved by 155 votes to 143, with two abstentions. Papandreou’s ruling Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK) faced heated debates. “At this time of pain I want to send a message to all Greeks. Yes, the course is difficult but there is light at the end of the tunnel. We all have to agree that we will put an end to deficits. We want to make a leaner, healthier state, because otherwise our country cannot take the burden,” the PM is quoted saying.

The Members of the Parliament will have to approve 28 billion Euro in cuts, tax hikes, fiscal reforms and privatization plans – all needed so that Greece can obtain an EU loan to help pay its debts.They also agreed to put together a second bailout package worth 120 billion Euro euros to fund Greece into late 2014.The new bailout package, to be outlined by early July, will include loans from other Euro Zone countries. It will also feature a voluntary contribution from private investors, who will be invited to buy up new Greek bonds as old ones mature.Greece needs the loan to be able to keep up with payments to creditors of its 340 billion Euro of debts, which amounts to 30,000 Euro per person. Papandreou recently reshuffled his cabinet and replaced his finance minister by appointing one of his crucial rivals Evangelos Venizelos.

Zagreb (Croatia). German Sueddeutsche Zeitung newspaper reports that Croatia’s EU entry talks will be concluded at the end of June. Croatia is expected to join the EU on 1 July 2013. Meanwhile France and the Netherlands are insisting on Zagreb’s joining the European block only if it fulfills all commitments in the areas of judicial reforms and fight with corruption.

The two countries call for postponing the Balkan country’s membership, if the assessment of the Croatian efforts is negative. The worries have to do with Romania and Bulgaria’s 2007 entry. Sofia and Bucharest are part of the EU, but they have not yet reached the European standards in judicial reforms and fight with corruption.

Skopje (Macedonia). The widely disputed giant statue depicting Alexander the Great was officially inaugurated in Macedonia’s capital Skopje. The 13-meter high statue of a warrior on horseback resembling Alexander the Great has enraged Greece, which also claims inheritance of the historical figure. Since becoming an independent state in 1991, the ex-Yugoslav republic of Macedonia has had a number of historical disputes with neighboring Bulgaria and Greece, in particular about the Macedonian or non-Macedonian nationality of a number of historical figures. Among them are Alexander the Great and Tsar Samuil (997-1014), whom Bulgarians recognize as one of their great Medieval rulers. Macedonia is in a heated conflict with Greece over its name. Athens opposes the post-1991 constitutional name of its northern neighbor, citing historical and territorial concerns resulting from the ambiguity between it and the adjacent Greek region of Macedonia.

Sofia (Bulgaria). More than 1,500 people staged a rally outside the parliament’s building in the center of Sofia against amendments to Waste Management Act. The organizer of the protest is the civil initiative of traders in ferrous and non-ferrous metals. The two main banner read “Environment Ministry dooms over 300,000 people to hunger” and “Bulgaria – a scrap heap after draft.” Bulgaria’s Environment and Water Ministry wants to ban trade in ferrous and non-ferrous metals and give this right only to municipal firms, which protestors describe as monopoly. A deficiency in the draft according to them is the requirement to build scrap sites only in municipalities with adopted town planning. This means that two thirds of all sites in Bulgaria will have to be closed down or moved to other municipalities. Another fault they mention is the requirement for a guarantee of 50,000 Euro from each firm and of 25,000 Euro for each site. In the opinion of protestors this is interference by the state into private relations in favor of large companies close to the government.

Sofia (Bulgaria). RBC reports that Russia expects Bulgaria to take measures to prevent any other acts of vandalism against the Soviet Army Monument in the center of Sofia. A Russian Foreign Ministry statement reads”We believe the country’s official authorities will finally take measures to prevent any other insults to the memory of Soviet soldiers who died in the name of Bulgaria and Europe’s liberation from Nazism and that those who defiled the memorial will be identified and penalized.” On June 18 unidentified people painted the monument, making the soviet soldiers in it U.S. cartoon characters: The Joker, Wolverine, Santa Claus, Superman, Ronald McDonald, Captain America, Robin, and Wonder Woman.

A public prayer service will be held today in front of the Soviet Army monument in downtown Sofia to commemorate the 70th anniversary of Russia’s Great Patriotic War: on 22 June 1941 German troops started ‘Operation Barbarossa’ and invaded the Soviet Union.

