Last fall, I spent the night in the Bulgarian city of Yambol on my way from the Black Sea coast back to Plovdiv and Sofia. Although I drove around the city looking for my hotel and poked around a bit the following morning, I failed to see what is considered the most remarkable bedesten – Ottoman-era shopping arcade — in the entire Balkans. It was built in the 16th century and has a four-domed roof and massive outer walls. It survived intact through fires and neglect even as its counterparts in Sofia and Plovdiv were destroyed in modern times. There should have been a sign on the highway with a marker alerting motorists to the historic site. Alas, much of Bulgaria’s Ottoman heritage is hidden away, sometimes in plain sight.
Only later was I able to see a picture of the Yambol bedesten in a book called A Guide to Ottoman Bulgaria, which reveals all the glories of Ottoman culture, from mosques to bridges to crumbling towers. I was given the book as a gift by Kasim Dal and Korman Ismailov. They are on a mission. Actually two missions. The first, connected to the book, is to celebrate ethnic Turkish culture in Bulgaria, which includes the influence of the Ottoman period, which lasted from 1396 to 1878.
The second mission is political. Dal and Ismailov have broken away from the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF), the political party that has traditionally represented ethnic Turks in Bulgaria since 1990. In December 2012, they established a new party called the People’s Party for Freedom and Dignity. Parliamentary elections are coming up next month. The former ruling party Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB) and the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) are battling it out for the top two spots. As usual, the MRF is likely to take the third spot, which could put it in a key position in terms of determining a ruling coalition. The wild card is the nationalist Ataka party, hovering around 5 percent.
I talked with Kasim Dal in October, with Korman Ismailov translating. They talked of creating a center-right party that appeals to all Bulgarians, tackles the endemic corruption in society, and promotes “clean” politics against the continued influence of the former secret service.
It’s this last point that particularly concerns Kasim Dal. “I’m one of the 33 guys who established the [MRF],” he told me. “The ones that were in the secret services of Todor Zhivkov’s regime, they took complete control of the political party. They were responsible for doing almost nothing about these reforms. They only got richer and richer by participating in corruption schemes. This was the biggest result of democracy, and this is my biggest disappointment.”
His conclusions echo those of another former high-ranking member of MRF, Miroslav Durmov. “Unfortunately, it was only much later that we discovered and read the dossiers of those guys,” Dal said. “In parliament, I proposed opening all these files. But that happened too late, unfortunately. When I read all those hundreds and hundreds of papers, I found the explanation of what happened in the past and why it all happened the way it did.”
We talked about what the MRF accomplished and what it failed to achieve. And we discussed what still needs doing in the ethnic Turkish community, a mostly rural population that is is suffering disproportionately during this age of austerity.
When you look back to 1989 and all that has changed or not changed until today, how would you evaluate Bulgarian society today?
We failed to pass. Unfortunately, almost nothing happened during all those years, none of the radical changes that we planned. We can now see that this transition period hasn’t ended and it’s still being controlled. All the financial processes were under control of the former regime secret services and personnel. They’re very effective in this country’s politics. Another reason is probably the strong Russian influence in this country. In comparison with other Southeast European countries, what happened in Bulgarian was worse. That’s why we are still the poorest country.
Now, the second question is, how would you evaluate your own personal life?
I have almost the same feeling that I had when I got out of prison in 1989. I feel like I’m starting from the very beginning again. I believe that I have the last chance with my friends to bring together independent, free-minded, and democratically thinking people to restart the process and achieve what we wanted to achieve all those years ago. Our main goal is to bring back value-based politics. Time will tell whether we will be successful or not. But the most important thing is that we continue to do what we believe in.
And when you look into the future, the next couple of years in Bulgaria, how do you evaluate the prospects?
Time is flying, and we need urgent reforms in education, in healthcare, in the interior ministry and the judiciary here in Bulgaria. Some of our fellow politicians compare the situation in Bulgaria with that of Greece. If we don’t do these reforms, the process of decline might be even faster than in Greece.
During those 22 years, we didn’t tell the truth to people. We told them that they had to prepare for bad times, that it’s a crisis. But we also told them that the future is bright, even in the European Union. During those 22 years, we always postponed tackling the main problems of the country because the thinking of politicians was too short-term. The leaders had no long-term strategy except, of course, joining NATO and the EU. I believe that we have to be more radical. We had to cut away some parts in order to save the healthy parts of the body.
This year was the only year that we had no elections in the country. Starting next year and for the next five years, we will have an election every year: next year for the parliament, then for the European parliament, then local elections, then presidential elections, and then parliamentary elections again. And we all know how difficult it is to make painful economic reforms during an election year. So, I’m pessimistic about the politicians who promise to make reforms. We need politicians who have a mission, who will not make big promises to voters, who offers a very clear program concerning those reforms. If this doesn’t happen, I don’t believe that the future will be bright.
