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Bulgaria

The Turkish Problem

As in other parts of Eastern Europe, the repeal of single-party rule in Bulgaria exposed the long-standing grievances of an ethnic minority. Especially in the 1980s, the Zhivkov regime had systematically persecuted the Turkish population, which at one time numbered 1.5 million and was estimated at 1.25 million in 1991. Mosques were closed, Turks were forced to Slavicize their names, education in the native language was denied, and police brutality was used to discourage resistance (see Turks , ch. 2). The urban intelligentsia that partcipated in the 1990 reform movement pushed the post-Zhivkov governments toward restoring constitutionally guaranteed human rights to the Turks. But abrogation of Zhivkov's assimilation program soon after his fall brought massive protests by ethnic Bulgarians, even in Sofia.

In January 1990, the Social Council of Citizens, a national body representing all political and ethnic groups, reached a compromise that guaranteed the Turks freedom of religion, choice of names, and unimpeded practice of cultural traditions and use of Turkish within the community. In turn the Bulgarian nationalists were promised that Bulgarian would remain the official language and that no movement for autonomy or separatism would be tolerated. Especially in areas where Turks outnumbered Bulgarians, the latter feared progressive "Islamification" or even invasion and annexation by Turkey--a fear that had been fed consciously by the Zhivkov assimilation campaign and was revived by the BSP in 1991. Because radical elements of the Turkish population did advocate separatism, however, the nonannexation provision of the compromise was vital.

The Bulgarian governments that followed Zhivkov tried to realize the conditions of the compromise as quickly as possible. In the multiparty election of 1990, the Turks won representation in the National Assembly by twenty-three candidates of the predominantly Turkish MRF (see The Movement for Rights and Freedoms , this ch.). At that point, ethnic Bulgarians, many remaining from the Zhivkov regime, still held nearly all top jobs in government and industry, even in the predominantly Turkish Kurdzhali Province. Nevertheless, parts of Bulgarian society felt threatened by the rise of the MRF. In 1990 that faction collided with a hard-line Bulgarian group, the National Committee for Defense of National Interests--an organization containing many former communists instrumental in the Zhivkov assimilation program. In November 1990, Bulgarian nationalists established the Razgrad Bulgarian Republic in a heavily Turkish region to protest the government's program of restoring rights to the Turks. In the first half of 1991, intermittent violence and demonstrations were directed at both Turks and Bulgarians in Razgrad.

These conditions forced the government to find a balance between Turkish demands and demonstrations for full recognition of their culture and language, and Bulgarian nationalist complaints against preferential treatment for the ethnic minority. In 1991 the most important issue of the controversy was restoring Turkishlanguage teaching in the schools of Turkish ethnic districts (see Education , ch. 2). In 1991 the Popov government took initial steps in this direction, but long delays brought massive Turkish protests, especially in Kurdzhali. In mid-1991 continuing strikes and protests on both sides of the issue had brought no new discussions of compromise. Frustration with unmet promises encouraged Turkish separatists in both Bulgaria and Turkey, which in turn fueled the ethnocentric fears of the Bulgarian majority-- and the entire issue diverted valuable energy from the national reform effort. Although most political parties supported full minority rights, in 1991 the strength of Bulgarian nationalist sentiment, deeply rooted in centuries of conflict with the Ottoman Empire and not inclined to compromise, promised to make the Turkish question the most pressing human rights issue in Bulgaria for the foreseeable future.

Data as of June 1992


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