More than 20 buses arrived from Turkey in a single day in the southern Bulgarian town of Kurdzhali, with passengers travelling free provided that they showed a Bulgarian passport or identity card, just four days ahead of the country’s National Assembly elections.
The transport was arranged by emigre organisations and specially-appointed co-ordinators, public broadcaster Bulgarian National Television said on March 22.
Most of the buses did not stop in the town itself but passed through to drop off voters in villages in accordance with a list drawn up in advance, the report said.
The bus station remained empty throughout the day but in the evening extra buses, in addition to scheduled services, arrived.
Most of the people arriving were not keen to talk to television cameras, or said that they had come from other cities in Bulgaria.
Others, however, were more talkative: “We are coming for the election, I’ve decided who I’m voting for, they organised us in Turkey”.
Another told BNT: “We were organised in Turkey, they let us on board for free and will return us for free. In Edirne they gave us lunch, handed out brochures, ballpoint pens, very nice it was. They will take us back for free. I’ll be staying 15 days in Kurdzhali at their expense”.
The report said that no one would commit to official information about how many voters had arrived from Turkey in recent days in Kurdzhali. Expectations were that the number of arrivals would be very large because employers in Turkey had given Bulgarian citizens leave to vote.
The bussing-in of voters to Bulgaria from Turkey is hardly a new phenomenon, but in the March 2017 elections, has gained more attention than usual from politicians and the media, in particular because of high-profile incidents of what is seen as Ankara’s intervention in Bulgarian domestic affairs.
In recent weeks and days, reports of a call by a Turkish cabinet minister for Bulgarian citizens in Turkey to vote in large numbers and to do so for Lyutvi Mestan’s DOST party have led to the Foreign Ministry in Sofia summoning the Turkish ambassador, who also has appeared in a DOST campaign video. Bulgaria’s security agency has expelled or barred from entry five Turkish nationals, describing them as threats to national security.
At the same time, state and government officials, including the President, caretaker Prime Minister and caretaker Foreign Minister, while acknowledging the attempts at intervention by Turkey, have underlined what they have described as the importance of good relations between Sofia and Ankara.
On March 22, Turkey’s minister of labour and social affairs, Mehmet Müezzinoğlu, urged the Bulgarian authorities not to create obstacles at border crossings for those who wanted to vote in Bulgaria on Sunday.
It was Müezzinoğlu who was reported on March 6 to have called on Bulgarians in Turkey to vote for DOST.
Referring to this week’s protests at border checkpoints with Turkey by the Bulgarian nationalist United Patriots coalition, Müezzinoğlu told a meeting with voters in Ipsala, a town in north-western Turkey not far from the Bulgarian border: “I call on the Bulgarian authorities to not succumb to the provocations of extreme nationalists, and in the name of democracy to be more respectful to the right of citizens of Turkish origin with Bulgarian passports to vote.
“Our wish is that Bulgaria does not permit actions such as blocking of the borders, stopping of buses, actions harmful to Bulgaria itself. We expect the Bulgarian leadership to demonstrate a democratic attitude so as to ensure and guarantee the right of any of its nationals to vote peacefully and without fear,” Müezzinoğlu said.
He said that he hoped that the case of the blocking of the border on March 21 would remain an isolated cases and the steps necessary to prevent this happening again would be taken.
Earlier, the governor of Edirne, Günay Özdemir, urged Bulgarian authorities to prevent radical nationalist groups from blocking the road near the Turkish – Bulgarian border.
The United Patriots have said that they would repeat their blockades of checkpoints at the Bulgarian – Turkish border to prevent what is commonly known in Bulgaria as “electoral tourism”.
Bulgaria’s caretaker Interior Minister, Plamen Uzunov, said on March 22 that there was no need for additional measures to guard the border checkpoints with Turkey.
“The measures that we have taken so far are completely adequate to ensure good public order at the Bulgarian – Turkish border. We should not allow an escalation of tensions and should ensure that the elections take place democratically,” Uzunov said.
On March 22, caretaker Prime Minister Ognyan Gerdzhikov said that there was no law to prevent “electoral tourism”. (Gerdzhikov, a law professor, was to a large degree stating the obvious – any law that bars a citizen from voting, or for that matter from entering the country, might hardly be expected to survive a constitutional challenge).
In post-communist Bulgarian political history, the passport-holders in Turkey traditionally have been an electoral stronghold for the Movement for Rights and Freedoms founded by Ahmed Dogan, who remains its honorary president. Mestan’s DOST is a rival for the vote of Bulgarians in Turkey.
The presence in Turkey of a large number of Bulgarian passport-holders is a consequence of the so-called “Regeneration Process” carried out by the communist regime in the mid- to late-1980s, to force Bulgarians of Turkish ethnicity to adopt Slavonic identities.
The process, which saw gross abuses of human rights, eventually led to an agreement between Bulgaria’s communist regime and Turkey for ethnic Turks to cross into the southern neighbouring country, in what was referred to as the “great excursion”. The number of people involved in the border crossings from Bulgaria into Turkey in 1989 is said to have been more than 300 000.
Bulgaria’s Dossier Commission has named both Dogan and Mestan, who was leader of the MRF before being ousted for taking Turkey’s side against Russia in the 2015 dispute between those two countries, as having been agents for Bulgaria’s communist-era secret service, State Security.
(Photo: Alf van Beem)