The Bulgarian election season is underway with voters set to go to the polls on May 12. Public opinion polls show that the two top vote-getters are likely to be the former ruling party, Citizens for a European Bulgaria (GERB), followed by the former Communists, the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP). GERB resigned in February during a surge in protests over the economic situation in the country.
Coming in a distant third, which has been its accustomed place over the years, is the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF), a party closely connected to the ethnic Turkish community. From this pivotal third position, the MRF has traditionally been able to play a kingmaker role in Bulgarian politics. Only two other parties are currently on track to exceed the 4 percent threshold and make it into the new parliament.
So far, the campaign has been full of the usual allegations and cross-allegations. Former Interior Minister Tsvetan Tsvetanov has been accused of conducting wiretaps on his fellow cabinet members in order to collect material for blackmail. Meanwhile, the political vetting process has produced a list of 143 candidates who were agents of state security or military security. The MRF has the lion’s share of these candidates at 16, one more than the BSP.
The MRF has long been led by Ahmed Dogan, the party’s founder. After a bizarre assassination attempt in January, Dogan stepped down. His successor, Lyutvi Mestan, is an MRF stalwart who has led efforts to alter Bulgarian-language-only laws connected to education and electioneering.
The MRF has been criticized for its hierarchical structure. But the party has also been extraordinarily successful in raising the profile of ethnic Turks in the country.
To Tchetin Kazak, these two issues are not unrelated. Kazak has come up through the ranks of the MRF, beginning with his time as a university activist. He was involved in the MRF’s youth wing before being elected to parliament at the age of 29.
“The authority and the role of the leader are unquestionable, and this is the key to our success,” he told me in an interview in the Bulgarian parliament building last October. “We’ve seen over the years how many other parties appear like shooting stars. They shine very brightly and then they very quickly fade. The MRF, however, only grew stronger and expanded its influence, because it was developing from within and trying to be proactive to get ahead of events. We involved more and more people within its ranks, and not only from ethnic minorities. We covered the whole territory of Bulgaria, regardless of the ethnic makeup of the region. We embraced universal liberal values and ideas, and supported joining the European and international liberal family. NGOs working in human rights protection have the right to criticize us. But my view is that if the MRF did not operate this way, we wouldn’t have been as successful as we have been.”
We talked about the accomplishments of the MRF, the rise of nationalism in Bulgaria, and what the party could have done differently over the years.
Do you remember where you were when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?
I was in the last year of secondary school. I heard it on the news. The process in Eastern Europe had already started by that time, and the fall of the Berlin Wall was the natural continuation of this process. For us in Bulgaria, the fall of the Berlin Wall did not have such a reverberative effect. For us, the most shattering event was the fall of Todor Zhivkov. We’d had a communist leader who had been in office without any control for 35 years. So his fall was something unheard of, something unimaginable—a huge change in itself.
Bulgaria was rather closed because of the state’s total control over the media and the dissemination of information. Most of the population had no idea what was going on in the other Eastern Bloc countries. Only those who listened to Radio Free Europe or Deutsche Welle had some idea of what was going on.
But this was not true for the Turkish minority. Unlike the rest of the population, ethnic Turks were forced to be confrontational: because of the forced assimilation that took place before 1989 and because of the exodus of over 350,000 people that was called the “large excursion.” The actions and the protests of the Turkish minority were central to the so-called mass protests in May 1989, which were the first organized protests against the communist authorities and which played such a decisive role for Bulgaria in terms of the fall of the totalitarian authority. This fact unfortunately is often overlooked. It is hushed up on purpose, because people here just can’t accept that the Turkish minority stirred up democratic processes and contributed to the acceleration of change.
How did the forced name change and forced exodus affect you personally?
I was in high school. You had to get used to other people addressing you by this new name. It wasn’t an easy period of time. I had a geography teacher of Turkish decent who asked us to stay after class, just me and my brother. And he asked us to address him not by this new name, because he didn’t want to hear the new Bulgarian name. He asked us just to refer to him as “teacher.” I remember this as a milestone, as a turning point. Afterwards we heard that he’d been expelled. His behavior had been known by the Secret Service. He was among the first to be expelled from the country in 1989.
