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Vol 3, No 25
10 September 2001
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A Multiethnic Future
An Interview with Vladimir Chukov
Sam Vaknin

Central Europe Review: Are not Bulgarians actually Turks? They are, after all, the descendants of the Bulgars, Turkic tribes that originated from the steppes to the north of the Black Sea and invaded the Balkan only as late as the 6th century AD.

Vladimir Chukov: First of all, I would like to underline that there are many theories concerning the origin of the Bulgarians. We have to distinguish between "Bulgarian" on the national level from "Bulgarian" on the tribal levels. There is no doubt that the Bulgarian nation is a product of the fusion of three tribes during the early Middle Ages (about 6-7 century AD): Bulgars, Slavs and Thracians. The first ethnic community played a leading role in the establishment of the state (which officially started with Byzantine recognition in 681), because they formed the core of the army and the nobility.

Their political leader (the khan) and political traditions had been imposed on the newly founded state. Therefore, they were the ones to give their name to the newly established nation. It is unclear what was the number, the influence, and real contribution of each group within Bulgarian socio-political processes. The majority of Bulgarian historians share the idea that Slavs were numerically superior to the Bulgars. If true, then certainly the current Bulgarian people is not of Turkic origin. As time passed, this matter acquired a political interpretative aspect.

During the first half of the Third Bulgarian State (1878 to 1944), Bulgarian historiography emphasized the Bulgar origin, as opposed to the second half (1944 to 1989), which was dominated by pro-Soviet history.

During Communist rule, local historians attempted to show that Bulgarians actually remain predominantly Slav and focused on Slavic solidarity and the close relationship with the Russians. As far as the origins of the Bulgar tribe itself, two main theories exist: that they are descendants from the Turks or from the Huns. I would not venture to comment of the reliability of either historical hypotheses. In general, we can admit to the Turkic origin of the Bulgar tribe on a historical hypothetical level only.

The Bulgarians collaborated with the invading Ottoman Turks against the Catholic West. The most notorious example is when they fought against the crusade initiated by Pope Urban V to liberate Adrianople in 1364. Tsar Ivan Shishman even declared himself a vassal of Murad in 1371, before the Ottomans captured him and subjugated the Bulgarian Empire. This east-bound propensity (later towards the Russian Empire and the USSR)—how can it be reconciled with the current professed EU orientation?

The historical examples you mentioned were bad foreign policy options that Bulgaria must never repeat. Each tactical compromise and "political myopia" may be fatal for the next generations. As far as Tsar Ivan Shishman's policy is concerned, in 1364 he allied himself with the Ottoman Turks temporarily against the Hungarians of Pope Urban V and his mortal enemy Byzantium. So, he did not fight with the Turks against the West as represented by the Pope, but he declared war on the eternal Byzantine antagonist due to a lack of foresight.

Unfortunately, Ivan Shishman "had seen the branch, but he did not mention the wood." As far as Bulgarian dependence on the Russian Empire and the USSR is concerned, I think that it would be quite appropriate to regard this period as a part of the pro- and anti-Russia specifics of Bulgarian foreign policy decision-making. Bulgaria was a Soviet satellite in the 45 years (1944 to 1989) following the Red Army invasion. Inversely, the Kingdom of Bulgaria was traditionally an ally of Germany during the First and the Second World War. Thus, the pro- and anti-West European orientations remain balanced within the contemporary period.

I can say that there is no contradiction between the current EU and NATO aspirations of Bulgaria and its Communist past. Only conjectural circumstances resulting from external factors made Bulgaria hesitate on the path of (the complex) adhesion to the family of European nations. By "external factors," I mean the five centuries of Ottoman rule and the half century of Soviet-Communist totalitarian rule that I consider as an imposed deviation from the normal development of the Bulgarian nation. There is something symbolic in King Simeon II winning the elections last June and becoming Prime Minister of Bulgaria. This obviously confirmed the pro-EU and NATO foreign orientation of the majority of Bulgarian governments after the democratic shift in 1989.

