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Bulgaria: Documentary On Assimilation Of Ethnic Turks Stirs Debate

Five years of archival research by an RFE/RL correspondent in Bulgaria has resulted in a documentary film that sheds light on the forced assimilation of ethnic Turks in the 1980s. Reporter Tatiana Vaksberg found documents showing that the assimilations were ordered at the highest levels. Most Bulgarians will see the evidence for the first time tonight when the film airs on national television.

Prague, 9 January 2001 (RFE/RL) -- A documentary film that airs on Bulgarian television tonight is sparking a national debate over a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the country's Turkish minority that was ordered by the communist leadership in the 1980s.

The film, based on five years of research by RFE/RL Sofia correspondent Tatiana Vaksberg, raises questions about why those who ordered the forced assimilation of some one million Turks were never brought to justice.

Bulgarian judicial authorities say the lack of any documents clearly ordering the assimilations has prevented them from convicting anyone.

But RFE/RL's Vaksberg says prosecutors never conducted an extensive search of state archives, the files of the Interior Ministry or the Bulgarian Communist Party.

Vaksberg searched the archives and discovered exactly the kind of documents that the courts have said are necessary for convictions.

One document from the Interior Ministry archives shows that former Interior Minister Dimitar Stoyanov ordered a campaign in December 1984 to force ethnic Turks in Bulgaria to adopt Slavic names. The document reveals Stoyanov instructed senior security officers "to start renaming all Bulgarian citizens of Turkish origin in all districts where such populations exist."

A Politburo meeting had preceded Stoyanov's order. But a record of that meeting could not be found in the archives of the former Communist Party, which has since renamed itself the Bulgarian Socialist Party.

Stoyanov, who died last year, served as interior minister under late communist dictator Todor Zhivkov from 1973 until 1988.

A January 1985 document found by Vaksberg shows that Georgi Atanasov, then the secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, also ordered the forced assimilation of ethnic Turks in northern Bulgaria.

Atanasov was prime minister at the time of Zhivkov's ouster in November 1989 and continued in the post until the first post- communist elections in early 1990.

Vaksberg did not find any assimilation orders coming directly from Zhivkov himself, but the document of Zhivkov's interior minister strongly suggests that Zhivkov was behind the campaign -- a position generally accepted by historians.

Vaksberg says Zhivkov's comments at a Politburo meeting in January 1985 show he was pleased with assimilation efforts in the south -- where more than 300,000 ethnic Turks already had been forced to adopt Slavic names.

"If you talk about an order, Interior Minister Dimitar Stoyanov is the person with the highest position. But I found also a document on Todor Zhivkov 18 January 1985. This is not an order, but he was very happy about the process in the south of Bulgaria. I think the idea for this crime was a Todor Zhivkov and Dimitar Stoyanov idea -- both of them."

A first screening of Vaksberg's 85-minute film took place last week. Those who attended the event at a Sofia cinema included Bulgarian Prime Minister Ivan Kostov as well as Turkish diplomats and prominent Bulgarian journalists.

Bulgarian newspapers have been debating the film since that screening. An unsigned article in the daily Duma, the official newspaper of former communists in the renamed Socialist Party, attacks Vaksberg's credibility. The Duma called Vaksberg a "fascist" and claimed she "received orders" to create an anti-communist documentary.

But other newspapers have praised Vaksberg's work for shedding light on a dark period of Bulgaria's recent history. Vaksberg says there is still too much denial in the country about the ethnic cleansing of Turks during the mid-1980s.

"I know many people, students, who've never heard about this. I think the country is not yet ready to understand this crime -- the dimension of this crime."

For ethnic Turks, the assimilation was a program of massive repression. It included a ban on Islamic religious practices and cultural traditions. Those who refused to accept Slavic names were beaten by police and had their identification documents confiscated -- which meant they could not leave their villages. As assimilation continued, some were forced at gunpoint to change their names. Severe fines were imposed for speaking Turkish in public.

When public protests broke out at the beginning of the program in 1984 and 1985, Zhivkov responded by sealing off the ethnic Turkish areas to outsiders.

The assimilation program was accelerated in 1989 as Zhivkov came under increasing pressure because of deteriorating economic conditions.

Communist officials and state media continued to insist that the campaign to eliminate Turkic names was a unanimous and voluntary act by the country's Muslims.

Ethnic Turks interviewed in 1989 told a different tale:

"We all listen to radio broadcasts and I've started to make conclusions. We understand that only in Bulgaria is there such a thing as changing names by force. They changed our names under rifles, under automatic guns, and then they tell us we have changed our names voluntarily."

Riots and demonstrations broke out among ethnic Turks in the summer of 1989. In some instances, police and militia fired on crowds and reportedly killed dozens of people -- provoking a diplomatic crisis with Ankara and a potentially explosive situation within Bulgaria.

Zhivkov first deported thousands of alleged ringleaders to Turkey and then gave ethnic Turks the right to emigrate to Turkey. The exodus quickly developed into one of the largest human migrations in post-World War Two Europe. Ankara estimates that about 370,000 people entered Turkey -- although some 50,000 later returned to Bulgaria after receiving little support from Turkish authorities.

More importantly for Zhivkov's regime, the debacle raised anti- Zhivkov feelings within the Communist Party and at the Kremlin in Moscow. Zhivkov's refusal to consult the Politburo before accelerating assimilation in 1989 is often cited as a major factor contributing to his ouster in the so-called palace coup of November 1989.