What do Bulgarians look like

Turkish minority in BulgariaThe legacy of forced Bulgarization

"Many of the older people cried. It was particularly difficult for them." Afise Ibrachimova remembers the day when the militia advanced in heavy SUVs to their village of Malinovo in northern Bulgaria. The people were driven to the town hall, where they were supposed to get new ID cards and papers.

On December 24, 1984, the government began a major forced Bulgarian operation: members of the Turkish minority were to be given new names - Bulgarian and Slavic names. Nothing should remind of their Turkish and Muslim origins.

Forced Bulgarization: new names for the dead

Afise was 24 years old at the time: "It was difficult. Suddenly we were supposed to address our own children by Bulgarian names. Our harem pants were banned. My husband had to pay a fine because he once spoke in Turkish."

Between December 1984 and February 1985, more than 800,000 ethnic Turks in Bulgaria were forced to change their names. Even the dead were given new names afterwards. Gravestones were ground down, death certificates rewritten.

Bulgarian Muslims in Ribnovo take part in the ritual wrestling, which is also part of the four-day Muslim circumcision ceremony. (imago images / ZUMA Wire)

The attempt at that time to assimilate the Turkish minority and the subsequent exodus of many Turks still have an impact today on the relationship between ethnic Turks and the Bulgarian majority society. But the roots of this ethno-religious conflict go back much further, to the 14th century - when Bulgaria became a province of the Ottoman Empire. And stayed for nearly 500 years.

Conflict with a long history

"This founding moment, the liberation of Bulgaria, is very important for assessing the situation of the Turkish minority in Bulgaria after the establishment of the Bulgarian state in 1878 until around the Second World War," says Ulf Brunnbauer, historian and director of the Leibniz Institute for East and Southeast European Studies in Regensburg.

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With the liberation of Bulgaria, Brunnbauer means the uprising against Turkish rule in the 19th century, the Russo-Ottoman war with the victory of Russia and the establishment of the Principality of Bulgaria, enshrined in the Berlin Treaty of 1878. In it, the Bulgarian Turks are recognized as an ethnic and religious minority .

Even after the First World War, Muslims in Bulgaria were assured of minority protection clauses. They were not always kept. There were periods of discrimination and oppression.

Muslims should become good communists

After the Second World War, Bulgaria became a real socialist people's republic and part of the Eastern Bloc. In 1948, the then head of the Bulgarian Communist Party, Georgi Dimitrov, declared: "On our southern border we have a non-Bulgarian population - a chronic ulcer in our body."

The Communist Party saw in the Bulgarian Turks an extended arm of Ankara and the danger of exerting influence. Bulgarian minority policy was shaped by this mistrust until 1989. As a result, hundreds of thousands of Turks left socialist Bulgaria in several waves. The communist leadership, meanwhile, had set itself the goal of modernizing the economically backward Balkan state. This also included the idea of ​​turning the predominantly traditional Turkish minority into good communists.

Ethnic Turks have gathered in the Bulgarian village of Kircaali to listen to a Turkish opposition politician. Turkey is still seen by many as a protecting power. (picture alliance / AP Photo)

The historian Ulf Brunnbauer: "The aim of the communist government well into the 1950s was to attract a loyal Turkish communist elite. There was a Turkish daily that wrote in the communist sense. There were targeted support programs for Turkish youth."

For example, Turkish youths were sent to boarding schools in order to remove them from the religiously conservative environment of their parents. Bulgarian Turks who joined the Communist Party were urged to agitate against headscarves and other Islamic symbols.

"The wives of Turkish party functionaries were driven through the village in tractor trailers. They did not wear headscarves and sang Turkish songs with which they praised communism. The message to all other Muslim women was that modernity will oust the veil," says Mehmet Yumer. The journalist himself belongs to the Turkish minority in Bulgaria; he is a recognized expert on the history and situation of the Turks in Bulgaria.

Bulgarian communist propaganda

After Todor Zhivkov became head of the Bulgarian Communist Party in 1956, the minority policy course changed. The party leadership responded to economic and political stagnation with nationalist propaganda, including highlighting the Ottoman past as the oppression of the Bulgarians and speaking of forced Islamization.

