Dia Anagnostou. Journal of Southeast European & Black Sea Studies. Volume 5, Issue 1. January 2005.
The politics of ethnic minorities in post‐1989 Central East and Southeast Europe (CESE) has been characterized by an apparent paradox between, on the one hand, well‐integrated minority parties at the national level, on the other hand, strong demands for decentralization and local self‐government. This article examines the impact of post‐communist reforms, since the late 1990s taking place within the frame of European integration, on ethnic politics and state‐minority relations in CESE focusing on the case of ethnic Turks in Bulgaria. It argues that liberalization cum European integration in CESE states fundamentally transform inherited national divisions, and integrate minorities in existing political and state institutions. At the same time, such integration is constrained by the legacy of state socialism that consolidated ethnic differences by embedding them in economic‐territorial structures. In doing so, it set the frame for the growth of a fundamentally distinct minority politics on a regional basis that diverges as much from the traditional nation‐state model as from the liberal approach to post‐communist democracy, market reform and European integration.
The politicization of minorities in post‐communist Central East and Southeast Europe (CESE) has been characterized by an apparent paradox between, on the one hand, well‐integrated minority parties at the national level and, on the other hand, strong demands for decentralization and local self‐government. The rise of ethnic politicization in the post‐89 period was initially seen to reflect inherited ethnic cleavages that came to surface and mobilized after the ‘lid’ of communism was lifted and democratization ensued. From this ‘legacies of the past’ perspective, ethnic identities are largely being treated as givens. Divisions between states and minorities are arguably so entrenched in the political culture and history of CESE that they are likely to constrain the construction of liberal democracy and the processes of European integration in the region. Nationalist legacies are seen to be particularly intractable in Southeast Europe where the violent conflagrations in Yugoslavia and ongoing border disputes reinvigorated fear and suspicion of minorities. The region is considered the historical locus of an exclusive kind of ethnic nationalism contrasted to an inclusive civic nationalism purportedly prevailing in Central Europe.
From a divergent perspective, however, scholars seeking to understand and explain the politics of minorities in post‐communist CESE have challenged the view of inherited ethnic cleavages. Far from being an expression of historical ethnic divisions, such a politics is arguably centrally shaped by political and economic parameters defining the processes of democratization and post‐communist liberalization. Factors such as choices of political elites, party positions on key issues of reform, and established institutional frameworks of representation and participation arguably account for the degree of conflict and accommodation between minorities with majorities and the central state (Csergo 2002). Through the broad lens of this perspective, scholars have dwelled upon liberal democratic reforms promoting political inclusion of and rights guarantees to all individuals and groups, including minorities, as capable of transforming rather than being constrained by inherited ethnic divisions. Increasingly defined within the frame of European integration in the 1990s, liberal reforms and institutions arguably reinforce a moderate and accommodating approach to minority issues, potentially mitigating nationalism and the salience of ethnic community.
In reference to the above two perspectives, this article seeks to provide an interpretation of Turkish minority politics in post‐communist Bulgaria, being particularly interested in the effects of post‐communist reforms and the influence of European factors. Initiated by party reformers and controlled by the Communist‐renamed‐Socialist party (BSP), Bulgaria’s transition saw the restitution of minority rights, which was closely linked to the country’s externally driven democratization and European oriented reform process. Through 1996, Bulgaria remained a largely ‘unreconstructed ex‐communist polity’ under the ongoing reign of the successor BSP that sheltered nationalist concerns and sought to restrict ethnic Turkish rights that found political expression in the creation of the minority organization Movement for Rights and Freedom (MRF). This period also saw the growth of a liberal coalition, the Union of Democratic Forces (UDF), which advocated respect for human rights and the protection of minorities, together with radical reforms towards the market, in reference to the overarching objective of membership in the EU. With its advent to power in 1997, reforms in this direction expanded and accelerated reforms, marking, according to some scholars, the actual turning point with the former regime.
The Turkish Minority in Bulgaria
Making up about 8-10 per cent of the country’s population, ethnic Turks inhabit the northeast and southeast regions of the country, as well as areas across the Black Sea. Their highest concentration as a percentage of the total local population is in the southeast province of Kircali and the northeast province of Razgrad, where this research was carried out. They are an agricultural community with the lowest levels of urbanization in the country and the highest levels of population concentrated in rural areas (Demografski I Sotsialno‐Ekonomitcheski Harakteristiki – Rusenska Oblast 1994). Razgrad is a fertile lowland region specializing in grain production. Kircali on the other hand, comprises a mountainous and semi‐mountainous zone where tobacco is the main crop. It is situated in a region geographically proximate to Turkey in the east, and borders with the Greek region of Thrace to the south, where a small but territorially concentrated Turkish Muslim population lives.
The presence of the Turkish minority is a relic of the country’s Ottoman past, an outgrowth of autochthonous Muslim communities, which, despite large immigration movements, remained in significant numbers in Bulgarian territory after its independence in 1878. In the course of the twentieth century, ethnic Turks transformed from a religious community of the Ottoman millet system to a minority with a distinct Turkish national consciousness, a process that reached completion during state socialism. In the inter‐war period, a rising secular intelligentsia influenced by Attaturk and the Young Turks revolution had challenged the traditional Muslim leadership and sought to redirect the deeply religious allegiances of Bulgaria’s Muslims to the Turkish national community. Driven by Marxist tenets, the communist regime subsequently declared war against what it considered to be vestiges of religious backwardness, which were seen to obstruct the overarching goal to rapidly industrialize and secularize Bulgarian society.
From the 1960s onwards, the regime sought to counter a growing legitimacy crisis that confronted it by resorting to nationalism as the dominant credo of the highly centralized party‐state, despite earlier dismissals of it as bourgeois artifact. It found expression in assimilation policies targeting the country’s internal minorities that culminated in 1984-85 with a massive campaign that compelled over 700,000 ethnic Turks to give up their Muslim‐Arabic names and take Christian‐Slavic ones. Hailed as national ‘revival process’ (vazroditelnjia protses) and carried out with the help of the police and the armed forces, the campaign was professed as necessary to defend Bulgaria from alarming trends of Turkish demographic expansion and separatism (Crampton 1987: 205‐8). During the rest of the decade, intensifying regime repression banning all forms of religious and ethnic expression reinforced growing anti‐regime resistance and radicalization of the minority. In May 1989, following a series of bombing attacks that were attributed to Turks, Zhivkov addressed the nation and announced that the border would be open for those who ‘do not feel Bulgarian’ to leave. Viewing it as a prelude to systematic expulsion from the country, an estimated 360,000 Bulgarian Turks crossed the border to Turkey during the summer of 1989.
