Remembering the expulsion of Bulgarian Muslims

By Harun Karčić

According to a 1989 The New York Times article hundreds of thousands of Bulgarian Muslims streamed into Turkey. Turkish and Western sources place the exact figure between 340,000 and 360,000. According to witness accounts, these Muslims – inhabiting Bulgaria for generations – were fleeing a ‘harsh campaign of assimilation intended to erase their ethnic and religious identity.’ At one point in time, Muslims were fleeing the country and entering Turkey at a rate exceeding 4,000 people a day. 

Expulsion Muslims

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the mass expulsion of Bulgarian Muslims, euphemistically called the ‘Great Excursion.’ 

Namely, between May and August 1989, Todor Živkov, the three-and-a-half decades serving communist dictator of Bulgaria, and his ruling clique ordered the expulsion of 360,000 Bulgarian Muslims to neighboring Turkey. However, in order to fully understand the motive, scope and repercussions of the communist government’s decision to pull such drastic measures, it’s important to look back into the first half of the 20th century. 

Namely, the minority rights of Bulgarian Muslims were regulated by international and bilateral agreements such as the 1878 Berlin Treaty 1878, the 1909 Istanbul Protocol and the 1913 Peace Treaty signed between Bulgaria and Turkey. According to Minority Rights International, prior to the communist takeover in 1946, Bulgarian Muslims were given a certain degree of religious, cultural and educational autonomy. They were allowed to run their own Turkish-language schools – including religious seminaries and secular schools – and follow a separate curriculum. Additionally, they were permitted to organize their own religious administration and make use of Shari’a tribunals in regulating personal and family affairs. So strong was the cultural segmentation in those years, that according to one survey conducted in 1946, about half of the Turkish population was not able to communicate in Bulgarian. 

The communists initially respected the cultural autonomy and minority rights enjoyed by Bulgarian Muslims, whilst at the same time endeavoring to make Turkish students more fluent in Bulgarian. However, as early as in 1958, the communist government began implementing its assimilation policy which was to gain notoriety over the years. That year, Turkish-language schools began to be merged with schools where Bulgarian was language of instruction. By 1975 the teaching of Turkish had been eliminated from the curriculum altogether, only to be followed in 1985, Turkish-language newspapers were read by the Bulgarian Turks were only allowed to be published in Bulgarian. Since 1985, the country’s Turkish minority had been declared non-existent, denied any official status whatsoever. Even the ethnonym “Turk” was banned in the press or any official use. 

Throughout the 1980s, the government embarked on a policy of forced assimilation: all Muslims (Turks, Pomaks and Roma) were forced to adopt Bulgarian Slavic (and thereby Christian) names; fines were imposed for speaking Turkish in public places; bans were imposed on Islamic religious practices including the circumcision of male children. As Francesco Martino notes: ‘the Communist authorities had concluded that it was right and due to “straighten what is wrong” by helping the Bulgarian Muslims to “re-discover” their own identity and to be “re-born pure Bulgarians.”’ This assimilation campaign would also be referred by Bulgarian communist officials as the revival process.

Then came the collapse of communism. 

At the turn of 1989, communism in the Soviet Block was on its last legs. Encouraged by mass anti-communist demonstrations and with the advent of democracy and individual freedoms throughout Eastern Europe, Bulgaria Muslims began protesting. Anti-government protests swelled to include tens of thousands of demonstrators. The Bulgarian government responded rather harshly by ordering the arrests of prominent Bulgarian Muslims. Realizing that Bulgarian Muslims were not waning in their demands for more religious freedoms, the government began systematically deporting Bulgarian Muslims. According to a 1989 The New York Times article hundreds of thousands of Bulgarian Muslims streamed into Turkey. Turkish and Western sources place the exact figure between 340,000 and 360,000. According to witness accounts, these Muslims – inhabiting Bulgaria for generations – were fleeing a ‘harsh campaign of assimilation intended to erase their ethnic and religious identity.’ At one point in time, Muslims were fleeing the country and entering Turkey at a rate exceeding 4,000 people a day. 

As such, it was the single largest act of ethnic cleansing since the wrapping up postwar expulsions of ethnic Germans from Central Europe. 

Bulgaria’s Communist Government denied persecuting its Muslim population claiming that they had been issued three-month tourist visas to visit Turkey and cynically referred to the deportations as ‘The Great excursion.’ 

Soon after the collapse of communism in 1990, the fate of many Bulgarian Muslims was once again changed and more than 150,000 Bulgarian Muslims retuned back to their homeland. The post-communist democratic government granted its Muslim citizens a degree of religious and cultural freedoms and the possibility to organize themselves politically. 

Today, according to the PEW research center, Bulgarian Muslims make up some 13.5% of the population and are divided into ethnic Turks, Bulgarian-speaking Pomaks and Roma. Although negative dispositions towards each other predominate with Turks looking down on Pomaks, while both groups share an abhorration towards the Roma, all three groups share a common Sunni Muslim faith. 

Decades later, Bulgarian authorities have formally denounced the repression of Muslims and condemned the violent assimilation of its Muslim population. However, for many of them, the scars and psychological trauma are still very much present.