Expelled Leader of DPS: a Turkish Fifth Column or a Lonely Dissident?
Bulgarian journalists hoping for a rest around Christmas were disappointed after a “breaking” event shook the political landscape, even if the quake is only on the surface. Lyutvi Mestan, who headed the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS), was both removed as leader and expelled from his party after the honorary chair and co-founder, Ahmed Dogan, criticized him for a statement supporting Turkey in its dispute with Russia over the downed plane.
Dogan made clear his worries stemmed from the need of Bulgaria to stay away from the Russia-Turkey conflict and to be neutral at a time when the EU itself has no help to offer, having lost its ow way. He repeatedly made clear his main concern was national interest and the future of all Bulgarians.
Honorary chair Dogan, a former agent with Soviet-era State Security (DS), is often labelled as a defender of Russian business interests. Mestan, on the other hand (also a former agent), has taken a number of public steps to ensure good communication with the Turkish state. After an incident in January 2013, when a man attacked Dogan with a gas pistol, the latter retired from active political life, officially handing over the leadership to Mestan.
Ahmet Dogan (C), Lyuvti Mestan (R) and Filiz Hyusmenova (a MEP now widely pointed to as a possible successor to Mestan) in a BGNES file picture dated just before the attack against Dogan on January 19, 2013.
Ever since – almost three years into Mestan's unexpectedly ended term – Dogan had remained largely silent, refraining from public statements and fueling speculation about either his own health or his activities as a “de-facto leader” still running the party from behind the scenes.
DPS is not just any party in Bulgaria's political life: with its 36 (out of 240) MPs in the current legislature it is predominantly supported by Bulgarian citizens of Turkish origin. Although it is not an “ethnic party” officially (ethnic parties are banned by the Constitution), most of its members are of Turk origin, and it purports to speak mainly for the respective minority which makes up 10 percent of the 7.2 million population here.
It has played a role in most major political developments in Bulgaria of the past two decades, but leaves opinions divided: ones hail its contribution to preserving ethnic peace in Bulgaria by standing up for ethnic Turks' interests, whereas others warn of its alleged corporate dependencies going much beyond the national interest of Bulgaria. Delyan Peevski, whose mother owns a media empire and who was appointed head of Bulgaria's domestic security and counter-inteligence agency DANS (with the move sparking huge protests across the country) is a lawmaker from the DPS's group in Parliament.
Mestan Believes Bulgaria Has to Side with NATO
Just after Dogan's remarks – ones published after a “leaked” report by a DPS source coming from rodopi24, a low-profile news website – an extraordinary meeting of the party was convened hastily, reportedly by Dogan himself. Mestan, who voiced his indignation about having learned about the developments from the media (and was not present at the meeting), later appeared at a commemorative event in Southern Bulgaria, accompanied by Turkish Ambassador Suleyman Gokce, and reluctant to say whether or not he would set up his own party before starting “dialogue” with voters.
Turkish Ambassador to Bulgaria S?leyman G?k?e (L) accompanied Mestan to a commemorative ceremony, two days after Mestan was expelled from his party. This file picture of H.E. G?k?e and the ex-leader shows them at the official presentation of Turkish PM Ahmet Davutoglu's book 'Strategic Depth' at the end of November.
Another argument underlined by Mestan is that the declaration read out then, showing more support for the Turkish position, is in line with NATO's official statement. In his words, the declaration underlines the party's "Euro-Atlantic identity", at a time when, to quote Mestan: "and I will say this with pain, regrettably, the DPS's public image is overburdened with several awful mythologems - that it is a corporate, oligarchic party. But it is combined with the even more awful myth that the party represents Russian interests... We placed much effort to free the DPS from the chains of these mythologems; without going back to questions what, when and why created them, our efforts were directed toward cleaning that image".
"The worst thing for the DPS would be its return to the myth for a covertly pro-Russian party."
Before reporters, the DPS's press communications official on Thursday quoted Dogan as saying that anyone standing against Bulgaria's "national interest" would be facing the fate of Mestan. Nevertheless, the expelled chair maintains it is the EU and NATO, and not Russia, where Bulgaria's national interest lies. Anadolu Agency on Thursday quoted him as saying: "You support a neighbor and friendly country from NATO's perspective...We are setting the balance right. We are not an objective country. We are not Serbia. Serbia is not a member of NATO. It can see itself in between Russia and NATO and can look for a balance but Bulgaria must see itself as a member of NATO first of all. I told the party's attitude regarding the Russian plane incident."
