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Conversation with Aziz Nazmi Shakir on the 30th anniversary of the expulsion of Bulgarian Muslims

Conversation with Aziz Nazmi Shakir on the 30th anniversary of the expulsion of Bulgarian Muslims

Conversation conducted by: Harun Karčić

The Muslims’ exodus began in early June, and by the end of August 370,000 people had immigrated to Turkey. I guess the fiasco of the “Revival Process” showed Todor Živkov and company that Bulgaria’s Muslims rejected all assimilation policies, and the only way to get rid of them was to force them to leave the country.

Bulgarian Muslims

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the expulsion of Bulgarian Muslims to Turkey, euphemistically called ”The Great Excursion.” What exactly were the reasons for Todor Živkov’s government to expel such a large number of Muslims?

Five years prior to the “the Great Excursion” in the winter of 1984/1985, high officials from the Communist Party ordered the renaming of the Bulgarian citizens of Turkish origin. The latter, according to different estimations, numbered between 1.000.000 and 1.500.000, i.e. approximately 1/6 of the total population and were considered by the regime a threat to the national security. In three months’ period all Muslims’ names from Arabic, Persian and Turkish origin were changed to Christian or Slavic ones. The renaming, labelled officially as a “Revival Process”, was followed by a long list of prohibitions. Shortly, citizens were not to execute any activity expressing a Turkish or Muslim identity. 

In early 1989, the status quo was disturbed by massive protests including hunger strikes and daily letters addressed to the ruling Communist Party. The authorities responded with administrative sanctions and internal displacements. In May 1989, social and political tensions soared. The Ministry of Internal Affairs started to distribute application forms for international passports, implying that Bulgarian Turks (who four years earlier had been forced to sign declarations proclaiming they did not want to emigrate) should leave the country. In May, the Bulgarian government opened the borders to those who wanted to “visit” neighboring Turkey. The Muslims’ exodus began in early June, and by the end of August 370,000 people had immigrated to Turkey. I guess the fiasco of the “Revival Process” showed Todor Živkov and company that Bulgaria’s Muslims rejected all assimilation policies, and the only way to get rid of them was to force them to leave the country. We can roughly conclude that the major reason behind the “Great Excursion” was the fact that at the beginning of the 1980’s Bulgaria proved to be the country with the lowest birth-rate and smallest population among its socialist neighbors. Statistics from the last censuses showed that ethnic Bulgarians were decreasing (hardly in geometrical progression) and in near future they would lose their “majority” status. 

According to some sources, the government only wanted to expel ethnic Turks, but other sources and authors claim that Muslim Pomaks and Roma were also expelled. Was the communist governments motive to deport ethnic Turks or Muslims in general?

Since most Roma and Pomak Muslims were renamed long before the so-called “Revival Process” and some of them did not oppose so vigorously this type of assimilation, as a whole, they were considered by the authorities less dangerous. Of course, among them there were activists demanding political rights and religious freedoms, who were personae non grata and logically they were among the first to be expelled right after the official start of the campaign. 

But even before the 1989 expulsions, Bulgarian Muslims were faced with decades long harsh assimilation policies. When exactly did these policies begin and what did they aim to achieve?

The sad prehistory of this event stretches back to the proclamation of Bulgaria as an independent state after the collapse of the Ottoman rule in the Balkans. Assimilation policies practiced by both the bourgeois and communist regimes of Bulgaria were directed mainly towards Pomaks, since the official theories claimed that they were descendants of ethnic Bulgarians forced by the Ottomans to accept Islam. During the 20th century they were subjected to four renaming campaigns (in 1912, 1942, 1962, and 1971-74), and consequently four times (in 1913, 1945, 1964 (partially), and 1990), they were allowed to reclaim their Muslim names. The name changings of 1912 and 1942 were also marked by intense Bulgarian Orthodox missionary pressure to convert them to Christianity. Despite of the fact that Turks were always loyal citizens, their identity disturbed the authorities, and was considered an obstacle for a homogenized nation-state with one language, one ideology (preferably socialist), and one set of cultural traditions. As a result, throughout the 20th century Turkish schools, theaters and media organs were closed, and everything bearing the label “Turkish” restricted or prohibited. The regime was aimed at keeping Muslims in tension and uncertainty for their physical survival. This “method” proved to be extremely successful, because through the years it was nourishing the idea that the only safe place for living normally and practicing Islam was Turkey. Since most Muslims of Bulgaria perceived Asia Minor as their previous “motherland”, returning there in times of trouble was always an option. Whenever communist authorities wanted to reduce the number of local Muslims, they increased the pressure applied upon this population, and then the only thing they needed was to start an emigration campaign. As a result of this “tactic” in 1950-1951, 100,000 and in the period 1969-1978, 115,000 Muslims left for Turkey. 

