TURKISH MINORITY IN BULGARIA AND THE EUROPEAN UNION December 20, 2009Posted by Yilan in Bulgaria, EU, European Union, Turkey, Turkish minority of Bularia.
Tags: Bulgaristan, EU, Turkiye
The aim of the article is to show the changes, which have occurred in the status of the
Bulgarian Turks in Bulgaria after the fall of the communist regime in November 1989. Before that,
however, I would like to take a brief retrospective look at the policy of the Bulgarian Communist
Party (BCP) for this minority during the 1944 – 1989 period.
The policy of the BCP to the Bulgarian Turks after it came to power in 1944 has been
changed many times and is in compliance with the lack of a well-defined course from the preceding
period after the restoration of the Bulgarian State in 1878. It is not possible to talk about a hard-line
policy to the Bulgarian Turks, as well as to the other minority groups, such as the gypsies,
Bulgarian Muslims, Jews, Armenians, etc.1 In general, the ethnic policy of the BCP swung like a
pendulum from the provision of rights to periodical waves of emigration to the attempts for
accession and enforced assimilation2.
The real turn in the status of the Bulgarian Turks came in the spring of 1984, when the
concept for the change of their native names was approved. This was followed for an enforced
action for the changing of their names in December and January3. Numerous prohibitions were
implemented, which restricted the rights of the minorities: talking in Turkish in public places,
wearing the traditional Muslim clothes, practicing the Islamic traditions and rituals (e.g. Bayrams,
Muslim marriage rituals and circumcision), even listening to Turkish music and dancing Turkish
dances (Kyochek)4. Publications in Turkish language were discontinued. The ideological basis for
this process was made public only after the end of the campaign for the changing of the names in
1988. The action was referred to as “Revival Process”, since it was considered as a part of the
“Renaissance, which never happened” of the Turkish population. The Turks in Bulgaria were
announced comprise “assimilated by enforcement during the Turkish yoke Bulgarians”, who must
find their “real” identity. The final aim was to create a “unified socialist Bulgarian nation”5. As a
result of this Process, between 310 and 370 thousand of Turks left Bulgaria in the summer of 1989
during the cynically referred to by the authorities “Big Vacation Trip”6.
After the fall of the communist regime in Bulgaria in November 1989, changes occurred in
the status of the Turkish population in the country. Since the first opposition meetings after
November 1989 requests were voiced for the reinstatement of the “Turkish-Arabic names”7. After
long debates and inspired by the BCP nationalist protests, the Reinstatement of the Names Act was
voted on the 5th of March 1990. By the 1st of March 1991, more than 600 000 applications were
processed and approved8.
As coopared to the reinstatement of the names, a lot more problems occurred with reference
to the rights to use and study the native language. Nonetheless, the new Constitution, voted in 1991,
provides for the rights of the “citizens, for whom the Bulgarian language is not native, are entitled
simultaneously with the compulsory studying of the Bulgarian language to study and use their
native language” (Art. 36, clause 3)9. According to the Constitution, “everyone is entitled to use the
national and generally human cultural values, as well as to develop one’s culture according to
one’s ethnic origins, which is accepted and guaranteed by the laws” (Art. 54, clause 1)10. In
compliance with the above provisions of the Constitution, in November 1991 the Government
issues a decree for the implementation from 3rd till 8th grades of 4 hours per week study of the
native language as a voluntarily selected subject. Later on, this subject was implemented for study
as of the 1st grade (as of 1994). Initially, the students used Turkish school books, but in 1996 the
Ministry of Education and Science began publishing Bulgarian editions of the required school
In order to provide for the religious education and the training of Islamic spiritual leaders,
the Islamic College at the Office of the Chief Mufti was established in 1990. Later on, 4 secondary
Islamic schools were established in the country, as well11.
As regards the printed publications of the Turkish minority, some developments can be
observed during the post-communist period. Since 1990, the published till then only in Bulgarian
newspaper “Nova Svetlina” (“New Light”) became bilingual. Other publications for the Turkish
minority began to appear, such as “Prava i svobodi” (“Rights and Freedom”), “Hak ve isgurluk”,
“Guven”, etc.12 Much later, as late as 2001, the broadcasting of news in Turkish began by the
Bulgarian National TV, as well as individual broadcasts being made in Turkish on the “Hristo
Botev” Program of the Bulgarian National Radio.
All of the above changes in the status of the Bulgarian Turks would have been much more
difficult without the participation of its representatives in the management of the country.
Immediately after the fall of the communist regime in 1989, the members of the illegal until then
“Turkish National Freedom Movement of Bulgaria” gathered and decided on the 4th of January
1990 to cast the foundations of the “Movement for Rights and Freedom” (MRF) as an independent,
individual political organization. On the 26th and the 27th of March 1990, the National Founding
Conference of the MRF was convened in Sofia. Two alternatives for the program were presented.
