Minorities in Bulgaria: An Overview




    Hardly a single square kilometre in the Balkans is inhabited by an ethnically homogeneous population. Bulgaria provides no exception. Along with Bulgarians, both large and small ethnic minority groups live here. Some of them have resided here since before the formation of the Bulgarian nation, others settled in the Middle Ages, and still others migrated in modern times. Among the Bulgarians, most of whom are Orthodox Christians, there are religious minorities with specific cultures of their own - Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, sectarians...

    Ethnic groups in Bulgaria today are linguistically, culturally, and emotionally linked to other countries, as well as to communities which have Diasporas in many countries: the Jews and the Armenians, who have their own nation states, have been dispersed around the globe; the Roma /Gypsy/ people, who have no state of their own, have also been scattered world-wide; the Karakachans, in their majority, live in Bulgaria and Greece, the Gagaouz - in Moldova (the Autonomous Republic of Gagaouz Eri), Bulgaria, Turkey, Romania, Greece, and the Ukraine; the Aromanians inhabit  several European countries, etc.

    Ethnic Bulgarians, on their part, have their own minorities outside the Bulgarian state  - in the Ukraine, Moldova, Romania, Yugoslavia, Hungary, Albania, Turkey, etc. Some of these ethnic Bulgarian minority groups are successors of Bulgarian emigrants, who had left the country, for political or economic reasons, in the time of the Ottoman rule (in the modern terminology, the predecessors of these ethnic Bulgarians would have been called refugees), for example, the Bulgarian Catholics in Romanian and Serbian Banat, the Bulgarians in Bessarabia (Moldova and the Ukraine), Tavria (the Ukraine), etc. Some others are offspring of clans that have never migrated, but wars and international agreements have left them outside Bulgaria's territory (for example, ethnic Bulgarians from the former Bulgarian western territories, now in Serbia, Yugoslavia). We should mention here that some non-Bulgarian ethnic communities living in other states are connected with the Bulgarian cultural tradition and way of life - these are ethnic Turks from Bulgaria,  now living in Turkey, or Bulgaria's Jews, now living in Israel.

    On the whole, it could be asserted that the Bulgarian people is more or less tolerant to its minorities. More than once have large groups  of people, driven out of other countries, been given asylum in Bulgaria - such were the Sefarade Jews in the 15th century, the Russian Kazaks of the Old Rite in the 17th century, and later  the Armenians fleeing from the outrages in Turkey, the White Guards fleeing from Russia, etc. More than once has the Bulgarian public sentiment stood up in defence of persecuted ethnic groups - the Armenians ruthlessly slaughtered  first by the Ottoman power and three decades later - by the Young Turk government, the Jews during World War II, etc.

    In more recent times, the manifestations of racism, xenophobia, and intolerance are most often the result of concrete events or circumstances. For example, the anti-Jewish declarations by outstanding figures of the Bulgarian National Revival were provoked by the fact that some of the Jews inhabiting the Ottoman Empire were close to the Ottoman administration, as well as by the fact that some of the Western politicians following an anti-Bulgarian politics were of Jewish origin. The persecutions of ethnic Greeks were the deed of Thracian refugees, ethnic Bulgarians brutally driven out of Greece in former times.

    During World War II, when the Jews were being killed in the Holocaust everywhere in Europe, the fourty-eight thousand Jews living in Bulgaria's pre-war territories, were not sent to the death camps, in spite of the anti-Jewish legislation effective in the country. Bulgaria refused to deport its citizens. Under an agreement with the Reich, during W.W.II Bulgaria administered the territories of today's Macedonia, Aegean Thrace, and what were known as the Western Parts. The Jews residing in  these territories, totalling about 12 000 people, were transferred to the Hitlerites. During the Communist era, the cases of repression against not only minority groups of non-Bulgarian ethnic origin, but also against groups of Bulgarian identity were numerous. For example, soon after W.W.II several thousand ethnic Bulgarians from Tavria, who had migrated to Bulgaria during the war, were sent back to the U.S.S.R. at the request of the Soviet government, and almost all of them perished in the Stalinist detention camps.

