In the 1980s, Bulgaria's communist rulers drove hundreds of thousands of ethnic Turks out of the country after failing to forcefully assimilate them. Thirteen years after the fall of one-party rule, no one has been convicted for what many consider the worst mass crime of Bulgaria's communist regime. But the issue has once again resurfaced, with the country's prosecutor- general criticizing the investigation to date as "flawed" and saying he intends to press new charges in the case.
Prague, 9 July 2003 (RFE/RL) -- When Bulgarian Prosecutor-General Nikola Filchev last week criticized the investigation into the communist-era expulsion of the country's ethnic Turks, he was repeating a common and often-heard sentiment.
But the reasons he gave were somewhat surprising.
Filchev said the investigation was flawed because it resulted in charges being brought against political leaders. Such officials, he reasoned, "carry out policies, and no one can or should be held criminally responsible for policies."
Instead, the prosecutor-general says he intends to use documented evidence to press new charges against those individuals who, in his words, "actually" committed the crimes -- the low-level party officials and security personnel who carried out the orders of the ruling elite.
In 1984 and 1985, Bulgarian security forces surrounded districts with ethnic Turk majorities and began a campaign of forced assimilation that started with replacing the names of some 800,000 ethnic Turks with Slavic names.
After four years of arbitrary arrests and a ban on any public display of their ethnic identity, more than 300,000 Turks left Bulgaria for southern neighbor Turkey. At the time, the international community said it was the largest exodus from any country since the end of World War II.
In 1991, an investigation into the matter was opened, targeting several former communist leaders, including dictator Todor Zhivkov, who ruled Bulgaria from 1954-1989.
The case was turned over to military prosecutors, with everything conducted behind closed doors. The suspects were ultimately charged with relatively minor crimes, such as inciting ethnic hatred and abuse of office. No one was charged with forceful assimilation or what amounted to the deportation of hundreds of thousands of people.
Since then, the case has dragged on, largely out of the public focus, until Filchev's recent remarks brought them back into the spotlight.
Journalist Tatyana Vaksberg is the author of a documentary film on the Turks' assimilation. She says Filchev's statement defending the impunity of public officials shows blatant disregard for international legal standards.
"This shows that evidently the prosecutor-general has not heard of, or does not intend to apply, one of the internationally recognized norms on the responsibility of the high authority," she said. "This responsibility is borne specifically by the hierarchy, the leadership of the party and the state -- which, under communism, were blended into one whole."
Vaksberg says the prosecutor-general made his comments after meeting with a delegation of Bulgarian ethnic Turks, now resettled in Turkey, who have demanded that justice in the case finally be served. Bulgarian media reported that, this year, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe likewise inquired about progress in the case.
Journalists have also noted that Filchev's statement comes ahead of key local elections this fall. The political party of the ethnic Turks, the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS), is a junior member of the ruling coalition. The DPS enjoys steady support among its traditional electorate. But opinion polls show a recent drop in the popularity of its senior partner, the National Movement Simeon II (NDSV), led by former king and current Prime Minister Simeon Saxecoburggotski. Observers have speculated that NDSV may be hoping the popularity of its junior partner will spill over into higher support among its own voters.
Antonina Zhelyazkova is the head of the Sofia-based International Center for Minority Issues. She agrees the timing of Filchev's renewed interest in the case may be tied to the upcoming elections. But she says playing the ethnic card -- a standard political maneuver during the past 13 years -- is no longer an effective way for any party to gain votes.
"The [ethnic] Turks are no longer pondering the wrongs of the assimilation process, because for the first time they are quite optimistic about themselves and their future. European funds have been provided for them, they have their ministers [in the government], and things they were denied until recently are now within their reach. That's why they are optimistic and hopeful. A refocusing on the assimilation process can hardly be a very effective pre-electoral move," Zhelyazkova said.
But Vaksberg says if anyone has been playing the ethnic card over the postcommunist transition period, it is the DPS. She says the party has intentionally kept the ethnic issue alive as a way of uniting Turk voters who might otherwise depart for other political camps. In this way, she says, the DPS bears part of the blame for the crimes going unpunished for so long.
"In the pre-electoral campaigns of the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, the memory of that enormous crime towards the Turkic minority in Bulgaria is constantly present. I wouldn't say [party members] use those very words, but I can certainly say that the message the leaders of the movement send to their voters is that as long as no one has been punished for the forceful assimilation, that policy could be resurrected," Vaksberg says.
Zhelyazkova -- who was the adviser on minorities to Bulgaria's first democratically elected president, Zhelyo Zhelev -- says all political parties are to blame for the fact that justice has not been done, including the anticommunist Union of Democratic Forces (SDS). Zhelev, a dissident in the communist era, was one of the founders of the SDS.
"The politicians were very much afraid during those years. They were always worried about how many voters they stood to lose if there was a public trial over the assimilation process, if those responsible were revealed, if those who actually committed the crimes in the regions with mixed populations were revealed -- the police, the military commanders, and the like," Zhelyazkova says.
Many ethnic Turks themselves appear to have lost hope -- or even the desire -- of seeing the culprits behind bars. Dilber Mehmed Ali is a local DPS leader in the northern city of Shumen.
"All those who were in top government positions at the time should bear responsibility. Of course, it could also be moral responsibility. I, for one, do not wish to see them in jail, but their names should be revealed so that they can at least bear moral responsibility, including all those who abused their positions [at that time]," Ali says.
Bulgarian media quoted DPS leader Ahmed Dohan as saying Prosecutor-General Filchev's vow to prosecute individuals responsible for carrying out the crimes in itself marked a significant step. Until now, he said, even that was lacking.