Domestic unrest caused by mass exodus to Turkey and widespread international condemnation of the assimilation campaign, including pressure from the Soviet leadership of Gorbachev for a change of guard, all tipped the scales to party reformers who in November 1989 forced Zhivkov to resign. Under the leadership of erstwhile Foreign Minister Petar Mladenov, they immediately abolished the Constitution’s ‘leading role’ of the CP, introduced political pluralism, and scheduled elections for June 1990. Denouncing the foregoing violations against ethnic Turks, they announced the restoration of Muslim names and cultural‐religious rights. This reversal of government policy prompted the return of hundreds of thousands of ethnic Turks from Turkey but also provoked massive anti‐Turkish protests in the ethnically mixed regions. Organized by local Bulgarians who had been the chief participants in the name‐changing campaign, they grew into massive rallies that were larger than those of the anti‐communist opposition and in January 1990 descended in the capital of Sofia. Rising tensions between the Turkish minority and Bulgarian nationalists, who in the northeast even threatened to disobey central decisions proclaiming the ‘Independent Republic of Razgrad’, brought the country on the verge of destabilization, if not open ethnic conflict.
Over the next decade, however, minority radicalization and ethnic tensions in Bulgaria impressively declined. Turkish minority politics has come to be almost entirely monopolized by the MRF, an ethnic party, outgrowth of clandestine anti‐regime mobilization founded by dissident ethnic Turkish leaders released from prison in 1989. The movement has moved away from its radical origins and firmly denounced Turkish nationalism and separatism, which characterized minority organizations such as the Turkish Democratic Party. During the 1990s, it consolidated itself as the third largest party in Bulgarian politics. Besides defending the protection of ethnic identity, its political demands have also addressed the socioeconomic problems confronting ethnic Turks, setting as its overarching goal their integration in Bulgarian society. In comparison to its counterparts elsewhere in the Balkans, the MRF has followed the most appeasing and conciliatory political strategy on behalf of minority interests strictly within the parameters of established political institutions.
The restitution of Muslim names and cultural rights of Bulgaria’s Turks in December 1989 was inseparably linked to the attempts of party reformers to demonstrate their democratic credentials, as well as to deal with the sharp ethnic tensions that threatened to destabilize the country. It took place simultaneously with their application to gain guest status for Bulgaria at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) that had sharply condemned the assimilation campaign during the preceding months and years. The pursuit of such a status created for countries willing to comply with human rights obligations, reflected a ‘striking shift from open defiance’ of the organization only a few months earlier. In a sudden reversal of foregoing policies, it was intended to counter Turkey’s international campaign condemning the treatment of the Turkish minority, which was seen to damage Bulgaria’s national interests.
In the first crucial half of 1990, domestic electoral considerations enabled the newly established MRF to participate as a political party representing ethnic Turks in the first June 1990 elections. In the next couple of years, however, the legality of the MRF was repeatedly brought under question due to a provision incorporated in the country’s new constitution adopted in 1991, that banned parties on ethnic‐religious basis. Bulgarian nationalists largely from within the ranks of the Communist‐renamed‐Socialist party (BSP) invoked this provision to request the outlawing of the MRF. At the same time, Bulgarian liberals primarily under the umbrella of the UDF opposed restrictions to the rights of the Turkish minority, attributing them to a purported attempt of the BSP to reinstall nationalism and communism, and subvert the democratization process. After 1996-97, the UDF government of Kostov explicitly anchored the liberalization of minority rights in Bulgaria’s process of association with the EU that became the backdrop to domestic reforms and policies within the frame of an advanced Accession Partnership (AP) signed in 1999.
This article seeks to understand the causes of Turkish minority politicization, as well as the factors contributing to the integration of minority politics embodied in the MRF in post‐1989 Bulgaria. It also seeks to interpret the nature and scope of such integration: does it indicate decline in the salience of cultural‐community identity and a shift of ethnic politicization in a civic direction? The article argues that electoral interests of domestic elites in conjunction with European human rights influences defining Bulgaria’s democratization and liberalization processes promoted political incorporation of the Turkish minority and mitigated inherited ethnic divisions. At the same time, in embedding ethnic differences in economic‐territorial structures, the legacy of state socialism set the frame for the growth of a fundamentally distinct minority politics on a regional basis. Such a politics diverges as much from traditional socialist as from liberal approaches to post‐communist democracy, market reform and European integration.
The first part of the article examines the legacy of state socialism on ethnic Turkish identity and the regions inhabited by the minority. The communist regime’s resort to nationalism was thoroughly enmeshed in the highly centralized structures of the party‐state, leading in the late 1980s to sharp polarization between Bulgarians and ethnic Turks. The second part of the article examines the liberalization of minority rights and its impact on inherited national divisions, paying particular attention on the ways in which Bulgarian political elites and parties dealt with ethnic issues during the democratic transition and the reform processes through 1996. The third section explores the evolution of ethnic Turkish politicization in the post‐1996 period until the present, particularly in relation to the politics of economic restructuring and European integration, which are the main axes along which Turkish minority politics unfolds. The last section discusses the implications for nationalism, minority rights and European integration.
The analysis presented here is based on local field research carried out in 1994-96 in the minority‐inhabited provinces of Kircali and Razgrad in, as well as in the capital of Sofia. It consisted of 25 interviews conducted with Bulgarian authorities and ethnic Turkish leaders at the local and national level. It also included collection of municipal reports and information about the regional economic changes and socioeconomic conditions in the provinces under study. This material was also indirectly informed by knowledge gained through 40 interviews with individual men and women from the minority during the same period (Anagnostou a: appendix). Since then, this research has been supplemented by secondary literature, as well as systematic follow‐up and review of political party positions and documents pertaining to the Turkish minority and Bulgaria’s association with the EU. Collected in a brief two‐year period, the primary material represents only a fraction of a reality in flux, in a South European polity and society that is being thoroughly reconfigured, and thus requires follow‐up study. The 1994-96 period, however, was a politically dense period, when the battle between the ancien régime still being defended by the reigning Socialist party BSP and the ascending liberal UDF reached its apex.