    The leaders of the Bulgarian Catholics and Protestants were imprisoned or killed. After World War II, at the order of Stalin and under an agreement between Georgi Dimitrov and Tito, the ethnic Bulgarians inhabiting South-Western Bulgaria - Christians and Muslims equally, were forced (some were killed and sentenced to imprisonment) to declare a Macedonian identity. Conversely, in later years, when the "invented" Macedonian nation began to gain momentum, but when Stalin and Dimitrov were already gone, other Bulgarian citizens were deprived of the right to such identification. Truly, there were no killings and sentences this time.

    Some minorities suffered heavy economic blows in the context of the policy of eliminating private ownership followed by the authorities: taken away were the carts and horses of the nomadic Gypsies, the flocks of sheep of Karakachans, Wallachians and some other groups traditionally making their livelihood on this. Some of the minority groups had their organizations and periodicals, but the latter were not expected to promote the preservation of minority languages and cultures, but rather to work for their "internationalization", that is assimilation.

    The period of the so-called  "revival process" (with two peaks - in 1972-1974, and 1984-1985), the forcible renaming of the Muslim population (Turks, Bulgarians, Tartars, Roma), was accompanied by acts of repression, some were killed or sentenced. In the long run, however, the process led in 1989 to a wave of refugees unseen in the Balkans since World War II and cynically termed "the big trip" because of the tourist passports issued to the ethnic Turks at that time. The ethnic Turks left Bulgaria in huge numbers.

    At the same time, following W.W. II until as late as the political changes in 1989-1990 the carelessness of the Bulgarian state with respect to the ethnic Bulgarian population in other countries was next to total. Subsequent to the political transformations, the government turned their attention to the minority issue and undertook a number of steps, though not very systematic and consistent. Under pressure by the Muslims, a regulatory base and an administrative mechanism were established  for the restoration of their names.

    A decree was issued providing for the children of minority groups to study, at the public schools, their mother tongues - Turkish, Roma, Armenian, Ivrit. (Some efforts have been made to organize Romanian lessons, no special organization is needed for the teaching of Russian, insofar as it is taught as a foreign language at the public schools.)  Since the Bulgarian authorities make no obstructions any more, some of the Turkish emigrants have returned, but others have emigrated (obstacles are now put by the Turkish side); some of the thin Jewish population that are still living in Bulgaria have also left.

    In contrast to the other ex-communist countries,  no public institution in Bulgaria is entrusted with the minority matters. (Former president Zhelev had among his staff an adviser in minority affairs; moreover, a National Council on Ethnic and Population Issues has been instituted under the present government.) Another difference with the rest of the  former communist states, is that the Bulgarian state would not promote minority news media (an exception are programmes in Turkish on the National Radio and news emissions in Turkish broadcast by the National Television). The government makes serious efforts to initiate a dialogue with the Roma organizations, because preventing the discrimination of Roma people and promoting their social integration are questions of singular importance.

    An Agency of Bulgarians Abroad was established. Irrespective of the fact that from its beginning this institution has been headed by well-known scholars and intellectuals, its capacities are only minor as compared to identical structures in other countries. The last thing that should be mentioned is that Bulgaria has ratified the Frame Convention on Minority Rights.

    The Constitution, passed by the Grand National Assembly in 1991, says that no political parties based on ethnicity and religion shall be formed. Since no personal identification documents contain references to nationality, the only application of this article is that parties are not allowed to write down in their documents that they are ethnicity-based, they could not deny either admittance to a Bulgarian citizen on account of his/her ethnic or religious background.

    At the same time, there are more than one party designated as Christian (having "Christian"in their names). (The explanations provided by the judicial authorities include references to overall Christian spiritual and moral values, but the demagogy of this sort of interpretation would immediately be seen through if one tries to register a party based on overall Muslim values.) We do not claim to have listed in full the ethnic, cultural and religious communities existing in this country. We have not dwelt upon minorities that used to live in these lands, but are nonexistent today as an object of study whether because of total emigration or assimilation. It is too early to judge about the new protestant denominations. It would take years to see whether they would get firmly established in Bulgaria.  Finally, there  are some communities (like Old-Style Orthodox Christians, Germans, Black Sea Greeks, or the insignificant Albanian community) about which we have too little data available.