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Bulgaria: Stoyanov Seeks Better Relations With Muslim, Arab States

Prague, 19 June 1997 (RFE/RL) -- A three-day visit to Kuwait this week by Bulgarian President Petar Stoyanov appears to have laid groundwork for the normalization of Sofia's relations with Muslim and Arab countries.

Those relations have been sour since the 1980s when Turkey filed complaints with the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) about the violation of ethnic Turks' human rights by Bulgaria's communist regime.

The anti-communist Stoyanov is expected to ask Ankara to withdraw those complaints when he visits Turkey next week. While it remains unclear how Ankara will respond, an RFE/RL correspondent who traveled to Kuwait with Stoyanov's entourage reports that the Emir of Kuwait has promised to support the move.

In return, Stoyanov has agreed to allow OIC observers to monitor conditions for Muslims and ethnic Turks in Bulgaria. The OIC is comprised of more than 45 Muslim countries.

Bulgaria's communist dictator, Todor Zhivkov, provoked the diplomatic crisis with Ankara in the 1980s when he ordered the forcible assimilation of Bulgaria's Turkish minority.

The Zhivkov regime had not acknowledged the existence of a Turkish minority in the country since the mid-1970s when it began referring to ethnic Turks as "Bulgarian Muslims."

About 10 percent of Bulgaria's population is comprised of ethnic Turks. There also is a 200,000 strong community of real Bulgarian Muslims known as "Pomaks."

Riots and demonstrations broke out after Zhivkov ordered ethnic Turks to drop their Turkish family names and take on Bulgarian monikers. When Zhivkov ordered police to break up the demonstrations, authorities opened fire on the crowds and dozens of people reportedly were killed.

Stoyanov told RFE/RL this week that he now wants, in his words, "to wipe away this smear" on the reputation of Bulgaria from its political past.

Returning to Sofia yesterday, Stoyanov said his trip already has helped restore relations with Kuwait. The two countries have agreed to start regular political consultations at the foreign ministry level. An agreement also was signed to encourage mutual investments.

Meanwhile, the state-supported Kuwaiti Fund for Arab Economic Cooperation has agreed to loan Sofia about $ 40 million to help with the reconstruction of the dilapidated Sofia International Airport.

Operated by the state-owned Balkan Bulgarian Airlines, the airport is now in desperate need of repair. The Sofia terminal has only one gate for international flights, and facilities there have been rapidly deteriorating for the past ten years. Balkan Bulgarian Airlines now has debts of about $ 100 million. The loan from Kuwait would help build an additional five kilometers of runways.

Kuwait also is considering loans for infrastructure projects at the Black Sea port of Burgas, for a bridge project at Varna and for highway projects. Our correspondent says there is no basis of fact in reports from the Bulgarian press that Kuwait would provide Sofia with oil and grain aid.

(Svetoslav Petrov, RFE/RL's Sofia Bureau Chief, contributed to this report from Sofia and Kuwait.)