Muslim Minorities, Communism, and the Modernization Project
Following its advent to power in 1944, the Herculean task of social and economic modernization of Bulgaria’s agrarian and impoverished society undertaken by the communist regime unintentionally strengthened ethnicity as a primary referent of collective identity among Turkish‐speaking Muslims. While closing down religious schools, the regime established a nation‐wide system of compulsory education on secular principles, with instruction partly in Turkish, in which it massively enrolled Muslims. Turkish language and culture were further promoted through the creation and promotion of Turkish‐speaking theaters, press and university departments in the 1950s. No doubt impelled by the need to reach local Turkish‐speaking Muslims, such measures were also inspired by the Soviet policy of ‘national in form, socialist in content’, underlined by the intent to enlist minority support for and participation in the cause of constructing a socialist society. The regime implicitly anticipated that modernization would dissolve ethnic differences into the contours of a unified socialist society. In the longer run, cultural measures promoted the formation of a secularized and fluently bilingual generation of Turkish Muslims, including a Turkish intelligentsia, who were recruited in large numbers in party and local government structures.
While cultural policies nurtured Turkish language and culture among local Muslims, the centrally planned system reinforced their concentration in rural areas and peripheral regions. Structured along the lines of ‘democratic centralism’, regional development policy was based on a five‐year economic plans drafted by ministerial bureaucrats under Communist Party (CP) supervision, which decided about infrastructure, input supplies and production targets. Besides undergoing compulsory collectivization of agriculture, rural areas inhabited by Muslims became a target of special development measures that had strong correspondence to minority areas. Aiming to maintain a stable agricultural population at a time of rapid industrialization, these involved the construction of small factories (tsechove) in sectors such as apparel, food processing, textiles, etc., which were subsidiaries of large enterprises in the regional centre. This so‐called ‘social industry policy’ privileged the lagging regions of the southeast near the border with Greece and Turkey, such as Kircali, where it was specifically aimed at sustaining the production of eastern varieties of tobacco, a major export commodity and source of hard currency for the regime. Farm cooperatives contracted it to large Turkish Muslim families in rural areas who had traditionally specialized in it and who were given incentives such as higher wages to remain in this highly labour‐intensive but lucrative production.
The special development policies described above bequeathed a distinctive production structure in the minority‐populated provinces of Kircali and Razgrad that intricately tied ethnic differences to regional economic disparities. They resulted in the concentration of the large, core enterprises in the central homonymous municipalities of Kircali and Razgrad, and the creation of a network of branch plants in the surrounding smaller municipalities (obshtini). Bulgarians have predominated in the central municipalities and towns where industry and manufacturing, as well as the bulk of infrastructure and administrative resources are concentrated (Informatsia za sustojianieto na obshtina Kircali prez 1993). Turkish Muslims, on the other hand, have lived in the peripheral and less developed municipalities, as well as in villages and small towns, and they are overwhelmingly employed in the agricultural sector. As branch plant economies, these minority municipalities have depended for employment, production and resources on the large enterprises at the regional centre. In the 1990s, the correspondence between the rural character of an area and minority presence remained startling (Anagnostou a: chapter 3; Appendix II).
Far from keeping national differences in a state of political hibernation, the communist regime’s cultural and economic policies in Bulgaria consolidated the formation of a Turkish minority with a distinct consciousness, as well as regional economic and territorial characteristics. It did so not by constitutional design as in the socialist federations but through special development measures that sustained their rural and peripheral character in a rapidly industrializing society. While socioeconomic development improved the infrastructure, education and living standards in minority areas, the centrally imposed and often forced manner, in which it was implemented, as well as the assault on religion caused strong local reactions and grievances among Muslims. Seeking to diffuse them, the regime encouraged their large‐scale emigration to Turkey in successive waves from the early 1950s through the 1970s, which expanded a sense of ethnic community through the diffusion of family bonds with the kin state.
From the 1960s onwards, the regime increasingly took on a nationalist outlook that fused ideas of national unity into the centralized structures of the planned economy and the party‐state. Regarding minorities as constituent elements of the Bulgarian nation, whose consciousness as such had yet to come to full maturity, the regime launched in 1971 its first assimilation campaign against Bulgarian‐speaking Muslims (Pomaks). By the late 1970s, with a revised constitution that no longer recognized the existence of minorities, it declared that Bulgaria is a single nation that evolves towards full homogenization. The regime’s resort to nationalism was rooted in growing structural problems confronting state socialism. Concomitant pressures to democratize and reform the system of central planning were evidenced across the region and erupted with the 1968 upheavals in Czechoslovakia. Party leaders appealed to the need to defend national unity from internal and external foes in order to reassert and vindicate the concentration of political‐economic power in the party‐state, to forestall reforms, and to preempt dissidents asserting national sovereignty vis‐à‐vis the Soviet Union. Defensive programmes of ‘bureaucratic nationalism’ of the sort appeared across the Soviet bloc blending communism with nationalism, both sharing a totalizing impulse that placed emphasis on the unity of society as a whole.
The ideological rigor and political salience of national ideas grew together with reform pressures to deal with the structural problems and deteriorating performance of the planned economy. Consolidating a homogeneous national state overlaid the vision of a unified socialist society in the hope of reviving dwindling regime legitimacy. The name‐changing campaign against the Turkish minority in the 1980s coincided with plummeting economic output and unmistakable signs of eroding regime support and commitment to the party (Crampton 1987: 187-97). A series of reforms through the New Economic Mechanism (NEM) in 1982 and 1987 had failed to decentralize the economy, to open to market forces and to reverse economic decline. Official manifestos of the campaign disclosed an underlying concern to resuscitate the regime, calling for thorough party intervention in the society, family and the workplace, to raise Bulgarian national consciousness and public commitment. Name changing was accompanied by the so‐called ‘explanatory campaign’ to convince Turks that they were members of the Bulgarian nation who had been forcefully converted to Islam under the Ottomans.
