Bulgaria’s Movement for Rights and Freedoms party and other parties with mainly ethnic Turkish electorates are holding traditional commemorations of the victims of the “Revival Process”, the communist-era campaign to forcibly assimilate the country’s Turkish and Muslim minority.
On December 26, commemorations focused on the village of Mogilyane, where in 1984, amid protests against the “Revival Process”, an 18-month girl and two other people were killed by police.
The “Revival Process”, the name given to it by the Bulgarian Communist Party in 1985, went through a number of stages between the 1970s and the end of the Zhivkov era in 1989.
Steps in the process included forcing Bulgarians of Turkish ethnicity who had Turkish and Arabic names to adopt Bulgarian ones, a ban on the use of the Turkish language, substitution of traditional customs with communist ones, and repression of Islam.
The renaming process went as far as extending to the dead. In some cases, names on gravestones were scratched out and replaced with Bulgarian ones. Among the living, an estimated 50 000 people were renamed in the early to mid-1980s.
The process was characterised by violence. Those involved in resistance were beaten and sent to political prison camps including Belene. The repression was carried out by the structures of State Security, the Interior Ministry and militia.
The crisis resulted in Turkey, then as now a Nato member, agreeing to open its borders with communist Bulgaria to allow Bulgarian ethnic Turks to enter, which a reported more than 360 000 people did, in an event ironically dubbed the “Great Excursion”.
Facing resistance and in the closing phase of the communist era, on December 29 1989 a special plenum of the central committee of the Bulgarian Communist Party approved a decision that those who had been renamed could get their original names back. December 29 now is celebrated annually as Kurulus Bairam (“Liberation Day”).
The commemorations in December are attended by the leadership of the MRF, as well as – at separate events – other minority parties such as DOST, headed by former MRF leader Lyutvi Mestan.
At Bulgaria’s transition towards democracy, the formation of parties with a significant ethnic Turkish electoral base such as the MRF was largely inspired by the “Revival Process”.
In January 2012, Bulgaria’s Parliament approved a declaration tabled by the centre-right Blue Coalition condemning the “Revival Process” and describing the “Great Excursion” in 1989 as a form of ethnic cleansing by the totalitarian regime.
Disclosures by the Dossier Commission, the body charged by statute with announcing the names of people in public life who worked for communist-era secret service State Security, have shown that both MRF founder and current honorary president Ahmed Dogan and his successor as leader, Lyutvi Mestan, were State Security agents. Current MRF leader Mustafa Karadayi has not been found by the commission to have worked for State Security.
In recent years, the MRF has re-orientated itself away from the axis of Ankara and also has sought to widen its electoral base among non-Turkish ethnic Bulgarians, including by placing them on election candidate lists. Mestan’s offshot DOST, formed after he was expelled from the MRF, won no seats in subsequent parliamentary elections and as of December 2018, was reportedly in the process of disintegration as numerous senior office-bearers left, complaining of his allegedly “authoritarian” style.