Turks in the Balkans May 11, 2010Posted by Yilan in Human rights abuses.
Tags: Balkans, Bosnia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Serbia, turks
A few things have led me to finally put on paper some ideas I have kept in mind for a long time about a delicate subject: Turks in the Balkans.
I was touched by my old friend Şahin Alpay’s column after his recent trip to Macedonia, where part of his family roots lie, and where he spoke with some elderly ladies, “the grandchildren of the Ottomans who stuck to their ancestral land,” as he put it. On the same page, Chris Deliso wrote how he has been touched by the television drama “Elveda Rumeli” (Farewell Rumelia) he watched in Bitola (known as Manastır in Turkish), where “the late-Ottoman ethos captured on the show remains.” Then, again on Today’s Zaman’s pages, I fond a statement by Kosovar President Fatmir Sejdiu in which he said, “Turks living in Kosovo and Kosovars living in Turkey are ‘a golden bridge of cooperation and friendship’ between the two countries.”
The subject itself has various dimensions: historical, political, ethnological, social and cultural. Each deserves a special survey, and every country in the Balkans deserves a focused look on its perception and understanding of Turks. My endeavor is limited to some general facts, questions and impressions about Turks as national or ethnic minorities in southeastern Europe’s countries, which emerged over the past century from the ashes of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires.
Hence, they are not Turks in a broader sense, belonging to the ethno-linguistic group commonly called the Turkic peoples. They are closest to Turkey’s Turks and republican Turks, closer even than the Azerbaijanis. They maintain some linguistic and cultural characteristics preserved from Ottoman times, again more than Azerbaijanis and other Central Asian peoples who were never part of the Ottoman Empire.
These Turks share many features of modern life with their regional neighbors, but at the same time differ from the majority Slav population, who share the same language and blood, and from the Greek and Albanian minority, who vary from Slavs in both race and language. They are, however, of the deeply ingrained Western opinion concerning the entire Balkan population as being backward, fierce and warlike. All of that is meant by the term “balkanization,” which entered the international vocabulary after the Balkan wars of 1912-1913 and was refreshed during the wars in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. I found an instance of just such an approach even before the Balkan wars. The New York Times wrote on June 26, 1897: “The words ‘Gdje su Turci tu su i vuci’ mean in Bosnian ‘Where the Turks are, there will also be wolves’.” Then follows a comment to that proverb: “We need not pin our faith to popular sayings, born of race prejudices, but from a reading of Mr. H. C. Thomson’s ‘The Outgoing Turk’ — we should say that the vulpine genus existed appreciably in the countries the author describes.”
Christians identify Turks here with Muslims, but the imagery would be vice versa if proverbs from the other side were used. The identification of Turks with Slavs who accepted Islam together with Ottoman rule still has implications for relations between different ethnic and religious groups in Balkan countries. We in Bosnia know it best from the Serb aggressors’ commander, Ratko Mladic, who ordered his soldiers to “destroy all that bears a Turkish sign,” or by his conclusion after the Srebrenica genocide, “We have evened the score with the Turks.” With things going as they are in recent manipulations involving so-called neo-Ottomanism, it may soon be that all Muslims in the Balkans, together with those who are real Turks, will once again be identified with the Ottomans.
A modern Internet traveler recently wrote, “Just as there may not be any Moguls left in South Asia, but hundreds of millions of Muslims, there are far more Muslims in the Balkans than people of Turkish descent.” This much is true — after the breakdown of Ottoman rule in the Balkans, five to 10 times more Muslims than Turks by origin remained, and this figure is approximately the same today.
Just 100 years ago, there were 2.3 million ethnic Turks in the region, but after the second Balkan war, almost half of them took refuge in İstanbul. Around 120,000 emigrated from the Kingdom of Yugoslavia to Turkey between 1923 and 1939. The next wave of migrations occurred between 1956 and 1968, when 175,000 got permission from the Yugoslav socialist government to migrate to Turkey. A good part of them were Slav Muslims with relatives in Turkey.
Bulgaria was a special, well-known case. Around 220,000 Turks left Bulgaria between 1923 and 1949. Then, around 150,000 “were allowed to leave” communist Bulgaria between 1949 and 1951. The biggest number, 310,000, found refuge in Turkey from the Bulgarian assimilation campaign in the late 1980s. As for Greece, 300,000-400,000 Turks have left since 1923.
