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In the Name of the Constitution: Ethnic Minorities and Technologies of Disenfranchisement in Bulgaria

Note from the editors: Starting next month Bulgaria will assume the presidency of the Council of the European Union. To acknowledge this momentous occasion, this month LeftEast will carry two texts by Jana Tsoneva analyzing the politics of contemporary Bulgaria.

This article originally appeared in July on the Serbo-Croatian portal Bilten and is republished here with their generous permission.

It is a habit of the lazy mind to associate only ex-Yugoslavia with ethnic conflicts, but in the late 1980s Bulgaria, too, was on the brink of an “ethnic war”. The post-1956 period regime was marked by the increase of rabid nationalism, which culminated with the so-called “Revival Process” (1984-1989) – the forced bulgarization of Turkish, Roma Muslims and Bulgarian-speaking Muslims. The campaign’s stated objective was the “homogenization” of the Bulgarian nation and it was to be achieved by changing people’s name (including those of dead citizens). In 1989, fearing for their lives, 350,000 of those people left for Turkey, marking the utter failure of the assimilation attempt. The “Revival Process” had been legitimized on the grounds that the Bulgarian Turks were the descendants of Christians who were supposedly violently Islamized by the Ottomans, therefore the Process was to be understood an act of restorative justice, if a rather belated one (“just” 5-6 centuries later).

Bulgarian ethnic Turkish women carry their children prior to a mass circumcision ceremony in the mosque of Bulgaria’s southern town of Kardzhali in the Rhodope mountains, 04 October 2003. AFP PHOTO DIMITAR DILKOFF / AFP PHOTO / DIMITAR DILKOFF

The Socialist state had been quite uneasy about the Bulgarian Muslims and Turks, especially after 1956. Before that, the Stalinist constitution organized the state along lines that today could be called “multicultural”, with active self-determination policies such as support for minority-language education and media. The constitution of 1947 stipulates that minorities can attend school in their own language, something unthinkable today. What today’s nationalist Right can never forgive communism for is the active policy for Macedonian self-determination and Macedonian national consciousness, which characterized both the foreign and the domestic policy of the early socialist state. Nevertheless, religion had been looked upon with unease, as it sat uncomfortably with the progressive and atheist ideology of the new state. So campaigns for the “progressive elevation” from “backwardness” and religious obscurantism were periodically waged in the rural regions, especially those with Muslim-majority population.

The “Revival Process” had been accompanied with media smear campaigns which declared the Turks “a fifth column” of the “bourgeois Turkish state”. The solution? Violent assimilation. The Turks engaged in peaceful resistance such as protests, strikes and walkouts, with a tiny minority reciprocating state violence by engaging in armed resistance.

The end of Socialism necessarily tabled much for negotiation, and a burning question was the need for a new Constitution. The BSP reversed the bulgarization of the Turkish names but also insisted on a provision against “ethnic parties”. The Revival Process was reversed but somewhat unsurprisingly, at the famous Round Table (which lasted between January and May 1990 and in which the transition to democracy and a market economy was negotiated) no representatives of said minorities were present.

Instead of distancing itself from the nationalist “unificatory” impulses of the 1980s, the new elite entrenched in the new constitution some of their most obnoxious aspects, such as the French Republican-inflected pronouncements that the nation is “One and Indivisible”, and that the official language is Bulgarian. Тhe problem is that despite the pronounced neutrality and universality of this alleged republicanism, in practice it was far from “color-blind”. This is because on every level (school programs, media, national holidays, etc.) the very narrow version of the Orthodox Bulgarian was being promoted as dominant standard. The constitutionally-sanctioned education, for example, completely excluded minority languages that used to exist in the 1940s. In effect this continued the nationalist turn embodied by the 1971 constitution which “corrected” the earlier “right to learn one’s language” with mandatory mandatory education in Bulgarian alone.

Аrticle 11(4) states the following: “There shall be no political parties on ethnic, racial or religious lines, nor parties which seek the violent seizure of state power.” The assimilation of both points in one sentence betrays the untenable assumption that an “ethnic” party will necessarily “seek violent seizure” of power. It was written specifically to prevent the evolution of the anti-Revival process civil resistance into a political party. The philosopher and ex-political prisoner Ahmed Dogan tried to register a “Party for Rights and Liberties” but the court rejected registration. Eventually the party was registered as a civic, non-profit organization and ran for elections. It called itself “Movement for Rights and Liberties” (DPS).

The Bulgarian Turks’ success in organizing political representation for themselves triggered a reaction and, citing art. 11(4), a group of MPs initiated the very first case (no. 1/1991) of the newly elected constitutional court against the DPS. The court could not reach a majority decision and failed to pronounce a verdict, and, which amounts to the same thing, an interpretation and a working definition of what the hell an “ethnic” party is. However, save for the attempt to register a party called “Muslim-democratic union” in 2009 (more on this below), no other faith-based party, like the multitude of Christian Democracies, has ever been persecuted by this law. (And it goes without saying that all parties of the majority are also “ethnic” parties inasmuch as ethnicity is not something that only minorities have.)