The first was the “Program Declaration of the MRF for the Turks and the Muslims of Bulgaria”,
and the second was the “Program Declaration of the MRF”. One of them expresses the idea for the
unification of the Turks and the Muslims. According to the words of the movement members, “this
is a consequence of the attempt for the separate assimilation of the totalitarian regime on the basis
of ethnic and religious principles – division of the minorities and weakening of their resistance
capabilities.” The accent in the other program declaration was on the common national
characteristics of the MRF.
The elections for the Great Parliament were held on the 10th and the 17th of June 1990.13 The
MRF succeeded in having 23 Members of Parliament elected to the same. Since then, the
Movement has become the third political force at the Bulgarian Parliament. At present, the MRF
has 20 MP’s at the Parliament14.
The movement also plays and active role in the local municipal management throughout the
country. After the local elections in October 2003, the Municipal Mayors, elected by the ballot of
the MRF amounted to 29, while local Mayors numbered 54915.
All of the above leads to the conclusions that for the last 15 years Bulgaria has achieved a
lot in improving the status of the Bulgarian Turks. Our country makes significant efforts to adjust
our legislation in compliance with the European legal standards, to establish sustainable democratic
institutions, and to develop its civil society. This is aided by the accession to the Council of Europe
and the ratification of the European Convention on Human Rights on the 7the of May 1992.16 The
Framework Convention for the Protection of the National Minorities was also ratified (in 1999). In
synchronization with the requirements of the EU on the rights of the minorities, our Parliament
voted to implement the Protection from Discrimination Act (2003). The National Council on Ethnic
and Demographic Issues also tries to resolve the problems of the Turkish minority in the country
However, there a lot of not yet resolved problems. It has to be noted with reference to the
legislation, that the Protection from Discrimination Act is not enforced. The reason for the above is
the failure to incorporate the required authority body to perform the control in accordance with the
requirements of the EU, namely, the State Agency for the Minorities. There are also a lot of
problems remaining with reference to the education of the Turkish minorities – shortage of qualified
teachers, speaking good Turkish, and of updated school books and aid in the native Turkish
language; unsatisfactory learning of the taught at school due to insufficient knowledge of the
Bulgarian language; insufficient range of education of the children in Turkish language and
unsatisfactory level of teaching quality; ethnic centrism in the contents of the educational agenda
and teaching methods, which forms a negative attitude to the Turkish minority; difficult adaptation
of the children of Turkish origin at the kindergartens and primary schools17.
The main issue, however, remains the elaboration and approval of a strategy for the
development of the underdeveloped from economic point of view regions with a compact minority,
Turkish in this case, population. Notwithstanding the fact that the elaboration and approval of such
a strategy comprised a part of the program of the current Government, no efforts to resolve this
issue are to be observed18. As of date, the unemployment rates in the regions with a mixed
population reach 80%. This year, the project for the Urbanization and Social Development of the
Regions with Prevailing Minority Population has been started (2003). However, this project is very
small and will affect not more than 2000 persons19.
The general impression is that even though the Turkish population has been given certain
rights throughout the country, its economic status has dropped sharply after the fall of the
communist regime in Bulgaria. The reasons for this lie in the fact that the transition to the market
economy has led to high inflation and unemployment rates, restrictive credit and taxing policies, as
well as low production levels. The regions with a mixed population are characterized by less
investments and lower income levels, as well as higher dependence on state subsidies, as compared
to the average values for the country as a whole. The less developed infrastructure, the privatization
of the land, and the differences in the educational and professional profiles of the Turkish minority
communities affect adversely the constantly worsening economic status of these communities20.
After 1989, the state withdrew its support for the small textile and sewing companies, established in
the regions with a mixed population, while the constant problems in the field of tobacco production
and grain production additionally weigh down the economic status of the Turkish minority21.
The critical economic situation and the limited employment market in Bulgaria have forced
the Turkish population to seek other ways to provide for its food. New migration practices appeared
after 1989 among the ethnic Turks. These are directed along two lines – the EU and Turkey. I
would like to discuss in more detail the seasonal migration to Western Europe. It includes both
Bulgarian Turks and Turks, who for one reason or another, reside permanently in Turkey. It has to
be noted that the seasonal migration is not something new for the Bulgarian Turks, who have had
long-term traditions in practicing the same within the framework of the Bulgarian State.
The main countries of destination for the seasonal search for jobs of the Turks in Western
Europe are Belgium, Germany, Greece, Holland, and Sweden. This migration grew even more after
the discontinuation of the requirements to hold a visa for Bulgarian citizens since April 2001.
