Turks of Bulgaria

Location: Mainly the north-east, and the south around Kardzhali
Population: 900,000 (est.)
% of population: 10%
Religion: Muslim
Language: Turkish

Ethnic Turks have lived in Bulgaria since the time of the Ottoman Turkish conquest in the fourteenth Century. After the collapse of Ottoman rule in the late nineteenth Century and the emergence of the modern Bulgarian state there were successive waves of emigration, mostly to Turkey, but many Turks remained. They live mostly in compact communities in the south of the country in the Arda river basin and in the north-east in the Dobrudzha region. They also live in scattered communities in the central and eastern Stara Planina (the Balkan Mountains) and in the Rhodope mountains.

Until the most recent campaign to assimilate them in late 1984 and early 1985, the ethnic Turks were officially recognized as a “national minority” along with certain other minorities. However, even this recognition was circumscribed by a general reservation about the very idea of minorities in Bulgaria and the 1971 Constitution, unlike the 1947 Constitution, makes no specific references to ethnic minorities but rather refers to “citizens of non-Bulgarian origin” (Article 45). Since 1985 the only recognized minorities in Bulgaria with their own minority organizations are the small number of Jews and the Armenians.

The 1965 census recorded 746,755 ethnic Turks, an increase of approximately 90,000 on the 1956 figure. Since then there have been no official figures for the total numbers of members of ethnic minorities in Bulgaria and in 1975 the section recording nationality on personal identity cards was reportedly removed. Although 900,000 or 10% of the Bulgarian population is a commonly accepted figure, some observers believe that there may be up to 1.5 million. In 1989 with mass immigration to Turkey, these numbers would have again changed.


At various times since the end of World War II Bulgaria and Turkey have reached agreement over the emigration of Turks from Bulgaria to Turkey. The largest number of such emigrants left Bulgaria in the period 1949-1951. In August 1950 the Bulgarian Government announced that a total of 250,000 Turks had applied to leave. The Turkish Government, on the other hand, said it was unable to receive such a huge mass of people within such a short time and in November 1950 closed its border with Bulgaria because of “illegal crossing of borders”. Two months later an agreement was reached by both governments that only those Turks who were in possession of a Turkish entry visa would be allowed to leave. Despite this agreement Bulgaria continued to evict Turks so that in November 1951 Turkey again closed its border. According to the Turkish authorities, Bulgaria had forged Turkish entry visas in order to rid itself of as many Turks as possible. However, some 155,000 left Bulgaria for Turkey in this period.

In 1968 a further agreement was reached which allowed the departure of close relatives of those who had left in the period 1944-1951. This agreement expired on November 30, 1978. The last official Bulgarian figure for those who emigrated under this agreement was 52,392 up to August 1977; however Turkish sources state that some 130,000 left in total in this period. Following the expiry of this agreement all emigration except for a few individual cases was stopped and during the assimilation campaign of 1984-85, the authorities denied the existence of ethnic Turks in Bulgaria claiming that the Turks were in fact descendants of Slav Bulgarians forcibly islamicized under the period of Ottoman rule, and as such there was no need for any further emigration agreements. Continuing opposition against this policy from the ethnic Turkish population and changes in the strict regulations concerning freedom of movement of Bulgarian citizens to other countries resulted in a drastic change of policy in May 1989 with over 300,000 Turks emigrating to Turkey by late August 1989 alone.

Official policies

After the end of World War II, the Bulgarian Communist Party (BCP) took power in Bulgaria and has retained control over the country till the present day. In line with Marxist-Leninist theory, the first Constitution of the People’s Republic of Bulgaria, adopted on December 4, 1947, contained provision for minority groups. For example, Article 71 stated that although the study of Bulgarian was obligatory in schools, “National minorities have a right to be educated in their vernacular, and to develop their vernacular, and to develop their national culture”. A Turkish language department at Sofia University was established as well as a number of Turkish language publications and schooling in Turkish.

