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Words matter. Bulgaria and the 30th anniversary of the largest ethnic cleansing in cold war Europe

Bulgarian communist dictator Todor Zhivkov led campaigns of forced assimilation and ethnic cleansing against non-Bulgarian minorities, particularly Turks and Muslims. Three decades after the 1989 ethnic cleansing and the subsequent transition to democracy, Bulgaria still has yet to reconcile with its past.

February 25, 2019 - Tomasz Kamusella - History and Memory

1989 expulsion: Children caught in the maelstrom of adults’ identity games. Source: podtepeto.com

In the summer of 1989, between May 30th and August 22nd, communist Bulgaria, led by the dictator of three decades and a half, Todor Zhivkov, unilaterally expelled 360,000 Bulgarian citizens to neighbouring Turkey. The expellees belonged to this country’s Turkish minority of over one million, who officially had been declared non-existent in 1985. Bulgaria was posed as a completely homogenous nation-state, without any non-Bulgarian minorities. The ethnonym “Turks” was banned from the press or any official use. However, the code term “Bulgarian Muslims” was retained for referring to Bulgaria’s Turks. The authorities kept tabs on this minority and knew well who was a Turk, despite the country’s Constitution of 1971, which prohibited any discrimination on racial, ethnic (national) or religious grounds (Article 35.4).

The last act of achieving such an ethnolinguistically and ethnoreligiously homogenous Bulgaria was the forced assimilation campaign of late 1984 and early 1985. As a result of this brutal and heavily militarised action, the “Islamo-Arabic” names of 800,000 people were Bulgarianised, that is, replaced with Slavic and Christian names, seen as “Bulgarian.” Widespread protests involving some 15,000 demonstrators were summarily suppressed and the notorious Belene concentration camp on the eponymous island in the Danube reopened for the incarcerated “ringleaders”.

Sadness of the expellees. Source: socbg.com

At the turn of 1989, the Soviet bloc and communism were on their last legs, while the ideological and economic thaw radiated from the Soviet Union itself, where the policies of perestroika (economic reconstruction) and glasnost (openness) were the new norm of the day. Encouraged by these developments, Bulgaria’s Turks and Muslims began preparing protests again. The Bulgarian security forces replied swiftly by deporting potential leaders during the first half of 1989. However, the displeasure of the persecuted Turks and Muslims was too widespread to be contained. From May 20th to May 30th of 1989 it erupted in a rapidly swelling wave of demonstrations and hunger strikes, which involved 60,000 people.

It was an unprecedented event in communist Bulgaria, which was the Soviet bloc’s sole country where no mass demonstration against the powers that be had ever occurred before. Zhivkov and his government pounced immediately, expelling about 1,000 “ringleaders” to Yugoslavia and neutral Austria. This move was swiftly followed by the expulsion of one-third of Bulgaria’s officially non-existent Turks beginning on May 30th. The security forces had already identified those who could potentially obstruct the policy of total Bulgarianisation and earmarked them for expulsion.

Staged demonstration in support of Zhivkov’s policy of expulsion, summer 1989. Source: podtepeto.com

Although the near-collapse of the Bulgarian economy and the increasing instability of the political system allowed for a rapid return of a third of the expellees in the fall of 1989 and in the following year, the expulsion continued until late 1989. It was difficult to stop the increasingly rudderless state machinery of security forces and bureaucracy, which mindlessly pushed more people across the border. Eventually, around 400,000 were forced to leave for Turkey. This expulsion came to a genuine end when on December 29th 1989 the communist government promised to return civil and political rights to Bulgaria’s Turks and Muslims. In turn, this decision infuriated Bulgarian nationalists who in force demonstrated across the country against the return of expellees and the restoration of equal rights to Bulgarian citizens of Turkish or Muslim background. This nationalist backlash, which lasted throughout 1990, could have plunged Bulgaria into an ethnic civil war and considerably hampered and delayed the promised re-granting of full civil and political rights to the country’s Turks and Muslims.