In the 1990s, the DPS played a “balancing” role in the so-called two-party model which oversaw the rotation in office of the ex-Communists and the anti-Communists, each propped by the DPS. This earned the DPS a reputation as “unreliable” and generated hostility for the party. The DPS presented itself as the safeguard of the rights of all citizens, and a guarantor of what came to be known as the “Bulgarian ethnic model” (BEM)

A model for the Balkans?

In the aftermath of the Yugoslav wars, the BEM became a self-congratulatory discourse of the Bulgarian elites which touted Bulgaria as a model for peaceful co-existence and mitigation of conflicts between ethnicities and religions in the Balkan region, which they self-orientalized as “naturally” prone to hostilities (something even believed by the Left).

Gradually the BEM discourse was exhausted as overt hostilities to the DPS mounted. These came from different directions but coalesce in a generalized opposition. DPS’ self-appointment as the guardian of “ethnic peace” in Bulgaria was increasingly interpreted as blackmail by the far and the liberal-right alike. Citing ties to organized crime, a common liberal critique argues that the DPS holds its constituencies in “feudal dependence” and “artificial poverty” so that it can manipulate them. The emergence of the far-right political party Ataka in 2005 jacked up the general anti-DPS sentiment as it ran on an openly anti-Turkish (and anti-Semitic) platform. A most perplexing expression of the anti-DPS hostility, and the BEM, is found in the pronouncements of the ex-PM Ivan Kostov, leader of the 1990s anti-Communist opposition, who oversaw the most sweeping privatization deals and pro-market reforms while in office. Recently, in his capacity as a head of a “risk-management” think-tank, Kostov declared that the DPS and BEM are conducive to “islamization” and communist-style atheism at once, while reiterating the received wisdom that the DPS and BEM work towards ethnic segregation instead of “unifying” the nation.

Other “ethnic” parties

In 2009 two brothers founded the “Muslim-democratic union”. Their act triggered a knee-jerk rejection on behalf of all established parties, including the DPS. The consensus was total: the far-right Ataka, the ruling GERB, the BSP, and the President called it a “provocation”. The DPS wanted an inquiry into the circumstances of its founding and a DPS MP called it “Islamist” and “unconstitutional”, invoking the very same article 11(4) used against his party. Meanwhile, the conservative DSB (which supports “Christian values” or religious education in public schools) said the Union was created by the DPS in order to cow its opponents.

In 2013 a party called “Patriotic Union for Diversity, Authenticity and Culture” – POMAK, which is also the name for the Slavic-speaking Muslims – was established, producing the same nationalist paranoia on behalf of the establishment. The otherwise warring liberal DPS and the far-right VMRO agreed that the party is a “provocation”. POMAK combined liberal and populist motifs: it said it will work for “direct democracy” and “strong civil society”, while its founding members were described by the party leader as “a team of experts, children of the Bulgarian people [narod].” Unfortunately, these people’s experts have since gone into oblivion and haven’t been able to fulfill their program to ban “modern economic slavery”, interest rates and private banking.

Another example is the Macedonian party of OMO-Ilinden, which never received official registration and functions as an illegal organization. It has been the target of police repressions, while purely symbolic acts such as commemorations of events connected to Macedonian history, have been repeatedly banned. Initially a party fighting for the “human rights” of the unacknowledged Macedonian minority in Bulgaria, OMO gradually “radicalized”, becoming a separatist party. Nevertheless, it has won every case it filed against Bulgaria in the European Human Rights Court in Strasbourg.

Ironically, the Prosecutor prevented the registration of a neo-nazi skinhead party on the grounds of the same art. 11(4) because it bans parties “which seek the violent seizure of state power.” The Nazi party, whose activists are also members of violent groups such as “Blood and Honour”, have not pressed charges against the Bulgarian state’s violation of their right to assembly in the EHRC yet.

In 2013 and 2015 a left-of-center and a right-of-center Roma parties were founded. So far the Roma have been formally represented by two large national parties: the BSP and the DPS. However, this year the BSP kicked out its two Roma junior coalition parties. Over the past few years, the DPS positioned itself as representative of all minorities. It has been the only vocal critic of the racism of politicians such as the 2014 declaration of the then health minister from a liberal party that he won’t allow ambulances into Roma ghettos, echoed by the shockingly racist speech by the far-right NFSB leader Valery Simeonov who called the Roma “rabid humanoids” with “stray bitch instincts”. Today the NFSB is an official coalition partner of GERB, and its leader chairs the National Council for Cooperation on Ethnic and Integration Questions.

Unfortunately, the principled anti-racist position of the DPS is rooted in a firm neoliberal policy framework, reminiscent of what Nancy Fraser has called “progressive neoliberalism” (although there are some curious exceptions, such as the DPS mayor of a Roma-majority village who recently inaugurated a monument to Todor Zhivkov, Socialist Bulgaria’s longest serving head of state).