Stefan Detschev is a professor of history at the University of Blagevgrad in southwest Bulgaria: "Two theses seemed good for propaganda at the time: firstly, the Ottoman Empire specifically Islamized the Christian population and secondly, it was enforced by force."

Todor Zhivkov with Walter Ulbricht at the celebration of the 23rd anniversary of the liberation of Bulgaria from fascism in Sofia. (picture alliance / IMAGNO / Votava)

According to party documents, national recollection should only hasten the "natural historical process of overcoming ethnic differences". Films about cruel forced conversions of Christians were shown even in the smallest cinemas in the country. In fact, there had been periods of violence and forced Islamization in Bulgaria during the Ottoman rule. From the point of view of historians, however, they were reinforced by communist propaganda and presented in a manipulative way.

Stefan Detschev: "In this way, the later course of the Bulgarian communists, which resulted in name change and assimilation, was legitimized."

Worry about separatism

Despite integration programs and educational offensives, the Turkish regions of Bulgaria lagged behind the rest of the country in terms of their socio-economic development: the Bulgarian Turks were poorer and less educated than the majority society, and they were more religious and lived more traditionally. That was a thorn in the side of the communist government.

The historian and Bulgaria expert Ulf Brunnbauer: "There was a fear, especially in the head of party leader Todor Schiwkow, that there might be separatist tendencies among the Turks because they lived relatively compactly."

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In the early 1970s, the pressure on the Turkish minority increased noticeably. Bulgarian teachers who were loyal to the regime were sent to the so-called "mixed" residential districts to teach the language and to reduce the influence of Islam. This was the prelude to the forced Bulgarization, which then began in the winter of 1984, decided in close circles by the head of state Zhivkov. The regime had already seen name changes in other Muslim population groups - the Pomaks and the Roma. The timing for the Bulgarization of the Turks seemed strategically good: Turkey was busy with insurgent Kurds and the Cyprus question. And the Soviet Union was going through a deep political crisis at that time. The Bulgarian communists saw this as an opportunity to act.

"Restored Bulgarians"

The historian Stefan Detschev researches Bulgaria's totalitarian past: "In the course of the Bulgarian communists, the entire totalitarian ideology, which aimed to create an absolutely homogeneous society, unfolded. There was no room for minorities in this conception or on this demographic map more."

In December 1984, Interior Minister Dimitar Stojanov gave the go-ahead for the forced renaming operation. The people were taken to town halls and registration offices, where they were asked to choose a new Slavic Christian name from a list.

Mustafa Karnobatla, now 68 years old, experienced this time: "My son was in the second grade at the time. After the name change, he no longer wanted to go to school. Everyone knew him by his Turkish name!"

Officially, there was talk of restored Bulgarians. The history of an entire population group was to be overwritten by an administrative act.

Those who protested against this had to reckon with the severity of the communist dictatorship: Hundreds of insurgents ended up in labor camps or were deported, says contemporary witness Osman Oktaj. "Deporting opponents of the regime to Turkey was dangerous for the communists - they could have passed on what they had experienced in Bulgaria there. That's why many were deported to Vienna. But we heard their reports on Radio Free Europe anyway."

Human rights organizations spoke up and reported on what was going on in Bulgaria. Harsh criticism came from Turkey, and somewhat more discreet from Moscow.

Turks should leave

In May 1989, head of state Todor Zhivkov was looking for a way out. On Bulgarian television he announced what was henceforth referred to as a "great excursion": he indirectly asked the ethnic Turks to leave the country voluntarily. This was also remarkable because the Bulgarian majority population did not enjoy the freedom to travel.

More than 300,000 people followed the request. Overcrowded cars and trucks jammed for kilometers in front of the Turkish border crossing at Kapitan Andreewo.

Camps were set up off the road, says contemporary witness Mustafa Karnobatla: "I got goose bumps when I saw all this. The field was as hard as concrete. Babies, including old people, were lying on the ground. When a fire brigade siren sounded, the women jumped up and wanted to run away. They were scared. "

But Turkey was overwhelmed by the large number of newcomers. It closed the border at the end of August. Their situation was now devastating, as many had sold their entire property at ridiculous prices before they planned to leave the country.