Some revisionist historians in the West say that the "Ottoman Yoke" period of incorporation of Bulgaria in the pax Ottomanica was actually a blessing. Peace prevailed for five centuries, the nobility converted to Islam, Bulgarians reached top ranks in the Ottoman Janissary army, the population prospered in an atmosphere of religious tolerance and administrative functioning, and local laws and community institutions were honoured and sustained—at least until Turkey became the "sick man of Europe." What is your view?

Yes, you're right to some extent in suggesting that the Bulgarian people lived in an atmosphere of religious tolerance and administrative comfort. The conditions of life depended on the internal situation of the Ottoman Empire. The more the state of the Turkish Sultans prospered, the more the social status of the Bulgarian population benefited. Up to 1856 (the Crimean War), the Bulgarian notability reached top ranks in the Ottoman administration.

Nevertheless, let us not forget the Janissary army. All Bulgarian boys in it were kidnapped from their families and had been forced to convert to Islam at the age of five to seven years. This act is a result of the so-called "bloody tax" dafcharme imposed on the Christian peoples living within the Ottoman Empire. In practice, those people had not been considered Bulgarian and they did not consider themselves Bulgarians, too. The manner of the "recruitment" of the Ottoman Janissary army remains one of the "black pages" of Bulgarian history during the five centuries of Turkish rule.

So, we have to distinguish between the military (Janissary) and the civil parts of the Bulgarian elite during the aforementioned period. Despite all this, Bulgarians remained raya of the Turkish Sultans. In short, they occupied the status of ahl al dhima according to Shariah law. It means that they were "second class" people within the system of private law. In court, a Muslim's testimony was always considered as more trustworthy than a Christian's.

This injustice embedded in private law provoked a proportionate shift in public law towards the establishment of a Bulgarian state that would equalize the legal standing of both religions. Thus, the incorporation of Bulgaria in the pax Ottomanica was merely a partial process. Predominantly, Bulgarians themselves felt comfortable up to the end of the 16th to 17th century when the Ottoman army was defeated in Vienna. Later, the crises-ridden Turkey became a burden.

Can you tell the readers more about the phenomenon of the Pomaks?

In short, the genesis of the Pomaks in Bulgaria is comparable that of the Bosniaks in Bosnia and Hercegovina and the Turbeshi in Macedonia.

This specific group belongs to the ethnic majority, but they changed their faith (from Christianity to Islam) during Ottoman rule of the Balkan Peninsula due to various reasons. Bulgarian historians share the idea that the Islamization of these ethnic Bulgarians lasted throughout the 17th century. There are several theories on how they converted to Islam (by force or voluntary).

I think that one can distinguish three groups of Islamized Bulgarians. The biggest group issues from the heirs of the Bogomils (radical anti-Christian Orthodox sect very popular among the Bulgarian peasants). The Ottoman authorities considered those people as pagans, not as Christians. So, according to Shariah law, they had to be Islamized by force.

The second group comprised a part of the local Christian nobility. The religious conversion was voluntary. Maybe the motives for this act were commercial. Christians in the Islamic state were subject to the ahl al dhima status. It resulted in the payment of additional duty called djizie that was proportional to one's wealth. Christian victims of religious genocide and violence composed the third group.

It is estimated that there are between 200,000 to 300,000 Bulgarian Pomaks. They live predominantly in the mountain areas in south and southwest Bulgaria (bordering Greece), in a hermetic, conservative and patriarchal social climate which emphasizes the conservation of family values and instinctive kindness. Their political behaviour is very specific. Traditionally, they support the political party in power as a result of a concealed psychological complex of inferiority.

In 1991, Kamen Burov, from the village Jeltousha, attempted to establish a political entity claiming to defend the Pomaks' political interests—the Democratic Party of Labour (DPL). He failed because, in the 1994 parliamentary elections, the DPL won only 0.1 percent of the popular vote. The Bulgarian Pomaks remained a monolithic community religiously, psychologically and regionally. They demonstrate strict loyalty to the Bulgarian state. Currently, they again massively support the ruling National Movement Simeon II.

When did the migration of poor Turkish peasants to Bulgaria start and what were the geographic dispersion and the demographic and socio-economic profile of the newcomers? How did the local population react to them at first?

