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World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Bulgaria : Overview

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date 2007
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Bulgaria : Overview, 2007, available at: [accessed 3 August 2015]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.


Bulgaria lies in south-eastern Europe, on the eastern side of the Balkan Peninsula. It is bounded by Romania to the north, Serbia and Macedonia to the west, and Greece and Turkey to the south. The coastline of the Black Sea marks Bulgaria's eastern boundary. The Stara Planina or Balkan Mountains cross Bulgaria from west to east. The Rhodope Mountains lie to the south-west of the country near the frontier with Macedonia and Greece.


Main languages: Bulgarian, Turkish, Macedonian

Main religions: Eastern Orthodox, Islam (mainly Sunni)

Minority groups include Turks, Roma, Russians, Armenians, Vlachs, Macedonians, Greeks, Ukrainians, Jews, Romanians, Tatars and Gagauz.

According to the 2001 census, the total population was 7,928,901 of whom: 6,655,210 (83.6 per cent) were Bulgarians, 746,664 Turks (9.4 per cent), 370,908 Roma (4.6 per cent), 160,000-240,000 Bulgarian speaking Muslims or Pomaks (2-3 per cent), 15,595 Russians, 10,832 Armenians, 10,566 Vlachs, 5,071 Macedonians, 3,408 Greeks, 2,489 Ukrainians, 1,363 Jews, 1,088 Romanians and 18,792 'others', a category that included Tatars and Gagauz. The census also recorded 62,108 whose ethnicity was not stated and 24,807 as unknown.

Non-governmental sources estimate that there are some 700,000 Roma in Bulgaria. According to the authorities, this large discrepancy with the census results is due to many Roma identifying themselves as Bulgarians, Turks and to a lesser extent, as Romanians.

The issue of whether a separate Macedonian language is spoken in Bulgaria and, if so, by how many people, is highly controversial. The 1992 census, the first to allow respondents to so identify since 1965, indicated 10,830 Macedonians. In its 2006 report, the Council of Europe's Advisory Committee of the Framework Convention for the Protection of Minorities reported that 'manifestations of intolerance, which can go as far as exercising overt pressure over certain persons, particularly the Macedonians, in connection with the latest population census, and notes in addition the difficulties which these people meet in making themselves heard in Bulgarian public life.'

There are also an estimated 160,000-240,000 Slav-speaking Muslims (commonly known as Pomaks) living mainly in the Rhodope Mountains, who are most probably descended from Bulgarian Christians who converted to Islam during the period of Ottoman rule, while retaining the Bulgarian language as well as certain Orthodox practices. The authorities do not consider Pomaks as a distinct ethnic minority and in the 2001 census (and in the preceding 1992 census) there was no mention of them.

The Bulgarians are a Slavonic people and Eastern Orthodox Christians.

During the five centuries of direct Ottoman rule, the population of Bulgaria became increasingly heterogeneous, acquiring in particular large Turkish and Slav-speaking Muslim minorities. Although many Turks and Muslims left the country after 1878, the population of Bulgaria retained its ethnic, religious and linguistic diversity.

Pastoral nomads include Romance-speaking Vlachs and the Greek-speaking Karakachans (also called Sarakatsans). Vlachs and Karakachans were forced to settle in fixed communities during the communist period. The yet smaller communities of Albanians and Muslim Tatars were obliged during the communist period to adopt Bulgarian names as were other Mulsim minorities such as the Pomaks and the ethnic Turks. Muslim Cherkez (Circassians), who were settled in Bulgaria in the nineteenth century by the Ottoman authorities, appear to have been entirely assimilated within the Turkish community.

The majority of Bulgarian Jews are Hispanic-Ladino speakers and are the descendants of Sephardic Jews who fled from Spain to the Ottoman Empire during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Ladino-language education was resumed in several schools after 1989. About 40,000 Jews were recorded in Bulgaria during the interwar period, most of whom emigrated to Israel after 1945. Although the Jewish minority was recognized by the communist authorities, most of the country's synagogues were closed.


The Bulgarians established an empire in the Balkans in the ninth and tenth centuries, during which time they were converted to Eastern Orthodox Christianity. The Bulgarian state was overrun by the Turks at the end of the fourteenth century and remained a part of the Ottoman Empire until 1878, when it was recognized as an autonomous principality. In 1908 Bulgaria achieved full independence as a sovereign kingdom.

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Bulgarian government made several attempts to convert the non-Christian population. In the 'Christianization' campaign begun at the time of the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913, many Slav-speaking Muslims were forced to adopt Bulgarian names. Throughout the interwar period, the government pursued a policy of neglect towards minorities, although Turkish and other minority schools were allowed to function.

After World War II, Bulgaria was taken over by the communists, and would remain a Soviet satellite under communist rule until 1989. Initially, the communist government adopted a reasonably tolerant attitude towards minorities. The constitution of 1947, while making the Bulgarian language obligatory in schools, affirmed that 'National minorities have a right to be educated in the vernacular ... and to develop their national culture'. The regime recognized Macedonians' national rights and introduced Macedonian in schools.