How did Turkey’s government react when it saw thousands of Bulgarian Muslims on its borders? Was there an expressed feeling of solidarity with their brethren coming from Bulgaria?

Turkish society was well informed about what was going on in Bulgaria. In 1987 the Turkish National Television (TRT) filmed a series called “Belene”, dedicated to the “Revival Process” and the fate of Muslim political prisoners sent to the notorious prison camp situated on the Danube island of Belene. A year earlier while on a trip to the World Cup Final in Melbourne, the future Olympic (in Seoul, Barcelona and Atlanta) champion in weightlifting Naim Suleimanov escaped his handlers, and defected at the Turkish Embassy in Canberra. After making his way to Istanbul, he was personally welcomed by the president Turgut Özal, and in his capacity as a famous public figure he became a major symbol of the Bulgarian Turks’ protest against the ongoing assimilation policies. In order for him to compete at the 1988 Seoul Olympics Turkey paid Bulgaria $1 million and the Bulgarian government agreed to release his eligibility to Turkey. Turkey provided a special legal framework for the victims of the ethnic cleansing campaign in 1989, enabling them to immigrate under privileged circumstances and to naturalize upon arrival. Thus, ethnic Turk coming from Bulgaria not only had privileged access to the motherland society, but they also benefited from privileged integration measures such as welfare and integration programs, settling and housing programs, vocational training or retraining. When the number of “emigrants” became uncontrollable, Turkish authorities revised their policy of admitting the Turks of Bulgaria without visas and departed from the encouraging immigration policies. I won’t forget the heartbreaking partings with relatives in this period. Since borders had been closed after each of the previous migration campaigns almost all of us believed we were seeing each other for the last time. I remember how once when my father accompanied my mother’s mother and one of my uncles and his family, because of the kilometers long queue, it took them a whole week to reach the border. There were no communications at that time and nobody knew what exactly was happening with the people heading to Kapıkule checkpoint. 

How would you explain the fact that despite the unprecedented character of the expulsions and the subsequent return, not much academic attention has been devoted to the study of these events?

With all due respect for the academic community, Bulgarian society is first of all in need of a political attention and will to recognize what was done was wrong and unacceptable. Not a single political force or direct participant in the events was kept responsible so far. There are also attempts by media organs to present the “Revival Process” as something innocent. There are even present time cases reminding its assimilation practices. Just a year ago one of the bigger Bulgarian municipalities officially replaced a total of 868 land and site names of Turkish and Arabic origin with Bulgarian ones. Despite of the fact that the Chief Muftiate filed a complaint and several NGOs’ reacted to this vicious decision, the Supreme Court of Cassation ruled that the change of names was legitimate.

Recently the number of serious researches dedicated to the assimilation policies from the socialist period and the exodus in 1989 increases, but naturally the number of their recipients is too limited. I would rather prefer seeing more documentaries, feature films, stage plays, as well as literary works devoted to the mentioned events.  

A few years after these expulsions, Bosnian Muslims in neighboring Bosnia and Herzegovina were faced with genocide and ethnic cleansing. Looking at these events from today’s perspective, do you see a correlation in the destiny faced by Balkan Muslims from their Orthodox neighbors? 

The fate of our Bosnian sisters and brothers was far more tragic. Indeed, there are negative correlations, and one can find several parallels, nevertheless (at least in the Bulgarian case) I don’t think that Orthodoxy had anything in common with the cleansing plans Muslims were subjected to. Since religion was “the opium of the people” the communist regime opposed both, Christianity and Islam, and strived to replace religious beliefs and practices with socialist beliefs and practices. Balkan Muslims’ destiny in both, Bulgaria and Yugoslavia was a sequence of the evil called politics and those who exercise it as a method for ruling the physical aspects of the world.