Bulgaria's Persecution of the Turks

IN a move that has elicited an international outcry, the government of Bulgaria has been expelling citizens of Turkish ethnicity - more than 130,000 of them at this writing. Bulgaria seems prepared to expel many more of its 1.5 million Turks, whose ancestors have inhabited Bulgaria for generations. The expulsions are the latest chapter in a forced assimilation campaign initiated five years ago. The motives behind the deportations became clear to me in June when I interviewed some 30 of the deportees in Turkey.

Bulgaria's leader, Todor Zhivkov, wishes to expunge Turkish culture from Bulgaria. In addition, he is seeking to engender nationalistic support for his government at a time when the country's economy is faltering.

In 1987, Mr. Zhivkov announced elaborate plans to restructure the economy, but he never implemented them. Bulgarians are becoming ever more impatient for reform and view their aging leader as unable to put the economy back on track. Zhivkov is apparently counting on the mass exodus of Turks to relieve pressure on his government. As one refugee explained to me: ``He expelled us to stir up nationalistic feelings and thereby divert attention from the economy.''

Over the short term, Zhivkov's hard line against the Turks may work. Some observers note increasing patriotism and support for the party leader. But over the long run, the policy cannot shore up the country's lagging productivity. Ironically, Bulgaria's ethnic Turks - farmhands, factory workers, laborers in the construction industry - constitute the backbone of the economy. The official trade-union newspaper, Trud, recently disclosed that in one factory in Shumen, roughly 900 of 1,300 workers were no longer showing up. Bulgarian troops have reportedly been sent to the fields and to construction sites to fill in for those who have left the country.

Zhivkov's attempt to rid himself of the minorities problem will also fail if even a small number of the ethnic Turks remain in Bulgaria, for repression can serve only to radicalize those Turks who stay behind. Ethnic pride is one of the strongest forces in the world today, and the Bulgarian Turks are resistant to government efforts to deny them the right to speak Turkish, to use their Turkish names rather than state-imposed Slavic ones, and to practice Islam freely. Bulgaria must also consider the demands of other minorities.

For those who know Zhivkov, the deportations come as no surprise. He relentlessly persecutes all Bulgarians who press for greater freedoms. In late May, for example, the authorities arrested Dr. Konstantin Trenchev, the innovative chairman of an independent trade union. Although he is an ethnic Bulgarian, Dr. Trenchev supported the Turkish cause, and his family fears that he will now be charged with inciting recent Turkish demonstrations.

Can Zhivkov, the Eastern bloc's longest-ruling leader, retain his iron grip? Until recently, Bulgarians did not engage in human rights activities because, as one said, ``fear had deeply penetrated in our hearts.'' But a new consciousness is arising in this small Balkan nation, inspired perhaps by events in the Soviet Union.

Despite continued government crackdowns, some Bulgarians are willing to risk arrest, imprisonment, and even expulsion to bring about reform. The Bulgarian poetess Blaga Dimitrova, a member of a discussion club that aims to stimulate debate on such topics as glasnost and perestroika, compares her countrymen to trees fighting pollution: ``It seems impossible to inhale stink and poisons and exhale oxygen, and yet, that is what the trees are doing.''

As ethnic Turks continue to stream across the border, we must condemn Bulgaria and, at the same time, remember those Turks and other Bulgarians - like Dr. Trenchev - who maintain the struggle for human rights within Bulgaria. Expulsions do not solve minorities problems; nor do they relieve a country of its abiding human rights obligations.

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