Analysts' Reactions: From 'Mestan the Traitor' to 'Dogan the Boss'
For three days in a row, from Wednesday through to Christmas, developments at the DPS dominated TV morning shows, almost turning into the single issue discussed.
Valeriya Veleva, a journalist long known for her close ties to Dogan and good knowledge of his personality, was quick to call Dogan's speech "the strongest political speech of the year". She was clear his intentions had been to prevent the DPS's "shift to Turkey" witnessed over the past months and the party's conversion into "a fifth column" of Turkey. Veleva also hailed the move by Dogan to criticize the EU for lack of ideas and direction that in his words resulted in Brussels losing to Washington the competition for being the world's biggest power.
Veleva accused Mestan of "betraying" some of the ideas underpinning the creation of DPS, a party aimed at preserving ethnic peace and stability.
Political analyst Ognyan Minchev explained the earthquake within the DPS should be credited to the attempts at "hijacking" it that in his words are being done by Turkey. He underlined that the DPS "has always been a party balancing between Russia and Turkey", with the very foundation of the party dating to the late Soviet era and the early democratic years and the influence of Soviet (and later Russian) politics back at the time. But in his words, Dogan would have intervened regardless of whether or not Mestan had read out the declaration in support of Turkey.
Andrey Raychev, co-owner of Gallup International - Bulgaria, however praised Mestan for the concrete message sent through his speech for his decision to voice concerns that the fate of ethnic Turks could be tied to a potential Russia-Turkey conflict. However, he also said the notion underpinning Dogan's words is that Bulgarians would side with Russia whatever happens between Ankara and Moscow.
For Dimitar Bechev, Head of the European Policy Institute (Sofia) and Visiting Scholar at Harvard's Center for European Studies, Dogan's comments only illustrate his complicated relationship with Turkey. Bechev recalls gestures of support previously shown from Recep Tayyip Erdogan (who was PM at the time) for DPS renegade Kasim Dal, who later quit the party to found National Freedom and Dignity Party and who, Bechev says, was "endorsed" by Ankara. Healso warned in an interview with Dnevnik.bg that tensions between Mestan and Dogan are more of an occasion to remind everyone "who exactly is the boss at the DPS", and also shows a slight tilt toward Russia.
The DPS's Utterly Questionable Timing
A repercussion of the Russia-Turkey dispute, a clash of interests or personalities – whatever one chooses to call the developments, several questions are yet to be answered.
From the outset of Mestan's leadership no-one has seriously doubted Dogan remains in power, even though not in office. Over that period, he remained notably absent from political life in Bulgaria, but no move of the DPS – neither steps of reapproachment with Turkey nor the decision to virtually topple down the government it was part of – met resistance from the honorary chair. An impression was left that any step the party took was coordinated with him.
Dogan's home in Boyana is often referred to as a place of much secrecy and conspiracy, and was a point of media attention on Thursday as the DPS' meeting was initially scheduled to take places there.
If Dogan believed Mestan's statement in support of Turkey was dangerous, why didn't he react back at the end of November, a month ago, when it was read out from the rostrum of Parliament?
Moreover, why is he so convinced that a statement from a party representing mainly ethnic Turks, which didn't spark much outrage even from the otherwise vocal Russophile electorate of several parties (and wasn't much commented abroad either) risks pushing Bulgaria in the midst of a conflict when the DPS is a party in opposition, and the text's message was in no away embraced by the governing coalition?
Last but not least, why did none of the political pundits, not even one of those who always underline Bulgaria's EU and NATO identity and back all sanctions against Russia over Ukraine, question the pro-Russian position voiced by Dogan, whom many openly accuse of standing behind Bulgaria's misfortunes of the last 25 years? When an openly pro-Russian party, like Ataka, lashes out at Turkey counting on what it believes is an underlying fear of Turkey, there is a pundit out there to accuse it helping Moscow to wage "hybrid warfare". Now there isn't.
It is needless to say that if the "Turkish shift" of Mestan was potentially tantamount to national treason then he got what he deserved. In truth, Bulgaria should be neither a mouthpiece of Turkish interests nor hostage to Russian ones. But time will show whether it was the desire to avoid either of the situations, fear of NATO ally Turkey or something else that made all of a sudden made Lyutvi Mestan, the man who (even if only formally at times) pushed DPS to support “Euro-Atlantic values” to a much further extent that some of the other mainstream parties, suddenly turned into the most isolated person in Bulgarian politics. One more "martyr" or a "dissident" - easily created out of the political mainstream - is the last thing Bulgaria could ever need.
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