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Bulgaria: Turkey Opens New Chapter In Relations With Neighbor

Sofia, 9 December 1997 (RFE/RL) -- The visit to Sofia (Dec. 4/5) by Turkish Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz was the first such official visit to Bulgaria by a Turkish premier in 18 years. It can be said to have opened a new chapter in Bulgarian-Turkish relations. A long-standing border dispute in the delta of the Rezovska River, which flows into the Black Sea, was solved. And intensive talks showed the will of the two neighboring countries to find mutually advantageous solutions to specific problems stemming from the massive emigration to Turkey of Bulgarian ethnic Turks, and also to boost bilateral trade and cooperation.

During the cold war relations between Bulgaria and Turkey -- the first a member of the Warsaw Pact and the latter a member of NATO -- were a reflection of the suspicions between the West and the East as a whole. But they became particularly strained in the mid-1980s after the communist regime in Sofia started a brutal campaign to get Muslims to change their names to mainstream Bulgarian names. Targeted were the ethnic Turks, who live in the northern and southern regions of the country, as well as a minority living along the western and eastern slopes of the Radopa mountains, on the Bulgarian side of the border with Greece, who converted to the Islamic faith during the Middle Ages.

As a result of this campaign, between 1985 and 1990 more than 300,000 people emigrated from Bulgaria to Turkey. Families were forced to sell their homes and land at token prices, and many parents left their children behind.

The massive emigration continued, even after November 10, 1989, when the communist leader Todor Zhivkov was toppled. Relations with Turkey remained cool under the governments of the Socialist Party, which was the dominant political force and which practically ruled Bulgaria for most of the time since the collapse of the Berlin Wall.

With the radical changes of policy that came with the electoral victories earlier this year of the Alliance of Democratic Forces, a gradual warming between Sofia and Ankara was to be expected. The Yilmaz visit came as an official confirmation that Bulgarian-Turkish relations have really entered a new era.

Aside from its political aspects, the visit will no doubt have important economic consequences, although no concrete agreements have been reached at this early stage. A memorandum was signed by Prime Ministers Ivan Kostov and Yilmaz on measures for liberalizing trade between the two countries. It is expected that in due course an agreement for free bilateral trade will be signed. This will boost the trade turnover and will facilitate exports to third countries. Deputy Trade and Tourism Minister Hristo Mihaylovski told reporters that negotiations for reducing customs duties will start in the first quarter of 1998.

Some 1,100 Bulgarian-Turkish joint ventures and 21 representative offices of Turkish companies are on the list of the Bulgarian Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Most of them deal with trade, and once the free trade zone is established the annual bilateral turnover of goods through them should soon reach 1,000 million dollars. That's the expectation at any rate of a joint business forum which took place in the Bulgarian capital on Friday. (Dec. 5)

In a statement at this forum, and in a speech to the Atlantic Club the same day, Yilmaz vowed his country's support for Bulgaria to join NATO. He also said that many Turkish companies are ready to step into Bulgaria, and that Turkey will invest in infrastructure and energy projects in Bulgaria.

Addressing the business forum, Bulgarian premier Kostov urged Turkish bankers not to open new networks in Bulgaria, but to choose a much cheaper method, namely participating in the privatization of Bulgarian state-owned banks. "You had better hurry, because the process of privatizing state-owned banks will not last longer than two years", he said. Kostov expressed the view that Turkey can be a bridge between Bulgaria and the Islamic world, while Bulgaria can be a bridge between Turkey and Europe.

An interesting detail of the visit was the confirmation by the Turkish premier, at a meeting of opposition leaders, that the construction of the Russian gas pipeline under the Black Sea to Turkey will be carried out. As Alexander Tomov, leader of the Social Democrats, told reporters after the meeting, Yilmaz had pointed out that Turkey wants to have more than one source of gas supply, because its consumption in future is likely to increase drastically. Yilmaz said that therefore the undersea pipeline will in no way be a competitor for the overland pipeline, planned to run through Bulgarian territory from the harbor of Bourgas to the Greek port of Alexandroupolis on the Aegean sea.

Yilmaz also expressed belief that a new pipeline for natural gas from the Central Asian Republic of Turkmenistan will soon be built, crossing Turkey from east to west with the destination Europe. In view of the uneasy relations between Greece and Turkey, this means that the Turkmen gas would have no likely alternative but to pass through Bulgaria.