The seasonal employment migration of the Turkish minority has certain specific
characteristics. First, its aim is not a permanent residence in the EU. It is illegal and is generally
within the terms of the three-month permitted stay without a visa in the countries of the EU. The
employment migration is illegal, because the Bulgarian Turks work without holding official work
permits. It also has to be noted that the seasonal search for employment in the EU is characteristic
of the men. Family couples migrate in certain cases, more rarely – lone women, and even more
rarely – unmarried girls. The reason for the above may be found in the fact that the unemployment
among the Turkish population in Bulgaria is higher among the men, than among the women. The
larger part of the women are employed in small textile plants in Bulgaria, which provide them with
a minimum, but regular income for their families. Last, but not the least reason for the male
migration comes from the traditionally strict family control and the aims to maintain the typical for
the Turkish ethnos moral lifestyle.
Most Turkish villages have already established their own “colonies” in the larger Western
European cities. They use well-established routes. Something else is characteristic of the Turks,
who reside permanently in Turkey. Most of them prefer to come back to their native places and go
to Western Europe from there. The reason for this lies in the belief that the joint employment
migration with the common villagers provides a certain feeling of support and security in the
One cannot miss the impression that the compact Turkish villages are very well organized
for the export of workers. They have established means of transport and accommodation in the
selected western city. This saves a lot of problems during the trips to the large cities for the
purchase of tickets and useless expenditures. The money can be repaid only after a job has been
Most of the immigrants prefer illegal jobs since, according to their opinion, they are better
paid. They do not complain of the heavy work loads and the often long working hours. The basic
jobs occupied by the Turks in Western Europe are in the field of qualified laborers in construction
and related to construction activities. According to the opinion of the immigrants, they are
welcomed by the local residents as workers to perform the dirty work, since the local residents
rarely engage in unqualified work.
In general, the employment immigrants live several persons in a common home, with the
selection of the roommates being generally based on blood relations or the common village origins.
They generally avoid gathering in large groups in order to avoid the attention of the neighbors and
It is an interesting fact that some of the Turks prefer to travel, using their Bulgarian names,
due to the negative attitudes in the West with reference to Muslims. This is especially valid for the
Bulgarian Turks, who are now permanent residents in Turkey. The change from the Turkish names
to the Bulgarian ones also is made in cases of having a black stamp in the passport and a prohibition
to work in the EU. In some cases, such immigrants have even succeeded in changing their Unified
Most of the immigrants are employed by Turkish or other Muslim entrepreneurs, who are
permanent residents of the respective West European country. In this way, language problems are
avoided, but the people do not learn the local language, notwithstanding their long-term work there.
At this stage, the migration to the EU is fully oriented towards the home and the relatives in
their country of origin. In the destination country, the immigrants live very frugally and send most
of their income home22. Initial terrain studies among such immigrants, who have returned to
Bulgaria, indicate that these incomes are used mostly for domestic needs. The bravest
“investments” till date comprise the acquisition of real-estate properties in the nearest towns, but no
cases of development of one’s own business with the saved money from the months of immigration
have been registered as yet. Without knowing the language, being very restricted in their social
contacts, the immigrants do not inter-relate with the new environment, they do not learn anything
about the same and, respectively, they do not bring home any new economic or social experiences23.
Finally, I would like to discuss the way the Bulgarian Turks look on the EU and how they
see its image. First of all, they relate the EU to the better economic conditions and the higher
standards of life. Second, they point out the respect for the rights of the minorities – the possibilities
for ethnic and religious self-determination.
The Bulgarian Turks indicate as an important factor the quick accession of Bulgaria into the
EU, as well. The main reason for this comes from the economic advantages and the achievement of
higher standards of life. The Bulgarian Turks also are interested in the accession of Turkey to the
European structures. This, for them, is a strategic move, which will expand the markets and change
its image as an underdeveloped economically and culturally country. The reason for the slow
progress of the negotiations between Turkey and the EU is pointed out in its numerous population,
which causes the economic problems of the country24. Another reason for the difficulties on the
road of Turkey’s accession to the EU lies in the fact that it is a Muslim country. This, however, is
viewed as the main requirements for its accession into the European structures. The accession of
Turkey into the EU is viewed by the communities of the Bulgarian Turks as a prerequisite for the
successful defense against the Muslim organizations.
Another reason for the importance of the accession into the EU lies in the self-determination
of the Bulgarian Turks as “Europeans” and their views that they are an integral of the European
Finally, I would like to point out that even though Bulgaria has achieved a lot with reference
to the rights of the Turkish minorities in the country and to the synchronization of the Bulgarian to
the European legislation, there is still a lot to be done with reference to their economic status. Due
to this unresolved problem, the migration of the ethnic Turks creates problems for the EU membercountries,
while for this minority this is the only road to survival, to the maintenance of certain
standards of life and social status in their country of origin.