Bulgarians and Turks boost friendship despite difficult memories


A new book series sheds light on the exodus of ethnic Turks from Bulgaria in 1989 reminds the two communities of the importance of preserving friendship.

By Menekse Tokyay and Tzvetina Borisova for Southeast European Times in Istanbul and Sofia -- 25/02/14


Muzaffer Vatansever Kutlay (left), chief co-ordinator of USAK's book project, interviews Zhelyu Zhelev, the first democratically elected president of Bulgaria. [Muzaffer Vatansever Kutlay]

Yasharie Yashar has spent her whole life in Bulgaria's southern town of Asenovgrad, a place that has always had a Turkish community.

She had just graduated high school when the so-called "Revival Process" began. From 1984-1989, a large-scale assimilation campaign was instigated against ethnic Turks. Forced name changes and bans on Muslim rituals punctuated those years. Many ethnic Turks were jailed, while in May 1989 mass migration to Turkey was initiated.

That dark chapter in the history of Bulgaria-Turkey relations is detailed in a new six-volume book series produced by the Ankara-based International Strategic Research Organisation (USAK). Titled "Recording the Unknown History: 1989 Migration from Bulgaria," the books are based on first-hand accounts of the assimilation policy of Bulgaria's former communist regime and the exodus of ethnic Turks from Bulgaria in May 1989.

While mutual friendship and good neighbourly relations between the two nations have triumphed since the end of the communist regime in late 1989, the memories remain.

Yashar recalls the assimilation campaign starting with a shifting of language from Arabic-Turkish to Bulgarian-Slavic. Ethnic Turks were forced to change their names, and bans on speaking Turkish in public or performing Muslim rituals, including circumcision and religious funerals, followed.

Those who violated the bans received large fines, and some were sent to prison or the Belene labour camp, located on an island near Romanian border.

"They came in the middle of the night," Yashar recalled, referring to the police or "militia," as it was called at that time, whose local units were charged with implementing the central government's orders.

"My father had friends -- he had heard something would happen and asked our neighbours, Bulgarians, to shelter at least us, the children, during the night, so that we don't get stressed. My brother, my sister and I were in our Bulgarian neighbours' house. They readily welcomed us for the night," she said, recalling the night a militia unit came for her father.

"In the morning everything was blocked everywhere. They took us to the school, where they started changing our names one by one. They gave us name lists to choose from, and those who did not want to change their names, were given some name -- whether they liked it or not," Yashar told SETimes.

"Our new names never became popular -- we continued to call each other with our old names -- everybody knows me as Yashka," Yashar said.

In 2012, the Bulgarian parliament adopted a historic declaration condemning the "Revival Process."


The six-volume book series documents the forced migration of ethnic Turks from Bulgaria in 1989. [Muzaffer Vatansever Kutlay]

Yashar, however, felt little relief.

"An apology means nothing. The pain fades with the years, but it takes time," she said.

"I believe that this whole thing [the name replacement] was a mistake -- people lived in peace. There were mixed marriages and everything was going normally. It was not necessary to get that far," she added.

Vanya Tyutyundziheva lives in the house across the street from the one where Yashar and her siblings took shelter during the night when the police came to her house to take her family and replace their names.

"Yashka is one of my best neighbours -- I can always count on her," Tyutyundziheva told SETimes.

Among the anecdotes in the books, many Bulgarian people went to train stations, crying as their neighbours left the country, while those ethnic Turks who returned were helped to settle back into their towns. Those who were subject to immigration through visas were able to return after September 1989, when the countries started negotiations.

Muzaffer Vatansever Kutlay, chief co-ordinator of the project and herself a child of a migrant family from Bulgaria's Kardzhali who moved to the northwestern Bursa province of Turkey, told SETimes the events of her childhood have made her acutely aware of exclusion and inclusion.

"On the one hand, me and my family were forced to migrate to Turkey. Even though I was about 4 years old at that time, even though it was a blurred picture, I remember the process," Kutlay said.

"You are forced to leave your home, your neighbours, all your belongings behind. So you feel what exclusion means. It makes you sensitive about the situation of minorities, of weaker segments of society. It makes you sensitive towards pluralism, regarding the humanitarian results of the political decisions. You feel yourself as obliged to defend their rights as well," Kutlay said.

During the three-month migration period, 345,960 people came to Turkey from Bulgaria, and 133,272 of them eventually returned to Bulgaria. Bulgarian-born Turks permanently settled in Turkey's cities of Bursa, Izmir, Corlu, Istanbul, Edirne, Sakarya, and Ankara, among others.

Kutlay said such a large number of migrants created many difficulties both for the migrants and Turkish authorities in terms of economic, social, political and infrastructural capabilities.

"The other side of the coin is inclusion," she said. "You came to Turkey and became a part of a new community. You construct your life from the very beginning. The people in Turkey at that time, and the state, tried to help you, by integrating you into the political, economic and social structures of the country."

"All these positive developments also show you that life is not only about exclusion but also it is about inclusion. I mean, there is no black and white. There are always dichotomies. There are always different choices. The important point is at which aspects you develop your sensitiveness. So I have this conscience. This is the main principle of my life that is derived from my migration experience," she added.

Kutlay said it is not possible for Turks in Bulgaria to forget this bad memory.

"Yet, I don't think that it has a bad repercussion over two communities' relations because the assimilation campaign and forced migration was promoted by the ruling Communist Party elites that were orchestrated by Todor Zhivkov. Bulgarian people could not be held responsible for the mistakes of the Zhivkov regime," she said.

Kutlay, who has repeatedly returned to Bulgaria for professional and academic visits while meeting also with Bulgarian friends from her past, said history is about learning from past mistakes so as not to repeat them.

"But this is quite difficult to do in the real politics. We need to underline this point constantly. I don't see any possibility of ethnic conflict in the future between the two communities," she added.

Yavor Klisurski, second secretary of the Bulgarian embassy in Ankara, told SETimes that the events of the late 1980s have had no durable impact over the friendship between the two nations.

"Although at that time I had no Turkish neighbours in the area I was living, I heard many things about them. They have been welcomed by their neighbours when they returned back to Bulgaria because they were too close friends who shared happiness and difficulties in the past," Klisurski said.

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"In fact, no political tension can undermine longstanding bonds between ethnic Turks and Bulgarians living in that country. They were even celebrating Muslim and Christian festivities always together," he added.

Birgul Demirtas, a Balkan expert from Ankara-based TOBB University, said the bitter memories of the assimilation period of the 1980s can be healed to a great extent because of the fact that as soon as the Zhivkov regime was toppled, the new Bulgarian government reversed the repressive policies and reinstated the rights of Turkish people.

"It should also be noted that Turkish eagerness to co-operate with the then newly elected pro-European Bulgarian rulers played an important role in the process as well. Throughout the years the two neighbouring countries set an example for a successful model of bilateral co-operation in various fields," Demirtas told SETimes.

How can Turkey-Bulgaria relations since the end of the Zhivkov era serve as a model for bilateral relations throughout the region? Share your thoughts in the comments section.

This content was commissioned for SETimes.com.
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