by Yavor Dachkov; photography by BTA

Is the leader of Bulgaria's Turkish party a successful politician or a successful businessman?

ahmed dogan 2.jpg

When a rumour trickled out two years ago that an attempt had been made on the life of Ahmed Dogan, leader of the Turk-dominated Movement for Rights and Freedoms party (DPS), the media responded calmly. The Novinar daily reported that the incident had been corroborated by MPs from the parliamentary Internal Order and Security Commission. According to the sparse reports at the time, it appears that shortly after New Year's Eve, an unidentified person shot at Dogan's car as he was leaving Sofia's trendy Boyana suburb. He was saved by the quick and expert reaction of his driver (a former employee of the Bulgarian security services), who promptly reversed the car to safety behind the walls of the DPS's Boyana "fortress".

From the outside, the DPS's base does indeed resemble a fortress. A high stone wall hides the buildings from curious passers-by on Belovodski Road. The gate, constructed like a maximum security facility checkpoint, is guarded by thickset young men dressed in black. Initially, Dogan claimed the building belonged neither to the DPS nor to himself, but was the property of an unnamed investment company which had placed it at his disposal to use as the party's training centre. Later, it emerged that it was one of Dogan's private residences. Again, the media displayed an uncharacteristic lack of interest. No scandal ensued, despite the fact that the Bulgarian establishment's income and property is an issue usually relished by the media. As for the attempt on Dogan's life, the DPS officially denied that there had been one. However, the DPS leader was immediately assigned bodyguards and cars from the National Security Service and the incident was quickly "forgotten" by the media.

The media are, in fact, mainly responsible for Ahmed Dogan's almost legendary image, which was systematically and, at times, uncritically established during the transition period in Bulgaria. Neither his past as a former State Security agent, the vague origin of his assets, his shaky attendance record in the Bulgarian parliament (in the 10 years of his three mandates he has reputedly attended no more than 30 sessions), nor the poverty in which many of the DPS's devoted voters live, has been able to taint this image.

Some time ago, The Financial Times dubbed Ahmed Dogan the most successful Muslim politician in Europe. The article revealed a certain innocence in the West about the situation in the post-Communist Balkan countries, and seemed oblivious to Dogan's alleged links to various scandals involving graft. Dogan's critics argue that he played the "ethnic peace" card to effectively build a small empire within Bulgaria, while others drew parallels between the course of his political career and the transition in Bulgaria, characterised by the transformation of the former Communist Party's political power into economic might. It was a transformation in which the borderlines between state and crime became blurred, in which criminals often became the core of the establishment, and the mutri, sadly visible in Bulgaria, Russia and former Yugoslavia, emerged as perhaps the most obvious symbol.

Reportedly, Ahmed Dogan (centre) pulls the strings of the ruling tripartite coalition between himself, Prime Minister Sergey Stanishev (left) and NDSV leader Simeon Saxe-Coburg (right)

Reportedly, Ahmed Dogan (centre) pulls the strings of the ruling tripartite coalition between himself, Prime Minister Sergey Stanishev (left) and NDSV leader Simeon Saxe-Coburg (right)

There are two conflicting versions of the story behind Dogan's political success. One stipulates that he is a self-made politician; a man who, owing to his intellect, character and foresight, has succeeded in remaining in senior politics for 17 years and in creating a rock-solid party, a voting machine guaranteeing him a constant and decisive presence in Bulgarian parliament. One of the leading proponents of this theory is Sokola, "The Falcon", that is, Dogan himself. An excerpt from his official CV states: Ahmed Demir Dogan is a Bulgarian politician, founder of the DPS in 1990 and its chairman up to the present day, the former leader of the clandestine Turkish National Liberation Movement, which carried out organised resistance against the Revival Process, imprisoned at the end of the 1980s for his illegal activities, reprieved after the fall of the Communist regime on 10 November 1989.

