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Minority politics in Bulgaria: an assessment of movement for rights and freedom.

In Bulgaria, the political system more or less stabilized since the first democratic elections in October 1990. The party that represents ethnic Turks in Bulgaria, the Movement for Rights and Freedom (MRF), also secured its constituency in this system, which fluctuates between around 10 to 12 percent of the population. Thanks to its pivotal third party position, the MRF has traditionally been able to play a "kingmaker" role in Bulgarian politics.

The MRF has been criticized for its hierarchical structure. Ahmed Dogan has been the founder and lifetime president of the party. In January 2013, he survived an assassination attempt during the party's national congress and after this incident, left the office to his right-hand man, Lutvi Mestan. In retrospect, the MRF should be conceived of as extraordinarily successful in raising the profile and ensuring proper representation of ethnic Turks in the country. In addition to their uninterrupted success in parliamentary elections since the early 1990s, during certain periods, such as from 2001 to 2005 and 2005 to 2009, the MRF was a coalition partner. For the first time in the history of Bulgaria, people of Turkish descent became ministers, and even the vice-prime minister. Following the 2013 elections it became the third largest party, having obtained 36 of the 240 seats in the Parliament.

MRF in Bulgarian Politics

Ahmed Dogan was a key figure in achieving inter-ethnic compromise in Bulgaria since the early 1990s. In 1985, he was among the founders of the Turkish National Freedom Movement that reacted against the so-called [much less than]Revival Process[much greater than], an official assimilation campaign lead by the Bulgarian Communist Party to force Turks of Bulgaria to adopt Slavic names, forbid the Turkish language, and restrict all religious freedoms, inter alia. Dogan took part in protests against the assimilation process and headed the Movement in 1986. The MRF did not condone violence and resisted the regime via civilian disobedience. Hundreds of Turks who attended the protests in different cities throughout the country and violated the bans were either jailed or sent to Belene camp. After the fall of Communism in November 1989, Dogan and many others were released. They formed the MRF to advocate the rights and interests of the Turkish minority in Bulgaria. Within a short period of time, the MRF was strongly backed by Turks and turned into a key stakeholder in Bulgarian politics. Since the fall of the Communist regime, the MRF became active at all levels of government, and as the leader of the party, Ahmet Dogan has been a member of parliament in every election term.

Up to now, the MRF has succeeded in passing several bills in the Parliament which were aimed at overcoming the consequences of the so-called [much less than]Revival Process". Some of the bills dealt with the recovery of property rights and the legal restoration of Turkish names which were forcefully changed to Slavic ones in the mid-1980s. The procedures relevant to these issues were simplified, thus becoming an administrative matter. Also, Turks that migrated to Turkey in 1989 are now able to receive their pensions from Bulgaria.

Controversies Surrounding MRF Policies

Ahmet Dogan and the MRF's record, however, are not only regarded in terms of their achievements. Critics argue that the MRF has not actively fought for the protection and promotion of the rights of Turks despite having had the opportunity to do so over the course of time. The MRF was a part of the coalition government during Bulgaria's EU accession negotiation process. In 2001, the MRF formed a government with the National Movement [much less than]Simeon the Second[much greater than] (NMSS), and obtained 2 ministers. In the same vein, in 2005, the MRF emerged as the third most represented party in the parliamentary elections with 12.8 percent (467,000) of the total vote, securing 34 MPs. After tough negotiations, the Bulgarian Socialist Party, the NMSS, and the MRF formed a government in which the MRF assumed charge of 3 ministries.

In fact, the criticisms emerged exactly at this point because there was no major progress made in the rights of the Turkish minority in Bulgaria, especially regarding the hotly-debated cultural and educational issues. In 2001, the Bulgarian National Television and Bulgarian National Radio started to air in Turkish even though the broadcasts are quite limited in terms of content and duration. TV programs consisted solely of ten-minute long Turkish daily news reports, which is obviously far from satisfactory. The parliamentary debates regarding the extension of the time of daily news and alteration of TV programs into the Turkish language did not see any progress. In addition to this, the Constitution and legislation of Bulgaria guarantee the right to study in one's mother tongue since 1991. Yet, Turkish language has still remained outside of the weekly course curriculum in primary and secondary schools. It has been offered as one of the foreign language elective courses together with English, French, Germany and Russia. As a result, the interest in studying Turkish language has visibly decreased between 1991 and 2011. According to recent research conducted by IMIR (the International Center for Minority Studies and Intercultural Relations), the number of Turkish pupils attending Turkish language courses at schools had decreased from 114,000 in the 1991-1992 school term to 7,000 in the 2010-2011 school term.

The party has been working vigorously to revitalize the progress made in respect to these issues, yet it has faced difficulties at various levels. In our personal conversation in November 2012, Rucen Riza, Vice-President of the MRF, expressed these obstacles by stating, "before all else, we faced strong opposition in the Parliament. The other parties didn't back our proposals and deliberately blocked any attempts to raise and improve the educational rights of minorities. Second, macro society has been very sensitive and does not accept these rights as norms. Some of the media representatives, experts, and nationalist segments of the society accused us of being an ethnic party, which is forbidden by the Constitution. Third, the MRF has always followed the principle of raising one voice in foreign policy. Therefore, we didn't complain about Bulgaria at the EU-level during the negotiation process when commissioners visited us, and strongly supported Bulgaria's EU membership in every platform."


Since the early 1990s, the MRF has always played an important role in Bulgarian politics. For the first time, ethnic minorities secured presence in the Parliament thanks to the MRF. Since it was the first political party with ethnic roots, it flourished immediately after its establishment and expanded its influence. The party achieved much progress in terms of the restoration of citizenship rights of Turks in Bulgaria. Yet, it has been harshly criticized when it comes to securing broader minority rights for Turks, such as education and broadcasting in Turkish.

Bulgaria is an interesting case in peaceful transformations regarding ethnic issues. The Turks in Bulgaria never opted for violence to secure their rights. The transition to democracy, therefore, was completed in a conflictfree environment. During the early 2000s, the increasing leverage of the EU anchor and the progress in Bulgarian democratic credentials also benefitted the Turkish minority, though many obstacles remain on Bulgaria's bumpy path toward equal citizenship, better representation of minorities, and quality of democracy. In the post-membership period, the role of the EU anchor has somehow weakened. In the final analysis, it seems that the strategies of the MRF and the reaction of domestic political forces and broader Bulgarian society will be the single most important variables that influence the position of Turks in Bulgaria.

*The Turkish version of this article was first published in the February 2013 issue of USAK's monthly journal, 'Analist'.

Muzaffer KUTLAY (*)

(*) Senior Researcher at USAK.
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Author:Kutlay, Muzaffer
Publication:USAK Yearbook of Politics and International Relations
Article Type:Reprint
Geographic Code:4EXBU
Date:Jan 1, 2013
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