Year in Pictures: 2021 in the Balkans and Central EuropeBIRNBelgrade, Bucharest, Budapest, Chisinau, Istanbul, Podgorica, Pristina, Sarajevo, Skopje, Sofia, Tirana, ZagrebBIRNJanuary 3, 202205:30 BIRN has picked photographs from countries across Southern and Eastern Europe to highlight their main developments in a year when both the pandemic and political unpredictability caught the lens.
In the second year spent under the pandemic’s constraints, the countries of Southern and Eastern Europe experienced lots of political, environmental and other social developments.
Many countries changed their political rulers through elections while others had other big issues to deal with.
BIRN presents its selection of photos of some of the events and processes that marked an eventful 2021.
In 2021, the long political stalemate in Bulgaria ended and a new coalition assumed power. After the GERB party and now former PM Boyko Borissov had dominated the political scene for over a decade, the country held three general elections in 2021.
After the last election, a political newcomer, the centrist “We Continue the Change” party, defied expectations by coming in first place. It then secured a coalition with other parties previously in opposition to GERB but which were otherwise fragmented: the pro-EU Democratic Bulgaria, the winner in the previous election, “There’s Such People”, and the pro-Russian Bulgarian Socialist Party.
Bulgaria’s new PM, a Harvard-educated entrepreneur and party co-leader, Kiril Petkov, promised to curb age-old corruption, push through ambitious reforms to the judicial system and speed up the country’s slow vaccination against COVID.
‘We Continue the Change’ leader Kiril Petkov welcomes a colleague ahead of the first session of the new parliament in Sofia, December 3, 2021. EPA-EFE/VASSIL DONEV
On July 26, 2021, the first same-sex marriage in Montenegro was registered in the coastal town of Budva, a year after Montenegro became the first non-EU country in the Balkans to legalize same-sex civil partnerships.
In September, civic activists called on the LGBT community to use their right to register same-sex partnerships in Montenegro and urged the government to regulate last year’s same-sex partnership law with the rest of the country’s legislative framework.
Montenegro failed twice before to recognise same-sex unions – in 2014 and 2019. When it succeeded in July 2020, it became the only non-EU ex-Yugoslav republic to do so, although Serbia has similar legislation in the pipeline. Of other former Yugoslav republics in the region, EU-members Croatia and Slovenia have legalized same-sex unions.
The ninth Montenegrin Pride march in Podgorica, Montenegro. Photo: BIRN/Samir Kajosevic date???
On July 1, Turkey officially quit the Istanbul Convention, a European treaty on women’s rights and domestic violence, following the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s claim that the convention undermines family values and promotes homosexuality.
During 2021, hundreds of thousands Turkish women protested about, and often faced brutal police intervention, the deaths of hundreds of women at the hands of men every year.
Turkey dismissed international calls to return to the treaty. The Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence was drafted by the Council of Europe in 2011 and has been signed to date by 45 European countries and the European Union. Turkey’s biggest city gave its name of the convention and it was first European country to sign and ratify it.
Women protest against Turkey’s decision to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention, in Istanbul, July 1, 2021. Photo: EPA-EFE/SEDAT SUNA
A year can be long in politics and for Kosovo’s Prime Minister, Albin Kurti, this proved the case. The former troublemaking opposition leader started 2021 campaigning for new elections and won the February 14 snap elections by a landslide.
The victory of his Vetevendosje party offered him an unprecedented opportunity to form a government on his own without the need of coalitions. But his winning streak did not last. In the autumn local elections, Vetevendosje won only four of 38 municipalities and also lost the capital, Pristina. The old parties vanquished in February returned to political life far earlier than was predicted.
Vetevendoje leader and PM candidate Albin Kurti (C-L) joined by his wife (C-R) attend his closing electoral rally in Pristina, February 12, ahead of elections on February 14. EPA-EFE/VALDRIN XHEMAJ
Alongside slow post-earthquake reconstruction, Croatia confronted growing anti-vaccine sentiments in 2021. The government was accused of poor management of the COVID-19 crisis, of ineffective and inconsistent measures, and of issuing well as mixed messages when it came to communicating about the crisis. Implementation of mandatory COVID-19 passes met protests. The largest took place amid record high COVID-19 case numbers at the end of November at the main Ban Jelacic Square in the capital, Zagreb, where a rally attracted an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 people.
People protest against COVID-19 security measures and enforcement of the EU Digital COVID Certificate in Zagreb’s Ban Jelacic Square, November 20, 2021. Photo: EPA-EFE/ANTONIO BAT
In 2021, a strong ecological movement burst forth unexpectedly in a country known for serious environmental problems – and for a lack of will to address them.
A newborn collective eco-conscience gathered in late November and December, when a series of environmental protests took place in Belgrade and other cities.
The protests and road blockages were formally aimed against a planned law on expropriation and changes to the law on referendums but were aimed particularly at mining giant Rio Tinto’s plans to open a lithium mine in the west of the country, which experts insisted would damage the environment.
The blockages dented President Aleksandar Vucic’s reputation, and he withdraw or amended the laws as protesters demanded. It was seen as almost unprecedented for the President to back down and admit he was wrong.
Rio Tinto’s project is far from stopped, but the persistent resistance of the protesters, some of them from Vucic’s ruling Progressive Party, will continue to haunt the regime.