While state socialism consolidated the formation of an ethnic Turkish and territorially concentrated minority, the assimilation campaign radicalized and politicized it. Far from persuading Turks of their Bulgarian origin, the campaign actually raised ethnic consciousness and instilled among them the belief that they are a victimized minority that must collectively defend itself. Many individuals from the younger cohorts of the minority, who had come to embrace modern socialist ideas, described it as catalytic in reinvigorating a powerful sense of community among them. As one of them noted ironically, ‘it’s good that Zhivkov did the name‐changing. We had almost forgotten that we are Turks. Name changing brought us back together as an ethnos‘ (interview, Khurdzali, 19 November 1995). As repression intensified and systemic crisis spread, minority anti‐regime resistance mobilized around clandestine political organizations, such as the ‘Turkish National Liberation Movement in Bulgaria’ founded in 1985 by Medi Doganov (Ahmet Dogan). The intelligentsia formed during the 1950s and 1960s played a leading role in it, a privileged stratum of urban‐based, university‐educated Turks, among whom ‘the most ardent exponents of a distinct ethnic consciousness’ were to be found.
The assimilation campaign against ethnic Turks diffused national ideas and practices in the structures of democratic centralism in the ethnically mixed regions and polarized relations with local Bulgarians. It did so through large‐scale mobilization of local party leaders and cadre, who organized the campaign, and large numbers of Bulgarian Christians who participated in enforcing the cultural ban. The local CP nomenklatura in collaboration with administrative personnel and enterprise managers played a key role by distributing privileges and benefits (i.e. jobs) to Bulgarians mobilized in the ‘national revival’ and sanctioning those ethnic Turks who resisted. Bulgarians saw the minority’s mass exodus to Turkey in the summer of 1989, which profoundly disrupted the economy of several regions and further caused production to plummet, as unpatriotic and destructive and as proof of their disloyalty to Bulgaria. Thousands of them volunteered to meet the resulting labour shortages in industry and agriculture, and bought the property of hastily departing ethnic Turks in very low prices. When Mladenov announced the restoration of Muslim names in December 1989, they took to the streets en masse to protest against it.
Democratization and the Legacy of Ethnic Nationalism
The transition to democracy in 1989-90 presented an opportunity for the disgruntled Turkish minority to organize through the newly founded Movement for Rights and Freedom (MRF) and contest a place in the emerging system of political pluralism. While local cadre of the BSP mobilized Bulgarian nationalists, the party’s reformist leaders at the national level controlling the transition did not succumb to vociferous demands to restrict Turkish minority rights. Possibly alarmed by the potential of broader destabilization, but also seeking democratic legitimation both at home and abroad, deeming it to be their best chance to preserve power, they instead downplayed and sought to diffuse ethnic tensions.
Exemplifying their self‐restrained and pragmatic attitude was the decision of reform communists to seek the support of the newly formed opposition of the UDF in dealing with the ethnic issue and to invite it to roundtable talks in January-March 1990. In the course of the latter, however, and while they implicitly agreed to avoid public discussion of the ethnic issue, leaders of the two participating parties did not remain immune to nationalist pressures. Arguably a tacit concession to the latter, the Agreement on Political Parties signed at the roundtable included a provision to ban political parties formed on ethnic, racial or religious basis. It was no doubt directed against the MRF that had submitted a petition to get registered as a political party.
Nonetheless, electoral considerations in light of the first crucial June 1990 elections weighed heavy on the dominant BSP, leading it to bypass the concerns of its Bulgarian nationalist supporters and to silently push for waiving the aforementioned ban in the case of the MRF. In April 1990, instructions most likely originating from BSP leaders tacitly directed the Central Electoral Commission (CEC) to register candidates nominated by the MRF despite an earlier decision of the Sofia City court banning the latter on ethnic grounds. This seemingly paradoxical intervention of reform communists on behalf of the independent Turkish minority party was intended to dilute the possibility of a united opposition front, which the UDF sought to establish, and for which ethnic Turks would have otherwise most likely voted. A further possible reason was to avert the likelihood of minority abstention from voting had the MRF been excluded, which would have again benefited the opposition and also jeopardized the seal of international approval that the Mladenov government of reformers was seeking. The June elections brought the BSP back to power and the MRF emerged as the third largest party in Bulgarian parliament with 7.5 per cent of the vote.
The incorporation of the MRF ensuring participation and self‐representation of ethnic Turks in the country’s nascent democratic polity became a target to ongoing nationalist pressures to restrict it. These found a firm basis in the 1991 constitution drafted and adopted by a Socialist‐dominated National Assembly that expressed an overarching concern with national homogeneity and reincorporated the provision banning ethnic parties (Article 11, para. 4). In 1990-91, BSP deputies joined by 100 deputies from the liberal UDF, invoked it and petitioned to the Constitutional Court to declare the MRF illegal. This period witnessed sharp divisions between Socialists and the UDF opposition, which led to the replacement of the BSP government with the caretaker government of Popov, but also an unprecedented degree of inter‐party consensus on one issue: the pursuit of membership in European organizations. In January 1991, the Popov government, jointly supported by ex‐communists and liberals, submitted the application for membership in the CoE, in which Bulgaria had been granted guest status six months earlier.
Shaped by a complex interplay of domestic elite support and external influences from the CoE, the milestone decision of the Constitutional Court affirmed in April 1992 the legality of the MRF narrowly by one vote, largely with the support of Bulgarian liberals. Invoking human rights principles, the CoE delegates evaluating Bulgaria’s membership application had explicitly expressed their disapproval of the ban on ethnic parties, reflecting what they saw as restrictive provisions for minorities. In considering the actual influence of the CoE, one cannot but notice the time sequence between the unfolding of the court’s decision and the advance of Bulgaria’s evaluation process by the CoE: being repeatedly postponed, the former upheld the legality of the MRF immediately following the submission of the final reports by the latter. Two months later, in May 1992, Bulgaria was admitted in the CoE because in the opinion of the latter, Bulgarian authorities would be flexible in the application of the constitutional ban on ethnic parties.
