Inside the MovementPosted by John on Apr 19, 2013 in Blog, Eastern Europe, Featured, Uncategorized | 0 comments
When I met Miroslav Durmov in 1990, he was a spokesperson for the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF), a political formation that focused on minority rights in Bulgaria, particularly those of ethnic Turks. We conversed in Russian, since he didn’t speak English. He wasn’t himself ethnic Turkish. But he had been concerned for some time about the human rights abuses that the Bulgarian Communist government had committed against the largest ethnic minority in the country.
In 1990, we talked about the two of these violations. In the mid-1980s, the Bulgarian government forced ethnic Turks to change their names to Bulgarian ones. Later, in the absurdly named “renaissance process,” the government expelled upwards of 300,000 ethnic Turks from the country. The political opposition did not take up these issues, largely in deference to its more nationalist faction. So ethnic Turkish activists and a few “freethinkers” formed the MRF to champion the restoration of these rights.
Back in 1990, it looked as though the Movement would form sufficient political alliances to push through its agenda: restoration of names, freedom of religion, restitution for those expelled from the country, and Turkish-language instruction in schools. It emerged as a third force in Bulgarian politics, representing enough votes in parliament to determine ruling coalitions. It survives to this day, with its controversial leader Ahmed Dogan only recently stepping down to serve as honorary chairperson.
It is relatively easy to follow the trajectory of the MRF over the years. But I lost track of Miroslav Durmov after our interview in Sofia in 1990. When I started looking for him again in 2012, it was not easy to track him down. I found some references in the Bulgarian newspapers. He left the MRF and formed his own party. He served in the Bulgarian parliament until the mid-1990s. And then he disappeared.
It was only through the good services of Facebook that I was able to find someone named Miroslav Durmov. But he wasn’t living in Bulgaria. He was living in Kentucky.
I sent him a note in the hopes that this Kentucky Durmov might have heard of his namesake in Bulgaria. It turned out that they were one and the same person.
How did a Bulgarian parliamentarian who didn’t speak English and who worked on the issue of ethnic Turks end up in Kentucky? You’ll just have to read further. Along the way, you’ll learn the inside story of Ahmed Dogan and the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, the role of the Soviet Union and the Bulgarian intelligence service, the way that the elite maintained their position during the economic reform, and why Kentucky is not necessarily the best place to end up as a new immigrant in the United States.
Do you remember where you were and what you were thinking when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?
My answer may sound strange, but at the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall, I was waiting for asylum from the German Democratic Republic — East Germany.
During 1988 and the first months of 1989, I had reached the decision that it would be politically and personally irresponsible, if I continued to remain silent in my opposition to the communist regime in Bulgaria. It was obvious to me that I had to resign my position at the Academy of the Ministry of Interior and to join the new Bulgarian opposition. And I did it. In this way, I changed my life and my position in the society. At that time, I was criticizing not only the dictator but also focusing my public statements on the “renaissance process” – the forced renaming of ethnic Turks and the expulsion of many of them from Bulgaria, which in my opinion was a crime against humanity.
One evening in the late spring of 1989, two individuals I was acquainted with came to my home. A couple of years earlier, while in East Germany, these individuals were in contact with the Communist Party of Turkey headquarters in Leipzig but because of their connections with Bulgarian intelligence the contacts were cancelled and they were sent back to Bulgaria. One of them, Feim Chaushev, worked for the International Relations Department of the Central Committee of the Bulgarian Communist Party headed by Dimitar Stanishev. Later, after the 1989 changes, the same person, as an alleged activist of the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF) was appointed deputy foreign minister by the coalition government of the BSP and the MRF headed by Prime Minister Sergey Stanishev.
My evening visitors told me that the Foreign Department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party had decided that because of my activities as a critic of the regime and the so-called “renaissance process” I had to leave Bulgaria and relocate to the GDR with my family. They added that if I said no, the alternative would be my arrest. The destination of the GDR was not negotiable.
Did you speak German?
Yes, I’d studied and graduated in the GDR.
So it wasn’t a completely insane option.
No, it wasn’t, because the headquarters of the Communist Party of Turkey was in Leipzig, and my wife was the daughter of the secretary general of the party. That’s why they decided that the GDR would accept us.
I chose exile and was informed that the head of the department had already spoken with their “German comrades”. I had an appointment with the ambassador of the GDR in Sofia the next day. The ambassador was not very happy to deal with us. He explained that because we were from a “socialist” country, the GDR could not grant us political asylum. Instead, we would receive humanitarian asylum. We filled out the applications and after that we talked mostly about the opposition in Bulgaria. At that time I did not know that such a practice existed of relocating members of the opposition or other non-conformists who could not be manipulated to another socialist country. So I was really perplexed by this decision to be sent away from my homeland. Later, I was informed that, in fact, the Bulgarian Communist Party was not enthusiastic about arresting the son-in-law of the late secretary general of the Communist Party of Turkey as an opponent of the “renaissance process,” so the decision to send me into exile was made.
On November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall felt. On November 10 Todor Zhivkov was removed from the leadership of the Communist Party. After that, neither the Bulgarian Communists nor the German Communists remembered about me due to the avalanche of new and more important incoming tasks. Thanks to these political changes I did not leave Bulgaria, and I was able to focus my further political activities on Bulgarian problems, because I really wanted something to change. So, the fall of the Berlin Wall in my memories is connected to my application for asylum in a country that soon ceased to exist. If the Wall hadn’t fallen, I might have spent the next 20 years in the GDR!
When did you first become involved in politics or civil society?
