ISTANBUL — TURKEY'S decision to close its border to thousands of ethnic Turks wanting to immigrate from Bulgaria has embarrassed the government for breaking a promise that officials privately say the country can't keep. Last May the Bulgarian government called upon Turkey to accept ``Bulgarian Muslims'' - the centuries-old minority Turkish community - after riots against a program aimed at eliminating their ethnic and religious heritage. In an emotional reaction, Prime Minister Turgut Ozal said Turkey would not hesitate to receive the estimated 1.5 million Bulgarian Turks and resettle them.
The mass exodus that started in early June had brought 310,000 by last week, when the Ozal government halted the influx by introducing visa requirements.
An official statement said that the decision was taken because Bulgaria refuses to agree to safeguard the rights and property of its ethnic Turks, whether they leave or stay. Officials in Ankara say that Bulgaria sends its Turks packed like ``animals'' on trains, without money or belongings. They said Turkey would reopen its border once an agreement enabling them to come ``in more human conditions'' is reached.
Turkey's opposition parties and critics of Mr. Ozal violently blasted him and his government. The two major party leaders, Suleyman Demirel on the right and Erdal Inonu on the left, blamed Ozal for discrediting and embarrassing the nation.
Strong criticism came also from the Turkish press, academics, and the refugees, many of whom still have members of their passport-holding families in Bulgaria.
More than 100,000 ethnic Turks have applied to Bulgaria for passports. Turkish government reports suggest that had the influx not been stopped, the refugees would have exceeded half a million by the end of the year.
Bulgaria's refusal to start talks for a migration policy is one - but perhaps the secondary - reason for the government's move. The primary reason, officials admit privately, is the inability of authorities to cope with the attendant economic and social problems.
A senior official says the government didn't expect so many to come. ``Turkey could have dealt easily with tens of thousands, but not with hundreds of thousands,'' he notes.
Signs of discontent began to cause the government concern. ``In Bulgaria we had good jobs, but no freedom. We came here with high expectations. But we have discovered that even if there is freedom here, there are no adequate or satisfactory jobs,'' refugee Ahmet Er says. About 2,000 refugees have returned to Bulgaria.
On the other hand, the government's assistance with jobs, housing, and other facilities has provoked resentment among local Turks in provinces where unemployment is high.
In Bursa, where nearly 100,000 refugees have settled, they have taken jobs in the local textile and automotive industries at lower pay - provoking the anger of the labor unions and the unemployed workers.
Whatever Ozal's motives for closing the border, his popularity has fallen further in opinion polls.
As to Turkey's chances to force Bulgaria into talks, officials say the split families in Bulgaria may become ``a serious source of uneasiness for the communist authorities, and force them to change their policy.''
Growing international pressure, which the Turks are tying to mobilize, is also expected to have some effect on Sofia. But Turkish officials admit that ``the options are limited'' and that the ``human drama'' of the ethnic Turks now unable to leave Bulgaria is not likely to end soon.