Bulgaria Pays Little Heed to Glasnost When it Comes to Minorities
MIKHAIL GORBACHEV's policies, in unleashing hopes of freedom in East Europe, have opened the door to a revival of age-old nationalist feuds. Hungarians are protesting Romania's treatment of their kinfolk; Yugoslavia is torn by ethnic strife; and now Bulgarians and Turks are battling it out, as Peter Manolov testifies. The bearded Mr. Manolov, a writer, is secretary general of Bulgaria's independent Association for the Defense of Human Rights. In an interview in Paris, he spoke of clashes this month between the Bulgarian Army and ethnic Turks. According to reports reaching an international human rights conference here, the violence has left more than a dozen dead and scores wounded, and has sparked the daily departure to Turkey of between 3,000 and 5,000 ethnic Turks.
Tension between Slavs and the Turkish minority has existed since Ottoman rule. The present chapter dates to 1984 when Bulgarian leader Todor Zhivkov required that ethnic Turks change their name to Slavic ones, banned public use of the Turkish language, jammed Turkish radio stations, and closed most mosques.
``This was before the Gorbachev era,'' Manolov says. ``Our intellectuals were unprepared to take a position.''
After the reform-minded Soviet leader's rise to power, organized dissent spread in Bulgaria. In January 1988, the unofficial rights group was founded. Composed at first mostly of Bulgarian intellectuals, it soon numbered 3,000 members - two-thirds of them ethnic Turks.
``We were inspired by what was happening in the Soviet Union,'' he explains. ``We just wanted glasnost and perestroika here.''
The Zhivkov regime responded harshly. In January, Manolov and six other activists were arrested. He was freed after he went on a hunger strike.
``I told my interrogators that we were doing the same thing as Gorbachev in the Soviet Union ... ,'' Manolov recalls. ``They would respond, `Stop talking about the Soviet Union, stop talking about that man.'''
Manolov refused. His group began to organize Turkish resistance to forced ``Bulgarization.'' It published a three-point proviso on May 18 calling for the return of original names, the right to speak Turkish, and the right to practice Islam freely. To press their point, Turkish activists went on hunger strike.
``The strike spread like wildfire, entire villages took it up,'' Manolov recalls. ``The government responded by picking up activists and expelling them.'' Pressure also increased on the Bulgarian activists. On May 19 and 20, three of Manolov's colleagues were arrested and charged with ``inciting revoution.'' Manolov's wife was stoned, and he received death threats. The regime also organized demonstrations in Sofia. In Manolov's view, ``By whipping up anti-Turkish hatred, our leadership hopes to mobilize public opinion and keep control.''
Turkish diplomats fear a mass exodus of the 1.5 million ethnic Turks living in Bulgaria. There are no signs so far that international criticism will force Sofia to relent. Mr. Gorbachev has not criticized Zhivkov.
``A liberalized Bulgaria is an even more unpredictable Bulgaria,'' Manolov says. ``It would try to free itself [from Moscow], and that's not in Gorbachev's interest.'' He and his family, given passports for the Paris conference, have asked for political asylum. ``I hope my exile now will be temporary,'' he says. ``Sooner or later, we must get a new leadership who will appreciate my work.''