Yet Turkish language schools were later merged with Bulgarian schools and by the early 1970s the teaching of Turkish in Bulgarian schools had ceased. The Department of Turkish at Sofia University which reportedly attracted large numbers of students, of whom 70% were estimated to be ethnic Turks, stopped admitting students. In 1974 the whole department was shut down and replaced by a department for Arabic studies with a new staff and only a few students — mostly apparently children of diplomatic staff stationed in Arab countries. If the aim of this was to prevent the formation of a Turkish intelligentsia which might lead a movement in the future for minority rights this may have been counter-productive as ethnic Turks were forced to pursue other subjects which had better job prospects.

After 1951 the Bulgarian government and BCP made attempts to integrate Turks into the state and party apparatus and large numbers were admitted into the BCP. However, there was constant criticism in official publications about their lack of party discipline and socialist consciousness. In 1971, the BCP programme which is still in force, stated that “the citizens of our country of different national origins will come ever closer together”. By the mid-1970s the use of the term “unified Bulgarian socialist nation” became common parlance in official publications and speeches. In a speech of March 1985, Stanko Todorov, the then Chairman of the National Assembly, categorically stated that Bulgaria was a “one-nation state” and that in the “Bulgarian nation there are no parts of any other peoples and nations”.

Ethnic Turks are reportedly unable to join the police force or make their career in the army and ethnic Turk conscripts serve in unarmed units engaged in national construction, for example building work after a couple of weeks rudimentary training with substitute weapons. The inference is that the Bulgarian authorities do not trust the ethnic Turks enough to train them properly in the army.

Both the Pomaks (islamicized Slavs) and the ethnic Turks (with the exception of the Gagauz, estimated to number a few thousand, who profess the Eastern Orthodox Christian faith and live near Varna in the north) are Muslim. As religion was until this century more important than language in differentiating between different groups the Pomaks tended to feel greater affinity with the Turks than with Christian Bulgarians. Religious observance is higher among ethnic Turks than among Slav Bulgarians. Adherence to the Islamic faith was and is seen by the authorities as being a key factor inhibiting loyalty to the communist government and there have been many official attacks against the penetration of Islamic influence into the country and against Islamic religious customs like fasting during the month of Ramadan and the circumcision of male infants.

Population growth

The growth rate of the Bulgarian population has been consistently decreasing in recent years. In 1980 the natural growth rate — that is the rate measured by the difference between the number of births and the number of deaths — was 3.6 per 1000, the lowest since records began. In 1981 it dropped to 2.8, in 1982 it dropped again to 2.7 and in 1984 it was again down to 2.4. There have been a number of articles on this decline in the official press in recent years. The growth rates for the minorities — especially the ethnic Turks, the Pomaks, and the Gypsies — has been considerably higher than that for the majority of the population. Additionally there has been a continuous drift from rural areas to towns and cities although this drift is not so marked for the minorities. Due to their high birth rate, the Turks are estimated to be some 15-20% of the work force and were, before the mass emigration of May-June 1989, becoming increasingly dominant in the important tobacco growing areas in the south and the wheat growing areas in the north-east. The authorities have admitted that the mass emigration of 1989 has caused considerable economic upheaval.

Assimilation policies

Ethnic Turks and Pomaks have often deliberately or otherwise been confused with each other and ethnic Turks were in many cases subjected to the same pressures as the Pomaks (who were forcibly assimilated in the 1970s), especially where they inhabited the same village communities, to induce them to exchange their Muslim names for Bulgarian ones and, in effect, to renounce their religion and ethnic identity. This confusion between ethnic Turks and Pomaks has been deliberately used by the Bulgarian authorities since the name-changing campaign of 1984/5.

In late 1984 and early 1985 the Bulgarian authorities, in line with the declared policy of making Bulgaria a “unified socialist nation”, conducted a countrywide campaign to forcibly assimilate the entire Turkish minority. Tanks and troops surrounded Turkish villages and the inhabitants were forced, often literally at gunpoint, to change their names from Turkish/Islamic ones to those deemed more “Bulgarian” — e.g. Emine Ibrahimova became Elizaveta Ignatova. The speaking of Turkish was banned on pain of a fine or worse, many mosques were shut and Islamic practices like circumcision of male children were proscribed on pain of prison sentences both for the parents and those performing the operation. There were large scale demonstrations against this policy by ethnic Turks, especially in the south of the country where the campaign began and the authorities responded with force. Hundreds were arrested and imprisoned and many killed during the campaign. Since then the authorities have denied the existence of the minority claiming instead that they are descendants of Bulgarians forcibly islamicized under the Ottomans (i.e. Pomaks) who have “requested” new names as part of a “voluntary” and “spontaneous” “rebirth” process.

