RECENT news accounts of the summary deportation of hundreds of ethnic Turks from Bulgaria following protest marches in several Bulgarian cities illustrate the failure of the Bulgarian government's policy of forcible assimilation of the Turkish ethnic minority, which began in earnest in 1984. It is reported that the majority of the deportees had taken part in marches, demonstrations, hunger strikes, and other displays of civil disobedience to protest the campaign of compulsory changing of Moslems' names and other acts of national and cultural assimilation of the country's 900,000 ethnic Turks. The protests led to violent clashes between the police and the protesters.
Early opposition to the assimilation campaign was passive and only sporadic. The protests this spring, however, have taken on a more organized form. Leading dissidents and organizers have sought for some time to form groups to oppose the government's assimilation drive and repression of the Islamic religion. Several Turkish minority civil rights groups were formed, the most recent one being the Democratic League for the Defense of Human Rights, founded in late 1988.
Previously the reaction of the Bulgarian government was to arrest the troublemakers and send them into internal exile or incarcerate them. What may have precipitated the latest wave of deportations is the regime's realization that their forced-assimilation campaign is failing, due to a better-organized resistance by the Turkish minority and lack of public support among the larger population.
It seems that the Sofia regime has miscalculated in relying on latent anti-Turkish animosity among ethnic Bulgarians, who still remember the 500-year-old Ottoman domination of their country and past Turkish atrocities in crushing Bulgarian nationalist uprisings. Despite this history, the Bulgarian public's innate sense of fairness and decency has left the government without much public support. It appears that, faced with the May protests, the Bulgarian government panicked and ordered its hard-line minister of internal affairs and head of state security to crack down on the protesters.
It's not clear why the Bulgarian government ordered the ``Bulgarization'' of its Turkish minority. It may have a lot to do with Bulgaria's growing uneasiness about the demographic explosion of the non-Bulgarian element of its population of about 9 million people - the fear that one day Bulgarians may find themselves a minority in their own country. Or it may have something to do with the communist government being scared of increasing Islamic fundamentalism and militancy.
Whatever its rationale, this policy has seriously hurt Bulgaria's public image and world standing. It has led to vigorous protests from Turkey, whose foreign minister in his address to the Helsinki Review Conference in Vienna last January attacked Sofia's failure to improve the lot of its Turkish minority and warned that Ankara would help ethnic Turks in Bulgaria.
International attention to this problem has also damaged Bulgaria's relations with other Islamic and particularly Arab countries, which Sofia has traditionally taken pains to court. Last month Bulgaria sharply criticized a resolution passed by the Organization of the Islamic Conference at its meeting in Riyadh in March as being anti-Bulgarian and Turkish-inspired in its condemnation of Bulgaria's human rights record. Sofia's controversial actions have also caused friction in its relations with a number of Western countries, including the United States. Now the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly has voted to send a delegation to Bulgaria in July 1989 to investigate the plight of the ethnic Turks.
Sofia thus far has stonewalled on this issue by setting out on a campaign of shrill denials and anti-Turkish vilification. It has denied the very existence of its Turkish minority and has spoken instead of ``Bulgarian Moslems'' and a so-called ``process of restoration'' of their national identity, including their Slavic names. It has portrayed the affair as an invention of Turkey and what it calls ``Western propaganda centers.'' The hardening of Sofia's line indicates that Bulgaria is still reluctant to yield to international pressure on a question that it considers to be an internal matter, rather than one of civil and minority rights, for which it should be held accountable under international human rights standards.
Ironically, the Bulgarian government's campaign to ``baptize the Turks'' and its attempts to deceive world opinion about the legitimate grievances of its Turkish citizens only call into question the sincerity and credibility of the regime's professed commitment to reforms and to democratization in Bulgaria.