Of Kurdjali, heroes and honours

Bulgarian political and media circles have been in uproar for days about two incidents with serious emotional, ethnic and political dimensions – one was the refusal of the Turkish-party dominated city council of Kurdjali to honour a Bulgarian Balkan War general, and the other was a photograph online of three Roma teenagers up to hi-jinks with pictures of three of Bulgaria’s most revered national heroes.

It is time for a little perspective.

Let us start with l’affaire General Vasil Delov.

While the rest of Bulgaria, notably Plovdiv, celebrates the unification of the short-lived state of Eastern Roumelia with the rest of Bulgaria on September 6, commemorations of Kurdjali’s accession to Bulgaria are in October. September 6 commemorates events in 1885 but the Bulgarian victory that brought Kurdjali into this country took place just 100 years ago.

To this day, Kurdjali is not quite in the mould of the nominally Christian Orthodox, Slavonic Bulgaria. Turkish is a commonly-used home language. In that part of the Eastern Rhodopes, every town and village has its mosque. Kurdjali itself is dominated politically by Ahmed Dogan’s Movement for Rights and Freedoms, the party led and supported in the main by Bulgarians of Turkish ethnicity.

Kurdjali (sometimes spelt Kardjali, Kardzhali or Kurdzhali) has a population about 55 per cent ethnic Turkish at municipal level, while the city itself is 61 per cent Bulgarian and 35 per cent Turkish, going by self-declared ethnic identification in the 2011 census.

Its relationship with the authorities in Sofia has not always been cordial, to say the least. The end of the 1980s saw demonstrations in the city against moves, subsequently dropped, to ban the use of Turkish mother-tongue teaching in local schools. That came on top of one of Bulgaria’s worst modern traumas, the communist-era “revival” process that involved forcing ethnic Turks to “revert” to Slavonic identities. Not only was that an episode stained by serious violence, it also led to an exodus of ethnic Turks from Bulgaria to Turkey in what was called at the time the “Great Excursion”.

Whose hero?

No one need view dramatically differing views of heroes as a peculiarly quaint Balkan phenomenon.

It was little more than a decade ago that South Carolina was in uproar about the removal of the Confederate flag from the state capitol. That was a sideshow compared with the continuing controversy about Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur “Bomber” Harris.

I chose those two out of many examples because both illustrate for quite how long the legacy of wars may be divisive, but also because the Bomber Harris furore is not limited to Germany but extends within the UK itself.

Some days after the Kurdjali council, with the votes of Dogan’s party outnumbering those of national ruling party GERB and the opposition socialists, rejected conferring honorary citizenship of Delov, an odd recollection came to me, as I watched the latest display of indignation on television.

As a schoolboy in South Africa in the 1970s, I was told – along with the rest of my class – to write an essay on my “favourite Boer hero”. It was an assignment that I regarded with some astonishment, to say the least. Then as now, the subject of the Anglo-Boer South African war is a divisive one in the history of that country. My teenage view was that, as a descendant of people who had fought on the British side and one politically opposed to the apartheid ramifications of Afrikaner nationalism, my list of favourite Boer heroes had no entries. I might as well as have been asked to pick my favourite Nazi.

Still, a compulsory essay is a compulsory essay, so I chose a general – the one richest in bizarre traits – dipped my pen in the most pungent vitriol I had in stock, and laid the satire thick on the foolscap pages. I was rewarded by my history teacher, bless him, with a pass mark for writing style and for content that was “interesting”. (I must add that, now in my 50s, my perspective on the Boer War has changed and I regard the entire thing as a needless colonial tragedy, especially for the devastating impact on South Africa’s black population; I also have some admiration for the achievements of some of those furry Boer fighters against the much mightier khaki army, and shame that it was in my country that concentration camps were first invented.)

Fog of battle

The decision by the members of Dogan’s party has resulted in widespread condemnation – including, reportedly, from Dogan himself, said to be angered at the stain on his party.

Local GERB politicians said that the MRF councillors had stirred up ethnic tension in Kurdjali for political gain.

Prime Minister Boiko Borissov said that the MRF had committed a deliberate provocation to excite ethnic tension. The Bulgarian Socialist Party said that the behaviour of the Kurdjali councillors was “outrageous and provocative” and – in what may be the first and last concord between GERB and the socialists ahead of the 2013 elections – agreed with GERB that Delov should be given a posthumousStara Planina,Bulgaria’s highest honour.

Minority right-wing Blue Coalition said that the actions of the Kurdjali councillors was “provocative” and “unconstitutional” because it provoked ethnic tension.

With an eye to the headlines, ultranationalists Ataka and VMRO picketed the Sofia headquarters of Dogan’s party, drawing a crowd of about 30, who said – among other things – that the actions of the Kurdjali councillors were a “provocation”. For Ataka, who love to hate all things Turkish, the vote in Kurdjali was manna for a party destined for electoral oblivion next year.

Public broadcaster Bulgarian National Television tracked down Delov’s granddaughter for an interview: “I heard that he was very humane and treated his soldiers as equals, he never behaved like a chief to his soldiers. And they respected him very much,” she said.

