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22 Dec 10

Ottoman Past Dogs Sofia-Ankara Relations

Bulgarian society remains hugely hostile to Turkish influence over domestic and regional affairs. But as nationalists continue to court anti-Turk sentiment, economists warn Sofia ignores “the China of Europe” at its peril.

Yana Buhrer Tavanier Sofia

Three nights a week, at precisely 19.55, Margarita Petrova settles into her armchair in front of the TV, cup of tea to hand, in her Sofia apartment. The 70-year-old retired scientist, along with on average 58 per cent of all Bulgarians watching TV at this time, is preparing to savour the latest installment of the Turkish soap opera Leaf Fall.

Leaf Fall is a drama about a large family which moves from a small Turkish town to Istanbul. It is the most popular show on Bulgarian TV this year. Millions are tuning in to watch the father, the key protagonist, struggle to maintain traditional moral values following their move to the city.

Petrova seems oblivious to the irony of her dedication to this Turkish soap, as she sips tea sitting beneath a picture of Vasil Levski, a Bulgarian national hero who fought the Turks, and next to books detailing atrocities committed in Bulgaria under Ottoman rule.

In fact, if you ask her, Petrova will tell you she does not want Turkish friends and that she recently signed a petition – along with more than 300,000 others – against Turkey’s entry to the European Union (EU).

Petrova’s love of Leaf Fall aptly illustrates the nature of Bulgarian relations with its southern neighbour – a love-hate relationship that has been regularly soured by rising nationalism, inter-ethnic grievances and a preoccupation with the past at the expense of the future.

Bulgaria was part of the Ottoman Empire for almost 500 years, until the Russian-Ottoman War 1877-78. It is a period of history that Bulgarians still find painful. Bulgaria’s national holiday, held on March 3, marks the nation’s liberation from “the Turkish yoke” – the preferred term for Ottoman rule.

When asked to describe life under the Ottomans, most Bulgarians will tell you about women being raped, the abduction of children, mass killings, the destruction of churches and monasteries and the razing of villages. The veracity of these events is confirmed in historical accounts found in Sofia’s libraries, school books, literature and art.

Yet around 10 per cent of the Bulgarian population – roughly 7m people in total – is of Turkish ethnic origin. They are the largest minority group in the country, living mostly in rural areas in southeastern and northeastern Bulgaria.

Ethnic Turk exodus

The Great Excursion

The 1989 mass exodus of at least 300,000 ethnic Turks from Bulgaria was a result of the communist regime's ‘assimilation’ policy.

The expulsion of ethnic Turks from Bulgaria became know as the ‘Great Excursion’.

Villages and towns with majority ethnic Turk populations were surrounded by army vehicles, forced to take new names and destroy all signs of Turkish identity.

“It usually happened in the middle of the night. The rumble of army trucks and the blinding glare of searchlights would disturb the sleep of an ethnic Turkish village.

“Militiamen would then burst into every home and thrust a photocopied form in front of the man of the house, in which he was to write the new Bulgarian names of every member of his family. Those who refused or hesitated watched as their wives or daughters were raped by the militiamen.

 “According to Amnesty International and western diplomats, the militiamen beat up thousands and executed hundreds. Thousands more were imprisoned or driven into internal exile.”

Balkan Ghosts: A Journey Through History by Robert Kaplan

Relations between ethnic Turks and the rest of the Bulgarian population have often been tense. Under the communist regime that governed Bulgaria from 1946 to 1989, ethnic minorities were frequently targeted under the guise of ‘assimilation’ programmes.

Communist leaders played on people’s fears that Turkey would seek to annex parts of Bulgaria that were predominantly ethnic Turk and Muslim. These fears were exacerbated after Ankara invaded ethnic Turk-majority northern Cyprus in 1974, following an Athens-backed military coup on the island. 

In the eighties, the communist regime presided over a particularly fierce and prolonged assimilation campaign. From 1984, the government forced all Muslims to adopt Bulgarian names and renounce Muslim customs.

Turkish towns and villages were surrounded by army units. Citizens were issued new identity cards with Bulgarian names. Traditional Turkish clothing was banned, homes were searched and all signs of Turkish identity removed. Even Turkish names engraved on gravestones were replaced with Bulgarian ones.

Hundreds of ethnic Turks were killed for protesting against or attempting to resist ‘assimilation’ measures. Thousands were sent to labour camps or forcibly deported.

In May 1989, travel restrictions - for ethnic Turks only - were relaxed. Within months more than 300,000 ethnic Turks fled Bulgaria for Turkey, Austria and other countries.

While the fall of communism in late 1989 led to a reversal of the assimilation policy it also - as in other eastern European countries - exposed long-standing grievances between different ethnic communities.

As ethnic Turks won the right to re-adopt their Muslim names and customs in 1991, ethnic Bulgarians became increasingly nervous of ‘Islamification’ and the old fears that Ankara would seek to annex Muslim-majority Bulgarian territory resurfaced.