In November 1989, at the time when the Berlin Wall fell and the socialist Eastern Bloc was shaking, Bulgaria's head of state, Todor Zhivkov, also fell. According to experts, his main goal of making Bulgaria a homogeneous socialist state only led to a strengthening of nationalism and increased tensions between the ethnic Turks and the Bulgarian majority population. He also fueled an enormous protest movement among Bulgarian Muslims: in December 1989, thousands of them took to the streets and asked for their Turkish names back.

Your protest was successful. On December 29, 1989, the Central Committee of the Bulgarian Communist Party gave in to the demands of the Muslims to restore their original names.

A party for the Turkish minority

A little later, the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, or DPS for short, was founded. An ethno-religious party that aims to represent the interests of the Turkish minority in Bulgaria. Dissidents and intellectuals initially supported this movement.

"We wanted all of us - Bulgarians, Turks, Roma, Pomaks, Muslims and Christians - to look for common solutions," recalls Mikhail Ivanov, minority adviser to the first democratically elected President of Bulgaria, Schelju Schelew.

Over time, however, the DPS developed into an authoritarian party and was shaken by corruption cases. However, the other Bulgarian parties failed to win over the Turkish voters. "The state and the parties are turning their backs on the Bulgarian Turks. Many know that this is not okay. But the party leaders do not want to forego the votes of the nationalist-minded Bulgarian voters."

A public apology for forced Bulgarization was a long time coming. It was not until 2012 that the Bulgarian parliament passed a declaration condemning forced assimilation. The request to leave the country is referred to as "ethnic cleansing".

Unresolved forced Bulgarization

With around nine percent of the population, the Turks are the largest minority in Bulgaria today. The majority of Bulgarians profess Orthodox Christianity. Reservations about the Muslim Turks are still present in Bulgarian society today.

Many complain of discrimination and disadvantage, according to Birali Birali, the Deputy Grand Mufti in Bulgaria. From his point of view, the situation for the Muslim minority and especially for the ethnic Turks in Bulgaria has worsened since the radical right was integrated into the government, i.e. since the parliamentary elections in 2017. "Whenever there is an occasion, the following immediately comes: 'Out with you! What are you doing here? We keep saying that Bulgaria is our country. We don't want to feel like second-class citizens all the time and have to justify ourselves. "

The historian Stefan Detschev sees one of the main reasons for the tension in the fact that the totalitarian past in Bulgaria has hardly been dealt with: "First of all, Bulgarian society should ask itself the question of guilt and shared responsibility. The forced Bulgarization happened in its own country without their responding in any way.

Protector Turkey

For many Muslims in Bulgaria, Turkey is still considered a protective power. The traditional religious festivals and rituals, forbidden under socialism, seem all the more important today for the cohesion of the often isolated minority.

"There are also Erdogan supporters among the believers. But Kemalism is traditionally strong in Bulgaria. And what is happening in Turkey today is a destruction of Kemalism. It is neo-Omanism. It is not the basis of this ideology, former territories wanting to get back, but the political influence on the region of the former Ottoman Empire is wanted back ", said the former presidential advisor Michael Ivanov.

Before the elections in Bulgaria, Turkish President Erdogan was criticized for exerting pressure on the Turkish minority. (picture alliance / AP Images | Kayhan Ozer)

In the past ten years, Turkey has supported two party foundations in Bulgaria. But so far they have not been able to assert themselves with the Bulgarian Turks.

When Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently sent a video message to the DPS party conference, he spoke of the "brothers and sisters in Bulgaria", and his words also spread on social networks in Bulgaria.

Turkey's attraction is waning

Mehment Yumer: "The influence of the Erdogan media in Bulgaria is particularly dangerous. We are mainly watching Turkish channels here. Of course, this also has an impact on our society when Bulgarian Muslims are shown, for example, Hagia Sophia from morning to evening in Istanbul is being transformed from a museum to a mosque. "

The further European integration of the EU country Bulgaria is all the more important. Even if Turkey is still the most important foreign policy reference point for the Turkish minority, surveys show that its appeal is weakening, especially among the younger urban population.

In addition, since Bulgaria joined the EU in 2007, society has become more liberal, more diverse and the slowly growing prosperity is also leading to more self-confidence among the Turks, observes Michail Ivanov, minority adviser to the former Bulgarian President Schelew: "Many people were in the West and have international experience. Others have had a good education, found a good job. The situation has changed. You no longer have to beg the local head of the Turkish Party to open a shop in the city. You have become more independent. "