'Revival Process' brings mixed feelings among ethnic Turks
Twenty-three years after the end of the shameful process of changing the names of ethnic Turks in Bulgaria, some celebrate democracy, while others struggle to forget the pain and suffering.
By Tzvetina Borisova for SES Türkiye in Dzhebel -- 23/05/12
Thousands gathered in the southern town of Dzhebel on Saturday (May 19th) to mark 23 years since the protests of ethnic Turks, considered the painful beginning of the collapse of the communist regime in November 1989.
Ethnic Turks turned out on Saturday (May 19th) to commemorate another Revival Process anniversary. [Tzvetina Borisova/SES Türkiye]
"I am filled with joy today because we celebrate democracy," Semir Recep told SES Türkiye. He was forced to leave his hometown during the so-called Revival Process. "I still have my house here and I am happy I can come back to visit it."
Recep was one of an estimated 360,000 of the 1.2 million Muslims living in Bulgaria, who left its territory between June and August 1989 in what was later called "the big excursion." This was preceded by a massive five-year Revival Process campaign aimed at changing their Turko-Arabic names into Bulgarian ones. Communist authorities used all means, including force and repression, to move the process forward.
Some say this process was motivated by economic reasons -- a crisis was emerging, and provoking patriotism would help the ruling Communist Party strengthen its hand. Others say it had to do with concerns about the increasing number of ethnic Turks in the territory. A third theory is that this was an experiment which, if successful, would be repeated in the former Soviet Union to settle its own minority issues.
Whatever the reason, the Muslims responded with harsh protests, which were sporadic in the first years but became organised and culminated in the so-called "May events" of 1989. In these five years of forceful assimilation, dozens were killed, hundreds were sent to prisons, and thousands were forced to leave their homes, many never to return.
"We were banished. They gave us our new passports by force, the ones with our changed names in them, and told us to leave if we don't want them," said a man who would only identify himself to SES Türkiye as Fikret because of the sensitivity of the name issue. "I had my own name, why did they change it?"
As tension became dangerously high and many were openly stating their opposition -- attracting unwanted international attention -- authorities urged Turkey "to open its borders" with Bulgaria and let everyone who wanted to visit and live there do so. Thus, hundreds of thousands of "tourists", left, including some of the highest profile activists, who were forcefully removed.
For many of those who stayed, May 19th is a day of sad remembrance. "I don't want to go back to the past -- they [the communist regime] ruined my life. I spent so many years in prison, I was not allowed to work. Here, I begin to tremble when I remember those days," Ismail, who also did not wish to reveal his last name, told SES Türkiye.
Early this year, Bulgaria's parliament adopted a declaration condemning the Revival Process. Ismail, however, is not impressed. "A single declaration does not mean anything ... Nothing material can make up for the pain I've suffered," he said.
"Politicians use the past to play with the people's minds. They should not return people to those dark days for their own political purposes," he added.
During Saturday's commemoration in Dzhebel, politicians from the main ethnic Turkish Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF) used the opportunity to outline their goals and campaign promises ahead of next year's general elections.
"It all happened because of politics. I had friends -- Bulgarian friends, Turkish friends. Nobody cared what my name was... What matters in this life is humanity and friendship. And they destroyed this for their own agenda and interests," Fikret said, picking up his bag and heading to the bus bound back to Turkey.