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Like Moscow, Bulgaria contends with rising Muslim population

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Since early January, public concern in Turkey has mounted over a flood of newspaper reports about oppression of the Turkish minority in Bulgaria. Some opposition politicians have seized on this issue to embarrass Prime Minister Turgut Ozal. The heart of Turkish concern is fear that Bulgaria aims to deprive its growing Turkish minority of both their religious and cultural heritage.

Bulgarian slowness to respond to Turkish worries merely intensified them. A mid-January letter from President Kenan Evren to Bulgarian head of state Todor Zhivkov took nearly two weeks to be answered. In his response, Mr. Zhivkov maintained that Bulgarian Turks enjoy legal status equal to all Bulgarian citizens and rejected allegations of mistreatment as false. Few Turks are inclined to take such assurances at face value.

Still, Turkey is eager to maintain businesslike relations. It is dependent on road and rail routes through communist Bulgaria for its main link to Western Europe. Sales of natural gas promised last year by the Soviet Union could be put in jeopardy.

Reports of political strain inside Bulgaria have accumulated since late summer. The country experienced several mysterious bombings in August and September. One occurred in the Plovdiv, the center of a region with a heavy Turkish minority. Whether Turks had anything to do with the incident is unknown because Sofia suppressed all news of the incidents.

More recently, clashes with police and troops in several towns with sizable Turkish populations have been confirmed by Western diplomatic sources. The Turkish government is undoubtedly well informed on them. Sources in the Turkish capital, Ankara, confirm that the immediate cause of the clashes has been a Bulgarian campaign to force Turks to change both their first and family names to Slavic forms. Such changes entail, in effect, abandoning traditional Muslim names for Christian ones. But why such preoccupation with names?

``It is a symptom of a much more serious problem,'' says Prof. Aydin Yalcin of Ankara University. ``The truth is that the Bulgarian communist regime faces the same embarrassing predicament as its big brother in Moscow: a Muslim population that is increasing three or four times as fast as the Slavs.''

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