In my family, politics was always discussed. My apprenticeship in real politics started in 1982-83 when I began to have numerous conversations with Ismail Bilen-Marat, the secretary general of the Turkish Communist Party.
How did you meet him?
He was then my father-in-law. We discussed everything, from history to actual politics including the political problems he was experiencing in his own party. In 1982, the Russians asked him to resign from his position. That was followed by an offer from Bulgaria that if he agreed with Moscow’s demand, he would receive a pension, a good home, medical services at a government level, and a personal car. He couldn’t understand this insistence on resignation, and he was not eager to comply. Marat organized a party convention, took the position of chairman with top political power, and pushed through the election as a secretary general a Russian-Bulgarian protégé who later destroyed the organization. Immediately after the convention, Marat was diagnosed with an illness. He was admitted for surgery to the Bulgarian government hospital where he died.
What was his perspective on what was going on with ethnic Turks?
He died in 1983, before the name-change campaign really started. He was furious about the actions of the Bulgarian authorities to seize the rights of the Turkish ethnic group. He’d visited Bulgaria several times, had lived there for several months, and had friends who were ethnic Turks. Shortly before his surgery, due to his disagreement with the Bulgarian Communist Party, we decided to relocate the whole family to GDR. It did not happen, though.
A couple of months after his death, the situation became clearer to me. The Soviet Union’s political relationships were always based on Russian-Slavic dominance. The demographic misbalance in the Soviet Union between the Russian and the non-Russian and Islamic population became a serious concern in Moscow. In my opinion, this was one of the reasons for the disintegration of the USSR. At that time, the solution was to experiment with different varieties of forced assimilation. The Soviet experience up to that point consisted of the deportation of large groups of population, not the manufacturing of a national identity. Bulgaria, with its 10% Islamic population, was suitable for the experiment. Moscow’s support guaranteed that Turkey would not respond with military force and that the rest of the Soviet bloc would remain silent. The problem for Moscow and Sofia was Marat’s reaction, which they predicted would be extremely negative. That was the reason they wanted him either isolated or dead.
For me, that was a painful lesson in real politics, and it determined my further political development. I already mentioned my involvement in the first opposition groups where, beside the end of Zhivkov’s regime, I concentrated on human rights and especially the rights of the victims of the forced assimilation. I concluded, based on my observations, that the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) and the opposition Union of Democratic Forces (UDF) perceived Turks and other ethnic groups only as voting groups, so a separate organization defending their rights was needed. That was the reason why I oriented my activities toward the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF). When I discovered that its real political role didn’t match the ideas of its founders, I was very disappointed, and that later became the foundation of my disillusionment with the so-called transition.
In the early 1980s, you were a student?
No, I graduated in 1976 in Germany. In the early 1980s, I worked for the Ministry of Interior.
What did you study?
Psychology. Later, in 1984-1989 I wrote my dissertation and I obtained my Ph.D. in law .
When you were in the Ministry of Interior, what were your responsibilities?
I taught at the Academy of the Ministry of the Interior. I was a professor in psychology and public administration.
When was your first contact with the Movement for Rights and Freedoms?
It was in the spring or early summer of 1989. I joined the opposition and I started visiting the meetings of the Club for the Support of Perestroika and Glasnost. One of the founders who organized the meetings, a filmmaker I knew, introduced me there. I met people who wanted to do something about the ethnic Turkish victims and the forced name change. I started to communicate with them. We created an organization for national reconciliation. However, I saw that the Turks didn’t accept us since most of the people in the group were Bulgarian. My understanding at that time was that they wanted to see someone of Turkish origin to represent and organize them.
In one of these meetings, for the first time I saw Ahmed Ahmedov – or Ahmed Dogan (Dogan is the name that Bulgarian intelligence decided to give him). He stayed at the meeting for a couple minutes and left. Later, I contacted him, and he thought that I could be of some use for his organization, the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF). So I started working with him.
At that time, I was too idealistic. Later, it became clear to me that the MRF was created by the Bulgarian intelligence service. It was a brilliant operation. Obviously, the Turkish people wanted to be represented by their own representatives. They wanted to receive their names back. They wanted religious freedom. Because anyone who expressed oppositional views about this process of forced assimilation was expelled from Bulgaria, there were no leaders left in the community. The ones who remained in Bulgaria were ordinary people or those connected to the security service. The Central Committee of the Communist Party ordered the Bulgarian intelligence service to prepare an organization of Turkish people that would be separate from the Bulgarian opposition and, at the same time would support the nomenklatura. If the Communist Party created the MRF, it was not because it wanted the restoration of communism. The nomenklatura simply needed an ally in the transition process, particularly for privatization, and to reduce the level of uncertainty during this period.
In my understanding, the entire transition was planned, organized, and prepared. I don’t know, if this was the case in other Eastern European countries, but what was done in Bulgaria was very similar to what happened in Russia and the rest of the former Soviet Union. I did not like it, but I did appreciate how clever the nomenklatura was. They managed to replace the old state ideology with a new ideological doctrine, a combination of pseudo-anticommunism and pseudo-liberalism. In addition, they instituted a new foreign policy to legitimize the old-new elite, which served to tranquilize the Americans, appeared very European, and always was and still is in accordance with Russian strategic interests.
The forced name changes for the ethnic Turks began in the mid-1980s?
Actually, it started a little bit earlier. It was first applied to people working for the state and local administration and for the Ministry of Interior. There was no resistance because no one wanted to lose their jobs. That was in the late 1970s. At that time, I knew a person of Turkish origin who worked at the Central Committee. They forced him to change his name. He wasn’t happy, but he didn’t want to lose his position. Later, in the Ministry, I worked with a guy with a Turkish name, and they forced him too to change his name. He didn’t react, didn’t resign. But I never addressed them by their new names.