Vassil Delov

Some days into the controversy, it emerged that initially there had been all-party consensus on giving the award to Delov, but the MRF had then reversed itself. Bulgarian media coverage continued to omit to report why it was that the about-turn had happened, beyond one report that made a brief reference to a councillor saying that it had been done “at the request of people from Edirne”.

To the history books, then. Recent Bulgarian media coverage has repeated, time and again, Delov’s valorous conduct in the victory in Kurdjali.

Then a colonel, he led a force of 8700 with 42 artillery pieces into battle against Mehmed Yaver Pasha’s 9000 men and eight guns. The final score was nine Bulgarians killed, 45 wounded and of the Ottoman forces, 200 killed and wounded. Reading accounts of the battle, there can be no doubting Delov’s personal courage, those of his troops, or that Delov was no mean strategist.

The Bulgarians capture Kurdjali, October 1912

However, reading on beyond where Bulgarian narratives in the media of October 2012 have tended to stop, Delov also went on to play a part as a senior officer commanding part of the forces in the Bulgarian-Serbian assault on Edirne. The siege of the Turkish town saw victory for the Bulgarians and the Serbians in March 1913, and the surrender was followed by three days of looting, mainly of the homes of Muslims and Jews. It is disputed whether the pillage was conducted by Bulgarians or by the local Greek population, or at least there was a failure by the Bulgarian forces to stop what happened.

The Carnegie Commission subsequently alleged Bulgarian conduct to have been brutal, including the alleged murder of POWs.

Whatever the truth, that may explain why the memory of Delov and his fellow senior and general officers may not be revered in Edirne.

It is also interesting, to say the least, that people holding Bulgarian passports and elected to public office in a Bulgarian city would, reportedly on appeal from people in Edirne, withhold honour from the man who led the Bulgarian victory that brought their city into this country. Why for the Kurdjali MRF councillors is Turkish sentiment more important than Bulgarian sentiment?

Of course, it is trite to add that the MRF councillors committed a profound political blunder. Had they kept to their original agreement to vote in favour of honouring Delov, it is doubtful that commemorations in Kurdjali would have rated more than a few seconds of television news screen time.

Yes, it has handed a weapon for the MRF’s political detractors to bash the party, but that party – given its ethnic base and other factors – tends to produce a consistent turnout at every election.

What is more worrying is that – for all the people of Kurdjali who have turned out to the sign-up point for the national petition to President Rossen Plevneliev to give Delov the Stara Planina – another episode has happened to show that Bulgaria should be a little less complacent about its boasted-of model of ethnic tolerance.

Upside down

And so to the three Roma teenagers who posed for a photograph holding pictures of Bulgarian national heroes in less-than-reverent, if not vaguely obscene, poses.

Inevitably, the photograph ended up online, and national hysteria ensued.

The national heroes in question were Vassil Levski, Simeon I and Boris I, people that every Bulgarian child is taught from the lowest grades in school to venerate.

Media and official investigations ensued after the photo appeared on the internet; the school was identified, and then the youths. There was talk of the involvement of psychologists and of prosecutors.

If anyone is offended that I have made specific mention of the ethnicity of the youths, the reason is that so did Bulgaria’s media and politicians, not least, predictably, Ataka.

The photo became the biggest cause célèbre involving the Roma minority since the Katounitsa episode in 2011, which involved a death and subsequent mass anti-Roma protests in 14 Bulgarian cities.

Eventually, the mother of one of the teenagers was found by the television cameras, where she weepingly apologised again and again for what her son had done. At least one media report suggested that the boys had just been fooling around with the pictures, without knowing who they depicted (the mind boggles that this could be possible).

I also wondered about the involvement of prosecutors. I am not aware (and am not a lawyer and may be wrong) that there is any Bulgarian law that criminalises insulting national heroes.

There are some other laws, for instance that teenagers of any nationality and ethnicity are capable of behaving like idiots, that this law extends to the results of their idiocy being posted online, and – just as an obiter dictum – that idiocy online is not confined to teenagers. There is also a law, called the Bulgarian constitution, that protects freedom of expression, however uncomfortable that sometimes may be; and for the record, Levski is one of my heroes too and I did not like what I saw in that photograph, not in the least.

Perhaps we can ask why it is that three Roma teenagers neither are (supposedly) capable of recognising three of this country’s greatest heroes nor of treating them with appropriate respect.

Or we could ask why the years continue to go by with no real results in the much-vaunted campaign for Roma inclusion. But that is a question we must ask of the politicians – and no doubt, the Roma too – but in the case of the politicians, there may be little to learn, except about their own expertise when it comes to striking poses.

(Main photo, of a view of Kurdjali: Clive Leviev-Sawyer)



Clive Leviev-Sawyer

Clive Leviev-Sawyer is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of The Sofia Globe. He is the author of the book Bulgaria: Politics and Protests in the 21st Century (Riva Publishers, 2015), and co-author of the book Bulgarian Jews: Living History (The Organization of the Jews in Bulgaria 'Shalom', 2018). He is also the author of Power: A Political Novel, available via amazon.com, and, on the lighter side, Whiskers And Other Short Tales of Cats (2021), also available via Amazon. He has translated books and numerous texts from Bulgarian into English.