DPS becomes three

Although stereotyped as the most rigid, and “disciplined” party in Bulgarian politics, fully in the grips of its fiercely autocratic founder, the DPS is actually not so monolithic. In 2011 Kasim Dal, the second most senior official after Dogan, left the DPS and founded “People’s Party – Freedom and Dignity” (NPSD) the following year. The NPSD leader explained that Dogan had lost touch with the party base as he is too busy enriching himself and his clients. In 2016 Dal accused the DPS leadership of ties with the socialist-era secret services (Dogan had indeed been an agent). That, however, didn’t prevent the NPSD from striking a coalition deal with another, more explicitly liberal, splinter section from the DPS, whose leader had also collaborated with the secret services during Socialism.

In 2016 the DPS split over the downing of the Russian fighter jet by Turkey. The honorary chairman Dogan impeached the acting chairman Mestan for taking the Turkish side of the controversy. Dogan delivered a damning speech, and “fearing for his life”, as he stated, Mestan sought a brief refuge in the Turkish embassy. Shortly thereafter, Mestan founded his own political party Democrats for Responsibility, Freedom and Tolerance (DOST).

DOST means “friend” in Turkish, which alarmed the liberal, the left, and far-right media alike, while the court, citing a dictionary, rejected its registration precisely on these linguistic grounds. Mestan complained that only his party’s name is targeted whereas it is not the only party with a foreign word in its name: what about the nationalist Ataka, or the whole host of political parties calling themselves “democratic?” Meanwhile, a constitutional expert from the DPS opined that DOST is an “ethnic” party and endorsed the decision of the court.

DOST declared itself liberal pro-European but Mestan does not hide his close ties to apparatchiks of Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian regime. For example, the incumbent Turkish ambassador was rooting for DOST among Bulgarian-Turkish voters in Turkey in the run up to the 2017 Parliamentary elections. Incidentally, ethnic Turks in Bulgaria seem indifferent, if not hostile to the autocratic ambitions of Erdogan. In the notorious 2017 referendum, they showed a very low electoral turnout (only 15%) and the overwhelming majority of those who bothered to vote, voted against concentrating power in his hands (71.35%).

In addition to moral indignation voiced over the “unconstitutionality” of the so-called “Turkish” parties, the ruling elites resort to truly unconstitutional measures such as disenfranchisement. In 2015, the Parliament approved changes in the Electoral Act proposed by the far-right NFSB that severely restrict the number of voting stations abroad. The stated aim was to reduce the number of votes of Turks with dual citizenship who have been living in Turkey because of the Revival Process. The same party organized border patrols in the 2017 elections and tried to stop buses carrying voters from Turkey into Bulgaria. The leader of the party even pushed an elderly Turkish woman who tried to cross the border, and explained that she had been “shameless” for she “knew her rights” (!?). He also bragged that the border blockade prevented DOST from passing the parliamentary threshold by reducing their votes by 20,000. While the heroic patriotic action was unfolding at the border, the Central Electoral Committee, in a fit of administrative innovation, suddenly declared that all voting declarations from abroad have to be filled out personally by the voter, by hand (before that, one could be assisted). This elegant bypassing of the еxplicit constitutional provisions against educational qualifications turned the voting process, already slowed down by the parliamentary decision to limit the voting stations abroad, into an unending agony for those of the Bulgarian Turks who last wrote anything in Bulgarian some 30 years ago.


The cases discussed demonstrate that, save for the DPS, it is difficult for an ethnic minority to transcend its place as an element in the “colorful ethnographic mosaic” of the Bulgarian nation and acquire organized political subjecthood embodied by a party.  This model is perpetuated by none other than the DPS itself. For its part, the party likes to avail itself of the anti-DPS “Republican” tools in the constitution to stifle the formation of competitors for the “Turkish” and “Roma” vote. At the same time the other parties seem reluctant, to say the least, to include more ethnic minorities in their lists, thus practically limiting political representation of citizens from minority backgrounds. Meanwhile, the last elections showed that the mainstream parties and the state bureaucracy do not shy away from enforcing unconstitutional provisions and direct action to limit the franchise of the Turkish voters, in defense of the sacred Article 11(4) of the constitution.

None of this wrangling in the political domain translates into tangible improvements for constituencies on the ground. Right now Bulgaria is in the grips of escalating ethnic tensions. Massive racist demonstrations erupted when a group of Roma who tried to save a canoe in distress were attacked by “ethnic Bulgarians” and then other Roma retaliated. Tens of thousand-strong nationalist anti-Roma protests broke out and the police barely managed to prevent organized pogroms.

So much for the roaring success of the “Bulgarian ethnic model”.

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. 

Acknowledgment: many thanks to Georgi Medarov for his editorial work on this text.

By Jana Tsoneva

Jana Tsoneva is a PhD student in Sociology at CEU, Budapest. Her research interests focus on the history of ideas, political economy and theory of ideology. Jana is a member of Social Center Xaspel, Sofia and of the New Left Perspectives collective. She also co-authors Hysterical Parrhesia (a Lacanian-Marxist blog).

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