When did it become widespread?
It began in the winter of 1984. In January, it started first in northeast Bulgaria. A year later, they went south, and that was where the army and police intervened.
And you think this was a Russia-instigated experiment?
Yes, that’s my opinion. The other popular hypothesis is that it was a personal decision of Todor Zhivkov. But that could not be true. If it had been the decision of the Bulgarian government, the Turkish government would have reacted the same way that it did in Cyprus. None of the other socialist countries reacted. As a matter of fact, the “renaissance process” went against Communist national doctrine. Most shocking of all is that nobody has been held responsible. The world simply forgot about what happened
There was a long period of time between 1983 and the death of your then father-in-law and 1989 when you were about to relocate your family to GDR.
We were isolated during this time. I was concentrating on my PhD studies. I saw what happened with my father-in-law. When the situation in Bulgaria changed , I got the courage to express my opinion about it. To be honest, in 1988, I didn’t think that Zhivkov’s rule would end so quickly. It was a strange time. Everybody was against the regime, but nothing happened. Even the new opposition at the very beginning talked about the reconstruction of socialism. Everyone was united in the opinion that Zhivkov should be removed. After his removal, the moment of integration disappeared, and the opposition fell apart.
At that time, we did not expect that the nomenklatura would be so clever. The Central Committee was making all the decisions. For instance, they changed the law on entrepreneurship two years before 1989. It wasn’t a law, it was an order. Private entrepreneurship was permitted, but only for people connected to the elite. In this way, $2 billion was transferred to Western banks. The nomenklatura was prepared for the incoming privatization from the first day of the transition.
For example, in the very first days of the “transition,” an important issue was the liberalization of foreign trade, but nobody cared that the domestic prices were subsidized by the state. There was a tremendous difference between domestic and international prices. In addition, domestic prices were in national currency while on the world market the prices were in U.S. dollars and the exchange rate added to the profit. The state monopoly was replaced with a monopoly of the nomenklatura, and only those appointed were able to benefit from the situation. Other candidates for entrepreneurs, who did not belong to nomenklatura circles, couldn’t break through the bureaucratic barriers. If independent entrepreneurs tried to set up a business, private armies of jobless thugs advised them to avoid this business.
After the foreign trade “reform,” the banks supplied credit for the so-called mass privatization. The government issued privatization vouchers to everyone over the age of 18, but there was no system for how people could use those vouchers. They couldn’t buy shares like here, in America. To accommodate those vouchers, several privatization funds were created. Most of them were controlled by the nomenklatura.
The result of such a policy was deindustrialization and poverty. For example, 82% of the industrial properties obtained during the process of so-called mass privatization resulted in bankruptcy. Some people became very rich exporting certain goods. They controlled the entrance and exit of particular enterprises. They would buy expensive material and sell it cheap to the same people, which resulted in bankruptcy. There was plenty of credit available. Of course, a guy off the street couldn’t go to the bank and get credit. Only somebody who knew somebody could get millions. That’s why people in Bulgaria today are disoriented and nostalgic for the past when some rules existed. They don’t think that there has been significant change. The elite is the same.
In 1990, I perceived privatization as an approach to the diversification of property ownership, but the results of Bulgarian-style privatization convinced me that my understanding of the process at that time was naïve and idealistic. The fact that the majority of those engaged in politics shared similar opinion is not an excuse. The privatization of such a volume of industry was without precedent, and schemes such as shock therapy were prepared by and for the nomenklatura. A couple of days ago I had a conversation with a friend of mine and he told me about his research into the structure of people’s savings in Bulgaria. According to him, 600 people possess 8 billion leva in savings, and the rest of the population has savings of the same amount. This is the result of the wrongly conducted privatization.
Do you think there was a moment in 1989 or 1990 when an intervention — internal or otherwise — could have pushed Bulgaria in a different direction? Away from this managed transition and in the direction of a democratic and more equitable transformation of the system?
Another way was not possible. At that time, besides the nomenklatura, everyone was equally poor. Who could have conducted the privatization? Only the people who had money, or could use state resources along with connections and inside information. If you had money and economic power, you could organize anything. At that time, not many people in the West were interested in Bulgaria. Of course, foreign investors were not allowed to participate, except for people like Russian investor Denis Ershov or several fake Western investors.
So, the Bulgarian people lost this opportunity. Why do they put up with their current lack of economic security? Serbians started to rebel against the Ottoman Empire at the beginning of the 19th century. The Bulgarians waited until after the Russo-Turkish war in 1878 to be liberated. Bulgarians are not revolutionary people. They envy the people who succeeded in the privatization process, but at the same time they knew they would act similarly, if given the chance.
When you began going to the Club for the Support of Perestroika and Glasnost, were people there interested in the ethnic Turkish issue?
At that time, there was an attempt to persuade the opposition to acknowledge the importance of the ethnic Turkish issue. Some people said that there were only a couple of people who were genuinely interested. Others said that it was an issue useful for the opposition.
Immediately after the changes, a wave of jingoism swept over Bulgaria. It was organized through the TV. The influence of this 19th-century-style romantic nationalism discouraged people from voting for the opposition. On the other hand, most of these nationalistic people in reality voted for the BSP. Also, the UDF was very diverse and contained very liberal individuals as well as Bulgarian nationalists . To find a modus vivendi in this situation, they decided not to work with the emerging Turkish opposition. At the same time the MRF, because its leadership was guided by the nomenklatura, was not eager to connect with the Bulgarian opposition.