As a result of increasing tension between Bulgaria and Yugoslavia, recognition of Macedonian rights waned, and attempts at assimilation began to be pursued with increasing vigour after 1948. Macedonian language education ended in 1963. The government cut back on minority educational and cultural facilities, circumscribed religious practices, and increased pressure on members of minority groups to adopt Bulgarian names.

The 1971 constitution expunged all references to minorities, and between 1970 and 1973, the government ratcheted up efforts to oblige Slav-speaking Muslims to abandon their Muslim and Arabic names and adopt Bulgarian ones. The assimilationist policy escalated even further in the 1980s with the Turkish community being similarly targeted and only the Armenians and Jews being recognized as minorities and afforded facilities. This forced assimilation was accompanied by violence and led to many deaths. The policies practised by the communist authorities resulted in several waves of emigration and culminated in 1989 with the exodus of 350,000 Turks -many of whom had subsequently returned by January 1990. Unlike ethnic Turks, Slav-speaking Muslims were refused permission by the authorities to emigrate to Turkey.

Since the 'gentle revolution' of 1989, Bulgaria has moved towards political pluralism, liberal democracy and a market economy. International observers deemed general elections held in 1990, 1991, 1994, 1997, 2001, and 2005 to have been free and fair. Bulgaria joined NATO in March 2004, and in January 2007 became a full member of the European Union.


The restoration of the rights of minorities began with the collapse of the communist government in November 1989. The new authorities passed legislation to restore the property of those who had fled the country and to permit the use of Muslim and Arabic names. After November 1989, minority-language publications and cultural groups were re-founded. A Law on Public Education passed in October 1991, allowing teaching in minority languages in schools. The Bulgarian National Assembly approved a new constitution in July 1991. Bulgarian is retained as the official language but the right is permitted to 'citizens whose national tongue is not Bulgarian ... to study and use their own languages'. Although Eastern Orthodox Christianity is described as 'the traditional religion' of Bulgaria, religious freedom is affirmed.

Controversially, the 1991 constitution provides that 'political parties may not be founded on ethnic, racial or religious bases'. Enforcement of this provision, which may violate international conventions, has led to the disqualification of several minority parties from participation in the electoral process, including initially the predominantly ethnic Turkish Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF). However, the MRF was able to claim that it was a 'movement' and not a party, and so gain legal recognition. Whether a movement or a party, it is the third largest political organization and has gone on to be a coalition partner in several Bulgarian governments. Other minorities have had less success in their representation, in particular Macedonians, whose separate ethnicity has been routinely denied. A Macedonian party founded in 1999 was banned in 2000. Apart from 28 Turks, the 240-seat Bulgarian National Assembly had only three other minorities in 2005, only one of whom was Roma.

Since its democratization Bulgaria has passed significant legislation on minority rights. In 1997 the government established a consultative body on minority issues, the National Council on Ethnic and Demographic Questions. Many minority groups are represented on the council, but Macedonians are not. After years of delay, in 1999 the government came to an agreement with Roma representatives on a Framework Programme for Equal Integration of Roma. After lagging implementation, more specific action plans and programmes were adopted in 2003 and 2004. Roma NGOs in particular have taken advantage of an anti-discrimination law passed in 2003, which allows civil society organizations to file public-interest lawsuits.

Bulgaria allows education in minority languages, but inadequate government resources have restricted its availability. Turkish, Armenian, Hebrew, Greek and Romanian are offered as elective courses at the primary and secondary level. By law, public broadcasting is to be available in languages other than Bulgarian, but in practice, such public television and radio programming is only available to a limited extent in Turkish.

Bulgaria ratified the Council of Europe's Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities in May 1999.

Current state of minorities and indigenous peoples

Ahead of Bulgaria's accession to the European Union in January 2007 the government adopted a number of measures aimed at improving minority rights, especially for Roma. Whilst Roma in particular remain vastly under-represented at the national level, their representation at municipal level has increased markedly in recent years. Romani language teaching has been scarcely available, but this may soon change, as in 2003 two universities introduced training programmes for Romani-language teachers.

A health initiative in 2005 recognized the special needs of marginalized minority groups, especially Roma and Turks, and outlined a strategy to address the situation. In 2006 the government adopted regulations aimed at reducing segregation of Roma in schools. Nevertheless, Roma remain deeply marginalized in Bulgaria, and routinely confront police abuse and harassment; complaints of ill treatment are often not investigated. In a 2004 case, the ECHR ruled that by failure to investigate violence and killings of Roma by Bulgarian police, Bulgaria had violated the right to life and the prohibition on discrimination enshrined in Convention articles two and 14.

The government has been considerably more reluctant to even recognize the existence of Macedonians, let alone their marginalization, despite significant external impetus to address the issue. In October 2005 the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Bulgaria's ban of an ethnic Macedonian political party violated its members' right to freedom of association and assembly. The court came to similar conclusions in other cases involving Macedonians in Bulgaria, but the government has dragged its feet in implementing the decisions. Macedonians also continue to face hostility from the media and public. In November 2006, the International Helsinki Federation declared, 'The government denies the existence of an ethnic Macedonian minority in the country and insists that it does not have an obligation to protect this group.' It noted that all parties in parliament backed this policy.

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