Far from amounting to an external imposition by international mentors, which elites or the Court’s justices ‘were trying to please’, domestic liberal support for the MRF intrinsically stemmed from the logic of anti‐communist opposition. The countenance to minority rights provided by the CoE was influential precisely because it struck a chord with the political predilections of the ‘dark’ blue segment dominating the liberal UDF that in 1991-92 held government power in coalition with the MRF under the premiership of Filip Dimitrov. Reflecting the dominance of radical liberals among its ranks, it professed as its priority the dismantling of the totalitarian past and the ‘complete decommunization of the country’. Not being politicized in a narrow partisan sense, yet guided by normative principles broadly congruent with this logic, the court’s justices supporting the legality of the MRF, all but one appointed by UDF, saw it as an indispensable guarantee of pluralist democracy against the threat of totalitarianism. Dissenting judges, on the other hand, most appointed by the BSP, defended the imperative of national unity as supreme over an unqualified conception of pluralist politics. Such unity, they counter‐claimed, would be imperiled by an ethnic party like the MRF.
Despite the affirmation of the MRF’s constitutionality, nationalist pressures to restrict Turkish minority rights remained highly influential and volatile, breathing new life into the largely unreformed regional economic and administrative structures, in which state centralization and nationalism since the communist period had been fused. The MRF acquired a dominant position in local government in those municipalities where ethnic Turks are demographically predominant. In the 1991 local elections in Bulgaria, MRF representatives won a majority of seats in 28 municipal councils, in addition to having mayors elected in 653 communes. In the period through 1996, outstanding structural and organizational advantages enabled the BSP to retain its hold over the political system. While acceding to market reform, the reigning Socialists sought to preserve the centralized state and its role in the economy, recognizing in the 1991 constitution local self‐government but opposing the existence of ‘autonomous territorial formations’.
Reforms suspended privatization and decentralized production and employment decisions to the directors of large regional enterprises, which, however, remained in state hands, under the supervision of ministerial bureaucrats and dependent on central government subsidies. In the MRF‐dominated municipality of Kircali in 1995, for example, only six out of the 65 enterprises in 1995 were municipal firms, while the rest of the enterprises were managed by centrally appointed directors who made decisions about production and employment (interview, Kircali, 2 August 1995). In 1990, they decided to close down the branch workshops in the minority‐inhabited rural areas, leading to massive unemployment among ethnic Turks, but to retain and subsidize production in unprofitable plants in central locations, where the majority of employees were ethnic Bulgarians.
While the BSP had officially revoked nationalism, in the minority‐inhabited municipalities under study, its ability to preserve the centralized economic structures, where its power was entrenched, depended upon the support of a dominant nationalist constituency. Such a constituency had as its kernel the ex‐communist nomenklatura, the enterprise directors, party cadre and administrative personnel, who retained their decision‐making power over distribution of production, resources and jobs, as well as their party connections after 1989. Having been mobilized to carry out the assimilation campaign of the 1980s, they were thoroughly imbued in the nationalist ethos that it nurtured and the privileges it distributed, which they saw as being threatened by the MRF‐dominated local government. This nomenklatura was able to ‘amass’ local votes and ‘offer’ them to the central Socialist party in exchange for ongoing inflow of state resources and jobs, largely reserved for Bulgarians, a mutually beneficial arrangement that allowed both to protect inherited privileges and power.
This central‐local nexus of clientilistic party connections reinforced the fusion of state centralism and nationalism around a political logic that projected the preservation of centralized administrative and economic structures as imperative for the defense of Bulgarian national unity and territorial integrity. For the BSP, this paid off, leading it to rise as a strong force in minority‐inhabited regions, where it successfully contested the local Bulgarian vote vis‐a‐vis the UDF that registered small gains. Bulgarians remained loyal to the BSP that forged local alliances with extreme nationalist parties, such as the Fatherland Party of Labor (Otetchestvena Partjia na Truda) in Kircali, which accused the MRF of Turkish separatism (Anagnostou: ch.4).
In the minority regions under study, the reassertion of state centralism cum nationalism embodied in Socialist rule restricted the MRF ability to represent and respond to the problems of ethnic Turks through local government. Conflicts over control and distribution of resources and jobs, as well as over minority religious and language rights reinforced central‐local and inter‐communal tensions along ethnic lines (Anagnostou: ch.6). These were particularly pronounced in the municipalities of the Kircali province, where MRF mayors attributed severe fiscal pressures to purposeful delay of central transfers by the Socialist government with the intent of politically discrediting the MRF (Momchilgrad, 20 January 1996; Kircali, 10 November 1995; Galubov: 2). In a series of interviews conducted by this author in 1994-96, local minority leaders and elected representatives opposed state and economic centralization as a powerful constraint to minority political representation, regional development and democracy. In the MRF‐governed municipalities, Bulgarians in turn denounced what they saw as favourable distribution of locally‐controlled resources to Turks as an expression of narrow ethnic concerns to the detriment of regional development and national interests, which justifiably invited central government intervention (Kircali, Field notes, 13 November 1995).
Central-local juxtaposition between the Socialist government and the MRF reinforced inter‐communal mistrust and escalated in the 1995 local elections in Kircali. In the contest for mayor, when the MRF candidate Rasim Musa won over the Socialist candidate by a narrow margin, the centrally appointed regional governor refused to ratify the elected Turkish mayor. Following a suit filed by the BSP accusing the MRF for election fraud, the Municipal Court annulled the election results, and new elections were scheduled for May 1996. Such central political interference with the democratic process prompted minority protests and MRF accusations of the Socialist government as an agent of ‘communist restoration’. Jointly with the UDF opposition, it warned about ‘dangerous tendencies towards the revival of nationalism … and attempts for direct ethnic juxtaposition’ (Prava I Svobodi, 10 March 1995; Murat 1995: 3). Minority leaders drew analogies with the 1980s, seeing a ‘second national revival campaign’ underway and claiming that ‘the picture of [administrative] cadre in the town of Kircali astonishingly reminds of 1989’.