The expression "poor Turkish peasants" is quite relative within the context of the Middle Ages. The Balkan Peninsula, including the Bulgarian territories, witnessed several migration waves which started in the second half of the 14th century. I am talking about the triumphant Ottoman army composed by nomad warriors coming from Anatolia and seeking new lands for booty. In summary, their socio-economic characteristics were as follows:

1. They were warriors who, after the victory, had been given the management of the conquered Bulgarian lands (not in order to work it and thus gain a livelihood);
2. They imposed by force the Asiatic values system and the social profile of the non-settled military;
3. The land remained strictly the Sultan's property;
4. Mehmet I (1413 to 1431) institutionalized the "spahia system" as a symbiosis between the military and the rural Ottoman spheres.

As far as the geographic dispersion of the Turkish newcomers is concerned, they preferred to settle in the garrison centers such as Shumen, Silistra and Russe in northeast Bulgaria, as well as in the small valley towns. In the mountain areas and the villages, the Turks encountered violent resistance. The Bulgarian people were scared by the new conquerors. Indeed, the low status groups did not feel that different from the new rulers in economic and especially fiscal aspects. In practice, Bulgarian peasants remained to work in communities and paid the same taxes and duties.

The nobility (Boliars) was different. Some converted to Islam (for example Tsar Ivan Shishman's son, Alexander, who renamed himself Eskander). Another part of the nobility, as well as the clergy, left the country and migrated to Russia and Serbia. Thus, by the end of the 14th century the Bulgarian state, weakened by feudal wars, underestimated the Ottoman threat and lost its political independence. At the same time, this was when the second wave of Bulgarian political ideas spread to Russia. (after the 10th century period, when both the Orthodox Christianity and the Slavic alphabet similarly spread).

The hostility between Bulgarians and Turks has a long history. The re-settlement of Turkish refugees from lands conquered by Christians in Bulgarian ciftliks, the guerrilla warfare between Turkish gangs and Bulgarian haiduks, the Plovdiv massacre ("The Bulgarian Horrors"). What was the contribution of this constant friction to re-emerging Bulgarian nationalism? In other words, did Bulgarian nationalism define itself in opposition to all things Turk or to all things Greek?

Nationalism emerged as collective defence instinct, gradually transformed into a permanent and stable feeling, oriented towards fighting the appropriate state enemies during the Enlightenment period. Later, in the era of the building of the modern states (the 19th century), nationalism became a well-conceptualized political theory, whose main characteristic was negativism. The newly established state-nations (including in those in southeast Europe) found themselves in competition with all their presumptive antagonists. The neighbouring states were predominantly perceived as those protagonists. Accumulated mistrust resulting from the Middle Ages and the wars in modern times, as well as frustration, were the leading expressions of the collective political culture.

I consider modern nationalism as a leading factor in the disloyal rivalry between neighbouring nations. Within this framework, I admit that Bulgarian nationalism rose as a collective outlook opposed to all neighbouring states, including Turkey and Greece. Notwithstanding that, nationalism as an emotionally motivated theory identified very correctly the most dangerous antagonists.

Indeed, during the 13 centuries of Bulgarian existence, the most aggressive (as well as competitive) remained both Turkey and Greece. It does not mean that Bulgarian nationalism underestimated Serbia and Romania as potential threats (the Balkan Wars in 1912 to 1913). But Bulgaria suffered five centuries of Ottoman rule (1396 to 1878) and more than one century of Byzantine rule (1018 to 1186). Thus, Bulgarian nationalism as conceptualized political negativism was only more radically inclined towards the Turkish and the Greek neighbours just because they succeeded in building empires and to truly threaten Bulgarian existence.

The Bulgarian land reform at the end of the 19th century was long a model of equity and the formation of a smallholders' middle class. Yet, it was done at the expense of Turkish land owners and peasants. Did it transform the relationship between these two nations on Bulgarian soil?

At the end of the 19th century, 80 percent of all Bulgarian people lived off agriculture. 80 percent of Bulgarian peasants were smallholders or landless.

