Nationalism Eclipses Reform Moves

Reformers blame ousted bureaucrats for inflaming nationalism - and threatening democracy. BULGARIA: ETHNIC BACKLASH

`BULGARIANS, you must know your history and language!'' ``Turks, go to Turkey.''

``One People, One Language, One Flag.''

The slogans from recent demonstrations show Bulgaria's bitter mood - and one of the deepest potholes in Eastern Europe's rocky road toward democracy.

Earlier this week, parliament voted unanimously to revoke the Communist Party's monopoly rule. Talks began between the opposition and ruling Communist officials are to resume today. And free elections are scheduled for this May. But Bulgarians say that the dispute over the country's 1 million-strong ethnic Turkish minority could sabotage the reforms. Angry anti-Turk demonstrations have swept the country over the past month.

``No one's thinking about the question of democracy or dictatorship,'' laments Deyen Kiuranov, a leader of the Eco-Glasnost opposition group. ``The nationalist issue dominates everything.''

Ironically, the nationalist fervor was fueled by glasnost (openness). After ending the rigid, repressive rule of longtime ruler Todor Zhivkov in November, the new young reform-minded team led by Petar Mladenov decided just before the new year to give back to Turks their religious and language freedoms - and their own names. In 1984, Mr. Zhivkov had embarked on a massive name-changing campaign. All Ergans became Evgenis, all Kerems turned into Casimirs. The Army squashed any resistance.

After renewed Turkish demonstrations last year exploded in violence, the Bulgarians responded - first by expelling several thousand Turks and then letting anyone else leave who wanted to do so. In a few short weeks, about 310,000 Turks flooded into Turkey.

The terrible human drama helped precipitate Zhivkov's fall after 35 years in power. Vigorous condemnation came at home from the burgeoning Bulgarian opposition and abroad from Westerners deploring human rights abuses. Foreign Minister Mladenov took over, determined to pull Bulgaria into the East European mainstream.

Reversing course on the controversial Turkish policy was a key part of this strategy. According to the Dec. 29 announcement, Turks could take back their former names and speak Turkish in public. But they were not given the right to their own schools, and no mention was made of giving them some autonomy.

``These were moderate actions, needed to bring Bulgaria out of its international isolation,'' a Western diplomat says. ``No one talks about making the Turks an official minority and giving them political rights. These were just basic human rights.''

The backlash is both genuine and manipulated. Those who gained from last summer's exodus, buying up Turkish apartments and automobiles at bargain prices, say they worry they will be forced to give back the goods.

Deeper down, Bulgarians remember 500 years of Turkish occupation. Many are concerned that, despite government denials, the Turks even could invade their country. Although all small East European countries live under the shadow of potential foreign occupation and domination, this sense of living on borrowed time seems almost apocalyptic here.

``With the Soviet Union weakened,'' says Nelly Dimitrova, an angry anti-Turk demonstrator, ``we fear the Turks could come back and invade.''

Such emotions are easy to manipulate. Although reformers control the top of the Communist Party, they have not had time to weed out the former local party bosses. These local bosses are the same men who carried out the name-change policy. Frightened for their futures and sensing popular sentiment on their side, they reportedly helped form and finance ``Committees for National Unity,'' which sponsored the anti-Turk protests. The Bulgarian opposition even says demonstrators' travel and expenses to come to Sofia were paid.

``We are sure the nomenklatura is guilty,'' argues Konstantin Trenchev, a leader of the Union of Democratic Forces. ``No one else could get the money so quickly for the 200 buses and the necessary gas.''

NATIONALIST fervor has hurt the opposition, which supports the restoration of Turkish rights. When Mr. Trenchev left the parliament building, demonstrators shouted, ``Traitor, go to Turkey.'' Since then he and other opposition leaders say they have received menacing phone calls.

``The opposition has lost a lot of prestige,'' laments Yanko Yankov, vice president of the Social Democratic Party. ``In front of the public, it now looks like we support the government.''

Mladenov and his reform supporters among the communists also find themselves weakened. The nationalist hard-liners are expected to mount a counterattack at a party congress scheduled to open Jan. 30.

So far, Mladenov has shown no inclination to revert to his new Turkish policy. He has tried to gain the upper hand on his opponents by threatening to press charges of corruption on former party leader Zhivkov, who is living under virtual house arrest in a villa outside Sofia. In advance of the party congress, observers say he will try to fire other key members of the Zhivkov regime. Whether this maneuvering will win him support among reformers remains questionable.

``Mladenov is trying to blame Zhivkov for everything, but he is a creature of Zhivkovism,'' argues Dimitrov Tomov, vice president of the Independent Society for Human Rights.

Weakened at home, the Mladenov regime faces additional difficulties abroad. The Bulgarian and Turkish foreign ministers met last week in Kuwait, without reaching any concrete agreements. Much worse, the Soviet Big Brother no longer can be counted on. Moscow has offered to arbitrate Bulgaria's dispute with Turkey. Mladenov reportedly asked Soviet Prime Minister Nikolai Ryzhkov in a meeting last week if he could count on Russian support in the dispute. Mr. Ryzhkov stayed silent.

``The Bulgarians don't expect the Russians to arbitrate; they expect them to be on their side,'' says a Western diplomat. ``The Bulgarians are very, very frightened.''

The silence also comes just as Bulgaria is facing a critical economic crisis. Electricity blackouts here in Sofia have become daily affairs, gas lines stretch around corners, and shoppers say that such basics as eggs and meat are in short supply.

A $10 billion to $11 billion hard-currency debt explains the shortages. Per person, Bulgaria owes as much as Poland and Hungary. Western bankers refuse further loans.

``The country is bankrupt, no one even will give them a $20 million loan,'' a Western banker explains. ``I just don't see what they can sell abroad to pay the money back.''

``The West shouldn't help us at this moment, even though there is a great danger of a social explosion here,'' says Boika Proitekev of the Social Democratic Party. ``It should wait until we have a real democracy.''

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