However, the "unofficial" version, reads rather differently. In 1997, former Interior Minister Bogomil Bonev promulgated a list of politicians' names who had collaborated with the former State Security. Ahmed Dogan featured on the list under the code name Sava. It emerged that he had collaborated with the feared repressive machine of Communist Bulgaria for over a decade - at exactly the same time when he was theoretically "fighting against" the Revival Process. Osman Oktay, now leader of an opposing ethnic Turkish party, the Movement of the Democratic Wing (DDK), was his closest associate and right-hand man for seven years. He claims that Dogan took part in the drafting of a report in Bulgaria in the early 1980s on the ethnic characteristics of the Turkish population. In 1984, on the basis of this report, the Communist Party and State Security built their strategy for the implementation of the Revival Process, in which Bulgarian Turks were forced, sometimes at gunpoint, to change their names into Slavic ones.

According to Oktay, Dogan infiltrated the Turkish National Liberation Movement in Bulgaria on orders from State Security, where his task was to monitor any possible opposition from within the Turkish minority. To provide him with additional cover, they even put him in prison for his "terrorist activities". Subsequently, he would claim that he had directed the mass protests against the Revival Process from prison. Years later, the Trud daily published his prison mugshot, showing Dogan with a well-trimmed goatee and rather long hair. The inmate's well-kempt appearance prompted raised eyebrows from those familiar with Bulgarian jails before 1989. Extremely close-cropped hair and clean-shaven faces were compulsory for all prisoners. The claim that The Falcon had directed resistance movements from his prison cell was also met with incredulity - if State Security had planted him there, why would they have allowed him to engage in such activities? After 1989, Dogan's main assignment was allegedly to maintain the former regime's control over the democratic processes by becoming a leader of the future opposition.

Ahmed Dogan lays some flowers at a monument in memory of the victims of Turkish terrorism in the 1980s. The affair, which was hushed by the Communist authorities at the time, has never been fully explained

Ahmed Dogan lays some flowers at a monument in memory of the victims of Turkish terrorism in the 1980s. The affair, which was hushed by the Communist authorities at the time, has never been fully explained

Bulgaria has never had a genuine dissident movement, and there is a theory that the opposition in Bulgaria was created at the beginning of the 1990s by the Communist Party and the former security services. According to former State Security officials, including M. M., Dogan's supervising officer, "Ahmed was 'our boy' and we used him to take control of the situation in the country after the collapse of Communism, just like we used him in the Revival Process. Through him, we were sure that the Bulgarian Turks would not turn against us and we prevented what happened later in former Yugoslavia from occurring here."

However, Osman Oktay, Dogan's erstwhile Number Two, says that "the parallel drawn with neighbouring Yugoslavia is convenient but untrue." He says that initially there were two wings in the DPS. "One consisted of people formerly connected with the elite: Bulgarian Turks who served the Communist nomenklatura, like Yunal Lyutfi, for example. The other was the wing of the Turkish intelligentsia in the country, of the people who had not collaborated with the former security services and who saw the future of the DPS in close cooperation with the Union of Democratic Forces, or SDS, and the rightwing movement taking shape in the country."

Oktay's reports are supported by one of the DPS's founding members, Yenal Bekir, who was expelled from the party's governing body in the early 1990s. He confirms that Ahmed Dogan was installed as a leader of the DPS by State Security and that the Turkish intelligentsia which was not linked to the former regime was gradually driven out of the DPS. "He is a product of the system and it uses him, but when he is no longer necessary, it will get rid of him like it got rid of Lukanov, Iliya Pavlov, Fatik and the rest of them." Osman Oktay adds that the whole scenario was well-padded with money.