And when did you first get involved with the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF)?
In 1990, my twin brother and I finished school and enrolled in the medical school in Varna. At the time the MRF came into being, we decided — a group of students of Turkish decent—to set up a students union within the MRF. In Bulgaria there’s a student holiday on December 8. It’s a very special day for all students, with parties during the day and night. So on December 8, 1990, we invited the leadership of MRF. They were already registered as a party. And this is how we met them in person, including Ahmed Dogan and the first MPs in the national assembly.
In fact, I had met Ahmed Dogan earlier during the first rally of the MRF in my hometown, Targovishte. Since that time, we’ve been a part of the MRF traditions, first as a youth organization, and then after we finished university. Since the end of the 1990s, I’ve held leading positions in the youth organization, as deputy head of international policy of the youth MRF organization. In 2001, I was elected as an MP at the age of 29.
And what would you consider the major accomplishments of the movement since 1990?
There are plenty of them. First of all, the MRF made it possible for the first time for representatives from the ethnic minorities to have a major presence in parliament. The parliamentary group of the MRF traditionally represents not only ethnic Turks but also other ethnic minorities such as Pomaks and Roma, and ethnic Bulgarians as well. And this has been stable since 1990.
Second, the MRF passed several bills aimed at overcoming the consequences of the “restoration” process, namely the expulsion of the Turkish population. There were bills on the recovery of property and the legal restoration of names. Initially, this happened through the courts. Then, the procedure was simplified at our insistence, and it became an administrative procedure.
Third, we introduced training in the mother tongue in secondary school. As such classes were established, teachers were trained. Turkish philology was introduced in several universities. The first textbooks were published.
Also, the Bulgarian national TV and the Bulgarian national radio program started broadcasting programs in Turkish. Unfortunately, the TV programs are very insufficient in terms of content and duration: just five minutes of news a day of no interest for the population. The programs on national radio are for several hours a day on medium wave. But this is now outdated technology, and only old people in the villages tune into these frequencies. We have encountered the continuous unwillingness of provincial authorities to put real content and meaning into these human rights, and this has been the case since 1990. They are doing only the minimum, in order to say that there are such programs.
Bulgarian Turks that are living in Turkey are now able to receive their pensions in Turkey from Bulgaria, and this all happened thanks to our insistence. And I’d like to emphasize that when the MRF participated as a coalition partner in government for two consecutive mandates, 2001-05 and 2005-09, several thousand youth of Turkish decent and of ethnic minorities—Pomaks and Roma—received the possibility to be employed in the state administration at all levels: provincial, local, regional, and at the national level.
It was also the first time that people of Turkish descent could become ministers. This was unprecedented since the liberation of Bulgaria. We even had a vice prime minister. Unfortunately, since the current government came to power and we are in the opposition, about 90% of these people were dismissed.
Last but not least, we encouraged the government to adopt a more sensitive policy toward the so-called mixed regions and to direct public investments, both national and European funds, toward these areas. In the areas inhabited by ethnic minorities, we encouraged them to apply for infrastructure projects funded through Euro-funds. And quite a lot was done to improve the infrastructure and the living environment. Unfortunately, after the new government came to power it froze these projects for a period of over three years. Only last year have some of these projects started again, perhaps because the government was preparing for the new elections.
Has the level of ethnocentrism or racism among the average ethnic Bulgarian population changed at all since 1990?
Unfortunately, I must admit that things have gotten worse. Especially during the last couple of years, with the emergence of the ultra-nationalist and xenophobic party Ataka, the language of hatred has become banal, everyday. It has been seen as something normal, something not to be challenged. Unfortunately, these stereotypes continue to be instilled in the minds of young people, both in the family and through the teaching content at school.
I asked a young person about the teaching material and whether it had any material on the culture of ethnic Turks here in Bulgaria, or Roma, or Pomaks. She said there was nothing. And she actually was a very tolerant person, but that was because of her mother. Not because of the education system.