Fortunately, the communist and postcommunist governments and the Turkish minority’s leaders preferred compromise to conflict. The national revolution that had commenced with the founding of Bulgaria in 1878 was hopefully over. This post-Ottoman nation-state was established on the nationalist premise that Bulgaria should be for Bulgarians, meaning Slavophone Orthodox Christians, only. Armenians, Circassians, Greeks, Jews, Roma, Romanians or Tatars were excluded, be it on ethnolinguistic or confessional bases. However, Muslims and Turks (at that time both designations were largely synonymous) constituted the largest group of the excluded. In 1877 they accounted for half of the inhabitants in the territories soon afterward made into Bulgaria. During the Russo-Ottoman war in 1877-1878, the number of Turks (Muslims) was halved from 1.6 million to 800,000 through flight, expulsion and killing . During the Balkan wars (1912-1914) about 150,000 Turks (Muslims) were either expelled or killed in the territories annexed by Bulgaria. Between 1925 and 1988, 380,000 Turks (Muslims) were either expelled or left (under duress) for Turkey, on average 6,000 per year. The tacit national goal was to lower the share of Turks (Muslims) in Bulgaria’s population to ten per cent. Otherwise, in 1912-1913 the action of forced conversion of Pomaks (Slavophone Muslims) was also employed to this end. In the officially atheist Bulgaria of the communist period the forced changing of “un-Bulgarian” names was used to a similar effect. During the 1960s and 1970s, the names of Bulgaria’s Roma, Pomaks and some Turks were Bulgarianised in this fashion.

Pomaks’ (Slavophone Muslims’) silent demonstration in Sofia, late December 1989: “Give us back our names”. Source: faktor.bg

As described above, the last stage of this over century-long “purification” of Bulgaria took place in the latter half the 1980s, when the pragmatic principle of ten per cent was replaced with the absolutist one of the “pure” Bulgarian nation, “free of” any ethnic or confessional minorities (Türkenrein). When the forced assimilation campaign deployed for achieving this goal turned out to be insufficient for keeping Bulgarianised Turks quiet, Zhivkov and his government resorted to the expulsion of the most restive Turks in the summer of 1989.

It was the largest and most intensive act of ethnic cleansing in cold war Europe after the Potsdam-agreed expulsions of ethnic Germans from Central and Eastern Europe in the wake of the Second World War, which had been largely over in 1950. On average, 23,000 Turks were expelled per week during the 1989 ethnic cleansing, and 31,000 per week at the height of this expulsion in July 1989. All of them were pushed through what was then the single extant border crossing on the Bulgarian-Turkish frontier. This frontier was part of the Iron Curtain, which separated the Warsaw Pact countries and NATO. Luckily, Bulgaria’s unilateral expulsion did not trigger a third world war, a localised Turkish-Bulgarian military conflict, or an ethnically-induced breakup of Bulgaria.

Refugee tent camp for expellees in Turkey
Source: 24chasa.bg

Obviously, in the early 1990s, when ethnic tensions were still high, no one could be sure that the national revolution was really over in the freshly post-communist Bulgaria. But now, in 2019, a full three decades have elapsed since the fateful events of 1989. It is the longest ever period without expulsions and forced assimilation in the history of the Bulgarian nation-state. The fact should be lauded, discussed and analysed. Strangely, to this day not a single article (let alone monograph) in any language was devoted to the 1989 ethnic cleansing until 2018, when Routledge released the author’s study Ethnic Cleansing During the Cold War: The Forgotten 1989 Expulsion of Turks from Communist Bulgaria.

On January 18th 2019 in the Bulgarian capital of Sofia, the renowned independent scholarly organization Centre for Advanced Study held the “Round Table on the ‘Revival Process’ in Bulgaria (1984-1989): Looking Back”.The driving force behind this event was Roumen Avramov, a doyen of the Bulgarian social sciences who, against the grain of the country’s national master narrative, authored a trilogy of works on the forced assimilation and expulsions of Bulgaria’s Greeks, Jews and Turks (Muslims). The last tome of 760 pages, Ikonomika na “Vazroditelniia protses” [The Economics of the “Revival Process”], is devoted to detailing the suppression and ethnic cleansing of Turks and was published in 2016.

