Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Some scholars have sought to show that the Turks of modern Bulgaria are descended from Christian Bulgarians who, during the period of Ottoman rule, gave up both their religion and their language. Others assert that Bulgarian Turks are the descendants either of ethnic Turks who moved into the territory after the fourteenth century or of Turkic tribes that settled in Bulgaria during an even earlier period. Turks live in compact communities in the south of the country in the Arda basin, and in the north-east Dobrudja region. There are also Turkish villages scattered along the central and eastern Stara Planina. According to the 2011 census, of those who were willing to identity their ethnicity, 8.8 per cent identified as Turks in Bulgaria. Most Turks live in rural areas.
Prior to the communist take-over, Turks were permitted their own Turkish-language schools, both religious and secular, which followed a separate curriculum. They had their own religious administration and ecclesiastical courts. Cultural segmentation led to most Turks being unable to function in the Bulgarian language. A survey conducted in 1946 revealed that about half of the Turkish population did not understand Bulgarian.
Communist policy initially respected Turkish-language culture and education while endeavouring to make Turkish students fluent in Bulgarian. Assimilation policy began to affect Turks seriously in 1958, when Turkish-language schools began to be merged with Bulgarian-language ones. By 1975, the teaching of Turkish had been eliminated from the curriculum altogether, and after 1984, newspapers and magazines intended for Turks appeared only in the Bulgarian language. In 1984-1985 the government embarked upon a policy of forcing Turks to adopt Bulgarian names. Simultaneously, bans were imposed on Muslim religious practices and fines were also imposed for the speaking of Turkish in public places. Resistance to the name-changing campaign led to dismissal from employment, arrests and killings. Throughout the campaign, the government claimed that the name-changing was both voluntary and an aspect of the forging of a ‘unified socialist state’.
Mass protests and hunger strikes among Turks began in 1989 and were countered by violent police actions and by the expulsion of Turkish leaders to Turkey. Their departure was followed by a mass emigration of Turks beginning in June 1989. Although many Turks were intimidated into leaving, the majority appear to have left voluntarily. By the end of August 1989, about 350,000 Turks had left Bulgaria. The majority of the emigrants were unable to leave with many possessions and were forced to sell their homes or to cancel rental agreements on disadvantageous terms. With the end of the oppressive communist regime in 1989, many Turks spent only a brief period in Turkey, and by January 1990 about 130,000 had returned.
In December 1989, the Social Council of Citizens, appointed by the new government, recommended that Turks be given the right ‘to choose their own names, practise Islam, observe traditional customs and speak Turkish in everyday life’. In March 1990, the National Assembly passed the Names of Bulgarian Citizens Act, reinstating the right of all Muslims, including Turks, to choose their own names. Legislation passed between 1990 and 1992 facilitated the return of property to Turks who had left the country in 1989 and allowed the teaching of the Turkish language in schools as an extra-curricular subject. With the lifting of restrictions, religious instruction recommenced in mosques and mechets (religious schools), of which there are over 920 in Bulgaria, and copies of the Koran became freely available.
Even as the government improved respect for Turkish rights, an ensuing decline of the tobacco industry affected the Turkish community disproportionately. By the mid-1990s, more than 25 per cent of Turks were unemployed, as opposed to 14.4 per cent of ethnic Bulgarians. Economic disadvantage prompted the continued emigration of ethnic Turks to Turkey. According to figures released by the Turkish Government in October 1992, 160,000 Bulgarian Turks had entered Turkey in the preceding nine months.
Despite a provision in the 1991 Constitution banning ethnically and religiously-based political parties, the predominantly ethnic Turkish Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS) narrowly escaped abolition by the authorities.
The Turkish Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS) is currently the third largest party, and has previously been part of several Bulgarian coalition governments. However, right-wing parties have been favoured as coalition partners of the GERB, now the largest party in Bulgaria. They have previously campaigned for Turkish language lessons to be made compulsory for Turkish students in public schools. Under current laws the language course is elective and the use of Turkish during public election campaigning is banned. The study of Turkish as a mother tongue has deteriorated over time. In the 2014/2015 school year, 6,381 Turkish students studied their mother tongue – less than half the number enrolled in the 2005/2006 school year.
Prior to the elections of 2013 and 2014 a number of DPS candidates were fined for speaking Turkish in villages populated predominantly by ethnic Turks. Subsequently, in moves designed to appeal to the ethnic Bulgarian majority, the coalition government, prompted by the right-wing Patriotic Front, suggested moving the twice-daily Turkish news bulletins from the national broadcasting stations to cable channels. DPS publicly opposed the idea, as did ethnic Turks in Bulgaria and Turkey.
In a further attempt to undermine DPS, the Patriotic Front moved for Parliament to amend the Election Code to limit the formation of electoral sections abroad in non-EU member states. This was widely interpreted as a measure to reduce votes from Bulgarian citizens in Turkey – mostly ethnic Turks who were expelled or emigrated during the communist regime in Bulgaria.
Sparked by the hostile reaction to the large influx of asylum seekers at the end of 2013, high levels of anti-Muslim rhetoric have inflamed negative attitudes towards Turks amongst others. Xenophobic slogans daubed on mosques often target Turks alongside other ethnic groups.
Updated July 2018
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