I’m interested in hearing about your experience during the period of forced named changes and forced expulsions. And your experience in prison as well.
It’s very hard to summarize this in a short conversation. I was just 22 years old when we built an illegal organization against those oppressions and assimilation policies of the communist regime. After one and a half years, we were arrested.
What year was the illegal organization created?
In January 1985, we established the organization. On June 16, 1986, I was arrested. After a one-year investigation, I was sentenced to eight years of prison. I was convicted of participating in establishing an illegal organization aimed at ruining the foundations of the People’s Republic of Bulgaria.
We had a saying among my friends in prison: “We wouldn’t wish that even our biggest enemies would have to spend such a time as we passed in prison.”
After the falling of the Berlin Wall and the change of the regime in Bulgaria, we received amnesty. And then, after the decision of the national assembly of the parliament, we received rehabilitation.
On December 22, 1989, we got out of prison, and one month later we established the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF). I’m one of the 33 guys who established the party. The ones that were in the secret services of Todor Zhivkov’s regime, they took complete control of the political party. They were responsible for doing almost nothing about these reforms. They only got richer and richer by participating in corruption schemes. This was the biggest result of democracy, and this is my biggest disappointment.
Unfortunately, it was only much later that we discovered and read the dossiers of those guys. In parliament, I proposed opening all these files. But that happened too late, unfortunately. When I read all those hundreds and hundreds of papers, I found the explanation of what happened in the past and why it all happened the way it did.
What year was it that the dossiers were opened?
This act entered into force in 2006-07. But we still didn’t have 100% of the files opened. It was only 85-90%. At that time, a triple coalition ran the government, and the interior minister was from the former communist party: the Bulgarian Socialist Party. He was one of the guys who was not keen on opening those files. The BSP didn’t allow the commission to start its work. For more than one year the commission didn’t have a building to work in. The interior minister didn’t allow access to the archives of the interior ministry or the different secret services. The commission only started its real work at the very beginning of 2009.
Even though the MRF was compromised, even though obviously there had been a lot of people who had been cooperating with the secret police, do you believe that the Movement in those early years accomplished anything?
Yes, of course, we succeeded in accomplishing some very important things. During those years, there were big ethnic and religious tensions in society. The establishment of the MRF channeled a big part of this tension into politics and didn’t allow this energy to go into the street. Via politics, we fought for our human rights. In the first local elections, it was the first time that representatives of minority groups became mayors and members of city councils. This all helped to lower tensions and to put it on a political level. In comparison to neighboring countries, we helped ensure that Bulgaria managed in a peaceful way to pass through these difficult years.
We also managed to direct some investments into infrastructure in the poorest regions. But unfortunately, in recent years, the people who became MRF representatives as mayors or in other high political offices, they forgot how this whole process started. Many of them didn’t participate in those early years. They started to use some illegal, improper means. We lost democracy inside the party. As a result, the rule that we establish in those regions is far from democratic decision-making.
You knew Ahmed Dogan from early on. So when the files were revealed, were you shocked about his activities in the past?
I was probably the most shocked. I didn’t hide this. I believed too much in this guy.
Did you confront him personally?
Yes, I told the truth to his face. There was a confrontation. I was 22 when I got involved, and I didn’t know anything. But he was part of the system. It’s impossible for me to forgive what he did and what he is doing.
Is that the point at which you separated, or did it take a little longer?
This was not the main point over which we separated. There were many issues, many decisions that we took as a political party, that I couldn’t understand, that were not logical to me. With these guys in the ruling body of the party, this party has no future. It now serves just these people. During all those years, they were working against the goals of the party in a hidden way.
Looking back, we can see that with our actions, we continued the process of assimilation in a soft way, a peaceful way. You can read the statistics. At the beginning of the 1990s, more than 110,000 young students studied their mother tongues at school. Nowadays, those numbers are less than 10,000. We had two terms in the government. We had the chairman of the parliamentary commission for education, we had a deputy minister of education, we had a vice prime minister. If education in the mother tongue had been a goal for us, it could have been easily solved.
Why would the leaders of the MRF be interested in assimilation?
They were agents, and they were prepared. And during those years, they believed in those assimilation policies. Some regions were left to the Movement for Rights and Freedoms. Other parties stepped back from doing active politics there. So, this is not something that happened by chance. It was planned.
I talked with someone from the Movement for Rights and Freedoms the other day, and I asked him about the lack of democracy inside the party. He said, “We could not be effective without being unified.”