Protesters blocking the Belgrade-Zagreb highway on December 4 2021, denouncing law changes they claim were designed to help foreign investors – especially Rio Tinto, and its lithium mining project in western Serbia. Photo: Marko Risovic
On April 25, Albania held general elections in which Edi Rama’s Socialist Party won an unprecedented third term. The defeated centre-right Democratic Party unsurprisingly did not accept the results, denouncing the whole process as “a massacre”. The opposition returned to the parliament after two years of boycotting it but ended the year split into two factions, following internal feuds between current leader Lulzim Basha and former leader Sali Berisha.
The electoral campaign was marked by tensions, and one local politician was killed. Accusations of vote-buying were made and mentioned in the OSCE report, which called said such allegations “remain a serious problem” in Albania, undermining “trust in the electoral process”.
In April a database with private information on the political preferences of around 930.000 citizens circulated online. The ruling Socialists were accused of obtaining classified information on citizens and using it for their own political benefits.
Independent Commissioners deliver ballot boxes to the vote counting centre in Tirana, April 25, 2021, after parliamentary elections held that day. EPA-EFE/Malton Dibra
COVID-19 has killed over 30,000 people in Hungary, one of the highest per death rates per capita in the world. An activist mother-of-six, Piroska Visi, set a memorial made of small stones, each symbolizing one person, with their age, and date of death. The stones were hand-painted by family members, friends, and civil activists and laid in Margaret Island, in the heart of Budapest. Hungary’s government tried to conceal the worryingly high death rate.
Memorial stones for the victims in Hungary of COVID-19, organized by civil activist Piroska Visi. PiroskaVisi/Facebook
In parliamentary elections held on July 11, the pro-European Action and Solidarity, PAS won a majority in parliament, taking 63 seats out of 101. For the first time in the country’s history, a pro-European reformist party governs alone. Major reforms were promised, including in defence, on which Moldova spends only 0.4 of its GDP. The “frozen” conflict remains with the breakaway region of Transnistria. Nevertheless, the results of the elections gave hope to many people that Moldova is heading on a European path and the pro-European forces remain determined to tackle the widespread corruption at all levels.
Three women soldiers take a selfie waiting for a military parade in the capital, Chisinau, August 27, 2021. Moldova celebrated 30 years of independence and for the first time has a pro-European reformist party governing alone. Photo: EPA/Doru Dumitru
Doctors and medical staff in Romanian were overwhelmed by the number of infected people with COVID-19 in 2021. At the same time, tpoliticians prolonged a political crisis for almost three months this year. The instability worsened pressure on the weak medical system. Romania has been heavily hit by COVID-19, with over 58,000 dead citizens since March 2020.
Medical staff try to resuscitate a 69-year-old man at Bucharest’s Emergency University Hospital, November 4, 2021. More than 58,000 Romanians have died of COVID since March, 2020. Photo: EPA/Robert Ghement
Bulgaria continued its blockade of the start of North Macedonia’s EU accession as expected in 2021. Weary citizens were tired of the political bickering and of the political crisis in the country after the opposition won the October local elections and attempted a no confidence vote in the government.
But what shocked the country most were two horrifying tragedies that left the country scarred. on September 8, as the country celebrated Independence Day, 14 patients perished in a blaze that engulfed the modular COVID-19 hospital in the town of Tetovo in a matter of minutes, leaving little time for rescuers to pull survivors from the inferno. They managed to save 12 people.
An investigation was launched and the Health Minister. Venko Filipce, offered his moral resignation, but despite a public outcry, PM Zoran Zaev did not accept it. The results of the probe suggested that faulty electrical installation was the most likely culprit for the fire.
Another disaster struck in November 23 when 45 people, including some children, were killed when a bus mainly carrying tourists from North Macedonia back from Turkey, caught fire and crashed on the Struma highway in Bulgaria.
Again, days of national mourning were ordered and questions remain over what caused the bus to ignite so rapidly.
A week later dignitaries gathered at Skopje airport, paying their respects on receiving the remains of the victims from Bulgaria. Media meanwhile buzzing with new revelations, one of which was that the bus did not have a proper licence for tourist transport.
Bulgaria was still leading the investigation, and had yet to reveal its final findings. Few North Macedonia expect any political or moral responsibility will be taken.
Officials at Skopje airport on December 3 pay respect to the victims of the bus accident that took 45 lives in Bulgaria in November, as North Macedonia’s soldiers carry their remains towards funeral cars. Photo: EPA-EFE/GEORGI LICOVSKI
Bosnia and Herzegovina
In 2021, Bosnia and Herzegovina faced the biggest threat to its existence since the Bosnian War of 1992-1995, which was ended with the Dayton Peace Agreement. Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik threatened to leave state-level institutions and re-establish a Bosnian Serb army after Bosnian Serb political representatives began a boycott of state institutions, which will effectively prevent them from functioning. The moves protested against a ban on genocide and war crimes denial imposed by High Representative Valentine Inzko, the international official who oversees implementation of the Dayton peace deal.
As the crisis escalated, the EU, the US and Turkey tried to broker a deal between the two sides. For the same purpose, Britain’s Special Envoy for the Western Balkans, Sir Stuart Peach, visited Sarajevo on December 14, 2021 for a meeting with Bosnia’s tripartite state presidency.
Sir Stuart Peach, Britain’s Special Envoy for the Western Balkans (L), shakes hands with Serbian presidency member Milorad Dodik (R), at their meeting in Sarajevo, December 14, 2021. Photo: EPA-EFE/FEHIM DEMIR
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