The Bulgarian opposition was very arrogant. They thought, they would get 70 percent in that first election in 1990 and they wouldn’t need the Turks. They were very surprised to get only 40 percent.
They did well in Sofia, but not outside the major cities.
Yes. Bulgaria is not Sofia. It was self-deception. They saw so many people coming to support them in the big cities. People in the West misperceived the situation as well.. They were also too optimistic. Before the elections, I had a conversation with someone who worked for the Bulgarian section of Radio Free Europe. She was surprised when I said that the opposition would probably get 40 percent. They didn’t want to hear such pessimistic forecasts.
You said that your first encounter with Ahmed Dogan was very brief.
That was my first meeting. I was very surprised that he didn’t want to communicate with people from opposition. Maybe he knew that he would be making another organization at that time. At the beginning, he was very perplexed. He didn’t know what to do. Maybe he was receiving contradictory instructions. This contradiction originated from discussion in the BSP about which way to go – to choose a moderate approach or to proceed along the lines of Serbian nationalism. Dogan wanted to organize an Islamic party. I told him that it was absurd to organize an Islamic party in Europe. In addition to that, there was a legal prohibition in Bulgaria against that. I suggested a liberal party because I had in mind the Free Democratic Party in Germany, which participated in government for 50 years. Dogan eventually accepted and developed this idea, and the MRF is now a member of the Liberal International.
Do you think this embrace of liberalism was authentic?
Definitely not. There’s no authentic socialist or conservative or liberal party. Everything is “made in Bulgaria.” All parties use the same approach, appealing to people through populist slogans tuned to the moment. The current prime minister, Boyko Borisov, was created through TV. For example, Borisov’s popularity skyrocketed because Bulgarians were tired of lawlessness, and they wanted someone who promised to solve this problem. That’s where politics in Bulgaria was heading. Political organizations are created for the moment, but by the next election that organization might not exist or its influence might be close to zero.
People have told me that Ahmed Dogan is both a very good politician and an autocrat. But what did you think of him before you learned of his security file?
I won’t say that he is a good politician. I think the myths about Dogan are created by the media. Yes, he is very precise in following the instructions of his handlers, but this isn’t an example of good politics. Of course, he is an autocrat, not because he wants to be but it’s the only way to control the organization. It is a vertical organization when the party is controlling its members but horizontal when the state security is controlling certain activities. The majority of the activists were connected with state security. That’s why a split is not possible. I don’t like it but that is how people want to see him; in other words, ordinary Turkish people in Bulgaria want to have a sultan. With this plutocratic policy, everyone thinks they can get something out of it by using a connection to the government or the administration to do business. That’s why some of Dogan’s public announcements irritate the Bulgarians. He speaks openly that he is controlling the money or that he is the one who decides which business entity will work with the government. It’s not directed to the majority of Bulgarians but to the Turkish population, to signal that this guy can do business with you.
In American politics, we would say he could deliver the pork.
Except that they are Muslims!
Yes, of course. We would have to adjust that image. How would you like the Bulgarian media to portray Ahmed Dogan in a more accurate way?
They should simply analyze what he is doing. Instead, in the media, journalists just present politicians in certain standard ways. Ahmed Dogan is portrayed as the best politician in Bulgaria. The prime minister is portrayed as someone who makes all the decisions in the country. Journalists should be more analytical and critical about what are paid PR initiatives.
There is some diversity in the Bulgarian media, though. The media owners have different interests and that’s why sometimes different opinions are expressed. It’s not about the freedom of the press or the diversity of opinion, but rather the competence and responsibility of the journalists. When a new political star is rising, he is the best guy around. When he is on the decline, he is absolutely the worst guy. When it comes to Ahmed Dogan, it is obvious that he will remain in power because the ethnic Turks want a leader and he is the leader that’s been given to them. In fact, journalists just cover him like a fixed point in the political landscape.
Let’s go back to the moment when you met Ahmed Dogan and became active in the movement. At some point you decided to become more active and join parliament. Were you completely enthusiastic about this move or did you have some misgivings?
At the very beginning, I was very enthusiastic because, among the members of the MRF, I met people very different from Ahmed Dogan. They wanted things to change. My opinion at that time, and I stick to it, is that ethnic Turks should have their own organization and participate in the political affairs of Bulgaria. That’s why I created the registration documents for the MRF and presented the organization in court. Later, in addition to the information I received about Dogan’s past, I was not enthusiastic at all about his autocratic style. I didn’t want to participate in an organization that was fabricated and didn’t have anything to do with democratic change. That’s the reason why I left.
What year was that?
Before you left, you were still working in parliament. What was that like?
I was deputy spokesman of the MRF. I had very good connections with my colleagues in Parliament. They were good guys. I had no problems with them. Sometimes there were misunderstandings. Some of them wanted the changes to appear immediately, and that was not possible. Working together enthusiastically, we made several appropriate contributions to the Constitution. We changed the law about Bulgarian names – the ethnic Turks wanted to have their names without the Slavic endings. And we started the discussion about teaching Turkish language in school.
And that eventually happened.
It didn’t happen immediately, but we started the discussion. I read some transcripts a couple of months ago, and even though I considered myself at that time pretty moderate, I saw that even my recommendations weren’t accepted by the majority in parliament. Besides the majority of the BSP, some of the members of Parliament from the UDF disagreed. They saw themselves as being patriotic. I can’t blame them. Even a person whom I respect very much, Petar Diertliev of the Social Democratic Party, didn’t want these changes. Perhaps, they believed that was the right way.
Now, I think public opinion has matured. People saw that something could be achieved through tolerance. And the nomenklatura also desired tranquility — it wasn’t only an achievement of the democratic forces who wanted to correct the human rights violation.
