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Bulgaria: Authorities Reopen Ethnic Cleansing Probe

  • Ron Synovitz

A documentary film depicting the forced assimilation campaign of ethnic Turks in Bulgaria in the 1980s has prompted strong reaction from political and judicial authorities. Prosecutors say they will reopen an investigation into the last communist prime minister on charges he was among those who ordered the assimilations. The film, which was based on investigative reports of RFE/RL's Tatiana Vaksberg, was broadcast on national television last night.

Prague, 10 January 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Bulgarian prosecutors say they are reopening an investigation into the country's last communist prime minister on charges that he was among those who ordered the forced assimilation of Bulgaria's ethnic Turks during the 1980s.

The announcement follows the publication of previously undisclosed documents showing that Georgi Atanasov ordered the assimilation of ethnic Turks in northern Bulgaria on 18 January 1985. Atanasov was the secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party at the time he issued the order. He later became prime minister under communist dictator Todor Zhivkov.

In 1999 the military prosecutor for the Sofia district closed an investigation into those believed responsible for the assimilation campaign. The prosecutor said at the time there was no clear evidence showing who had issued the orders.

But RFE/RL journalist Tatiana Vaksberg discovered the order by Atanasov in the Communist Party archives after researching state and party archives. Her material was presented in a documentary film that was broadcast on Bulgarian television last night.

Vaksberg also found an order from Zhivkov's interior minister, Dimitar Stoyanov, that called for secret service agents to launch the ethnic cleansing campaign. Although Vaksberg did not discover any direct orders from Zhivkov, she did find records from Politburo meetings showing that Zhivkov approved of the program.

Bulgarian prosecutors say they will not investigate Zhivkov or Stoyanov further because both are dead.

Last night's broadcast was the first opportunity for many Bulgarians to hear a full account of what happened to ethnic Turks in their country during the 1980s.

Bulgarian Prime Minister Ivan Kostov, a member of the anti-communist Union of Democratic Forces, said after seeing the film that it is high time the country face the truth in the matter.

"The (name-changing and) deportation program itself, called 'assimilation,' is a word that all Bulgarians use with sarcasm. But we should start calling it 'deportation' or 'attempted ethnic cleansing,' and simply use the exact name of these things."

Surprisingly, leaders of a political party that claims to represent Bulgaria's Turkish minority have criticized the film.

Ahmed Dogan, the leader of the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, said the film is an attempt to spoil relations between his party and the former communists in the renamed Bulgarian Socialist Party.

Dogan has been negotiating with the Socialists in an attempt to create a parliamentary alliance after elections due between April and June. Political analysts predict the two parties could win enough seats to control a parliamentary majority -- forcing Kostov's Union of Democratic Forces out of power.

Socialist Party leader Georgi Parvanov said Vaksberg's findings are not the most important documents related to assimilation. He says any disputes between the Socialists and Dogan's party have been resolved in connection with the issue.

The daily Duma, the official newspaper of the Socialist Party, has attacked Vaksberg as a "fascist." In an unsigned article, the newspaper claimed she was "ordered" to make an anti-communist film.

But Prime Minister Kostov defended Vaksberg's five years of archival research for exposing what he described as "evil."

"The ethnic Turkish victims interviewed in the film have allowed the whole Bulgarian society to distinguish this evil in its complete sinister scale. It has obviously been hidden, and is still being hidden. This evil changes its form, searching for insolent, cynical ways to disguise itself as good."

Forced assimilation was a program of massive repression. About a million ethnic Turks in Bulgaria were required to accept a Slavic name -- many at gun point. Some who continued to refuse were beaten and had their identification papers confiscated. This meant they could not leave their villages.

Islamic religious practices were forbidden as were Turkish cultural traditions. Severe fines were imposed for speaking Turkish, and even for failing to erase the Turkish names from the tombstones of ancestors.

The assimilation campaign came to a violent conclusion in 1989, when riots broke out among ethnic Turks. Zhivkov first deported thousands of alleged ringleaders and then gave ethnic Turks the right to emigrate to Turkey. Ankara estimates that it took in 370,000 ethnic Turks from Bulgaria in 1989. All the while, communist officials and state media continued to insist the campaign to eliminate Turkic names and culture was a voluntary act by the country's Muslims.

Even today, many backers of the Socialist Party support Zhivkov's view that there is no such thing as an "ethnic-Turkish Bulgarian" -- only Bulgarian Slavs who are Muslim.

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