Like Moscow, Bulgaria contends with rising Muslim population

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Since early January, public concern in Turkey has mounted over a flood of newspaper reports about oppression of the Turkish minority in Bulgaria. Some opposition politicians have seized on this issue to embarrass Prime Minister Turgut Ozal. The heart of Turkish concern is fear that Bulgaria aims to deprive its growing Turkish minority of both their religious and cultural heritage.

Bulgarian slowness to respond to Turkish worries merely intensified them. A mid-January letter from President Kenan Evren to Bulgarian head of state Todor Zhivkov took nearly two weeks to be answered. In his response, Mr. Zhivkov maintained that Bulgarian Turks enjoy legal status equal to all Bulgarian citizens and rejected allegations of mistreatment as false. Few Turks are inclined to take such assurances at face value.

Still, Turkey is eager to maintain businesslike relations. It is dependent on road and rail routes through communist Bulgaria for its main link to Western Europe. Sales of natural gas promised last year by the Soviet Union could be put in jeopardy.

Recommended: Think you know Turkey? Take our country quiz.

Reports of political strain inside Bulgaria have accumulated since late summer. The country experienced several mysterious bombings in August and September. One occurred in the Plovdiv, the center of a region with a heavy Turkish minority. Whether Turks had anything to do with the incident is unknown because Sofia suppressed all news of the incidents.

More recently, clashes with police and troops in several towns with sizable Turkish populations have been confirmed by Western diplomatic sources. The Turkish government is undoubtedly well informed on them. Sources in the Turkish capital, Ankara, confirm that the immediate cause of the clashes has been a Bulgarian campaign to force Turks to change both their first and family names to Slavic forms. Such changes entail, in effect, abandoning traditional Muslim names for Christian ones. But why such preoccupation with names?

``It is a symptom of a much more serious problem,'' says Prof. Aydin Yalcin of Ankara University. ``The truth is that the Bulgarian communist regime faces the same embarrassing predicament as its big brother in Moscow: a Muslim population that is increasing three or four times as fast as the Slavs.''

Rand Corporation analyst Alex Alexiev, himself a former Bulgarian, notes that Sofia stopped publishing nationality data in census returns in 1965.

``[Some] 656,000 Turks were counted in the 1955 census even though 150,000 had been forced to emigrate to Turkey in the early 1950s. This reduction was more than made good by their high birthrate, which was also true of the Pomaks [Slavic Muslims] and Gypsies. The Sofia regime tried to cover up the situation by simply classifying everyone as Bulgarian.''

The Turkish minority in Bulgaria is now conservatively estimated at 10 percent of a population that is probably slightly over 9 million. A census scheduled later this year could, if Turks and other Muslims were actually counted as such, reveal a much greater imbalance. An article last year in the Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs (which appears at the University of Jedda) by Halit Mollahuseyn projects historic demographic trends to conclude that the total Muslim population of Bulgaria may be approaching two million.

Sofia's tampering with names and numbers may have produced a situation where even Bulgaria's communist rulers have no clear idea how many Muslim citizens they have. There are many indications that Turks and other Muslims in Bulgaria, long rural and politically passive, have been experiencing the same kind of resurgence of self-awareness that has affected Muslims everywhere during the past decade.

In addition, they have frequent contact with Turks who travel through Bulgaria, 1 million strong each year, to and from employment in Europe. They envy the freedom of movement Turkish citizens enjoy and learn of the advantages of life in a noncommunist society from letters from relatives in Turkey. The Sofia regime's efforts to isolate them have not worked but have recently been extended, according to the Turkish press, to jamming of Turkish-language radio broadcasts.

The Turkish Republic has never made any territorial claims on Bulgaria. Since the early 1950s, Ankara has refused to accept a large influx of immigrants. A few thousand Bulgarian Turks have continued to come to Turkey each year within the framework of carefully supervised arrangements for uniting families. They have joined older groups of Bulgarian-origin in the provinces of Bursa and Eskisehir.

Even if Turkey were eager to add all Bulgarian Turks to her own 50 million inhabitants, Sofia could not afford the economic loss, for Muslims are among the country's most productive farmers. No solution for the problem is in sight.

Turkey recalled its ambassador to Sofia on Feb. 14, but a Foreign Ministry spokesman in Ankara insisted it was not a protest action but simply an effort to get more firsthand information on ethnic Turks.

There have been private appeals to Amnesty International and there is talk of raising the issue in the United Nations and other international bodies.

The senate of Ankara University issued a statement on Feb. 8 condemning ``the current Bulgarian regime not only for failing to implement international agreements on the rights of minorities, but the principles of its own minority policy. . . .

``High-level jobs have long been denied to ethnic Turks,'' the statement continues, ``and most of their mosques as well as their schools have been closed.''

Persistent reports reaching Western embassies here say that large numbers of people have died in clashes between the security forces and ethnic Turks since last summer. They have come under increasing pressure from the authorities to abandon their distinctive identities since 1978, when Turkey said that it could no longer take any more of them as immigrants. The latest reports speak of a far higher level of violence when security forces moved into the other heavily Turkish area, Dobrudja, in the northeast in the second week of January. There are reports of house-to-house fighting, shootings, stabbings, and rape with troops resorting to chemical spraying from helicopters to quell unrest. Western diplomats say they believe the casualty toll approaches 200.

Bulgarian authorities say the reports are ``pure fiction.'' They blame the Turkish news media for plotting to undermine official relations between the two states.

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