Oktay has good reason to mention Iliya Pavlov and Fatik. The former was assassinated by a sniper in March 2003 and the latter was shot dead in his car in broad daylight several months later. The two were close friends; they both had a State Security past and huge wealth amassed during the transition period. Fatik's family is rumoured to have been involved with State Security in controlling the contraband channels long before 10 November 1989. Iliya Pavlov set up his company Multigroup later, but again it is widely reported that this was done with the help of the former security services. Former Prime Minister Reneta Indzhova publicly termed the first government elected under the mandate of the DPS a "government of Multigroup". It was headed by the late Professor Lyuben Berov between 1992 and 1994. Many political analysts propound that Bulgaria's organised crime gangs were established and flourished during these years.

"Dogan was something between a trusted friend and a jester for Fatik and Iliya Pavlov. I've seen him belly-dancing on a table upon their 'request'," Osman Oktay says. Dogan makes no attempt to hide his links with these or other notorious "businessmen", like Erdzhan "Roko" Rashid, an entrepreneur in Kardzhali. The Falcon is also reputed to have a penchant for beautiful women, alcohol and nightlife. He has been married four times and when he was awarded the Stara Planina state order by President Parvanov he was accompanied by fashion model Alten Alieva, with whom he still lives.

Osman Oktay, Dogan's erstwhile right-hand man in the DPS, now heads a rival organisation of ethnic Turks

Osman Oktay, Dogan's erstwhile right-hand man in the DPS, now heads a rival organisation of ethnic Turks

According to Oktay, Dogan's daily routine consists of getting up at around noon, going to the DPS headquarters at about 2 pm, where he works for about two or three hours, before returning home for tea. Then he goes out to party in selected clubs until five or six in the morning. This matches reports from other people close to Dogan, including the accounts of Tosho Toshev, the editor-in-chief of the Trud daily, published in his book Zhan, Ivan and the Lie, where he describes a wild night he spent with the leader of the DPS.

"Dogan and I split," Osman Oktay continues, "because of this way of life as well as his philosophy for running the DPS. He saw the organisation as a large company directly under his command. He wanted to have control over everything. The DPS mayors had to follow his instructions - which bank to deposit the municipal money in, which insurance company to use and where to invest their money down to the last penny. If anyone from the DPS wanted to start a company or help others start one they had to ask Dogan. He wanted to have a share in everything, in every business."

These words were confirmed by the DPS leader himself in a shocking interview broadcast by a major television channel, where he expounded on the now notorious idea of a "circle of companies".

"Look, all over the world, from America to Japan, each political party has, so to say, a circle of companies... If you think that I have less capability than a banker then you have no real idea of the influence of a politician. For the past 15 years probably half of the entrepreneurs who have had great success have done so... either with my cooperation or at the least with my smile." To the interviewer's question as to how the political powers repaid the companies that supported them, Ahmed Dogan clarified: "There is work to choose a contractor for, subcontractors, consultants, and so on... this is the way of politics."

Perhaps this is the way of politics in a country where the judicial system has abdicated from its duties and the crime investigation authorities submit to political pressure. Otherwise, the DPS's "circle of companies", which have allegedly squeezed hundreds of millions of leva from the State Reserve and misappropriated millions from the funds allocated for flood damage through the Ministry for Prevention of Disasters and Accidents, headed by DPS's Emel Etem, would have had to answer long ago. If this "unofficial" version of Dogan's success is to be believed, however, it seems that no such law applies to him.

His critics argue that Dogan plays the ethnic peace card to his advantage in the complicated game of international politics, using the DPS's proclaimed role as a keeper of the peace between ethnic Turks and Bulgarians as a powerful bargaining tool, when in fact it remains to be proved that any concrete threats to this peace would exist were the DPS not to be in power.

Whether Dogan's power stems from his being a functionary of the establishment the former security services and Communist elite his State Security origins and the shady business groups, or from his own political wile, will depend on whose version of history you subscribe to. But it can be said that Ahmed Dogan is one of the last living witnesses of the transformation of the former Communists' political power into an economic force. If Bulgaria's recent history is anything to go by, he should be very happy that he is still alive.


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