"Turkey is still seen as a threat to Bulgarians who know about their southern neighbour only from what they have read in chauvinist and xenophobic communist-era history books or have never travelled or learned a foreign language,” says Matthew Brunwasser, journalist and regular contributor to The New York Times and The International Herald Tribune, who has spent many years in Sofia and is now based in Istanbul.

Rising nationalism

These fears are played upon by many nationalists in Bulgaria. The nationalist party VMRO (Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation) has so far collected more than 300,000 signatures calling for a referendum to be held allowing Bulgarians to vote for or against Turkey's accession to the EU.

This opposition to Turkish EU membership is rooted in widespread unease among Bulgarians at being on the ‘same side’ as Turkey.

“Entry to the EU was Bulgaria's long-awaited clear division line between itself and Turkey. Bulgarians can't accept the thought that they could again be on the same side of the line with Turkey,” explains social anthropologist Haralan Alexandrov.

Anti-Turkish rhetoric also featured prominently in the 2009 European and national parliamentary election campaigning by Ataka, another nationalist party. Ataka was duly elected to both and is now the fourth biggest political party in Bulgaria. 

Attempts to ease ethnic tensions have been hampered by various corruption scandals linked to, in particular, the ethnic Turk Movement for Rights and Freedoms party, the MRF. Up until 2009, the MRF was part of the ruling coalition government.

Ahmed Dogan, the MRF leader, was jailed by the communist leadership in the 1980s after resisting the assimilation campaign. After the fall of communism, he was also found to have collaborated with communist-era state security.

He is equally famous for publicly stating on June 23, 2005, during an interview broadcast by one of Bulgaria’s most popular television talk shows, that every political party is financed by “a ring of companies” which is a “direct outcome of parties’ help for these companies to get public procurement orders”.

In January 2011, the Supreme Administrative Court in Sofia will begin an appeal hearing of Dogan’s acquittal on conflict of interests charges. He received a 1m euro fee for consultancy work on a dam project. Dogan holds a philosophy degree and has no qualifications in civil engineering. Both Dogan and the MRF party strong deny any wrongdoing.

In addition to historical ill-feeling, Bulgarians fear that Turkey is seeking to increase its influence over Bulgaria’s domestic affairs via its links to the Bulgarian ethnic Turk community.

Even the broadcasting of Turkish soap operas on Bulgarian TV has been construed, by some, as an example of Ankara’s determination to manipulate and influence Bulgarian society by any means - including cultural.

While Bulgarian-Turkey relations have thawed as both nations forge closer political, economic and security ties - there have been significant and high-profile hiccups. The Bulgarian elite are, to put it mildly, nervous about Turkey’s potential as a huge regional power, especially with regard to Ankara’s EU membership bid.

Diplomatic rows

Boiko Borisov, the Bulgarian prime minister who took office in 2009, has publicly stated his support for Turkey’s accession to the EU. At the same time, however, his government has demonstrated a startling lack of real political strategy in relation to Turkey, while flexing its own political muscle.

In September 2010, Borisov cut short his attendance at a dinner hosted by Abdullah Gul, the Turkish president, at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York – despite being one of the main guests of honour.

The event was perceived as demonstration of Turkey's political and economic might. Diplomatic sources say that Gul’s, albeit late, appearance prompted wild applause from his guests. The Bulgarian PM was the only guest who did not rise to welcome him. 

• Only 15% of ethnic Bulgarians would marry someone of Turkish ethnic origin

• 36% would receive an ethnic Turk as a guest at home

• 40% would live in the same neighbourhood as ethnic Turks

• 41% would live in the same town, and 58% in the same country as ethnic Turks

• 14% would work in a company where people of Turkish ethnicity are in top management positions

• 52% would not object to working in companies where ethnic Turks held lower status jobs, such as cleaners

* Source: 2009 Open Society Institute survey      

Click here for the survey results in Bulgarian

Borisov’s behaviour was seen as a snub to Turkey and a riposte to Ankara’s posturing as a dominant force in the Balkans.

"Walking between the tables, Gul saw that I was sitting down. He probably understood that this demonstration on the part of Turkey was not appropriate for a meeting of equals, and came especially to shake my hand," Borisov later told the Bulgarian media.

Borisov's speech was pushed up the agenda, after which he went directly to Gul, telling him he had "more important business" to attend to, leaving an untouched dinner behind.

Another diplomatic row was sparked in January 2010, after Bozhidar Dimitrov, who recently resigned as minister for Bulgarians abroad, threatened Sofia would veto Turkey's EU bid if Ankara fails to compensate the 250,000 Bulgarians forced out of their homes in eastern Thrace - in modern day Turkey - during the Balkan War of 1913.

According to Dimitrov, the money owed to the descendants of the refugees amounts to more than 15bn euros (US $20bn).

"Getting the compensation issue solved is one of the many conditions for [our support for] Turkey to join the EU," Dimitrov told news agency Reuters. He also said Borisov would officially raise the issue with Turkey in the near future.

Borisov said that neither he, nor the cabinet, had been consulted on the compensation issue and that he had given minister Dimitrov "a last warning". Turkey's foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, later warned that Bulgaria’s resettlement compensation claims could harm bilateral ties.