The round table’s participants mostly agreed that what happened in the latter half of the 1980s in Bulgaria was a campaign of forced assimilation, while the 1989 expulsion was none other than an act of ethnic cleansing. Nevertheless, almost all preferred to refer to these two events with the zhivkovite propaganda’s euphemisms of “revival process” (vazroditelen protses) and “big excursion” (goliamata ekskurziia), respectively. When I pointed to this fact, their reply was that they did distance themselves to these terms by dutifully putting them between inverted commas. Basically, for the sake of objectivity they wanted to stick to the actual terminology of the epoch. However, would any scholar or historian seriously argue that it is more appropriate to employ the hitlerite euphemism and code term “final solution” (Endlösung) in inverted commas for referring to the Holocaust, rather than the latter widely accepted name, the name accepted by the victims? Would such a decision not disrespect the victims and diminish the perceived scale of the Jewish genocide perpetrated by the Germans and Austrians? (NB: I do not compare the fates of Europe’s Jews and Bulgaria’s Turks, but use this example for illustrative purposes in order to show how terminological choices make crimes against humanity visible to public opinion or conceal them.)

That is exactly what is happening in the context of the Zhivkov regime’s crimes against humanity, namely the forced assimilation campaign and the 1989 ethnic cleansing. The preferred terminological choices disrespect the victims, and diminish and relativise the seriousness of these crimes. Not a single perpetrator has been brought to the dock, let alone tried for the crimes. Ethnic cleanser Todor Zhivkov basked in the warm glow of his unexpected post-communist cult of personality until his death in 1998. Curiously, the Zhivkov personality cult blooms to this day, now with flags of the European Union incongruously unfurled during annual events in memory of the “great Bulgarian leader”. The current Bulgarian prime minister is the sole leader of an EU member state who openly praises an ethnic cleanser, Zhivkov. The generations of Bulgarians born after 1989 know next to nothing about the forced assimilation campaign and the 1989 ethnic cleansing. Otherwise, some information gleaned from the press or online mass media seems to convince them that the former event was “just a removal of a Turkish-cum-Islamic façade from the core of true Bulgarianness concealed underneath”, while the latter was a joyous “mass family reunion”.

Source: thebigexcursion.blogspot.com/

Obviously, scholars know better, but the relativisation of these zhivkovite crimes against humanity is widespread in Bulgarian academia. Many, against the facts, continue to insist that this forced assimilation was a progressive and modernising campaign, and the ethnic cleansing a form of economic migration in search of better employment opportunities and improved living conditions in “capitalist Turkey”. Researchers wishing to walk the middle course propose that the 1989 ethnic cleansing was an “exodus”, a culmination of the anti-Turkish and anti-Muslim Bulgarianising campaign. They emphasise that the 1989 ethnic cleansing should not be singled out as a unique event in its own right, but rather treated as part and parcel of the forced assimilation campaign. However, would any historian agree to see the Holocaust just as a mere culmination of the wave of politicised antisemitism that swept across Central Europe between the 1890s and 1940s? Undoubtedly, views of such a historian would be immediately assessed as antisemitic in their character.

Then, is this Bulgarian insistence on the use of the zhivkovite euphemisms in inverted commas not a form of (unacknowledged) anti-Turkism (anti-Islamism), continuing disrespect for Bulgaria’s Turks and Muslims and even utter contempt for the victims of the forced assimilation campaign and the 1989 ethnic cleansing? Most researchers, when confronted with such a question, would deny any intent to offend on their part, and stress objectivity as the goal of their terminological choices. As an argument of last resort, I point to the Bulgarian Parliament’s 2012 Declaration Condemning the Attempted Forced Assimilation of Bulgarian Muslims. In this momentous document the deputies unambiguously recognized and termed the “revival process” as a campaign of forced assimilation, and the “big excursion” as an act of ethnic cleansing. It appears that scholars, who question this political compromise, thus imperil post-communist Bulgaria’s peace and stability and prevent any meaningful reconciliation with the Turkish minority and Turkey itself. Consciously or unconsciously, they toe the line of the Zhivkov regime’s nationalism and the idea of a “purified” Bulgaria. The risk is, however, that they prepare the ground for a renewal of the national revolution, for another round of forced assimilation and ethnic cleansing. Sadly, the growing public and media acceptance of rabidly anti-Roma, anti-Muslim, or anti-Turkish rhetoric in today’s Bulgaria, as employed by cabinet ministers and party leaders, seems to confirm this worrying trend.

