AJE’s Movie on Turks in Bulgaria: Myths, Truths and Lessons
Al Jazeera English aired earlier in December, as part of its Al Jazeera World series, a documentary about the ethnic Turk minority in Bulgaria – one suggesting ethnic Turks are systematically subjected to oppressive treatment and deprived of their rights even nowadays.
One could have easily foreseen both the outcry of Bulgarians, who labeled it “scandalous”, and the shock of international and of course Turkish viewers, who called it “appalling”. After Bulgarian media outlets reported about it, opening the floodgates of social media anger here, the documentary was both removed from Al Jazeera’s website and taken off YouTube channels where it “survived” for a few more hours. Speculation about why the influential TV network’s English-language station had backtracked went on for about half a day, when Bulgaria, My Land reappeared with a single correction. It had wrongly stated that Bulgaria has been in the EU since 2014, or last year, and not since 2007 when it actually joined. In the new version that was fixed.
It is not the production of a particular account of history, in which every Southeastern European state - Bulgaria included - is engaged for the sake of its own political needs (and so are many citizens) that should raise eyebrows; neither is Al Jazeera’s decision to air a documentary about Bulgaria’s ethnic Turk minority, given that the past few decades have not provided enough documentary accounts about its fate.
What causes concern is mixing history with present-day politics, the former being used to show the “right” of one Balkan state (in the end this is also one of the component of Turkey’s identity, with 3% of its territory located here) that has been infringed with devastating consequences for “its” people.
Nobody Believes ‘History’
Undoubtedly any country can come up with its own version of history, anytime, and whether a London, Madrid, Paris or New York-based higher education institution (or Wikipedia, for example) will confirm it or not is a matter of circumstances.
Three examples of this that can be seen in the film. If someone tries to dispute that “Turkish people lived in Bulgaria since [the 14th century]” as the documentary argues (which is only partly true, with most of Bulgaria falling to the Ottoman Empire after the 1350s and the last pockets of resistance and statehood collapsing in 1396), it is easy to recall several centuries passed before many Turks had settled on Bulgarian land. Mentioning the late 19th - early 20th century notion of "Clean Bulgaria” as an ethnically sterile place, the documentary misses the point: not ethnicity, but territory was the driving force at the time. It has never been “Clean” but Great Bulgaria – a concept now abandoned by history. Greek political thinking was also soaked with the Megali idea, one of a Greek state comprising all Greek-inhabited areas. That was also what Serbia and Romania dreamed about – and also Turkey but it pragmatically renounced part of its claims to “exchange” millions of people with Greece early in the 1920s. But this is now history, isn’t it… Or it isn’t? Portraying the Ottomans as victims of the Balkan Wars massacred by Bulgaria neglects the number of Balkan states fighting the empire at the time, ignores the fact that Bulgarian Turks also fought against the Empire, and diminishes the importance of the fact that Bulgarians and Ottomans fought side by side in the big war only a few years later.
Speaking these things out loud is utterly meaningless, for two very simple reasons.
One is that before the 19th century, and even well into the 20th century, many “Turks” identified themselves as such to the same extent that Bulgarians used the latter word to describe themselves; it wasn’t until that century that nationalism surged and began having influence on the population, and even back then many had no clue as to what a “nation” was – either because they couldn’t or didn’t read a lot about it or because notable academicals like Anthony Smith or Benedict Anderson were not born yet to explain the word in a nutshell. “Turkey” was no exception at all: it emerged out of the ashes of the Ottoman Empire, out of Mustafa Kemal Atat?rk’s ideas of nationalism, asserting the Turkish essence of the state, a process that no political force is able or willing to interrupt even nowadays. Before that, the empire was de-facto multi-ethnic and would find it hard to define itself through “ethnic” terms, for demographic reasons.
Number two, which is linked to number one: all countries in the Balkan Peninsula have a common heritage. The Bulgarian language contains many Turkish words, and taking a neighbor as an example, Romanian has many Slavic words. A folk song that in the movie is described as part of Turkish traditions in the north-east of Bulgaria also has a Bulgarian-language version, with both countries trying to prove “ownership”. Many Bulgarians sing Macedonian songs with joy, and Northern Greece and Southern Bulgaria have some suspiciously similar pieces. Passing on to politics, some of the most brilliant Ottoman statespeople arrived in Istanbul (for centuries called Konstaniyye, or “Constantinople” in Turkish, officially) from what is known today as the Western Balkans. Southeast Europe and Western Anatolia were also for centuries an ethnic puzzle, and Konstantiniyye was strongly shaped by the ancestors of the present-day Greeks. What sense does it make to delve into history to prove who has “the right” to Bulgarian (or Turkish) lands as it is carefully being suggested?
But if anything should be called concerning it is
the act of playing with politics that has’t yet become history – and also the act of mixing it with history itself.
Bulgaria, My Land has two main underlying hypotheses. The first is that ethnic Turks, nowadays between 9 and 10% of Bulgaria’s population, were discriminated against and suffered greatly for decades under Communist rule. The second is that nowadays they are still victims to the Bulgarian majority.