Notwithstanding the entrenched legacy of nationalism particularly vital in the ethnically mixed regions, a conjunction of domestic electoral interests and crucial elite choices, subsequently reinforced by influences from the CoE, contributed to safeguarding Turkish minority rights that found their political expression in the MRF. Made possible by an early elite consensus to join European organizations, human rights influences in domestic minority policy were particularly formative when they domestically coincided with political control by the center‐right UDF liberals. Viewing it as a vestige of communism and a façade for the BSP to preserve the centralized state and economic structures of the former regime, UDF liberals developed an aversion to Bulgarian nationalism. Opposing it as the epitome of totalitarianism led them to support full restitution of Turkish minority rights extending from cultural identity to political self‐representation, a stance resonating with the CoE human rights principles. A liberal intelligentsia and ruling circles connected to the UDF, including Bulgaria’s former presidents Zheluy Zhelev and Petar Stojanov, denounced the assimilation campaign against ethnic Turks and offered an official apology to the latter.
From early on, the subordination of UDF concerns about the ‘nation’ to the imperative of thoroughly dismantling communist structures was also reflected in economic reforms towards the market. As an antidote to state centralism cum nationalism, the UDF sought decentralization and market restructuring through privatization reforms aimed at eliminating the role of the central state in the economy. Its approach as such was exemplified in the reform launched during its brief tenure to power in 1991-92 that initiated the dissolution of state‐owned farm collectives and the restitution of land to its original owners. By radically eliminating state management and the centralized regional economic structures, in which communism and nationalism had been gestated, the agricultural reform sought to dismantle the communist legacy there where it seemed to be strongest – in the countryside. In 1997, the UDF sweeping electoral victory was undoubtedly based, at least in part, on a broad realization that ongoing state financing of unprofitable regional enterprises could not be sustainable in the longer run. By 1996, it had led Bulgaria’s economy into bankruptcy, triggering massive protests and forcing the Socialist premier Zhan Videnov to resign.
While initially instrumentally endorsed by reform communists in 1989-90, the European orientation of Bulgarian politics expanded and in 1995 the Socialist government of Zhan Videnov lodged the country’s application for membership in the EU. Both politically in the sphere of human rights and economically in market restructuring, the imperatives of European integration had a particularly strong appeal among Bulgarian liberals that saw in them the strongest guarantee against the perceived threat of ‘re‐communization’. It is this logic that primarily shaped domestic support for Turkish rights in the first half of the 1990s, legitimating the MRF and entrenching it as one of the main political actors in post‐1989 Bulgarian politics. After 1997, in the frame of Bulgaria’s association process with the EU sealed with an Accession Partnership in 1999, the Kostov government accelerated market restructuring and enterprise privatization and took further steps to institutionalize minority rights. Most important was the ratification of the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities in 1998 without any reservation clauses. In the face of strong opposition from the Socialists, PM Kostov successfully urged the parliamentary assembly to ratify the Convention in order not to harm the reputation of Bulgaria’s young democracy and to prove its European credentials.
Political Economy Restructuring and the Regional Basis of Ethnic Policies
The incorporation of an independent minority party, the MRF, in parliamentary institutions and in national and local government structures was instrumental in containing and mitigating ethnic tensions in post‐communist Bulgaria. It allowed to channeling minority issues and grievances into established institutions and mainstream politics, and imbued pragmatism among its leadership. The MRF utilized its pivotal position as the third largest party to enter into strategic alliances not only with the liberals but also with the Socialists. In 1992, it tacitly sided with the BSP to cast a vote of no confidence that brought down the UDF Dimitrov government, and subsequently proposed Liuben Berov to lead a caretaker government principally supported by the BSP. MRF deputies have also taken recourse to the Parliamentary Assembly of the CoE to redress complaints, i.e. on Turkish language rights, instead of the possible alternative of seeking patronage of the ‘kin‐state’. When the Municipal Court initially annulled the 1995 local election results in Kircali, the MRF immediately reported to the PACE that sent delegates to visit the region. Notably, within five months, the Supreme Court reversed the decision of lower courts and resolved the issue in the interest of the MRF, ordering the regional governor to reinstall the elected mayor from the Turkish minority.
Acquiring a measure of influence in domestic and European politics contributed to neutralizing the appeal of extreme nationalist organizations such as the Turkish Democratic Party of Adem Kenan, which could have gained ground had the MRF been excluded. Besides denouncing separatism, the MRF leadership has gone out of its way to demonstrate its commitment to the integrity and legitimacy of Bulgarian state institutions, casting off its early semi‐loyal overtones and earning the acceptance of all major political parties. Bulgarian majority elites across the political spectrum, including former President Petar Stojanov and ex‐premier Ivan Kostov have unreservedly acknowledged its moderation as such. Together with Turkish minority leaders, they proudly refer to the ‘Bulgarian model for the resolution of ethnic conflict’ as a major accomplishment of democratization.
Notwithstanding the moderation and integration of Turkish minority politics, the salience of ethnic community politicization far from diminished in the second half of the 1990s. In 1996-97, a segment of young Turkish leaders from the northeast municipalities of Samuil and Kubrat, led by MRF MP Giuner Tahir, challenged Dogan’s emphasis on ethnic community solidarity on the grounds that it undermined individual rights. This segment spoke on behalf of local minority entrepreneurs who came in conflict with Dogan because they pursued local economic investments involving inter‐communal and cross party cooperation, and advocated the incorporation of minority representation in the broader UDF coalition (interview, Razgrad, 12 February 1996). It formed a splinter party significantly named ‘National MRF’, a political appendage of the UDF, which, however, has had negligible appeal among the minority (Anagnostou: ch.4). Instead, Dogan’s ethnic‐based approach enjoys its overwhelming support, gaining in the last 2001 national elections 7.5 per cent of the vote, the largest percentage since 1990. While trying to manoeuvre away from the ethnic label, variably defining the MRF as liberal, centrist and socialist, for all intents and purposes, the movement has been and remains a party of the Turkish community, and has staunchly defended its independence from other parties.
While the entrenchment of a party like the MRF in post‐communist Bulgaria established an avenue for moderating and ‘normalizing’ ethnic politics, in the context of accelerated market restructuring and association process with the EU, it seems to form a venue for generating a new kind of minority politics. Such a politics not only conflicts with the socialist BSP but also diverges from that represented by the liberal UDF. In the second half of the 1990s, the process of restructuring inherited centralized state and economic structures formed the locus of a sharp conflict between the MRF and the UDF, which according to Dogan, was even more intractable than the conflict with the Socialists (Dogan). Its origins lied in the 1991-92 agricultural reform that led Dogan to withdraw MRF support from the Dimitrov government in protest of it. While the overall effects of the reform regionally varied, the dissolution of the farm collectives had thoroughly disrupted production, and given the legacy of state socialism, it led to much higher unemployment among ethnic Turks in comparison to Bulgarians.