Sofia (Bulgaria). The Bulgarian government has decided to send five officers to join the NATO operation for protection of civilians and civilian-populated areas under threat of attack in Libya and for support of arms embargo. Thus Bulgaria commits to long-term involvement in the Alliance’s ongoing efforts to solve the crisis in Libya and fulfill the mandate given by the UN Security Council. The five Bulgarian officers will occupy positions in the headquarters of the Unified Protector operation.

Sofia (Bulgaria).  Prior to the regular meeting of Bulgaria’s government today, Justice Minister Margarita Popova said that first on the agenda list would be the issue how to select a managing body of the judicial system to make sure any external and political attempts for influence could be reduced to minimum. That is how the GERB Cabinet broke the news that the Constitution would be changed. The Justice Minister explained that possible amendments in the framework of the Constitution had been made in the Judiciary Act.
The government will discuss whether a parliamentary quota is necessary and if it is, how many it should be compared to the total amount of Supreme Judicial Council members; how members from the parliamentary quota should be selected, if there is one; improvement of rules for selecting Supreme Judicial Council members who are chosen by the community of magistrates. Another point of discussion is the workload and equal distribution of cases – civil, commercial, criminal and administrative. At the time of ongoing debates about the judiciary, Bulgarians have staged a tent protest in front of the Sofia Court House, calling for reforms in the system.Georgi Drazhev, Chairman of the Anti-Mafia movement, explains that the organization demands the resignations of the Supreme Judicial Council members. “The judicial body has been totally discredited. Its work is assessed in EC reports and through the comments of supervisors, which means that the judiciary has been rated “poor”, together with its managerial body, the Supreme Judicial Council”, Drazhev says. The protest tent, surrounded by condemnatory posters, is also accompanied by a petition expressing citizens’ discontent over “the real estate mafia which enjoys a customized judicial system”.

Sofia (Bulgaria). Vladimir Manolov, former head of Bulgaria’s National Protection Service (NSS) is quoted by dnes.dir.bg as saying that terrorists from the former Soviet republics wanted to contaminate the Black Sea with radioactive Cesium from the Bulgarian seaside. The Bulgarian authorities have prevented the environmental catastrophe in his opinion. “They had six ampoules of Cesium, with which they intended to contaminate the Bulgarian seaside and trigger an environmental catastrophe. So, we decided to run an undercover operation, in which I participated as a buyer of the ampoules. I was disguised as a rich Albanian who wanted to buy them,” Manolov revealed.

Sofia (Bulgaria) According to a recently published poll of Alfa Research Sociological Agency both PM Boyko Borisov and his GERB Party face a growing disapproval. The positive assessment of the Prime Minister decreased by 5% to 35%, where the negative rose from 6% to 35%. If elections were held today 24% of the voters (against 26% in February) would back GERB Party. Approval of the GERB Cabinet dropped to 19% while disapproval leapt to 41%.

The main reason is the growing pessimism about improvement of the economic situation in Bulgaria. 73% do not see any economic revival, 78% continue to restrict their consumption. Bulgaria remains one of the poorest EU member-states and the incumbent government’s policies will further deepen the gap between the Bulgarians and rest of Europe.

Sofia (Bulgaria). Bulgaria’s real estate market is ranked sixth in the world by the property price drop in the first quarter of 2011, according to a study of the global property services and research company Knight Frank that used data of the Bulgarian National Statistics Institute, showing that residential properties’ prices went down nearly 6% in the first quarter of 2011, compared to the same period of 2010. On quarterly basis, the decrease is 2.3% and it is nearly 4% on six-month basis.The study ranks Bulgaria 6th by the property price drop, after Russia, Ireland, Dubai, the Ukraine and Greece.


United Nations. Ban Ki-moon said the United Nations is on the frontlines against conflict more than at any time in its history, as he hailed its work in his first term of office.After being re-elected for a five-year mandate, the former South Korean foreign minister stressed the need for more concerted action by world leaders.

“As never before, the UN is on the frontlines protecting people and also helping build the peace — in Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Somalia; in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Middle East,” Ban told the UN General Assembly. The UN chief said it was “imperative” for more concerted international action. According to a release of UN, 5 million Pakistanis are in danger by this year’s Monsoon floods (June – September).

(Middle East & Balkans News, 22 June 2011)


About Johann Brandstätter

Photojournalist and documentary photographer based in Bulgaria, working mainly in the Balkans and the Middle East. Conflicts & crises, social and environmental issues, defense & military, travel, transportation.
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