Absolutely. Unfortunately, it’s rare when the parents bring up their children in the spirit of tolerance. In the majority of cases, parents provide their children with the same stereotypes that they themselves have acquired: that the Turks are bad, that they are descendants of invaders, that Turkey wants to invade Bulgaria again, that the Pomaks are dangerous because they’re Muslim, that Turks are susceptible to influence from abroad, that Muslims are fruitful soil for the spread of radical Islam. Not to mention the Roma. The Roma are subject to the worst stereotypes in every sense of the word.
What could be done—practically speaking—to reduce this intolerance?
A very sincere and tolerant debate should be initiated between the institutions in charge of issues like this. This debate should be initiated by a supreme national authority connected to the prime minister or to the council of ministers. And this debate should identify all the problematic areas and consider the measures that need to be taken in order to overcome these weaknesses and disadvantages.
The content of the educational program also needs to be reviewed conscientiously. Recently, the publication of a report released by the Commission Against Discrimination triggered a big scandal. This report, in a very sincere manner, quoted examples of texts from textbooks that instilled hatred or stereotypes on ethnic or religious grounds. This report was stigmatized and ostracized by the media, and by all political powers. Then the commission itself was threatened with closure. The findings were deliberately manipulated in order to justify the denial of the problem. This eloquently speaks to the continuation of these intolerant stereotypes. Without a committed government policy at the highest level that aims to soften and change these sentiments, it will take us years to overcome these problems.
When you look back to that early period 1990 to 1992, is there anything that you think either the movement or ethnic Turks in general, as a community, should have done differently?
I personally, but not only I, recognize that sadly we were not able to achieve everything that was possible to achieve while in office. We were too focused on governance. We somehow overlooked the importance of continually restating the rights of ethnic minorities, such as studying our mother tongue. While we were in office, we could have done more to strengthen this process. For instance, we could have printed more new textbooks or been more insistent on bringing more content to the Turkish-language programs on radio and TV. More could have been done to improve the social status of the population. We tried to do everything possible at the time. The MRF did a lot, and contributed considerably to improving the situation of ethnic minorities in Bulgaria. But one can always say that more could’ve been done. We are sufficiently self-critical to admit that.
On the issue of self-criticism, when I talk to human rights activists here they recognize the accomplishments of the MRF and the greater prominence of ethnic Turkish politicians, but on the other hand they say that the party is too hierarchical. I’m curious how you respond to those criticisms.
What do they mean by hierarchical?
They mean that the leader Ahmed Dogan has too much authority and that the party itself is not particularly democratic.
These are perceptions and external stereotypes. The truth is that ours is a disciplined party. This was useful for the party in order for it to preserve and continue its existence. I would like to underline that the leader himself has no involvement in making this perception or excessive hierarchical structure. There have always been debates in the party. We’ve always put everything up for discussion with him and with the supreme operational body, the operational bureau in the central council.
One thing is for sure, the authority and the role of the leader are unquestionable, and this is the key to our success. We’ve seen over the years how many other parties appear like shooting stars. They shine very brightly and then they very quickly fade. The MRF, however, only grew stronger and expanded its influence, because it was developing from within and trying to be proactive to get ahead of events. We involved more and more people within its ranks, and not only from ethnic minorities. We covered the whole territory of Bulgaria, regardless of the ethnic makeup of the region. We embraced universal liberal values and ideas, and supported joining the European and international liberal family. NGOs working in human rights protection have the right to criticize us. But my view is that if the MRF did not operate this way, we wouldn’t have been as successful as we have been.
When you look back at 1989 and everything that has changed since 1989, or has not changed, what is your evaluation on the scale of 1 to 10, 1 best most dissatisfied, 10 being most satisfied?
And in your own personal life, over the same period of time?
And then when you look into the near future, what do you think the prospects are for Bulgaria?
Sofia, October 3, 2012
Interpeter: Vihra Gancheva