Bulgaria - Past, Present, and Multiethnic Future
An Interview with Vladimir Chukov

Interviewed: Sam Vaknin, Ph.D.

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

Sam: Aren't 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: 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. It is undoubted 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 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, certainly the current Bulgarian people is not from Turkic origin. As time passed, this matter acquired a political interpretative aspect.

During the first half of the Third Bulgarian State (1878-1944), Bulgarian historiography emphasized the Bulgar origin compared to the second half (1944-1989) which was dominated by pro-Soviet history. During the Communist rule, the local historians attempted to show that Bulgarians actually remain predominantly Slavs 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 issued from the Turks or from the Huns. I would not venture to comment of the reliability of both these historical hypotheses. In general, we can admit the Turkic origin of Bulgar tribe on a historical hypothetical level only.

Sam: 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 vassal to 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?

Vladimir: 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, he allied in 1364 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 the Bulgarian dependence on the Russian Empire and the USSR is concerned, I think that is would be quite appropriate to regard this period as a part of the pro- and anti-Russia specifics of the Bulgarian foreign policy decision making. Bulgaria was a Soviet satellite in the 45 years (1944-1989) following the Red Army invasion. Inversely, the Kingdom of Bulgaria was traditional an ally to 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 not 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 5-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.

Sam: Some revisionist historians in the West say that the "Ottoman Yoke" period of incorporation in the pax Ottomanica of Bulgaria was actually a blessing. Peace prevailed for 5 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?

Vladimir: 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 Russian-Turkish war), the Bulgarian notability reached top ranks in Ottoman administration. Nevertheless, let us not mention 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 5-7 years. This act is a result of the so-called "bloody tax" (dafcharme) imposed on the Christian people 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 5 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 the shari'a law. It means that they were "second rate" people within the system of private law. In the court, a Muslim's testimony was always considered as more trustworthy than the Christian's. This injustice embedded in the 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 pax Ottomanica was merely a partial process. Predominantly, Bulgarians felt themselves comfortable up to the end of the 16-17-th century when the Ottoman army was defeated in Vienna. Later, the crises-ridden Turkey became a burden.

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

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

This specific group belongs to the ethnic majority, but they changed their faith (from Christianity to Islam) during the 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 17-th century. There are several theories on how they converted to Islam (by force or voluntary). I think that one can distinguish three groups of Islamised 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 the Shari'a law they had to be Islamised by force.

The second group comprised a part of the local Christian notability. 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 people, victims of religious genocide and violence composed the third group.

There are estimated to be between 200 and 300 thousands 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 resulting of a concealed psychological complex of inferiority.

In 1991, Kamen Burov from the village Jeltousha attempted to establish political entity claiming to defend the Pomaks' political interests - the Democratic Party of labour (DPL). He failed because in the 1994 parliamentary elections, DPL won only 0,1% 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.

Sam: 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?

Vladimir: The expression "poor Turkish peasants" is quite relative within the Middle Ages context. The Balkan Peninsula, including the Bulgarian territories witnessed several migration waves which started in the second half of 14-th 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 are 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);

  1. They imposed by force the Asiatic values system and the social profile of the non-settled, military;

  1. The land remained strictly the Sultan's property;

  1. Mehmet I (1413-1431) institutionalised 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 centres 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 a violent resistance. The Bulgarian people were scared by the new conquerors. Indeed, the low status groups did not feel quite different to the new rulers from the 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 of them converted to Islam (for example Tsar Ivan Shishman's son, Alexander, who renamed himself Eskander). Another part 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 the second wave of Bulgarian political ideas that was transmitted to Russia. (after the 10th century period when both the Orthodox Christianity and the Slavic alphabet were similarly transmitted).

Sam: 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?

Vladimir: 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 (19th century), nationalism became a well-conceptualised political theory, whose main characteristic was negativism. The newly established State-Nations (including in those in Southeastern 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 Statehood, 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 1912-1913). But Bulgaria suffered five-centuries Ottoman rule (1396-1878) and more than one century of Byzantine rule (1018-1186). Thus, Bulgarian nationalism as conceptualised political negativism was only more radically inclined towards the Turkish and the Greek neighbours just because they succeeded to build Empires and to truly threaten Bulgarian existence.

Sam: The Bulgarian land reform at the end of the 19th century was long a model of equity and the formation of a smallholder's 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?

Vladimir: At the end of the 19-th century,  80% of all Bulgarian people lived off agriculture. 80% 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 1877-1878, some Turkish peasants left the country together with the Ottoman army. Landless Bulgarian peasants have possessed the abandoned lands. Later, the Bulgarian administration demanded from the new owners to 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, 10% of the Bulgarian deputies, who elaborated and voted the first Bulgarian Constitution, were of Turk origin.

Second, in the mid-80's, after the revolutionary events ended and the new administration stabilized, a slow flux of former returning Turkish peasants had been observed. As a matter in fact, some rural properties remained still abandoned after they 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% of the fertile lands were in the possession of Muslims. In the 60's, 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.

  1. 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 up to the 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 issues from the Turk 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.

Sam: 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?

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

The first one 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 80's, the outcome of the strong negative growth rate of the Bulgarian ethnicity and the inverse positive one 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 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 from among the Politburo members like 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 on April 1986, the Politburo created Special Forces for struggle against the collective resistance. As a whole, the measures included:

  1. Changing Turkish-Arab names into Slavic ones;

  1. Prohibition of speaking mother tongues (especially the Turkish language) in public areas;

  1. Re-settlement of the Turkish-Muslim minority from the so called "mixed regions" in areas dominated by a Bulgarian majority with the aim of breaking the compact character of the Turkish community;

  1. Limiting the freedom of Islamic worship;

  1. 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 rule 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 dissidents' resistance.

On April-May 1986, about 300 thousand Turks leaved 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 and 30 thousands of Turks are still leaving Bulgaria annually.

Sam: The Turkish population still constitutes c. 9% 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?

Vladimir: The Turkish community is approximately 8-10% 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 voted a series of laws for restoring 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 outstanding organizational presence, the nationalist prejudices of the Union of Democratic Forces (UDF) and the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) prevented the establishment of real partnership with the party of the ethnic Turks. So, the post-Communist bipolar system based on confrontation marginalized MRF and pushed it away from real involvement in the political power. The concealed political tension reached its culmination when in 1991 BSP referred to the Constitutional Court MRF's legal status and its existence and when in 2001 Ivan Kostov, the former UDF leader and Prime Minister declared that MRF is a curse for Bulgaria.

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 2 ministers, 5 deputy ministers, 3 governors (including of the capital Sofia) and 8 deputy governors.

This formula can serve as a precedent for political practice in Southeastern Europe. I exclude the Macedonian case because I am doubtful about 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 Southeastern 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 MRF's involvement in power, 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.

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