How many people of real Turkish descent are in the Balkans today? Some say 2 million, the same figure as at the beginning of the 20th century. I could not find figures showing they are noticeably more than a million, taking into consideration that three-quarters of them are still in Bulgaria. In other countries they number in the tens of thousands, somewhere only in the thousands.
Geographically they are dispersed in a predictable way: The lowest numbers are found in the so-called Western Balkans (Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro), increasing in number as we get closer to Turkey’s borders (Bulgaria, Macedonia, Greece).
A wide range of treatment
Politically, observed as a minority issue, the Balkan Turks have experienced different, sometimes extremely diverse, treatment by the countries they live in. First, the blame for Ottoman sins rests on their shoulders, as is the case with other Muslims. However, it depended mostly on the nature of the political system. Be it a dictatorial monarchy, an authoritarian communist, extreme nationalist or more or less democratic regime, it should accept international standards of protecting national minorities’ rights as a prerequisite of any modern state. Let us look at how the situation has been developing in that regard in the three countries where most Balkan Turks live.
In Bulgaria, things have changed drastically in only a span of a few years. An aggressive assimilation campaign during Todor Zhivkov’s authoritarian rule included even changing Turkish names to Bulgarian ones. At the same time, in Tito’s Yugoslavia, also ruled by communists, around 100,000 Turks, living mostly in Macedonia, had their own primary and high schools, radio stations and even children’s magazine — all in Turkish. Although it might not be popular to recall today former Turkish President Kenan Evren because he staged a military coup, allow me to remind you of his words, for I heard them personally. He said Yugoslavia was “the only country in the world where Turks enjoyed the same rights as if they were in Turkey.” The conditions facing Turks in Greece has not changed considerably over the decades. No Greek government has recognized them as the Turkish national minority, strictly insisting on the 1923 Lausanne Treaty, which stipulated only a “Muslim minority” of Western Thrace. Relying on European Union standards, Greeks are ready to recognize only individual rights to “their” Turks.
After the fall of the communists, the cultural rights of Bulgarian Turks were quickly restored. Despite opposition from some nationalist parties, they received a sort of cultural and religious autonomy, studying Turkish in schools, enjoying free movement between Bulgaria and Turkey, voting in elections for their own delegates. This is similar to the situation of Turks in independent Macedonia. They demonstrated contentment with their status to Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu during his recent visit to that country, but I am sure their representatives informed him as well about sporadic tensions between them and the much larger Albanian minority there. In fact, Turks in Kosovo, particularly while it was part of Yugoslavia and Serbia, “were caught between two nationalisms,” Serb and Albanian. They are now, although to a lesser degree, caught between Macedonian and Albanian nationalism.
Turkish minorities known as tolerant
Otherwise, all Tuvrkish minorities in the region are respected and known to be peaceful, tolerant communities, respectful of local laws, never seeking secession nor taking sides in nationalist strife and ethnic conflict.
The Balkan Turks, thus, possess some features distinguishing them from other national minorities. Compared with at least 2 million Turkish gastarbeiters in Germany, close to half a million in Holland and a quarter million in Austria, many becoming successful businessmen, scientists, members of parliament, representatives in European institutions, etc., Turks in the Balkans are few and do not have a significant share in politics and business. They are not a diaspora in the modern sense, either, because most of them, surviving all pressures for emigration and loss of their national identity, are deeply incorporated within local communities. And who knows whose blood runs through the bodies of people in this turbulent region, where various races and peoples have been intermingling for centuries. Judging only by family names, it is easy to suppose that many Konjhodzics in Bosnia have origins from some family of religious scholars (hoca) from Konya, or that the Kuduz family has its roots in a Jerusalem (Kudüs) trade community.
Ending, or starting, with my own family, I wonder who I inherited my medium stature and thin lips from, when my mother, Muniba, and uncle Vehbija had the same, and when their mother told them that her family, Vaizovic (preachers), probably came from a distant Turkish place in early Ottoman times.
*Hajrudin Somun is the former ambassador of Bosnia and Herzegovina to Turkey and a lecturer of the history of diplomacy at Philip Noel-Baker International University in Sarajevo.