A month after the New York dinner, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the Turkish prime minister, paid a one-day official visit to Bulgaria in order to rebuild confidence in bilateral ties.

At a joint press conference in Sofia, Erdoğan and Borisov made pledges of friendship. Observers noted another, perhaps more pressing, motivation for the reaffirmation of ties between the two nations: Ankara wanted Bulgaria’s support for the opening of energy negotiations with the EU.

In turn, Borissov announced Bulgaria would begin working with Turkey on a natural gas pipeline – destined to become part of the Nabucco gas pipline project – which would be “the first step in the diversification of gas supplies to Bulgaria”.

The Nabucco pipeline – also known as the Turkey-Austria pipeline – is intended to reduce European dependence on Russian energy supplies.

Turkey: ‘China of Europe’

However, seasoned political observers claim the Bulgarian side was unprepared for the meeting and failed to seize the opportunity to negotiate well and ask important questions. Many fear that Sofia preoccupation with the past is putting Bulgaria’s future economic and political wellbeing at risk.

“For the first time in decades Turkish foreign policy is not reactive, but pro-active. Turkey is slowly turning into a regional centre of influence,” says Ognian Georgiev, an international relations analyst for the Bulgarian weekly newspaper Capital.

“Its strategy towards Bulgaria is based on several factors: Bulgaria’s EU membership and all that derives from that, our economic potential, large populations with Turkish ethnicity in Bulgaria and with Bulgarian descent in Turkey. Bulgaria is passive, chronically incapable of using these opportunities.”

According to Georgiev, Bulgaria’s leadership has allowed bilateral ties with Turkey to dwindle to the level of loose links between the MRF and certain Turkish politicians.

"Bulgarian politicians need to start thinking long term, so they are adequately [prepared for] the realities. For the last 50 years bilateral relations boil down to the same things - compensation claims for the Thracian refugees, defining the marine border at the Rezovska River... That’s narrowing down the perspective.

“Turkey is an enormous economy that’s getting stronger by the day. It is the China of Europe. There’s a huge potential in economic cooperation with this country. However, Bulgaria is still not even capable of building a highway to the border, for Turkish goods to travel to Europe,” says Georgiev.
Turkey is a key trade partner for Bulgaria amongst the Balkan countries. According to the National Statistical Institute, NSI, 2010 exports to Turkey amounted to 2.1bn leva (approx 1bn euro). Turkish imports were valued at 1.6bn leva (839m euro).

The EU is Bulgaria’s biggest trading partner. Germany is the key EU member state in terms of Sofia’s trade relations; 2010 exports to Germany amounted to 2.3bn leva (1.1bn euro) and imports from Germany totalled 3.1bn leva (1.6bn euro).

"Death to the Turks!" 7 people like this
There are several anti-Turk pages on Facebook, such as a Bulgarian page entitled I hate the Turks and their rotten country!!! It is liked by 8, 418 people.

There are other, similar pages, but this one is the biggest. On the site there are comments like "Death to the Turks!" (7 people like this), "Ku Klux Klan" and "Let's turn them to soap! This is Bulgaria!" (5 people like this).

Turkey comes second only to Russia in terms of imported goods from non-EU countries. The NSI estimates 2010 exports to Russia amounted to 615m leva (314 euro) and imports from Russia were valued at 4.2bn leva (2.1 euro).

Latchezar Bogdanov and Georgi Ganev, two leading Bulgarian economists who published a report in 2006 on the economic consequences of Turkey’s accession to the EU, agree that relations with Ankara are key to securing Bulgaria’s economic health.

"For Bulgaria, Turkey’s EU accession should turn into a central topic for economic analysis. Turkey is very important because of its strategic geographic position, cheap workforce and a fast growing market.

“This means the EU integration of Turkey, and the application of acquis communautaire [European legislation EU candidates must adopt to become members] would lead to the sustainable improvement of the investments image of the Balkans and would play a lead role for the investment flow to Bulgaria,” say Bogdanov and Ganev.

While others note that the Bulgarian government has overseen an upturn in relations with Turkey, most stress that is largely down to Turkish efforts. Birgul Demirtas-Coskun, professor of international relations at Ankara’s Baskent University, warned Sofia must keep anti-Turk sentiment in check during a recent interview for Capital.

"From a Turkish perspective the most important thing is what the Bulgarian government says and does, and so far it underlines that it supports Turkey’s EU integration process.

“But let’s see how things develop, because the parties which are behind the referendum idea support the government. That’s why we have to see whether the cabinet will be influenced by these nationalistic parties,” she says.

It seems it is high time that Bulgaria turned its gaze, still fixed on the past, to the future. There are many opportunities in the offing and perhaps potential threats, that Sofia will be unable to respond to if it remains blind to them.  

This article was produced as part of the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence Alumni Initiative, established and supported by the Robert Bosch Stiftung and ERSTE Foundation.

"Death to the Turks!" 7 people like this

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