Land reform was implemented among this majority because of the lack of a national nobility class. Thus, egalitarian "paint" and radical "rays" during and after the revolutionary political changes had characterized the land reform which started in 1878. The newly created public law relationship demanded adequate economic and social shifts. Some Bulgarian historians call the concerned land reform an "agrarian coup."

As a whole, there were two main periods:

First, during the war between Russia and the Ottoman Empire in 1877 to 1878, some Turkish peasants left the country together with the Ottoman army. Landless Bulgarian peasants took possession the abandoned lands. Later, the Bulgarian administration demanded that the new owners return the land. At the same time, an inverse refugee wave (Bulgarians from Thrace who remained under Turkish and Greek jurisdiction) had been directed to these lands and settled in them. The majority of Turkish peasants had not been forced to leave. Therefore, in 1879, ten percent of the Bulgarian deputies who elaborated and voted for the first Bulgarian Constitution were of Turkish origin.

Second, in the mid-1880s, after the revolutionary events ended and the new administration stabilized, there was a slow influx of returning former Turkish peasants. As a matter in fact, some rural properties remained abandoned after they had fled. Actually, the Bulgarian government was interested in increasing the skilled rural labour force. The land reform was an inevitable measure of the new Bulgarian state. It may be characterized as equitable, but bearing in mind two specific details:

1. Up to 1878, 60 percent of the fertile lands were in the possession of Muslims. In the 1860s, the former Ottoman authorities massively settled by force Tartars and Gerkassians in Bulgaria, aiming to change the ethnic profile of the peasantry working on Bulgarian lands.

2. The Bulgarian government encountered a series of setbacks and, in practice, abstained from the implementation of agrarian reform in the northeast and southeast because the Turkish army did not withdraw from these districts in accordance with San Stefano agreement (1878). Indeed, these soldiers remained in Bulgaria with their families. The mentioned events were specific for Shumen, Russe, Silistra, Razgrad, Kardjali, etc.

In this way, the actual Turkish minority predominantly descends from the Turkish soldiers who settled and owned the arable lands around the above-mentioned towns. They endeavoured sincerely to adapt themselves to the Bulgarian majority and to the new political realities. This process was facilitated by the government's tolerance. Additionally, the Turkish community benefited from the non-expropriated rural ownership. I admit that the land reform at the end of 19th century was one of the most serious tests of the Bulgarian state and its multi-ethnic society. Its social equity led gradually to decisive steps towards the establishment of sustainable coexistence and religious tolerance between the Christian majority and the Muslim minority.

Why did the Communist government seek to "Bulgarize" the Turkish minority? Can you describe the measures taken, how many people they affected, how did the Bulgarian population react to them, etc? Why did 300,000 Turks leave Bulgaria as refugees?

There are several hypotheses regarding the so-called "revival process" among the academic community. No one has found official documents issued by the Central Committee of the Communist Party or the State Council of the former People's Republic of Bulgaria on this matter. It is worthwhile to mention two versions.

The first points to Moscow as the principal inspiration. Gorbachev, the Soviet leader at the time, was interested in removing the last Bulgarian Communist President Todor Jivkov during the first stage of his Perestroika, because Jivkov was one of its radical opponents. The brutal assimilation of the Turkish population was intended to provoke active international opprobrium and international isolation of Jivkov's regime, leading to his ousting.

The second version is related to strict internal reasons, the principal one being the ethnic lack of balance within Bulgarian society in mid 1980s, the outcome of the strong negative growth rate of the Bulgarian ethnicity and the inverse positive growth of the Turks and the other Muslims (Pomaks, Gypsies, etc). The ethnic cleansing aimed to maintain the existing ethnic profile after the Politburo estimated that the presence of more than 1.5 million Muslims would certainly lead to official demands for autonomy—and later to a Bulgarian-Turkish federation.

I share the opinion that the "revival process" was a product of a small group of political non-intelligent and uneducated adventurers who initiated an act whose significance they did not understand. Jivkov and his most loyal collaborators among the Politburo members such as M Balev, D Stoyanov, P Kobadinski, Al Lilov, etc, decided to overcome the deep crisis of the Communist regime by diverting public attention towards the Turks and the other minorities.