While initially appearing to be about the nature and pace of market reform, in the course of the 1990s the MRF dispute with the UDF grew into a fundamental conflict about the regional dimension of economic reform, with important potential implications for the territorial structures of the central state. The UDF approach epitomized in the agricultural reform was premised on a uniform nation‐wide strategy seeking fast privatization of enterprises and state withdrawal from the economy. Development would be driven by private entrepreneurial activity and local government units, which would independently generate resources for investment. Such an approach, however, disregarded the inherited structural disadvantages of the overwhelmingly agricultural minority‐inhabited municipalities with less developed infrastructure than the average for the country. In its alternative approach to reform, the MRF has advocated a regionally‐specific strategy, in which the central state would assume an instrumental role in steering and assisting economic development of peripheral municipalities. The UDF dismissed MRF demands for state assistance as an onerous residue of communist mentality unwilling to adjust to market conditions and the discipline of reform. In criticisms that broadly resonated with UDF leaders and supporters, ex‐Premier Kostov held the MRF responsible for suspending the reform process.
In defending its nation‐wide reform strategy against the regional approach of the MRF as essential in expediting the prospect of EU membership, the UDF rift with the MRF sharpened and acquired national overtones. In the 1999 local elections in Kircali, the confrontation between the two was paradoxically reminiscent of the 1995 electoral contest with the Socialists with the vote polarized along ethnic lines. For the first time, the MRF Turkish candidate lost to a UDF‐nominated candidate who rallied the support of local Bulgarians just like the Socialist predecessors in 1995. Similarly to Socialists, the liberal government of Kostov accused the MRF of being narrowly concerned with local ethnic interests to the detriment of Bulgaria’s interests as a whole. Characterizing MRF politics as ethnically fanatic, backward and anti‐reformist resonated with the view of ethnic identity as an obstacle to socioeconomic development and national modernization earlier projected by communism. In asking, ‘why do Bulgarian liberals translate basic categories of nationalism in the language of liberalism?’ Dogan hinted at an unpalatable convergence perceived between these two (Dogan: 6).
Scholars exploring the effects of post‐communist liberalization in ethnic politics have overlooked the regional socioeconomic structures inherited from state socialism, as well as the long‐term implications of minority local experience under the former regime. In entrenching ethnic differences in distinct and resource‐unequal territorial and production patterns, such a legacy constrains in minority regions the viability and appropriateness of nation‐wide strategies of market restructuring, and differentiates the interests and perceptions of ethnic Turks from those of Bulgarians. In analyzing rural discontent in the 1990s, anthropologist Gerald Creed drew a compelling analogy between the top‐down fashion in which the UDF implemented decollectivization and the central imposition of communist collectivization in the 1950s, in both cases ‘with little attention to local conditions’. One could reinforce this analogy in the case of minorities, where socialist strategies of economic development were not only forcefully engineered from above but also intrinsically and explicitly linked to programs of national‐cultural assimilation. In fusing intricate cultural ties with common socioeconomic interests among Turkish Muslims, while simultaneously repressing their distinct identity, the former regime strengthened community consciousness and imbued thorough mistrust of the central state.
In the post‐communist period, such a legacy resonates with strong demands for local self‐government, fundamentally differentiating MRF politics from that of the otherwise politically akin Bulgarian liberal majority. While attributing a role to the central state in assisting local development, the MRF also advocates thorough decentralization, within the frame of the Bulgarian state but increasingly in a way that demarcates regional economic units along ethnic community lines. The 2001 MRF program emphasizes enhanced local government power to decide about and construct development strategies appropriate to local conditions, which are seen as viable through anticipated influx of EU funds in the underdeveloped ethnic regions (Bulgaria-Evropa 2001). Since 2001, the MRF has been a junior partner in the coalition government of the National Movement of Simeon II (NMSV), holding the Ministry of Agriculture, a sector crucial for the minority but also for EU policy. From this position of national power, the MRF leadership has put forth its own development and investment strategy for the ethnically mixed regions that it controls, which it put on top of the party’s agenda, by drawing from EU pre‐accession funds such as PHARE, ISPA and the agriculture‐specific SAPARD.
The consolidation of a distinct minority politics that forges a close link between regional territory and the ethnic community is reinforced not only by the transfer of economic resources, but also by the human rights and cultural diversity discourse defining processes of EU enlargement to CESE. In contrast to the UDF view of the EU as a vehicle of socioeconomic modernization, the MRF alternatively depicts it as the only true guarantor of ethnic identity, which in the European context is no longer considered a disadvantage but a ‘strategic advantage’ (Dogan 2000; 2001). While the MRF has highlighted the integration of minorities in Bulgarian society, it has over the past few years pronounced as equally, if not more, important the preservation of ethnic‐religious identity (Dogan). While denouncing aggressive nationalism, Dogan also stated that in the context of European integration, ‘we [the Turkish minority] need a moderate nationalism … to gain legitimacy for our national identity on the basis of liberal values of the European community’ (Dogan). Evident of his ambitions of establishing the movement as a European player, the hitherto undisputed leader admonishes that without the participation of the MRF, Bulgaria ‘will not have the requisite internal stability and external weight to open the doors to Europe’ (Dogan 2000).
In highlighting the preservation of ethnic community identity as a condition of minority social integration, MRF politics conflicts both with the traditional nation‐state model advanced by the BSP and with the liberal model of development and European integration projected by the UDF. In its 2001 election programme, the MRF advocates thorough institutionalization of minority rights through anti‐discrimination law, language rights, and the guaranteed participation of minorities at all levels of government and administration (Bulgaria‐Evropa 2001). While its positions are predominantly shaped by the personality and authoritative top‐down leadership of Dogan, the MRF is also a party with extensive organization at the local level and thus penetrable from and susceptible to bottom up pressures. Thus the opinions expressed in Dogan’s speeches and party documents, on which this section relies, are a barometer and attempted synthesis of the diffused and often conflicting tendencies among the minority at large. While firmly accepting its territorial integrity, the MRF increasingly talks about Bulgaria in reference to the multi‐ethnic state replacing the traditional unitary national state and appeals to ethnic Turks to support community organizational and political strategies to help them sustain their political leverage and power (Dogan).
