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World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Bulgaria : Turks

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date 2008
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Bulgaria : Turks, 2008, available at: [accessed 29 May 2016]
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.


Some scholars have sought to show that the Turks of modern Bulgaria are descended from Christian Bulgarians who, during the period of Ottoman rule, gave up both their religion and their language. Others assert that Bulgarian Turks are the descendants either of ethnic Turks who moved into the territory after the fourteenth century or of Turkic tribes that settled in Bulgaria during an even earlier period. Turks live in compact communities in the south of the country in the Arda basin, and in the north-east Dobrudja region. There are also Turkish villages scattered along the central and eastern Stara Planina. According to the 2001 census, there were 746,664 Turks in Bulgaria, constituting 9.4 per cent of the total population, most of whom lived in villages in the countryside.

Historical context

Prior to the communist take-over, Turks were permitted their own Turkish-language schools, both religious and secular, which followed a separate curriculum. They had their own religious administration and ecclesiastical courts. Cultural segmentation led to most Turks being unable to function in the Bulgarian language. A survey conducted in 1946 revealed that about half of the Turkish population did not understand Bulgarian.

Communist policy initially respected Turkish-language culture and education while endeavouring to make Turkish students fluent in Bulgarian. Assimilation policy began seriously to affect Turks in 1958, when Turkish-language schools began to be merged with Bulgarian-language ones. By 1975, the teaching of Turkish had been eliminated from the curriculum altogether, and after 1984, newspapers and magazines intended for Turks appeared only in the Bulgarian language. In 1984- 1985 the government embarked upon a policy of forcing Turks to adopt Bulgarian names. Simultaneously, bans were imposed on Muslim religious practices and fines were also imposed for the speaking of Turkish in public places. Resistance to the name-changing campaign led to dismissal from employment, arrests and killings. Throughout the campaign, the government claimed that the name-changing was both voluntary and an aspect of the forging of a 'unified socialist state'.

Mass protests and hunger strikes among Turks began in 1989 and were countered by violent police actions and by the expulsion of Turkish leaders to Turkey. Their departure was followed by a mass emigration of Turks beginning in June 1989. Although many Turks were intimidated into leaving, the majority appear to have left voluntarily. By the end of August 1989, about 350,000 Turks had left Bulgaria. The majority of the emigrants were unable to leave with many possessions and were forced to sell their homes or to cancel rental agreements on disadvantageous terms. With the end of the oppressive communist regime in 1989, many Turks spent only a brief period in Turkey, and by January 1990 about 130,000 had returned.

In December 1989, the Social Council of Citizens, appointed by the new government, recommended that Turks be given the right 'to choose their own names, practise Islam, observe traditional customs and speak Turkish in everyday life'. In March 1990, the National Assembly passed the Names of Bulgarian Citizens Act, reinstating the right of all Muslims, including Turks, to choose their own names. Legislation passed between 1990 and 1992 facilitated the return of property to Turks who had left the country in 1989 and allowed the teaching of the Turkish language in schools as an extra-curricular subject. With the lifting of restrictions, religious instruction recommenced in mosques and mechets (religious schools), of which there are over 920 in Bulgaria, and copies of the Koran became freely available.

Even as the government improved respect for Turkish rights, an ensuing decline of the tobacco industry affected the Turkish community disproportionately. By the mid-1990s, more than 25 per cent of Turks were unemployed, as opposed to 14.4 per cent of ethnic Bulgarians. Economic disadvantage prompted the continued emigration of ethnic Turks to Turkey. According to figures released by the Turkish Government in October 1992, 160,000 Bulgarian Turks had entered Turkey in the preceding nine months.

Despite a provision in the 1991 Constitution banning ethnically and religiously-based political parties, the predominantly ethnic Turkish Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF) narrowly escaped abolition by the authorities. The MRF has gone on to become the third largest party, and has participated in several Bulgarian governments.

Current issues

In 2005, 28 of 240 members of the Bulgarian National Assembly were Turks, a percentage even exceeding the Turkish share of Bulgaria's population. The Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF), which is predominantly ethnic Turkish, is a current partner in the current Bulgarian government. From the lifting of restrictions in 1989-1990, Turkish-language newspapers have revived, and Turkish language broadcast media are available, if limited in scope.

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