After the conclusion of the aforementioned round table, Roumen Avramov invited Zeynep Zafer and me for dinner. Zeynep Zafer is now a professor of Bulgarian literature and culture at Ankara University. In communist Bulgaria in 1972 she and her parents were internally exiled for their staunch opposition to the liquidation of the bilingual Bulgarian-Turkish minority education system. The authorities wanted to Bulgarianise her name as early as 1982, but Zafer did not agree. For her principled stance she was imprisoned between 1985-1987, and later internally exiled. In 1988 Zafer joined the ever-growing circle of Turkish dissidents hopeful that perestroika and glasnost would soon reach Bulgaria too. They organized communist Bulgaria’s sole widespread opposition movement, which culminated in the mass demonstrations of May 1989. Zafer was prevented from participating in these demonstrations because the Bulgarian security forces identified Zafer as a “ringleader” and summarily expelled her from the country on February 3rd 1989.

Professor Zeynep Zafer. Source: bnt.bg

I asked Zafer what she thought about the round table participants’ persistent use of the zhivkovite terms “revival process” and “big excursion”. She replied that each utterance of these terms she found personally offensive, bordering on abusive. That is the view of the majority of Bulgaria’s Turks and Muslims. Do the victims of the forced assimilation and the 1989 ethnic cleansing really need to be offended and disrespected in this unthinking or premeditated manner? Is there no justice for them, or at least some understanding for their feelings?


The Bulgarian parliament’s momentous 2012 Declaration is relatively unknown in Bulgaria itself and utterly unknown abroad. There is no full translation of the Declaration into any foreign language. Hence, to ameliorate this gaping omission, I translated this important document into English. The Declaration adds importantly to Europe’s liberal tradition of freedoms and human rights.

The Declaration Condemning the Attempted Forced Assimilation of Bulgarian Muslims

We, the Deputies of the 41st [Bulgarian] National Assembly

– referring to the highest achievements of European and world thought, [and to] international law in the sphere of human rights and minority rights;

 – referring to the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union and the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms;

 – expressing our deepest regret that since the beginning of the democratic changes, for 20 years, the Bulgarian justice system has failed to punish the perpetrators of the attempted forced assimilation of Bulgarian Muslims, including the so-called “Revival Process”;

 – expressing our firm conviction that no statute of limitation can be applied to such crimes,

WE DECLARE THAT:

1. We condemn vociferously the assimilation policy of the [Bulgarian] totalitarian communist regime against the Muslim minority in the Republic of Bulgaria, including the so-called “Revival Process”.

2. We declare the expulsion of more than 360,000 Bulgarian citizens of Turkish origin [from Bulgaria to Turkey] in 1989 constitutes a form of ethnic cleansing committed by the [Bulgarian] totalitarian regime.

3. We call upon the Bulgarian Justice and the Attorney General of the Republic of Bulgaria that they ensure completion of the case against the perpetrators of the so-called “Revival Process”. Efforts to terminate this case with the use of the statute of limitations means shifting the blame [for this atrocity] onto the Bulgarian people, away from the actual perpetrators.

This Declaration was adopted by the 41st National Assembly on January 11th 2012 and is stamped with the official seal of the National Assembly.

Bulgarian Parliament, Sofia, January 11th 2012


NB: The bolded terms “forced assimilation and “ethnic cleansing” are the emphasis of the author of this article and are not reflected in the original declaration.

Translated from the Bulgarian by Tomasz Kamusella (NB: The English translation may be freely reproduced, subject to citing its source and the translator’s name)

Tomasz Kamusella is a Reader in Modern Central and Eastern European History at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. His latest monograph Ethnic Cleansing during the Cold War: The Forgotten 1989 Expulsion of Turks from Communist Bulgaria was published by Routledge in July 2018.

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