Tell me about when you first learned about Ahmed Dogan’s background and when you understood the origins of the MRF.
The first time I started thinking about what’s happening was at a demonstration. The Pomaks, ethnic Bulgarians who are Muslims, organized a huge demonstration in front of the parliament immediately after the removal of Zhivkov, before the 1990 parliamentary election. There were many people at this demonstration. Ahmed Dogan went over to the police, talked to a sergeant, and said that he wanted to speak to the people. The sergeant almost kicked him out of there. Shortly after, a man in civilian clothes talked to the police officers and to the sergeant who, eventually, allowed Ahmed Dogan to use the police loudspeaker to talk to the public. He told the crowd, “I am Ahmed Dogan and I will return your names.” It was televised and, as a result, everyone in Bulgaria knew that Ahmed Dogan was the person who promised to return the names.
I worked for the Ministry of Interior and I knew about the relationship between state security and police. At that moment, those ties were much stronger than now. Later, former Prime Minister Andrei Lukhanov told me more about Dogan. Then, there was a general from state security — I don’t know why he was so friendly to me, he even pretended that we were relatives (in Bulgaria we are all cousins!) — who gave me the name of Ahmed Dogan’s handler and a copy of his file. Later, President Zheliu Zhelev received Dogan’s dossier. Finally, when Dogan introduced his personal guard and chauffeur to some of us, the situation became absurd. His guard was a former cadet from the State Security Division of the Academy of Ministry of Interior, who graduated two years before. I’d been the scientific adviser on his graduation thesis. This cascade of information that came to me in a very short time confirmed once again my conclusions about Dogan.
Ahmed Dogan was not just a security service asset. He was an operative who was prepared to be undercover. He was a major in the Bulgarian intelligence service. He was pretty happy that things had changed and they could use his legend to create a liberator of the Turks in Bulgaria. In the parliamentary group of the MRF, I think I was the only one not connected to state security.
If this is common knowledge now in Bulgaria why hasn’t it destroyed Dogan’s reputation?
It’s common knowledge now. However, in the first years no one wanted to hear about it. When I expressed my opinion about Dogan, I was accused of being a communist or someone from the state security. Of course, the psychology of the minority must be considered. They consider Dogan a hero. Being an asset to state security was not something to be condemned. It did not mean anything . At that time, everyone capable of signing their name was acquired as an asset. Bulgarian Turks couldn’t get further in education or get a job without becoming an asset. That was the policy of the State Security at the time: to acquire as many assets as possible. So, that’s why it wasn’t damaging to Dogan’s career.
During the so-called “renaissance” process, every ethnic Turk, not only those who opposed but also those who were just critical of the government, were sent into exile. There were no leaders who could initiate an alternative to the MRF.
How was it being in the MRF and not being an ethnic Turk – before they started accusing you of being a communist?
I didn’t have any problems communicating with ethnic Turks. For some of them, I, obviously, was someone who could oppose Dogan. But I didn’t have the opportunity to replace him. During the first year after the creation of the Movement, some activists made an attempt to replace Dogan. They asked me for advice and help, but Andrey Lukhanov told me to stop helping them because “they will kill them.” By “they,” he meant the Turkish division of Bulgarian intelligence. Soon after that, these people were isolated.
Nowadays, I still have a good relationship with some people through Facebook. With other people I have lost contact . Overall, I can’t complain about their approach to me. They were very fair and open with me.
When I asked Krassimir Kanev to evaluate the MRF, he said that there were a lot of problems with the movement internally but the movement made some improvements for ethnic Turks in Bulgaria – restoration of names, education, economics, politics. For instance, there are now ministers who are ethnic Turks whereas that wasn’t possible before. And the visible discrimination has dropped, at least compared to the Roma, who don’t have a party to represent them. What do you think is the legacy of the MRF?
Yes, that is true. The question is, how much did the MRF contribute to those achievements and how much was it the other parties? Also, Bulgarian public opinion gradually matured. The MRF has only been a voice for those changes already accepted by public opinion. At the beginning, nobody could imagine that one day they would watch TV news in the Turkish language. That would be completely normal in a country with several ethnic groups. That’s one of the positive things that happened over the last 20 years, and it should be appreciated.
The MRF was a brilliant operation of the Bulgarian intelligence to control a significant part of the population during the turbulent first years of transition. This success is not due only to the work of “agents of influence” at the top of the organization. Unlike former Yugoslavia, none of the foreign superpowers was interested in Bulgaria’s destabilization. Also, after years of suppression of their national identity, the Turks in Bulgaria were inclined to accept only leaders of their own ethnicity in their effort to get back their names and practice their religion. To my regret, the people who voted for MRF were satisfied with the moderate human rights agenda of the Movement and they accepted the plutocratic politics of the leaders. The MRF is no exception on the Bulgarian political landscape. All political actors were oriented toward plutocracy.
The most important accomplishment of the MRF has been its political effect internationally. The political participation of the Movement in Bulgarian government structures transformed the country from a place of forced assimilation to a model for ethnical tolerance at the Balkans. Because nobody was then interested in any destabilization in Bulgaria, the nomenklatura was the main beneficiary of the new situation. Everything about the forced assimilation was forgotten. The MRF wanted to build monuments to the victims, but it did nothing to expose the truth about forced assimilation, to reveal the identity of those responsible for this crime against humanity, or to insist on their prosecution.