The events of 1989

Following the brutal repression during the name-changing campaign of 1984-5 the situation was one of small scale sporadic protest arising out of a largely passive albeit sullen acceptance of the status quo by the ethnic Turkish population. This radically changed in early 1989 with the mass participation in various unofficial protest groups and large-scale protest action on a country-wide basis.

Mass protest began again in May 1989 with hunger strikes by ethnic Turks in Silistra, Shumen and Razgrad and some other villages in the north-east. The numbers on hunger-strike rose from 30 to approximately 200 by mid-May to over 1,000 by mid-June, and there were corresponding peaceful demonstrations in support by hundreds of ethnic Turks, mostly women and children, in Silistra and Shumen on May 14-15. More hunger-strikers publicized their actions via foreign radio stations and mass demonstrations occurred in late May throughout the north-east and in the south of the country where ethnic Turks predominate. The authorities responded with force and many (reportedly the number was as high as 60) demonstrators were killed. Most deaths were from gunshot wounds after troops opened fire on protesting crowds or some from injuries received from beatings which were widespread and indiscriminate throughout all ethnic Turkish regions in the north-east and south. Following the mass demonstrations involving thousands of participants, most affected areas were quickly put under martial law with troops and tanks and fire-engines (water-cannon was widely used as crowd control) installed. In the southern regions, especially in Dzhebel, the authorities began widespread beatings, going from house to house and indiscriminately beating the inhabitants. Similarly those caught in the streets faced arbitrary beatings.

On May 23, 1989, the authorities issued a statement admitting that demonstrations had occurred but claimed that they were caused by misapprehension about the soon-to-be-introduced new passport law, and incitement from foreign radio stations and “extremists”. Three people were admitted to have died but the authorities maintained that one had died from heart-failure while the other two had died from ricocheting bullets fired as warning shots. On 15 June in a statement to the Ambassadors of countries participating in the CSCE process at the conference held in Paris, Deputy Foreign Minister Ivan Ganev gave a detailed list of demonstrations and “disorders” which had taken place in Bulgaria between May 20-27 which had resulted in, he said, seven deaths and 28 people wounded. He denied that the demonstrations were peaceful and that anybody had been expelled from Bulgaria. He extensively blamed the activities of the Turkish secret services in fomenting trouble among “Bulgarian Muslims” — i.e. ethnic Turks.

Mass expulsions and emigration in 1989

In tandem with the policy of attempted intimidation through force the authorities embarked on a policy of expelling activists from Bulgaria. All the initial Turkish leaders of the mass protests were expelled by early June and the expulsions soon grew into a flood. Some 500 had been expelled by June 7 but the number had risen to 14,000 by June 14 and there were thousands arriving each day. By early July the figure had exceeded 100,000 with official indications of 250,000 more to come — 250,000 had arrived by early August 1989. The sheer size of the numbers involved indicate that while the first to be expelled were activists, many of whom did not want to leave but left due to the threat of imprisonment or other threats to them or their families, the authorities apparently seem to be allowing large numbers to emigrate. Many ethnic Turks have decided that the policy of forced assimilation and the attendant official repression is such that there is no future for them in Bulgaria and despite having to give up, in many cases, a settled life of financial security have opted for a new life in Turkey. Many, especially those expelled in or before May and early June were given only a few hours notice and were not allowed to take more than a small bag and no money. All were obliged to leave houses and other valuables behind although some were informed by the authorities that if they returned within five years they could reclaim their property. Again, the most recent refugees have been able to leave with, in some cases more possessions, (cars, water-heaters etc) although the valuables left behind remain considerable. By late August over 300,000 had left and the Turkish authorities closed the border. There were also, at the time of writing, reports of Bulgarian security forces entering ethnic Turkish areas in Bulgaria with the aim of stemming the flood of refugees.

(See also Pomaks of Bulgaria; Turks of Western Thrace; )