Turkey and Russia were enemies during the Cold War. This was one of the reasons for the domestic-policy jolts in Turkey itself. But the occasional "nationalist" waves against Turks in Bulgaria, which should never be denied, were rather a reaction to "instructions" from Moscow - general waves of “nationalism” and “internationalism” across the bloc depending on the political climate in different capitals. Bulgaria was indeed (regrettably) the most loyal of satellites. Whenever “nationalist” policies were ordered from Moscow, they were applied here strictly – and often times were the Sofia leadership’s own whim to the extent Moscow would approve. For any Turk who suffered, no excuse should be given, and there were tens of thousands of them, being deprived of language and other rights; but it wasn't until the 1980s, and for only several years, that the so-called "Revival Process" really affected most of the ethnic Turkish population.
Revival Process Is One Thing, Present-Day Rights of Turks Are Another
Historically, atrocities against Turks reached a peak towards the mid-1980s, and in particular between 1986 and 1989. Three people (including a baby) lost their lives in a protest for more rights in the village of Mogilyane in 1984 (but it has to be noted there were also victims on the Bulgarian side, in other incidents). Hundreds of Turks were forced to change their names with Bulgarian ones, and those disagreeing to the applied assimilation policies were pressured into leaving the country. Not only should this be clearly stated here in Bulgaria; it should be told more often – because in the 1990s, the decade when the first “children of democracy” grew up, just years into democracy and years after the worst period of deportations, what had happened to hundreds of thousands of Bulgarian citizens wasn’t spoken out quite a lot.
And yet, Bulgaria's shame of these several years should never be used by others to play with history. Firstly, assimilation “under successive regimes” (what the documentary claims) cannot be proved – such policies were applied under Todor Zhivkov (1956-1989) late in the 20th century, but not systematically at other times. What is more, when it comes to religious rights, critics of Zhivkov’s regime should never forget
Communism was against Islam and Christianity alike.
This was also claimed by Beyhan Mehmed, the Mufti (top Muslim cleric) of Kardzhali, a mostly Turk-populated city in the south of Bulgaria; but his comment sounded differently in the film. In an interview with Bulgarian daily 24 Chasa [BG], he said his words were “taken out of context”: “Upon editing, only the part where I speak about [suppression of] Islam has been left, and the one where I say the same about Christianity was cut out.” That Muslims could not confess their religion as openly as they would wish was a problem shared by Christian believers as well. “I am disappointed by the way my position has been represented,” he added.
The real problem comes when the documentary links previous instances of discrimination to present-day deprivations. It should be noted here that for 25 years, the Bulgarian Turks have had a party in Parliament to represent them and to care, at least in words, for their interests, strictly voting for it all the time. It is called the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS) – a party which is not openly ethnic, as such parties are banned under the Constitution, but whose members are mostly ethnic Turks and enjoy overwhelming support among that part of population. A kingmaker in Bulgaria’s politics for 25 years, it has traditionally had substantial influence on governance – and yet, even though Turks are fully integrated in legal terms, those of them living in compact groups in the south and north-east (for example, in the mentioned towns of Sumnu (Shumen) and Kircaali (Kardzhali)) live mostly in poverty (especially in rural areas). Admittedly, the DPS has done little to solve their real problems, with some staunch anti-DPS politicians claiming it refrains from doing anything to keep them under control.
If the DPS, which emerged in protest over deprivation of Turks of their rights, hasn’t done enough to protect ethnic Turks in Bulgaria and many of them lived in poverty, their economic prospects being dim, and this leaves ethnic Turks (some of them being conservative but most being secular) marginalized, “discriminatory” attitude on behalf of Bulgarians cannot be blamed for this, given how good a representation (always beyond 10%, ranging up to 15-17%) in Parliament they have had over the years.
Bulgaria, Our Land
We should never return to history. Bulgarian nationalists do, but use their own version – and what happened in May of 2011 in front of Sofia’s downtown mosque as a result was really appalling (the worst of all was that ATAKA party’s leader Volen Siderov got away with it). No country, not even Turkey, would have the right to pretend for monopoly over common heritage in the Balkan Peninsula (if it decided to do so; luckily, Al Jazeera's documentary is just a private point of view and Ankara would never embroil itself in such improper disputes!). Our ancestors created it all together. History has shown all attempts at distorting the truth and using it to any country’s advantage have a tragic ending. Not that Bulgaria could start a war with Turkey; but with the two countries openly facing common challenges to incite tensions is ridiculous. Being big as it is, with the influence it already has, Turkey is even more obliged to refrain from propaganda attempts, given the special role of a regional economic power basing its ties no common history and common cultural heritage, one it purports to have.
A documentary prepared for the audience of renowned international TV station, moreover, requires “the other point of view” as well: that of the so-called “oppressor” which is presumably the Bulgarian state. Even if someone from a government, or a “nationalist” Bulgarian historian, were asked for an interview and denied one, this should have been mentioned to show the other side.
"Our problem is that they're always trying to divide us," Petar Garena, a respected Orthodox priest in Kardzhali, is heard saying in the documentary. Regrettably, he is right.The film is somewhat problematic because it calls diversity and common heritage into question, fomenting artificial cleavages; but it is also a good lesson for Bulgaria and all other countries reluctant to discuss recent history and and acknowledge both the successes and mistakes of predecessors. When you don't debate your own history, someone else does it for you.
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