Yes: effective for this guy and those around him. In the past, when people talked about the ethnic Turks in Bulgaria, they all said, “They’re very honest. They’re hard working. They’re loyal to the country.” But now with this leadership of the MRF, we hear, “They’re cheaters. They’re corrupt people, not democratic.” This is the perspective of normal citizens, and this is one of the very bad things that the MRF has done.
We are very eager to change this, to bring back dignity to the people. This is how I understand politics. Dignity, loyalty, and values are all very important, and they must be shown in every decision, every step. The mistake we made with MRF is that that we pursued this unity to reach our goals, but only a small circle of people benefited from all that we did. So, the MRF has lost the big support it had for so many years. Where there is a monopoly, there is no democracy and no benefits for people. When we start to work in the regions and offer an alternative, we get a very good response.
So, for many years the MRF took the ethnic Turkish vote for granted, but in the future they won’t be able to?
Yes, this is true. The leader of the party basically doesn’t care if the MRF gets 600,000 votes or 250,000 – that’s the minimum that we received in the past. Even 250,000 votes are quite enough for the MRF to remain untouchable. That’s why we started the process to establish a new political party, to destroy this monopoly and address this lack of democracy.
We announced our party on September 27, 2012. We brought together an initiative committee, made a declaration, and started the legal process for the establishment of the party. Our party will be established at the very beginning of December this year. We’ve just started the process. At the moment we’re just two independents—Korman Ismailov and myself—who have been excluded from the MRF.
And what was the reaction to the announcement both within the ethnic Turkish community and within the society?
Before making the decision to start a new political party, we traveled a lot around the country. We had a lot of meetings with people, with different communities. Last year, in the local elections, in collaboration with other small center-right political parties, we had a chance to see who supported us in the elections. And we managed to elect some village mayors and members of municipality councils. The decision to establish a new party that we announced one week ago is the result of a one-and-a-half-year process of meeting people and seeing if there is potential energy and need for such a step.
For me personally, the most important thing is that almost 95% of the political prisoners, the real dissidents, support us. We also have a lot of supporters from among the youth. Of course, the MRF has accused us of being separatists who divide the votes. But we don’t want to establish a second MRF, a second ethnic party. Our goal is to establish a nationwide political party. Our path is very clear. We don’t have any black periods in our biographies. We believe that by being honest, we can be successful. The people are fed up with all lies and they can make a clear decision to separate what is black and what is white.
All the center-right parties — the Union of Democratic Forces, King Simeon’s party, the agricultural parties, the Unified People’s Party — now want to collaborate with us for the next elections. We could unite all the center-right parties aside from ruling party, GERB.
Is it important for you to try to attract politicians and supporters away from the MRF, or is that not important?
It’s important, but only if these politicians meet certain conditions. First they must have no relations with former secret services. Second, they must be clean from any corruption deals. If they meet these conditions, then our doors are open to everyone.
Do you think there has been any positive shift in how ethnic Bulgarians view ethnic Turks?
There are some very positive changes. For instance, at the institutional level, there are some achievements. But there are some negative examples also. We are obliged to stress the common issues that unite us. But on a political level, there’s a lot of confrontation. And the two parties that benefit most from this confrontation are the MRF on one side and, on the other, parties like Ataka and VMRO. They derive nutrients from the same soil. This confrontation reflects some institutional failures. So, after 23 years, there is no single Bulgarian ambassador who is Turkish or Roma or Pomak. The security services and the military are still closed systems. And look what happened in the Pazardzhik region with the trial of the imams. The MRF says, “We want our representatives to be everywhere.” But their deeds say something totally different.
Last example: when the parliament elected members of the supreme judiciary council, the main political groups in the parliament agreed among themselves to have quotas! It was an agreement: “If you approve of my guys, I’ll approve of your guys.” And from the guys proposed by the MRF, there were ethnic Turks. But those guys were just yes men from the party. They were not qualified. During all those years, we had time to prepare people, but we didn’t.
How can you effectively deal with Ataka and VMRO? How do you best address both the parties and the sentiment behind those parties?
First of all, it’s necessary to tell the whole truth about the connections and financing behind Ataka. And to explain how these confrontations benefit these leaders and those around them. They are guaranteed immunity in parliament. They are beyond the law. They look for every chance to make provocations and cause tensions. There are many common issues regarding ethnicity and religious issues. But it’s important to allow the institutions to work. If politicians don’t have influence at the local level, the people will continue to have the same problems.
It’s the same with unemployment. We have to stress these social problems to attract investments in the real economy, and to keep young people from leaving the country. And this is how, step by step, things can change.
You end up sounding a little more optimistic than when we started.
Actually, we have always been optimists!
Sofia, October 4, 2012
Interpreter: Korman Ismailov