This article was published in co-operation with the regional portal Bilten.
July will go down as one of the most tumultuous months of 2016 in Europe. The rapid series of terrorist attacks across Germany and France had barely allowed us a modicum of time to digest them, when the failed July 15th coup attempt in Turkey sent shock waves throughout the world. One of these waves splashed across the breakwaters of its northern neighbor and triggered a curious political controversy domestically. In what follows I recount how the tragedy of a single asylum applicant became the vehicle through which liberal media and activists criticized the shortcomings of the liberal order in their preferred mode of critique: the conspiracy theory.
The purging of actual and suspected members of Gülen’s movement in Turkey is well documented. But long before the mediatized persecution of people with suspected links with the Gülenist plotters was initiated, already in March 2016 the Turkish government sent a formal request to the Bulgarian government to extradite a certain Abdullah Büyük. In 2015 Büyük, an open Gülen follower, was charged with “spreading terrorist propaganda” by an Anatolian court. Fearing imprisonment, Büyük left Turkey for Bulgaria. The court in Sofia (and the Court of Appellation after that) refused the Turkish request because it correctly feared that Büyük would be persecuted for political reasons.
Yet on the 10th of August 2016, the Bulgarian police, in blatant disregard of the two courts’ decision, forcefully removed Büyük from the confines of Bulgaria, despite the lack of a formal request by Turkey to extradite Büyük. What signaled such a move was the fact that a few hours earlier Turkey’s foreign minister prophesied on TV that Büyük was to return to Turkey soon. The Bulgarian immigration police suddenly complied with a non-existing request for extradition, explaining that the reason was that Büyük’s prior asylum application had been rejected. It later transpired that the rejection was due to “technical reasons”: Büyük had initiated his asylum application but failed to show up when summoned for registration. He had also applied for vice-presidential asylum but was rejected. The rejection was deemed controversial by the liberal media because, according to legal experts, Büyük’s case was viable and the vice president, as an expert on immigration law herself, must have been fully aware of that. The coincidence between the asylum rejections and the Turkish purges gave grounds for suspicion that Büyük was a victim of a conspiracy between the vice-president, the prime minister (captive to shady economic interests), and Turkey against the rule of law in Bulgaria.
Prime Minister Borisov confirmed the suspicions by admitting that the extradition was indeed “on the edge of the law” but then cited security concerns about the refugee crisis, concluding that “there is a lot in common between both topics.” This provided further grounds for interpretations by the liberal media that Turkey must have threatened Bulgaria, in secret negotiations, with “refugee inundation” if the latter does not give them Büyük. Borisov appeared to confirm these suspicions by stressing that “we must maintain good relations with Turkey.” This was given a tangible expression a few days later when Borisov was invited on an official state visit with Erdoğan. Adding insult to injury, the official press releases gave rise to further speculations about Bulgaria’s alleged subservience to Erdoğan because, as some observant citizens pointed out, only a tiny Bulgarian flag adorned the negotiations table instead of the customary pair of large flags present during bilateral negotiations with other states. The whole controversy, which coincided with public outrage over other misdeeds of the government, found expression in a protest (organized by some of the most vocal 2013 anti-government activists).
While there is no denying that the Bulgarian state perpetrated a crime against Büyük by overhauling the court ban on extradition, and by denying him vice-presidential asylum when he obviously deserved it, it is still worth asking why it is that among the many crimes the state commits against asylum seekers, only Büyük’s case sparked protests and investigations.
In 2015 Bulgaria received over 20,000 asylum applications of which 1/5 were granted either refugee or humanitarian status. Six hundred and twenty-three were rejected (with decisions pending about the remaining applications). There are no reliable statistics on how many push-backs at the Turkish border have been committed. Push-backs are illegal though the state not only commits but also brags about them. Some of those push-backs have been lethal. For example, it is through such self-congratulatory reports by border police that in February 2016 the deaths by freezing of a mother of three and a 14 year old girl from Iraq were reported. Had they been intercepted and put in detention, instead of illegally pushed across the border, they would be alive now. Yet, of the countless and counted rejections of asylum and state crimes committed against refugees, only a single case of a failed asylum application and deportation – that of Abdullah Büyük – mobilized the compassion and support of the Bulgarian public. Why?