The measures taken were organized and implemented by the police and the army. After the violent antigovernment demonstrations in April 1986, the Politburo created Special Forces for the struggle against the collective resistance. As a whole, the measures included:

1. Changing Turkish-Arab names into Slavic ones;
2. Prohibiting the speaking of mother tongues (especially the Turkish language) in public areas;
3. Re-settlement of the Turkish-Muslim minority from the so called "mixed regions" to areas dominated by a Bulgarian majority with the aim of breaking the compact character of the Turkish community;
4. Limiting the freedom of Islamic worship;
5. Organizing social pressure upon the Turkish minority by maintaining a high level of unemployment and aiming to push them to migrate to Turkey.

The above-mentioned measures affected approximately 1.5 million people. The majority of the affected minority groups were forced into accepting the imposed measures. Some Turkish intellectuals collaborated with the authorities, others founded an illegal resistant movement that gave rise, following the fall of the Communist regime, to the current political party of Bulgarian Turks—the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF).

Despite several demonstrations planned by the Communist regime in support of the "revival process," the Bulgarian population sympathized with its compatriots from the minorities. In general, Bulgarians perceived the events as a national nightmare, whose resonance instinctively reinforced the dissidents' resistance.

In April and May 1986, about 300,000 Turks left the country. Most of them refused to change their names, others were forced to seek a job in neighbouring Turkey. Unfortunately, the economic reason for Turkish migration is still there. Between 20,000 and 30,000 Turks are still leaving Bulgaria annually.

The Turkish population still constitutes circa nine percent of the population and are politically often represented in the opposition (though not currently). Are the current relations with ethnic Bulgarians tense? Is the past still alive? Any prognosis?

The Turkish community make up approximately eight to ten percent of the population and as such remains the biggest minority group. It makes important efforts towards gradual integration in Bulgarian society by focusing on surmounting the negative consequences of the "revival process" on the legislative, economic, political and psychological levels. The Bulgarian parliament has voted through a series of laws for the restoration of Turk-Arab names through an easy administrative procedure. In 1998, at the MRF's insistence, parliament approved the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities.

Despite the MRF becoming the third national political entity, with an outstanding organizational presence, the nationalist prejudices of the Union of Democratic Forces (UDF) and the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) prevented the establishment of a real partnership with the party of the ethnic Turks. So, the post-Communist bipolar system based on confrontation marginalized the MRF and pushed it away from real involvement in the political power. The concealed political tension reached its culmination when, in 1991, the BSP referred the MRF's legal status and existence to the Constitutional Court and when, in 2001, Ivan Kostov, the former UDF leader and Prime Minister, declared that the MRF is a curse for Bulgaria.

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On 17 June 2001, the ex-King Simeon won the parliamentary elections and demonstrated a clever style of coalition-building and partnering. For the first time, MRF entered a ruling coalition as a result of an official agreement on the basis of equal rights with the leading party. The Turks received two ministers, five deputy ministers, three governors (including in the capital Sofia) and eight deputy governors.

This formula can serve as a precedent for political practice in southeast Europe. I exclude the Macedonian case because I am doubtful of its future. I can compare the current Bulgarian construct with the Bosnian-Croatian federation not by way of legal status, but as a philosophy for multi-ethnic co-existence. Despite the disintegration of former Yugoslavia, it seemed to be a successful working-formula in southeast Europe because of the European standards with regards to the requirements of the protection of human rights and the possibilities for attracting investments from the Moslem countries.

I think that with the MRF's involvement in government, Bulgaria has taken a serious step towards solving the problems of the Turkish minority. At the same time, I guess, aggravating the problems of the other big minority in the country—the Gypsies.

Sam Vaknin, 10 September 2001

Vladimir Chukov is Associate Professor in the Bulgarian Centre for Middle East Studies and the Department of Administrative and Political Sciences at Varna Free University.

The author:

The author is General Manager of Capital Markets Institute Ltd, a consultancy firm with operations in Macedonia and Russia. He is an Economic Advisor to the Government of Macedonia.

DISCLAIMER: The views presented by the author in this article represent only the personal opinions and judgments of the author.

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