Ahmed Dogan, whose planned headline-making announcement on January 19 2013 that he was to step down as leader of the Movement for Rights and Freedoms was overshadowed by an apparent attempt to assassinate him at his party’s congress, has dominated the MRF since he became its founding leader in 1990.
The incident at the party congress happened while Dogan was about 15 minutes into his speech. The prepared text included, towards the end, the announcement that he was stepping down as party leader.
One of the most controversial figures amid a wide field in Bulgarian politics, Dogan (57) has carved himself a seemingly unassailable niche through his hegemony over most of the country’s ethnic Turkish population.
The MRF has its roots in an underground resistance movement against a brutal campaign during Bulgaria’s communist era to force ethnic Turks to “resume” Bulgarian identities by changing their names to Slavonic forms. This campaign, which included outright violence by communist state forces, went to the bizarre lengths of re-carving gravestones. Dogan figured prominently in the resistance – yet in 2007 an entirely new light was cast on his activities when it was announced that he had been on the payroll of the State Security secret service from 1974 to 1988.
Popularly known as “The Falcon”, Dogan has led his party into two governing coalitions although he himself has not taken public office. The MRF was a minority partner in the 2001 to 2005 governing coalition which had former monarch Simeon Saxe-Coburg as prime minister, and again was in the governing coalition from 2005 to 2009 which had socialist leader Sergei Stanishev as prime minister.
The MRF has been in every Parliament elected since 1990, increasing its share of the vote from six per cent that year to 14 per cent in 2009. The party also has three members of the European Parliament, elected in 2009 in Bulgaria’s first MEP elections after joining the bloc in January 2007.
A focus for detractors and political enemies ranging from Bulgarians who see Dogan as an arch-manipulator of an ethnic vote, to ultra-nationalists Ataka (which love to hate the MRF as a legacy of the centuries of Ottoman rule of Bulgaria), Dogan not only has caused controversy not only by saying that it is immaterial whether his party is in or out of power because its influence remains the same, but also by saying – on a separate occasion – that he was the key to ethnic peace in Bulgaria.
While widely perceived as an ethnic Turkish party, the MRF – a member of Liberal International and the European ALDE – has a broader-based description of itself.
The MRF’s website acknowledges that while it was founded to represent the interests of the Turkish ethnic minority, “the MRF has broadened its goals and platform to embrace all issues of civil rights in Bulgaria, aiming ‘to contribute to the unity of the Bulgarian people and to the full and unequivocal compliance with the rights and freedoms of mankind and of all religious and cultural communities in Bulgaria’. Moreover, the movement has called for the promotion of measures designed to alleviate the economic problems facing minority populations in Bulgaria.”
“Nowadays, the movement is an all-national party representing all Bulgarians and strongly opposes to any ‘manifestation of national chauvinism, revenge, Islamic fundamentalism and religious fanaticism’. The MRF categorically renounces Islamic fundamentalism, terrorism, all kinds of discrimination and political and religious extremism.”
Dogan was the subject of a failed prosecution in 2010, when the Supreme Administrative Court acquitted him on charges of corruption. While his party was in government, he had been paid more than a million leva in consultancy fees in 2008 and 2009 on a hydro-electric power project – a matter that became a cause célèbre when questions were raised as to what consultancy services a philosophy graduate could contribute to an energy generation plant.
His control of the MRF has not been absolute and there have been occasional emergences of dissent, including a minor breakway in recent years led by Kassim Dal. There was also controversy when a senior party official of Dogan died in his house, in what investigators found to have been a suicide. No wrongdoing on the part of Dogan was established.
The MRF also has been frequently linked in media investigations to allegations of vote-buying and has been the focus of controversy for “election tourism”, meaning Bulgarian-passport holders travelling from Turkey to vote in elections.
(Main photo: Ahmed Dogan, centre, at a meeting of the MRF youth; dps.bg)