by Dimana Trankova; photography by BTA

Can the leader of the Movement for Rights and Freedoms once again do the impossible: fool all the people all the time?

A rare appearance: Ahmed Dogan just lost the July 2009 general election

"The ethnic card is being played on a very dangerous scale and I'd ask NATO and EU observers to monitor this very carefully." When Ahmed Dogan, leader of the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, or DPS, said this at a news conference the night after the general election, the waiter in the Sozopol restaurant where I was sitting paused and smiled broadly: "They can't do without him! There is no other politician like Dogan! He's the greatest!" The waiter comes from Haskovo, a region with a large population of ethnic Turks, the most faithful backers of the DPS. He is happy with the record number of ballots cast for his party. From the next table, a customer retorted: "What? A politician? He's ruined the country with his 'circles' of companies."

Reel back 20 years.

On 4 January 1990, a 36-year-old recently released political prisoner established the DPS, a party for Bulgarian Muslims. There was nothing to suggest then that he would become the greatest political phenomenon of the transition period. The DPS was just one of the dozens of parties that sprang up in the inchoate Bulgarian democracy, sought publicity and then vanished. The only thing that made the DPS different was that, although it was open to all citizens, it put the rights and freedoms of Bulgarian Muslims first. The target group was well chosen. The wounds that the Turks in Bulgaria had suffered in the so-called Revival Process were still raw. Revival Process? That was the official title for the forcible Bulgarisation of a million Bulgarian Turks that included changing their "Turko-Arabic" names into Slavic ones. The Communist government's explanation was that all of them were Bulgarians forcibly Islamised by the Ottomans and that the process "revived" their erstwhile "roots".

Neither Ahmed Dogan nor the DPS were like the rest, however. The party had actually been formed with the blessing of those who had organised the Revival Process: the Communist State Security, or DS. Dogan had become a DS agent as early as 1974 and remained one until 1988, under code-names Angelov, Sergey and Sava. Initially, he was trained as a spy to be posted abroad, but when the Revival Process of 1984–1985 began, things changed. Dogan, with his charismatic personality and a PhD in philosophy, was to infiltrate a clandestine organisations set up by Turks to fight the name-changing campaign.

Ahmed Dogan, a philosophy graduate, in 1990 when he was a member of the then newly-formed Committee for National Reconciliation

Ahmed Dogan, a philosophy graduate, in 1990 when he was a member of the then newly-formed Committee for National Reconciliation

In 1985 Dogan became one of the founders of the Turkish National Liberation Movement in Bulgaria, or TNDB. This movement was behind a number of terrorist acts such as those in Plovdiv and Bunovo in 1984 and 1985, when nine people were killed. In 1986 Dogan became chairman of the TNDB and, so as not to compromise his cover, was sentenced to 10 years in prison for anti-state activities. According to Dogan himself, it was from his prison cell that he began organising the small groups of Bulgarian Turks who staged mass protests around the country against the forcible name-changing campaign in May 1989. Some people even believe that this marked the beginning of a more open Bulgarian opposition against the regime, and the first demands for democratisation.

However, research such as that carried by Mihail Ivanov, whose book, Documentary Pages About the 1984-1989 Revival Process, shows that the DS had rid itself of most of the true organisers of the protests before they had even begun – and Dogan simply took all the credit for himself.

With his newly-acquired notoriety as a dissenter, Dogan was released from prison in the first days after the internal Communist Party coup of 10 November 1989. He would officially found the DPS a few months later. The DPS had 23 MPs in the Grand National Assembly of 1990, which hammered out Bulgaria's current Constitution. Ten of those were former DS agents. In total, 60 out of 400 MPs in that parliament had been DS stooges.

"Dogan and the DPS are among the most successful political projects of the security services of the former Communist regime," political scientist Ognyan Minchev sums up in an article published by Mediapool. No other party targeted at the Muslims in Bulgaria has managed to affect the DPS's monopoly on the votes of Bulgarian Turks.