The exploitation of jingoistic stereotypes in the Bulgarian political realm was also connected to the MRF. In the first days of the so-called transition, shortly before the end of 1989, angry “patriots” from regions with ethnically mixed population came to Sofia to express their worries about the “betrayal of national interests.” The real motive behind this hysteria was that the nomenklatura from these regions slept through the beginning of the reforms and was worried about not getting their share of the privatized property. Of course, after the assurance from the BSP leaders that they would not be forgotten, the angry men suddenly disappeared. They served their purpose to oppose radical changes and to consolidate the Turks around the MRF leadership.
Xenophobia is the result of people’s impoverishment — just like in the elections in Germany in 1933. The only thing left for these people to be proud of being German or being Bulgarian, or whatever. I think that the foreign pressure is too strong to allow this xenophobia to become official policy. Something like this has happened in Hungary, but I don’t believe it will happen in Bulgaria. Bulgarian politicians are more pragmatic and don’t want problems with the EU. Only education and welfare can prevent the rise of xenophobia.
Ataka, meanwhile, was created by the part of the nomenklatura that openly expressed its connections with Russia. Ataka’s support came from many poor and uneducated people. Ataka was created to absorb the grievances of this particular part of the electorate without damaging the scheme of economic development planned by the nomenklatura. Ataka’s jingoistic rhetoric serves to demonstrate that the other participants in Bulgarian political life are in accordance with the Western human rights standards. Rather than focusing on Ataka’s political activities, we should pay more attention to those parties that have absorbed some of its platform.
I was shocked by what happened in Katunitsa. I couldn’t believe that Bulgarians could be so extreme. Maybe they had lost their patience and someone was directing them. Of course, there were many “professional patriots” involved in this situation, but xenophobia has its economic roots, the same as in the United States.
Finally, why can’t the Roma enjoy similar achievements as ethnic Turks? At the beginning, the MRF did try to establish connections with Roma. For instance, the MRF has no problem with Roma who are Muslims. Some Roma who are Muslims are gravitating to the MRF and vote for it. But the Turks, like the Bulgarians, are nationalists, and they do not accept the Roma population. In addition, the Roma population is extremely fragmented into multiple clans. Each clan has leaders who don’t want the clan to be integrated because this is the way they control and exploit their own group. An organization for the Roma is not possible right now. That might change in the future.
Do you see any potential for a multicultural Bulgaria?
If Bulgarians and Turks can live together, why not extend this to other minorities? For instance, Bulgarians are anti-Roma but accept Roma singers. I still believe that Bulgarians are more tolerant than the Serbs. If the economic conditions get better, relations might improve. When you are unemployed, everyone who competes for the same job is an enemy. In this direction, I’m optimistic, even though some Bulgarians I consider intelligent express anti-Roma sentiment in the form of cartoons or pictures on their Facebook pages. I think, the mainstream on the political scene will not allow this sentiment to get out of control.
I expect another populist party to appear. It won’t be so much nationalistic as anti-everything. People are tired of the current political and economic situation. They don’t see an exit from the existing political system. Their faith in institutions is declining. It’s not people but institutions that are the foundations of democracy. I don’t have any idea how that can be changed.
When you left the MRF, you created a different party.
I tried to create it, but it wasn’t possible. It was a disaster.
Why was it a disaster?
I didn’t have many solid connections to people of Turkish origin. I didn’t have deep connections or roots in the region. I tried to create something Bulgarian that would work on behalf of ethnic Turks, but it didn’t work out. I found some who agreed with me, a Roma and some ethnic Turks, but the party soon fell apart.
But you participated in parliament?
Yes, after that, I received an offer from the Socialists to join them. They sent the most educated and liberal members of the group to convince me to join them. I wanted to see, if this party would change. Unfortunately, there were no signs of change. I was elected in the 36th assembly, and I worked there until 1994, as and MP from the BSP. Later, from 1995 to 1997, I worked as chief national security adviser.
Why did you leave Bulgaria?
There are at least two reasons why I relocated to the United States. First, since 1997 it was clear for me that the so-called transition was not what it appeared to be. Regretfully, at that time not many people in Bulgaria were eager to listen to what I was saying or writing. The moment came when I could not publish anything in the newspapers due to this political isolation, even though I had a pretty good relationship with people working for those newspapers.
Now, after ten years, the situation is different. I publish in several Bulgarian newspapers and web sites such as Frognews and FaktorMonitor, and 168 Hours. I’m writing some critical thoughts about the United States but mainly about Bulgaria because that’s what people in Bulgaria want to read about. They are not so much interested in what’s going on abroad. They have their everyday problems and are focused on internal issues.
The second reason for my departure is also connected to my political activities. Since 1982, I have opposed numerous political initiatives of the nomenklatura and, as a result, I created a lot of enemies who started to retaliate. My isolation increased to the point that it was better for my family to leave the country.
But you didn’t consider going to Germany?
I preferred to go to a Scandinavian country but the Americans granted us green cards and we decided to come here. However, I now consider it a mistake.
Why do you think it was a mistake?
It’s very difficult to adjust to the U.S. reality in every aspect. Especially, if as we did you come over when you’re 50 years old, without English language knowledge, without money. It’s a completely different culture here. We had a pretty hard time. For our sons it was easier. It was so difficult that we consider leaving the United States even though we’d become citizens.
Why did you decide on Kentucky?
Because the standard of living is not as expensive as in New York where my wife’s cousin lives and where we lived for a while. For a newcomer, in New York it is extremely expensive, especially if you have two kids. At that time, I knew a Bulgarian woman who’d come to Kentucky, and I asked her about the prices here. When we arrived in New York City, the rent of a two-bedroom apartment was minimum $1200. And here it was less than $500. On the other hand the job opportunities here in Kentucky are not as good as in a big city. Well, we’ve been living here for almost 10 years. I have to admit that our children have adjusted better than my wife and I have.
