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Where 'Stupid' Bigotry Is Chained - For Now

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

By Justin BurkeStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 24, 1995



SOFIA, BULGARIA

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.

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''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.''

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.

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