Bulgarian Turks are among the minority groups that earlier gained and legally secured their rights and freedoms in the Balkans. In spite of this, they were exposed to severe oppression and by the 80s became subject to the official assimilation policies of the state.
Bulgarian Turks have several distinctions in comparison with the other Turkish minorities living in the Balkans. First of all, this group has a more organized and higher population than others. Their participation in political life also seems to continue at higher rates. The obtainment of a notable number of parliamentary seats by the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF), which is a political party formed by Turks, after each election since the 1990s is a significant indicator of this. During certain periods from 2001 to 2009, the MRF was a coalition partner and as a result of the 2009 elections became the third largest party, having obtained 37 of the 240 parliament seats.
Second, the rights and freedoms of the Bulgarian Turks are legally assured by the bilateral agreements between the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria, the latter of which declared its independence in 1908. Yet Bulgarian Turks are among the minority groups which were exposed to severe oppression. Due to the perception of them as a threat to the integrity of the country, there were attempts to assimilate them. Whenever the assimilation policy failed, they were forced to migrate. After the Principality of Bulgaria acquired autonomy as a result of the 1877-78 Ottoman-Russian War, approximately two million people had left for Turkey by the fifth big wave of emigration.
Dark period of Bulgarian political history
The policies of the Communist Party toward minority groups after WWII differ according to the period in question. At the very beginning of its rule, it adopted relatively egalitarian and libertarian policies toward Turks. The Dimitrov Constitution of 1947 is evidence for that argument. In the constitution, Turks were defined as a “national minority” and their civil rights were protected by it. Also, minorities were given an advantage through affirmative action for university-level education.
Due to the death of Stalin in 1953, Todor Jivkov became the Communist Party leader in Bulgaria. During his long-standing leadership, especially from 1984 to 1989, he was the architect of official assimilation policies. His first action which had a significant impact on Bulgarian political history was issuing the 1971 Constitution. Accordingly, the term “national minority” was abolished. Turkish schools and Turkish language courses were gradually closed. Turkish language course became an elective and were limited to two hours a week. Also, beginning with the Pomaks, a “restoration of names” policy was implemented. Beginning in 1984, the official policy of forcefully assimilating Turks was initiated in the name of “the revival process.” On April 17, 1986, 179 officials from the interior ministry and military officers were awarded with an order of merit by Jivkov for their contribution to the process.
After five years of oppression and the resistance of the Turkish minorities, the international public became aware of the happenings. After a realization of the failure of the assimilation policy, Jivkov implemented the forced emigration policy. On May 29, 1989, Bulgarian National Radio announced that borders were now open and anyone could leave Bulgaria. In the first step, military officers rousted more than 7000 people, allowed to take only 30 kg of belongings, out their houses and expelled them. After receiving visas, thousands of Turkish families queued for miles and miles at the Kapıkule border gate. In three months, more than 360,000 Bulgarian Turks entered Turkey.
Weight off his shoulders
An elimination of the negative effects of the Bulgarian government’s assimilation policy was attempted after the transition to democracy. On December 29, 1989, the Politburo issued a decision admitting that the “restoration of names” policy was wrong and examined restoring the rights and freedoms of the Turkish minority. The national parliament enacted legislation stigmatizing the policies of the totalitarian regime on January 15, 1990. Throughout the 90s, by enacting many laws the civil rights of Turkish minorities were reinstated.
Also, many officials offered apologies. The most significant one was provided in the speech of then-President of Bulgaria Petar Stoyanov in the Grand National Assembly of Turkey on July 29, 1997. He made his apology by indicating that using “force to change the names of the Turkish minority during the Communist government was one of the shameful scenes of our recent history.” Another one was the apology speech of then-Prime Minister of Bulgaria Ivan Kostov in Istanbul and Bursa on November 5-6, 1998. In April 2006, then-Prime Minister and Bulgarian Socialist Party leader Sergei Stanishev made an apology at the MRF Caucus in Sofia. Most recently, on January 11, 2012, the Bulgarian National Parliament declared the assimilation process to have been “ethnic cleansing” and condemned the 1989 forced emigration.
Still in the same position
It has been fifteen years since the speech President Stoyanov gave in the Turkish Assembly, and twenty years since the bilateral agreement of friendship and cooperation signed on May 6, 1992. The only steps taken since have been the apologies made at several platforms and the condemnation decision by the Bulgarian Parliament. Those officials who witnessed the assimilation process in shameful silence and acted as accomplices are not penalized, but assigned to higher positions.
Where we stand now, it is hard to say that Bulgaria has completely faced up to its past. The necessary steps have still not been taken appropriately. The first phase is to acknowledge the ethical side of the tragedy. In this regard, the Bulgarians have done their part by apologizing and publishing about seventeen books condemning those policies. However, the second phase which includes criminal prosecution could not be implemented. Up to today, none of the officials were tried in a court and penalized. Even the list of officials that were awarded orders of merit in 1989 is open and available for examination.
The last phase is the adoption of the lustration law, also adopted by other EU countries, which prohibits officials that had direct links with the communist/totalitarian regime from being assigned to higher positions. In order to talk about a sincere atonement process, those phases have to be completed.
*Muzaffer Kutlay, USAK Center for EU Studies.
Journal of Turkish Weekly