Liberalization, European Integration, and Minorities in Southeast Europe: Triumph or Mirage?
The preceding analysis of the Bulgarian case suggests that historical ethnic‐national cleavages do not necessarily shape, predominantly or in any given manner, political relations and state institutions; there is nothing inherently disintegrative about such cleavages in an emerging democracy. Instead, factors such as elite interests in the course of transition and electoral competition, liberal reforms and political attitudes towards the communist past, as well as human rights influences from European institutions determine the degree of conflict and accommodation in relations between minorities with majorities and the state. In post‐89 Bulgaria, a combination of such factors contributed to liberalization of minority rights and to remarkable political integration of the country’s sizeable Turkish minority through an ethnic party, the MRF, in stark contrast to the sharp ethnic tensions characterizing the last years of the Zhivkov regime. While diffused nationalist ideas and practices in centralized state structures bequeathed from state socialism significantly influenced post‐1989 Bulgarian politics, they far from grew to be hegemonic.
The analysis of this article partly accords with studies highlighting post‐communist reforms pursued by European‐oriented elites and liberal majorities that challenge the precepts of the traditional nation‐state and promote consensual government relations with ethnic minorities (Csergo 2002). The broader underlying premise is that elite interests and choices concerning key issues of reform and democratic government are not necessarily constrained by historical national divisions but can transform the latter, shaping the politics of inter‐ethnic conflict and cooperation in CESE. In Bulgaria the aspiration, from early on, of transition elites to steer for a European course exposed the democratic process to external countenance to guarantee minority rights and to pursue accommodating policies towards ethnic Turks. Such external advocacy coincided with domestic electoral interests to incorporate the MRF as an independent party in the political system, and resonated with liberal opposition to nationalism as a vestige of the communist past. Inclusive policies towards ethnic Turks transformed mainstream national institutions and existing state structures into ‘habitable’ spaces for the minority and mitigated tensions with the Bulgarian majority.
The Bulgarian case challenges the oft‐encountered view of the Balkans as being trapped in a historical legacy of exclusive ethnic nationalism, in contrast to a liberal and ‘benign’ civic nationalism purportedly characterizing Central Europe. What is unique about the Balkans is the large size of territorially concentrated ethnic minorities that have historically survived in the region in comparison to Central Europe, which is bound to make minority issues more politically controversial. Vachudova and Snyder’s thesis about the inescapable role of ethnic nationalism in obstructing liberalization and European integration in Southeast Europe misrepresents actual developments in the region. In unitary states like Bulgaria or Romania, the politicization of ethnic minorities did not bring about state dissolution as in the socialist federations, where the distribution of resources and power corresponded to clearly demarcated administrative and territorial entities on national basis. Yugoslavia was the exception rather than the rule in the Balkans with the federation structure a significant factor in differentiating the nature and political consequences of nationalism from that in unitary states, as comparative and case studies have so lucidly demonstrated.
While liberalization and the European‐oriented reform processes significantly moderated inherited national tensions and integrated minorities, they have not marginalized or diluted ethnic cleavages consolidated under the former regime, nor have they mitigated the politics of ethnic identity. Besides suppressing cultural and political rights, state socialism also pervasively embedded ethnic differences in socioeconomic disparities and production structures in minority inhabited regions. Part and parcel of the centrally directed model of political economic development that culminated in assimilation policies to consolidate the nation‐state, such a legacy densely fused cultural community bonds and socioeconomic structures comprising Turkish ethnicity. In doing so, it paved the way for a regional‐specific approach to economic and political reform, as well as for decentralization and local self‐government demands, that fundamentally distinguish minority politics from socialist or liberal models of state organization and market reform in the post‐1989 period. Notwithstanding such demands, ethnic politics in post‐1989 CESE is fundamentally different from earlier challenges minorities posed to state integrity in the era of nineteenth‐ and twentieth‐century nationalism. It is no longer about redrawing state borders but about reconfiguring the political‐territorial structures of the centralized state historically implanted in the region, from within, not merely through economic decentralization but more importantly through assertion of minority local self‐government.
Turkish minority politics of the MRF draws upon ethnic community support to construct and define a regional‐based approach to development as an alternative to state‐centered reform and development strategies, irrespective of whether they are mandated by liberal or socialist, economic or national imperatives. It develops in opposition as much to the traditional model of nation‐state as to a diffused logic of modernization that pervades and dominates the liberals’ approach to democracy, market economic reform and European integration. While ethnic Turks and Bulgarian liberals both endorse these, they view very differently the relationship between regions, the ethnic community and the central state, attributing a fundamentally divergent content to minority rights and the nature of the EU. The dominant individualistic liberal paradigm espoused by the Bulgarian majority comes in conflict with an alternative conception of liberalism advocated by the MRF on behalf of ethnic Turks. The deepening processes of European integration in CESE are likely to render more visible the contradiction between two competing notions of liberalism, reflecting fundamentally different visions of political community and ultimately of the EU as it expands eastwards.
In the context of European‐oriented reform process, the majority’s liberalism promotes centrally directed strategies of economic development but also decline of the central state’s social‐economic role, it supports European integration as a vehicle of political‐economic modernization, and appeals to the individual. On the other hand, the minority’s conception of liberalism advocates decentralized strategies of economic development but also sustaining the central state’s social and economic role, it supports European integration as a multi‐cultural entity and appeals to the local and ethnic community. Such a politics is not instrumentally driven by minority rights norms promoted by European institutions and academics, as Stephen Deets argues, but it is a product of complex interactions unleashed in the process of transporting West European development models in the ethnically diverse societies of Southeast Europe. Deets, nonetheless, rightly argues against a narrowly collectivist approach to dealing with minority issues. The analysis of this paper also points to the need for a more comprehensive approach to the latter that encompasses cultural measures to preserve identity but also regional political and economic strategies to effectively redress socioeconomic disparities.