Ethnicity, Democracy and Human Rights – A Turkish Bulgarian Saga (Part 1 )
It has been twenty years after the Eastern European Countries opened for liberalism and democracy. For two decades they are having various degrees of success, but in most of them there is no alternative undemocratic project. This year the European Commission issued a short video commemorating the struggles of East European Societies for rights and freedom which they eventually achieved. Hungary 1956, Czechoslovakia 1961, Poland’s Solidarnost, etc, – they are all there. Bulgaria is the only country of the new member states that is not in this video. Here I present the only reason why it may have been included – the revolt of Bulgarian Muslims and Bulgarian Turks against communist oppression in the late 80s. Controversy, the first and only out loud desire for human and civil rights has left scars that still divide Bulgarian society and have serious imprint over the current political system.
Communist style “Revival”
Bulgarian Communism was equally oppressive against majority Bulgarians, as well as the ethnic Turk minority, the Bulgarian Muslims (Pomaks), and the Roma people. In the early 80s the Communist party commenced what it cynically called “revival process” – a set of assimilation policies targeted at Bulgarian Turks and Bulgarian Muslims. In the course of a few years these minorities’ rights to speak their mother tongue and to go to mosques were even more severely infringed. It did not happen without opposition, but the totalitarian state used all its humiliating mechanism to impose its disgraceful policy. The official doctrine said that the Muslims in Bulgaria are ethnic Bulgarians, who have been forcefully converted to Islam and brainwashed over 500 years of Turkish rule (1396-1878). So hundreds of years later the communist dictatorship offered them to go back to their Bulgarian roots and organized their “revival”.
The peak of this “revival period” was in 1984 and 1985 when the communist authorities forcefully changed the names of Bulgarian Turks and Bulgarian Muslims. It is horrific how one day you go to work and your boss gives you a list of names you have to chose for you and all your family. The local police intimidates you even before you can resist. No arguments, no disagreement. You either change your name and forget your identity, or your life is made a hell. In a country with no free media and with closed borders, where people do not have the right to change residence, this seems quite a nightmare. And it was – a few hundred thousand people changed their names en mass and had to face continuous humiliation, often forced relocation and eat the humble pie in their small majority-dominated communities.
In the words of a participant in the “revival” “They did not want us as we were the day before ‘yesterday’. They wanted us like them, but we could not become like them overnight. Not that way, not after they caused us. The regime made a big mistake… and we were faced with something that could not end ‘alright’. We were brought back in the middle ages. Few people today realize that the ethnic fear rooted in those years of dark and obscure communist rule”.
Going against the regime
The repressions continued after 1985, but the victims of the “revival” started to gradually organize their opposition. Peaceful associations for human rights were created undercover; protests started to erupt and at places turned into riots. After a terrorist attack killed 8 people (including children) and injured dozens, the security forces took the initiative – many people were detained and armed police increased its presence in small towns and villages. This only exacerbated the tensions and soon the repressed minorities clashed violently with the police and army. In months the riots spread in many minority-populated areas and involved tens of thousands angry men and women going out at the streets in a desperate fight to assert their dignity. In 1988 Amnesty International claims to have a list of 100 names of people who had been killed in the riots and hundreds others injured and detained.
Whether the Muslim-Turkish opposition was grass root or sponsored by Turkey’s espionage (see Part 2) remains unclear – perhaps the truth lies in between. It is not unimportant issue, but what is more important is that the Bulgarian Turks and Muslims rose against the regime that tried to erase with force their existential differences. Maybe this happened with some underground support by a neighbouring state, but this matters less. It is also of little relevance that the majority did not support the movement for rights and freedom (later the name of the Turkish party in Bulgaria) and that there were no media to broadcast the repressions.
The Great Excursion
At the beginning of 1989 the situation was hard to control and the authorities took the radical measure to expatriate “several hundred thousand Bulgarian Turks before Bulgaria turn into Cyprus”. This was one of the biggest human tragedies in contemporary Balkan history. Many people left the country where they were born and took the way to the unknown. Most of these people had some distant relatives in Turkey and successfully found refuge. Others are assumed to have considered this forceful relocation an opening of the borders and a better opportunity. But this hardly brightens the societal scars left from the communist-sponsored ‘revival’. On the one hand there is the obvious tragedy of hundreds of thousands people who revolted against the establishment and were literally sent off. On the other hand is the post-communist story of those who stayed –both the repressed minority and the majority.
At the time of the events described above no body knew that the Berlin Wall was going to fall in just a few months. Democracy was given a chance to shine upon Bulgaria. But this was already a different Bulgaria. It was a country with deeply divided society, with ethnic tensions brought by clumsy and inhumane dictatorial policy. In 1991 the communist regime was gone (or at least started to reform) but its last years gave birth to something which was going to undermine Bulgaria democracy for at least two more decades… something which was never going to turn into an alternative project but would gradually undermine its fragile foundations election after election and year after year.
To be continued….