Around 350,000 ethnic Turks were forced to flee from Bulgaria because of the communist regime and its leader Todor Zhivkov's assimilation policy in 1989. Bulgarian nationalism intensified under the communist regime. This authoritarian nationalism failed to recognize not only Turkish but also any alternative national or ethnic identities. One of the main motivations for the Communist Party to conduct such a mass exodus was an attempt to persecute all cultural, religious and non-Bulgarian elements to modernize and homogenize Bulgarian society, which was a popular political perspective in the construction of the modern nation-state in the 19th century.
In addition to such a massive emigration, many of the remaining Turks in Bulgaria were killed, tortured or imprisoned in Belene camps, which were notorious for their bad conditions and torture, an equivalent to the Soviet Union's gulags. Despite several nationalist policies banning the Turkish language, Turkish names and cultural customs, Turks constantly struggled to keep their identity alive. Eventually, the vicious cycle in the conflict turned into a virtuous cycle when the democratic transition period started in 1989.
A new phase in Bulgaria
May 1989 marks the end of the Communist regime in Bulgaria and many other Balkan states, which enabled Turks to attain greater freedom and live their culture at a greater level. Since the Turkish community in Bulgaria has been well-organized and has had an awareness and consciousness of their political rights, they established a political movement that was called the Rights and Freedoms Party (RFP), using the opportunity provided by the collapse of the communist regime; thus,
1989 is a transition period in Bulgaria from communism to a bit of democracy. After 1989, almost 162 political parties were established, and four were founded mainly by Turks: The Democratic Progress Movement, Democratic Justice Party, Turkish Democrat Party and the Rights and Freedoms Party, which has been the largest and most influential Turkish-oriented party.
Meanwhile, the first democratic constitution was accepted in Bulgaria in 1991. While Bulgaria faced drastic changes in that period, the Turkish community became the main component of the Bulgarian state. The RFP won 23 seats in a parliament of 400 in a runoff election held in 1990. This achievement has continued until today, and the RFP even became a part of the coalition government in 2001, a historic moment for the Turkish community and the Republic of Turkey.
On the other hand, despite the end of attempts at assimilating Turks after the collapse of the communist regime in 1989, there have still been different forms of social and political pressures on Turks in Bulgaria. For example, they are some restrictions with regard to getting together as a group, a certain level of censorship and self-censorship. Two people who work for the Dost Party (Democrats for Responsibility, Solidarity and Tolerance), a political party established by Turks, were expelled by the Bulgarian government during the 2017 election to prevent Turkey's influence in the election.
Bulgaria's Turkish community
As the Turkish community has an organic and spiritual connection with Turks in Turkey, experiences and developments in Bulgaria were never outside the Turkish authorities' agenda. The Turkish community in Bulgaria is very important to Turkey not only as a connection with Turkish society but also for its capacity as an actor in politics in the European Union since the RFP has the potential to enter the European Parliament where it had four seats in the European Parliament in 2014.
Thus, the Turkish state and Turkish society in Bulgaria need each other in different contexts and grounds. The Turkish government performs a variety of successful policies and projects with the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TİKA) and the Yunus Emre Institute and enhanced strategies to develop relations with different segments of society in Bulgaria are needed. Thus, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are very important to reach different sections of society and deal with social issues. Since civil society organizations can have an independent and impartial structure and create common spaces to bring people together, it is important to increase their financial and institutional capacity and develop mutual relations with them. At this point, supporting civil society organizations (CSOs) to increase their financial and institutional capacity can help enlarge the space for the Turkish community in Bulgaria.
In addition, some symbolic values and spiritual leaders are respected by different sections of society and politicians even Bulgarian people such as Sarı Saltuk, who was a dervish promoting tolerance, compassion, love and togetherness on the Balkan Peninsula. Evrenos Gazi was another celebrity figure in the eye of Turkish and Muslim people and Christians. Such symbolic figures can be more frequently mentioned projects conducted by Turkish authorities in Bulgaria.
Another point is that economic and welfare conditions are undeveloped, particularly in regions where Turkish people live. Thus, Turkish people generally migrate to other European countries to work and have a better life so Turkey can present different economic conditions to these people in the Turkish market to promote them working in Turkey rather than European countries.
Furthermore, it is necessary to support different economic methods to improve their lives, which can be guided by Turkish economists to advance Turkey's leverage in the eye of Turks.
Since a diaspora can be an important bridge in regional and international politics for states to be effective, build networks in the international arena, and develop efficient policies, the Turkish diaspora in Europe can strengthen Turkey's hand in European countries. In Bulgaria, the Turkish community has the ability to create opportunities for Turkish foreign policy for Bulgaria and the European Union.
The lack of a comprehensive and reasonable road map for Turks in Bulgaria may escalate existing tension between Turkish people and the Bulgarian state and may negative impact Turkish foreign policy.
Since Turkey has had a proactive approach in foreign policy for the last 17 years under the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) and developed multiple soft power tools through institutions and civil society organizations, there are several opportunities in Bulgaria. Turkey needs more alliances and peaceful relations with its neighbors to foster Turkish goals in different regions, particularly after the unfolding of crises on all sides of Turkey in the Middle East, the Mediterranean and the Aegean.
* Researcher at Sabancı University