The key to this puzzle may lie in the entanglement of three factors.
Firstly, the police’s disregard for the court’s orders happened in the judiciary phase of the “reforms cycle” of the last 26 years (every few years the focus of the reforms changes; you can find out more about the unstable nature of the liberal will to reforms here). The judiciary reform has been gathering a lot of attention, especially since the 2013 anti-governmental protests. But the latest twists and turns of the reform have assumed comic proportions culminating in heated Parliamentary discussions on the ways to identify and nip in the bud Masonic and other “secret society” influences in the judiciary. (According to my quick search, it seems that the last time the Bulgarian Parliament deliberated on how to limit the alleged influence of Masonic lodges and secret societies was during the passing of the infamous Defense of the Nation Act, a 1940 overtly anti-Semitic Nazi piece of legislation which mandated the expropriation and rapid de-emancipation of Bulgarian Jewry.) From now on, supreme magistrates have to declare their membership in any type of society, even in an NGO as the definition of a “secret society” is flexible enough for wide interpretations. But the implementation of new rules for justices was interpreted as a conspiracy against the judiciary reform by the Reform bloc, which insisted on purging Masonic lodges from the courts, not on merely declaring membership in them. The Reform Bloc is a pro-European coalition partner in the second Borisov cabinet and formed as a response of the 2013 protests by uniting the debris of the early 1990s anti-communist opposition. RB, aided by the liberal mass media, peddled the need for a “radical judiciary reform” as a foundation upon which to solve all other problems of the transition. RB was given the ministerial seat of the Ministry of Justice, and their minister was drafted from the 2013 protests (he is also from the NGO sector). One can now begin to understand the grave offense the illegal extradition of Büyük dealt on liberal sensibility to the questions of judiciary independence, radicalized by the moves to enforce more (anti-Masonic) transparency, and the lamentations about the perceived sacrifice of rule of law at the altar of conspiracy.
Secondly, the liberal press really identified with Abdullah Büyük on a class basis. For example, Capital, a major liberal paper as its name makes perfectly clear, published an autobiographical essay that emphasized that he is a law-abiding business-owner who “employs 50 people” and whose internet domain registration company sports “over 400,000 customers which can easily reach 1,000,000”. The liberal press has long celebrated the efforts of the government to turn Bulgaria into an “international IT hub” and “creative industry” techies command respect few figures from Bulgarian business do (as they are often accused of conspiring with the ex-communist elites). The unlawful extradition of an “honest” IT business person touched civil society the way few other refugee tragedies did.
Thirdly, and related to the above, Büyük claims he was forced to relocate his business operations to Bulgaria because the Turkish state began a campaign against followers of Gulen like him, thus adding the ingredient of virtuous political martyr of an illiberal Asiatic regime to the image of an economic hero. Liberal media revel in imagery of a single individual heroically rising up against a despotic state apparatus.
This is how one regime’s Gülenist conspirator became another’s victim of a conspiracy.
With all this I do not wish to underestimate the stress, inconvenience and threats Büyük will most probably be subjected to in the hasty trials against Gulen supporters and putschists in Turkey. My thoughts only seek to make sense of the logic that isolates and sympathizes with a single tragic refugee fate among the countless casualties of the ferocious Bulgarian-Turkish border management and the European detention regime.
 Please note that this observation concerns the past couple of years. In 2013 there was a strong mobilization on part of civil society actors to raise funds and collect food and clothes for the first “wave” of refugees. In 2010 there was a protest and public pressure in support of a pregnant Armenian woman in detention which achieved her release. There were also a couple of small anti-racism protests but mostly organized by leftist groups, and not supported by the liberal media.
 This issue was brought to my attention by Georgi Medarov.
 Actually, a double conspiracy, external and internal. Turkish pressure on Bulgaria coincided with presumed internal pressure from Delyan Peevski (who sparked the 2013 anti-governmental protests) to betray Büyük on account of his threatened economic interests in Turkey where Bulgartabac corporation (that was privatized by him), is a major importer of tobacco.
Jana Tsoneva is a PhD student in Sociology and Social anthropology at CEU, Budapest. She researches the latest anti-government mobilizations in Bulgaria and is interested in theories of populism, ideology and civil society.