Academic journal article East European Quarterly

Bulgaria's Ethnic Problems

Academic journal article East European Quarterly

Bulgaria's Ethnic Problems

Article excerpt

The fall of Communism in Eastern Europe precipitated a region-wide shift towards ethnic tensions, demagogic populism and the most pathological forms of ethno-nationalism and separatism, culminating in the tragic fratricidal wars in Yugoslavia and in parts of the former USSR. The volatility and explosiveness of interethnic divisions is clearly a problem for the ethnically non-homogeneous proto-democracies of Eastern Europe. Ethnic nationalism, long suppressed by the former Communist regimes, has reemerged as the dominant political trend in the troubled region. But how much of an existential threat is the aspiring democracies' ethnic heterogeneity?

To take just one example, while majority/minority problems have strained the transition to democracy in Bulgaria, ethnic heterogeneity has not become a major obstacle to democratization. When the country began its democratic transformation, the ethnic conflict inherited from the Communist past appeared to pose a serious threat to political stability and consolidation, if not to state cohesiveness itself. Trying to shore itself up by manipulating the Bulgarian majority's nationalist sentiments, the old regime had created a polarizing conflict along ethno-religious lines by subjecting the Muslim Turkish minority in Bulgaria to a campaign of cultural and linguistic assimilation. When the anti-Turkish assimilation drive was officially ended in December 1989 and the rights of ethnic Turks began to be restored, this reversal of policy provoked an outburst of nationalist sentiments among majority Bulgarians. In a sign of majority/minority disagreements, the leaders of Bulgarian ultranationalist groups even denied the existence of any ethnic minorities in Bulgaria. In an atmosphere of heightened ethnic tensions and mass neonationalist protests, the Turkish-dominated Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF), the largest and most influential ethnic minority party in Bulgaria, barely won legal recognition and for a long time its very existence was in danger.

The ethnic issue has resisted democratic crafting as much as any other problem on the transition agenda. Even today, ethnic tensions continue to smolder beneath the seemingly placid surface. For instance, the war in Kosovo encouraged Bulgaria's ethnic Turkish minority to take a more assertive stand against the Bulgarian majority. The Bulgarian case comes to confirm that it is much harder for political leaders to reach consensual unity in societies deeply divided along ethno-religious lines, an intervening variable with powerful impact on elite strategies and interactions. It may take much longer for such societies to achieve the political consensus and cooperation essential for democracy, even though a broad-based bargain is obviously not altogether impossible.

Despite the existence of unmistakable evidence of nationalist fervor and irredentist aspirations, the ethnicity conflict has not escalated into what Juan Linz and Alfred Stepan call a "stateness" problem, (1) thus strengthening the democratization process and reducing the danger of future challenges to the integrity of the Bulgarian state. The political establishment now includes Bulgaria's largest and most influential ethnic minority party, the MRF. The democratic logic of bargaining and cooperation between different ethno-religious groups has ultimately prevailed over intolerance and divisiveness, providing an effective solution to ethnic minority problems.


Bulgaria's minority problems arose well before the transition process was initiated. One of the dark legacies of Communist dictator Todor Zhivkov's rule was the conflict involving the large Turkish community, which comprises over 9% of Bulgaria's population, according to the 1992 census. A majority of Bulgaria's ethnic Turks are employed in tobacco farming, but a large number of Turks also used to work in the manufacturing sector. A privileged elite of urban-based, college-educated Turks was formed during the Communist era and, as one writer notes, "among them are to be found the most ardent exponents of a distinct ethnic consciousness. …

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