Would you consider going back to Bulgaria at any point?
My wife is very eager to go back. I am still reluctant. Most likely, we’ll retire to Bulgaria. I can’t find a job here. At the moment, I’m unemployed. I think it’s impossible for people like me to live here. My wife was a lawyer in Bulgaria. She cannot practice her profession here. Now she works as a library assistant and as an English tutor. I will continue to write when I return to Bulgaria. Or I will organize something, even though my experience with organizations was not very positive.
What kind of jobs did you get while you were here in the United States?
Factory, clerical, and even entry-level federal jobs. It’s just been a disaster. If I should describe my experience, it would not like Alice in Wonderland. If you can speak without an accent and without any mistakes, it’s a lot easier to be hired. But when employers see my name (many Americans cannot even pronounce it correctly) and how I speak English, it’s very difficult.
Have you changed your mind about any of the positions you held in 1990?
I do not believe there are significant changes in my understanding about liberty, democracy, and human rights as foundations of civilized society. Unfortunately, nowadays I am more skeptical and pessimistic about the possibility of achieving these standards in the political realm. I initially had high expectations about political pluralism in Bulgaria. As a result of my realization that politics is basically prefabricated in Bulgaria, I’ve become very skeptical. Now, I am convinced that a lot of time, critical thinking, and political culture are necessary to overcome the current inextricable situation.
Tell me what you think about Bulgaria today. What do you find the most optimistic about things there?
Around New Year, I was watching Bulgarian TV online. There was a broadcast of a pop concert, and I saw the reaction of the public. The people were freer in their expression and their feelings. It had changed a lot from 20 years ago. It means that people are more self-confident, even though there are still lots of problems. I saw a similar reaction in Western Europe in the 1970s at concerts when people were dancing and singing.
In addition, the Bulgarian media publish different opinions. That’s maybe related to the different interests of the owners. But for the public, it is beneficial because if you want to see something on the Left and something on the Right of the same issue, you can find it. Also, young people can go abroad and study. I know they are concerned about employment. That’s what most people in Bulgaria are worried about. My cousin, when we talk, he always says the same thing: there are no factories in Bulgaria any more, and if there are no factories, where will the wealth come from?
My final three questions are quantitative. How would you evaluate everything that has changed or not changed in Bulgaria since 1989 on a scale of 1 to 10 with one most dissatisfied and 10 most satisfied?
I’m not sure if I can measure quality quantitatively. Moreover, I should differentiate my evaluation according to different subjects. About human rights development, I would say between 7 and 8. When I think about the economic development, I would say -1, because Bulgaria is deindustrialized now. The standard of living has improved, so I would say between 3 or 4. The self-esteem of Bulgarians, as a reflection of what has happened, is positive too, somewhere around 5. The media, even though in the early 1990s, I would say it would be 9, it’s now about 6. About the openness of the society, I would say 9, since it now much more open than before. In terms of xenophobia: -1.
The same scale, same period of time: your own personal life.
From 1990-97, I would say between 6 and7. From 1998 to 2003, around 2 or 3. In the United States, maybe –4.
Looking into the near future in Bulgaria, how do you rate the prospects, on a scale of 1 to 10, with one being most pessimistic and 10 most optimistic?
I need to wait until the elections. Now, I can’t say.
What do you think will happen in the elections?
A coalition government on the right but among which parties I’m not sure. The other scenario would be GERB achieving a second term.
Any last comments?
I read some of the interviews on your site. I was surprised by your interview about the new Left in Bulgaria. I don’t think they are Left; they are young but not new. I’m not sure whether very many people in Bulgaria, beside those who are professionally engaged in teaching, know what it means to be Left or Right, or center.
What is necessary from abroad is a new Radio Free Europe. Radio Liberty exists but it is oriented in a different direction. The people in southeastern Europe need to hear an alternative opinion. Radio Free Europe and the Bulgarian section of the BBC did a good job at that time changing people’s opinion. There’s no money for them any more and may be no interest, so they’re closed. However, somebody can decide to invest once again in such services. There are people in Bulgaria, especially young people, who speak foreign languages but they are exposed to the propaganda on the TV and newspapers, and their opinions are prefabricated. If someone from abroad or even in Bulgaria begins to express a critical opinion about what is happening, it might generate different perceptions. The American and European pragmatism of working with the existing government is discouraging.
Lexington, Kentucky, January 11, 2013
Tell me about the creation of the Movement for Rights and Freedoms.
The movement was created officially January 4, 1990. There was a national conference in March and registration came at the end of April. The movement strives to unite Bulgarian people and resolve the problems remaining from totalitarianism. The main task: the rights and freedoms of different communities according to international standards. The movement has a central council with Ahmed Dogan as president. And a regional council structure; membership stands at 120,000 members. It is a universal organization defending the rights of Bulgarian citizens. Now, we are accentuating the rights of Islamic groups in Bulgaria because their rights are in the most difficult condition. We want their rights to be at the same level of other Bulgarian citizens.
We had a separate list in the elections. Because both parties, UDF and BCP, did not accentuate the rights and freedoms of various Bulgarian groups and therefore we established a separate platform. We have 23 delegates and I am the deputy president of the parliamentary fraction. We have a platform calling for various legal reforms. For instance, a change in the law on names–this should be simply an administrative change, not a legal one. We also want permission to use native languages, the Turkish language for example. We are waiting for an answer from the the President and the Prime Minister on our draft proposal. The changes will probably come in the second half of the year.
