Where 'Stupid' Bigotry Is Chained - For Now

Bulgaria no longer targets ethnic Turks, who nonetheless remain on guard. Part 3 of a series.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

FOR Ramiz, an ethnic Turk, vivid memories remain of the day when Bulgarians obliterated his identity as part of a drive to erase Turkish culture in this Balkan nation.

''It was February in 1985, and I was in the Army. Officers came to me and told me that I must change my name. They had a list of Bulgarian names and told me to pick one. I refused, so they began beating me,'' said Ramiz, speaking after Friday prayers at the Banya Bashi mosque in Sofia, Bulgaria's capital.

''They finally gave me a new name,'' he continued. ''I had no time to talk to my brother, my father, and my mother. We all got different names.''

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The name changes were only a part of the communist-inspired effort to ''Bulgarianize'' the country's ethnic Turks, who make up about 10 percent of the country's 9 million population - a vestige of the country's five centuries under the rule of the Ottoman Empire.

In an anti-Turk campaign that began in 1984, authorities also banned the Turkish language from being spoken in public or taught in schools. Hundreds of thousands of Turks migrated to Turkey to avoid repression. But today, Bulgaria's Turks have their own names back. Since communism's collapse in 1989, Bulgaria's leaders have bucked a trend of ethnic division seen elsewhere in eastern Europe by easing hostility between Bulgarians and Turks.

'A success story'

While war continues in the former Yugoslavia, and ethnic tension simmers in other Central European nations struggling to adopt democratic principles, Turks are finding Bulgaria friendlier than it once was. Some have returned from Turkey. While language education is still lacking, ethnic Turks now live in relative peace with Bulgarians.

''It must be considered a great success because back in '89 to '90 we were on a collision course, and we overcame this situation,'' said Antonina Zhelyazkova, who heads the International Center for Minority Studies and Intercultural Relations in Sofia. But some ethnic Turks are growing concerned again about the possibility of a return of ethnic discord. For one, the Bulgarian Socialist Party - the post-communist offspring, the same party that launched the anti-Turk campaign - clawed back into power in elections late last year.

The greatest fear is that a widening of the Yugoslav war could cause Bulgaria to catch fire. The dynamic at work in Bosnia - the perception of Orthodox Christianity versus Islam - is also present in Bulgaria.

''The Yugoslav war has heightened religious awareness among both Turks and Bulgarians,'' said Ahmet Dogan, leader of the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, a political party that represents ethnic Turk interests and receives about 10 percent of voter support. He added that given the stagnant economy, Bulgaria's socialist leaders could succumb to the temptation to play on national-ethnic feelings to divert public attention from the country's structural problems.

''The situation I would regard in critical terms,'' Mr. Dogan said. ''I see a tendency of this government to be more or less interested in separating different cultural communities.

''Certain circles in Bulgaria would be happy to attempt a Yugoslav solution. But this, so far, has shown not to be possible,'' he continued.

Before the anti-Turk campaign, Turks and Bulgarians lived peacefully in Bulgaria. ''Christians and Muslims in Bulgaria never knew violence like that between Protestants and Catholics in the West,'' Dogan said. In the post-communist era, Bulgaria has also been praised by the United States and other nations for maintaining domestic stability.

Socialist government officials, as well as members of the main political opposition, the Union of Democratic Forces (UDF), scoff at the notion of a revival of ethnic tension. ''We have all seen the stupidity of the anti-Turkish campaign in the mid-1980s,'' said Alexander Boshkov, the UDF's deputy leader.

The key: jobs

But independent experts say getting economic reforms on track are a key to preventing a revival of ethnic tension. Bulgaria has made only scant progress toward a market economy. Political infighting over the last five years has hampered privatization. Inflation last year was 121 percent, although it came down during the first half of 1995.

Turks concentrated mostly in agricultural regions in the northwestern and southern regions of Bulgaria have been hit hardest by the post-communist economic tumult. Many of them are tobacco growers, and the market has been devastated. When they line up for other jobs, they must stand behind ethnic Bulgarians.

''What puts Bulgarian-Turkish relations at risk is the economic situation,'' said Ms. Zhelyazkova of the intercultural center. She also spoke about the danger of ''irrational fear'' that has taken hold among the population, fostered by the fighting in Bosnia.

Some Orthodox Christians in Bulgaria now worry that Islamic fundamentalism is making inroads among impoverished sectors of the Turkish minority. But Zhelyazkova and Turkish political leaders insist such concerns are unfounded.

A spread of the war in the former Yugoslavia could cause reason to be tossed out the window across the Balkans. ''It's possible for the irrational fear to grow, especially if Islamic countries become involved in the war in Yugoslavia,'' Zhelyazkova said.

In the flatlands around Plovdiv, gateway to the mainly Turkish regions of southern Bulgaria, some people view things through a prism of historical animosity. ''Bulgaria is a Christian country. I want them [Turks] all to go back to Turkey where they came from,'' said Todor, a schoolteacher, who declined to give his last name.

''They are fanatics, and I am afraid they will launch terrorist acts, like in New York City,'' he continued, speaking about the World Trade Center bombing.

He went on to describe the Turkish minority as ''not loyal Bulgarians,'' adding the persecution of Turks in the mid-'80s was justified because ''we had to teach them a lesson, and show them that they live in Bulgaria.''

While the views of Todor do not necessarily represent mainstream Bulgarian thinking, they seem to indicate an audience exists for nationalist appeals.

Stanimir Alexandrov, Bulgaria's vice minister for foreign affairs, emphatically insisted that ''no nationalist feeling or militant Christian movement'' exists in Bulgaria. He added that there are ''no complaints'' by ethnic Turks about current conditions.

But Dogan, the ethnic Turk leader, argues that the government is aggravating the situation.

Louisiana-style districts

Dogan cites a government attempt this spring to redraw majority-Turkish electoral districts. The proposal, described by Dogan as an attempt to dilute ethnic Turkish political influence, was defeated after a bitter parliamentary debate.

Dogan also worried about the presence of Ilcho Dimitrov, the minister for education and science, in the current government. Mr. Dimitrov held the same position in the mid-1980s and is considered by some to be a mastermind behind the anti-Turk campaign.

''For the last seven months there has not been one single attempt to engage us in dialogue,'' Dogan said, referring to the socialist government.

While such concerns preoccupy some, ethnic Turks - whether on the streets of Sofia, or in the fields of rural Bulgaria - continue the daily battle for survival under dire economic circumstances.

''I don't care about politics. I could support whatever political party, but they do nothing to support me,'' said Ramiz, who is unemployed and requested that his last name not be used. ''Before there was discrimination, now there is economic segregation,'' he says. ''I do not want revenge for the past discrimination. I just want a job.''

* Part 3 of a five-part series on minorities in Europe. Part 4 runs Aug. 29.

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