Turkish Assimilation Campaign in Bulgaria 1984-1985

[ 1984 - 1985 ]

During the Turkish assimilation campaign of 1984-85, the DS, People's Militia, Red Berets, and the army were reported as using violence against ethnic Turks who resisted adopting Bulgarian names in place of their Turkish ones. As many as several hundred ethnic Turks may have been killed by secret police during this campaign. Additional hundreds of Turks were forcibly resettled, arrested, or imprisoned for refusing to cooperate with the assimilation measures. Bulgarian authorities blamed ethnic Turks for a bombing campaign in which thirty Bulgarians were killed in public places in 1984 and 1985. Although guilt was never established, the terrorist acts aroused ethnic feeling that supported the Bulgarization campaign...

As in other parts of Eastern Europe, the repeal of single-party rule in Bulgaria exposed the long-standing grievances of an ethnic minority. Especially in the 1980s, the Zhivkov regime had systematically persecuted the Turkish population, which at one time numbered 1.5 million and was estimated at 1.25 million in 1991. Mosques were closed, Turks were forced to Slavicize their names, education in the native language was denied, and police brutality was used to discourage resistance. The urban intelligentsia that partcipated in the 1990 reform movement pushed the post-Zhivkov governments toward restoring constitutionally guaranteed human rights to the Turks. But abrogation of Zhivkov's assimilation program soon after his fall brought massive protests by ethnic Bulgarians, even in Sofia....

The biggest wave of Turkish emigration occurred in 1989, however, when 310,000 Turks left Bulgaria as a result of the Zhivkov regime's assimilation campaign. That program, which began in 1984, forced all Turks and other Muslims in Bulgaria to adopt Bulgarian (Christian or traditional Slavic) names and renounce all Muslim customs. Bulgaria no longer recognized the Turks as a national minority, explaining that all the Muslims in Bulgaria were descended from Bulgarians who had been forced into the Islamic faith by the Ottoman Turks. The Muslims would therefore "voluntarily" take new names as part of the "rebirth process" by which they would reclaim their Bulgarian identities. During the height of the assimilation campaign, the Turkish government claimed that 1.5 million Turks resided in Bulgaria, while the Bulgarians claimed there were none. (In 1986 Amnesty International estimated that 900,000 ethnic Turks were living in Bulgaria.)

The motivation of the 1984 assimilation campaign was unclear; however, many experts believed that the disproportion between the birth rates of the Turks and the Bulgarians was a major factor. The birth rate for Turks was about 2 percent at the time of the campaign, while the Bulgarian rate was barely above zero. The upcoming 1985 census would have revealed this disparity, which could have been construed as a failure of Zhivkov government policy. On the other hand, although most Turks worked in lowprestige jobs such as agriculture and construction, they provided critical labor to many segments of the Bulgarian economy. The emigration affected the harvest season of 1989, when Bulgarians from all walks of life were recruited as agricultural laborers to replace the missing Turks. The shortage was especially acute in tobacco, one of Bulgaria's most profitable exports, and wheat.

During the name-changing phase of the campaign, Turkish towns and villages were surrounded by army units. Citizens were issued new identity cards with Bulgarian names. Failure to present a new card meant forfeiture of salary, pension payments, and bank withdrawals. Birth or marriage certificates would be issued only in Bulgarian names. Traditional Turkish costumes were banned; homes were searched and all signs of Turkish identity removed. Mosques were closed. According to estimates, 500 to 1,500 people were killed when they resisted assimilation measures, and thousands of others went to labor camps or were forcibly resettled.

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