There was in 1989 an emigration of 300,000 ethnic Turks. More than 100,000 came back. Now they have horrible situation: it is hard to live, to find work. This is a serious social problem. We have a commission in parliament dealing with this problem, and the head of this commission from the Movement. That this is the Balkans complicates the situation.
The economic situation of ethnic Turks is not really much worse than for the rest of Bulgaria. Except for those who left and who want to leave–if there is international assistance, it should go toward these people. I suspect that another 300,000 would like to leave but since I don’t have exact statistics, this is just a guess. The border is now open. People are not leaving now like they did. And part of the 200,000 in Turkey would like to return. They would like guarantees, political and economic, before returning.
The legal issues surrounding local elections have not been resolved. Now we are discussing the question of our participation in the elections. Of course, we will look at all proposals in a detailed manner. There was, for instance, a suggestion to have a general list–we will look at this but we don’t have a position. It doesn’t merely depend on the Movement; it depends to a large degree on the UDF.
And direct control of some districts from Sofia?
That is still a hypothesis. I think that it is not terribly democratic and we will see what happens. I don’t think we have the kind of situation that demands such direct rule. My personal opinion: we shouldn’t enter into such an arrangement in the elections.
Are there serious discussions between the Movement and the UDF?
Of course. In my opinion, we have good contacts. But it is a difficult situation here. We have a new democracy here.
Aside from the situation of ethnic Turks, are there differences in platforms?
We accentuate the social orientation of the market economy. Because our electorate are people of middle position, they are interested that the social plan of the government develops. We also have a difference with the UDF on land policy. Because the Turkish population is mostly peasant population, they are not interested in having the land go to the previous owners.
Is the Movement then closer perhaps to the Social Democratic Party in outlook?
Yes. We also have good relations with the Yankov party (Non-Marxist Social Democratic Party). We also have good relations with the Landholders Party Nikolai Petkov, I’d like to emphasize–perhaps the best relations among parties in the UDF. The difference of opinion lies in our policy towards land.
Are there concrete violations of human rights now in Bulgaria?
No. Now, the problems exist between the small part of the Bulgarian population belonging to the nationalist groups and the ethnic Turkish population. And we had problems connected to the name changes that still haven’t been resolved.
And external relations, for example, concerning the rights of minorities living in neighboring countries?
Right now, the Movement doesn’t work on international questions. We are oriented to Bulgaria. My personal opinion, it is impossible to talk of defending rights in Bulgaria if we do not pay attention to the situation in Turkey–not simply the political rights but, for instance, the rights of Kurds–that’s a serious problem in Turkey. The same applies to the 2 million Hungarians living in Romania.
Are there problems for Moslems who want to practice religion?
I think not. We don’t have any information that the government is hindering anyone from practicing their religion. There is a problem, however, because the totalitarian system did not provide opportunities for Islamic religious leaders to study. We think that they should reopen the schools for providing the training to any young people who want to become religious leaders. I don’t know how many believers there are–but they should be allowed to practice their faith.
I read that there are 800,000 Islam believers.
That’s the number coming from Islamic families. But believers are fewer, I think.
Do you support school instruction entirely in Turkish?
No, we’re not asking for that. Because this population lives in Bulgaria–in order to work in this country, they have to speak Bulgarian. It is the official language of the country. But, their right is also to know well their own language. Therefore, 4 hours a week of Turkish instruction will be available. It would be too difficult to arrange by September, but perhaps in the second half of the year. If we succeed in getting it started in March, that would be wonderful.
Do you have discussions with the nationalist groups?
They have their own direction. Some we can’t talk with: the National Radical Party. It’s simply impossible to talk with them. But there is another party, the National Democratic Party, we can talk with. They have a deputy in parliament. We talk though the discussions can be difficult.
Do you think situation in Bulgaria will be like in Romania?
We are doing everything so that violence won’t occur here in Bulgaria. For instance, several weeks ago, a difficult situation occurred. Several nationalist organizations held occupational strikes in key administrative centers, mayoral offices and so on–in those regions where a majority of Turks live. We didn’t respond with violence. Our position was: we will not respond to these acts of provocation. They wanted guarantees from the National Assembly because they are scared. We issued a declaration that we wouldn’t respond with violence. We said: the economic situation in Bulgaria is very difficult: why organize occupational strikes?
And the cultural situation for ethnic Turks?
That is a serious problem. We have not organized cultural activities. But our plan in the near future is to provide opportunities for the creation of regional cultural clubs where it would be possible for folklore ensembles to play, for those who want to engage in literary pursuits. Now we are organizing a newspaper which will be published in both Bulgarian and Turkish, in which people can publish their works. It will be political and cultural. We hope that, if all goes well, it will come out in October or November. That depends on decision of the President. It will be called Rights and Freedom.
Do you have contacts with any of the trade unions?
We don’t trust either trade union. Until now, they haven’t trusted us either. They have not said much about the situation.
Judging from editorials in Duma, the BSP is playing the national card.
Why should we exclude that possibility? But the opposition might play the card as well. Right now, they’re debating the rules for establishing a parliamentary fraction. I think that both sides, some from opposition and some from BSP, don’t want that we will be able to establish an independent fraction. A citizens’ movement should be allowed to participate in political life. They think however that only a party can establish a parliamentary platform.
Will you eventually become a party?
No, we will remain a movement. Of course, if they won’t let us establish a separate parliamentary faction, we may be forced to adjust.
Do you anticipate a compromise in the creation of government?
I am not convinced that a compromise will happen. But they will find some form of co-working and they will not call it a coalition. The Movement will not participate regardless of the form. We want to concentrate at the level of parliament.