Divide and Bind

Views on BG | May 27, 2011, Friday // 11:25|  views

The Nobel Prize for Literature laureate 2006, Turkish Orhan Pamuk, poses for a photograph as he signs autographs to fans during a ceremony in Sofia, Bulgaria 18 May 2011. Photo by EPA/BGNES

Bulgarians and Turks look at their "bad, bloody history" and "good common life".

by Boyko Vassilev*

Transitions Online

"History is something we make together," Orhan Pamuk said to me. It is also something we enjoy together, I would add, because it is often a play of coincidences.

We sat in a room with paintings by a Bulgarian artist inspired by his latest novel, The Museum of Innocence, in Sofia's Red House, a public debate center. The famous Turkish writer and Nobel Prize winner spoke about a very particular debate. "We had a bad, bloody history," he said, "but also we had a good common life together ...  from food names to place names, from sentiments to this sharing the strong feeling of being at the edge of Europe."

Yes, Bulgaria and Turkey have a long history. Its central fact is a number: 500, the years of – how to call it? Ottoman or Turkish? Presence? Domination? Rule? Or was it a yoke, as the 19th-century writer Ivan Vazov saw the period in his classic novel, Under the Yoke. "This is a Bulgarian issue," Pamuk told a press conference before our interview, seeming genuinely surprised by the question from a reporter.

But it's not only "the yoke" that sticks between Bulgarians and Turks. Contemporary history also matters. In the mid-1980s Bulgaria's communist leadership changed the names of the Muslim population, including ethnic Turks, Roma, and Bulgarian Muslims (Pomaks). The shameful campaign, called the "revival process" was supposedly meant to encourage them to "rediscover" their Bulgarian roots. Instead, resistance broke out, blood was shed, and around 300,000 Turks left Bulgaria. The common life was poisoned, and the country's international reputation was ruined. Even Mikhail Gorbachev's Soviet Union did not back its Bulgarian comrades.

Then 1989 came and Muslims got back their names. Some of the refugees returned. And a party, the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS), was born. The philosopher and political prisoner Ahmed Dogan became, and remains, its leader. It was this party and this person who shaped the image of the relationship between Bulgarians and Turks in Bulgaria.

Over the years, Dogan has acquired a reputation as a shrewd political maverick and a kingmaker. He crowned at least one cabinet in the 1990s. In 2001 his party joined the government as a minor coalition partner of former King Simeon Saxecoburggotski. In 2005 it became the smallest yet the crucial partner in the tripartite coalition of the Socialists and the former king's party. Dogan's DPS was gradually labeled the party of power and career. Sensing opportunity, many Turks and Roma as well as ethnic Bulgarians joined its ranks.

Yet hubris was followed by nemesis. Political opponents and commentators accused the party of arrogance, malpractice, and corruption. Dogan's own bold statements didn't help. In the 1990s he was quoted as boasting, "I'm a millionaire in green [dollars]." In 2005 he said that every party has a ring of commercial companies around it. In 2009 he claimed that he was the one who distributes "the goodies" in the country.

The "rings" remark helped the rise of the nationalist Ataka party, and the "goodies" quote contributed vastly to the tripartite coalition's election defeat. After the loss, it came out that Dogan had received a 1.5 million leva (750,000 euro) consultancy fee for a hydropower project. Additionally, a state commission proved that almost the entire DPS leadership, including the leader, had collaborated with communist State Security. Dogan's right hand, childhood friend, and prison mate Kasim Dal has defected, making broad accusations against him.

Enter here the first coincidence. On the day Pamuk arrived in Sofia, the first open clash inside the DPS erupted. On 19 May Dogan and Dal sympathizers exchanged harsh words and even punches.

I needed this long digression to show how accusations against one visible member of a marginalized group, deserved or not, can lead to slurs against the entire group. DPS is not the only Bulgarian party suspected of corruption, but its ethnic roots make it a handy villain.

Could the famous Bulgarian ethnic model of tolerance and integration after 1990 crumble? No, but the ground is not entirely solid, either. Another coincidence proved that. On the last day of Pamuk's visit, Ataka supporters clashed with Muslims in front of the Sofia mosque during Friday prayers. This act was immediately condemned by all parties and pundits – and exposed as part of Ataka's preparations for October presidential and local elections. Yet the issue is inflammatory – and yes, it builds on historical memory.

The question is whether the Bulgarian public will be tempted to recall that memory right now. It would be premature to expect that Ataka will win the election points it is expecting. Christian citizens found each other on Facebook and brought flowers to the mosque; the Facebook group grew. Another group demanded that Ataka leader Volen Siderov be prosecuted for inciting ethnic and religious hatred.

Historians pointed out that Turkey is the neighboring country to enjoy the longest period of peace with Bulgaria. Commentators remind that the two countries are now NATO allies. Though there are open questions, like calls to compensate the descendants of Turkey's 1913 expulsion of Bulgarians from Thrace, the bilateral itinerary is not one of conflict. Yes, Bulgarians have painful memories, but they also eagerly spend their holidays in Antalya, shop in Istanbul, and, most tellingly, watch Turkish soaps. Last year, the second-most watched show on Bulgarian TV, behind only the football World Cup final, was one of these serials. And Bulgarians read Pamuk, one of the best-selling writers here.

So they listened to his interview. "When we talk with each other, we have to decide," the Nobel winner said. "Of course we should remember the bad things, the atrocities of the past, but we should underline that we can live peacefully, happily, and raise our voice together to be heard from the other world." I am sure most Bulgarians think likewise.

*Boyko Vassilev is a moderator and producer of the weekly Panorama news talk show on Bulgarian National Television.

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Tags: Dogan, Ahmed, Vazov, Ivan, Movement for Rights and Freedoms, Turks, Pamuk, Orhan, turkey, Bulgaria, Bulgarian


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