Today Dogan, or The Falcon, as he is nicknamed, is the only politician who has remained undisputed leader of his party for 20 years. The DPS has not split like the Union of Democratic Forces, or SDS, and its voters have not dwindled like those of the Bulgarian Socialist Party, or BSP. In the last parliamentary election, 610,000 people cast their ballots for it.

Bulgarian Turks usually vote for the DPS

Bulgarian Turks usually vote for the DPS

Significantly, not all those who back the DPS at local, national and European elections live in Bulgaria, however. In keeping with what many identify as a quirk of Bulgaria's Constitution, all Bulgarian citizens, regardless of their place of abode and tax registration, have the right to vote – and the DPS is the party that takes full advantage of that. There are hundreds of thousands of immigrants in Turkey from the time of the "Great Excursion," the forced migration of over 300,000 people that followed the Revival Process in the summer of 1989. Many of these people, dual citizens of both Bulgaria and Turkey, have not spoken Bulgarian for years, have no idea who the mayor in their birthplace is and care little about this country's policies. But, organised by the DPS, they return to visit relatives in their native towns and villages – visits which usually "happen" to coincide with an election. This phenomenon is called "electoral tourism." In practice, people who live outside the EU influence not only the internal affairs of one of its member states but also the agenda of the European Parliament. Of the 156,180 Bulgarian citizens who voted abroad in the last parliamentary election 93,926, or 61 percent, supported the DPS.

Quite indisputably, Dogan has complete dominance over the DPS. Those who oppose him do not survive long. The career of Minister of Agriculture Ahmed Dikme (2001–2005) came to an inglorious end when he broke with the DPS in 2007 and, unsuccessfully, ran for mayor of Ardino. Last autumn, Ahmed Emin, the chief of Dogan's political cabinet, was found shot in the head in the Falcon's well-guarded residence in Boyana. Dogan did not send his condolences to the relatives and did not attend the funeral. The only thing he said of Emin, who had "committed suicide," was that he was a "common" male secretary.

Many of the DPS supporters see The Falcon as their only defence against a reoccurrence of the harsh years of the Revival Process, and the only source of economic, political and social stability. For the rest of Bulgaria's citizens, he is something between a Machiavellian politician and the greatest and only stumbling block to a bright future for Bulgaria. Until the latest general election, he was considered omnipotent; a man who could, through his own party, allot most of the EU funding for Bulgaria, allow illegal development in protected areas and do a range favours for selected "circles of companies" – for a relevant pay-back, of course.

Dogan carefully massages his public image. He rarely appears in public, does not give interviews, does not meet with foreign ambassadors and very rarely shows up in parliament, although he is an MP. During the last parliament, he registered 15 working days in the course of four years. While his voters live in the poorest regions of Bulgaria and deal primarily with tobacco-growing and small-time agriculture, Dogan lives in secluded luxury, surrounded by pretty women on million-dollar yachts. In his tax return for 2008 he declared income from "other economic activities" amounting to nearly 400,000 leva. In spite of media claims about his five "palaces," scattered from Boyana to the Black Sea coast, on paper Ahmed Dogan has no title to any real estate.

When speaking in public, Dogan is well known for his bluntness – or blunders. In a 2006 TV interview he said that all political parties have "circles of companies" that give them money in exchange for political favours. Commenting on the coach loads of voters from Turkey, he stated that "vote buying is a European phenomenon." Days before the latest general election, he told his voters in the village of Kochan: "I am the instrument of power. In this country, I give the handouts."

In early 1995, with then leader of the SDS, or Union of Democratic Forces, and later prime minister Ivan Kostov. Dogan and Kostov would become arch enemies

In early 1995, with then leader of the SDS, or Union of Democratic Forces, and later prime minister Ivan Kostov. Dogan and Kostov would become arch enemies

Dogan first tasted real power in 1991. The DPS received two ministerial portfolios in Filip Dimitrov's SDS government and The Falcon wisely chose Bulgarians, rather than Turks, for the posts. A year later, he withdrew his support for the cabinet and caused its collapse. Lyuben Berov's "expert" cabinet (1992–1994), which brought the economic reforms to a standstill and allowed organised crime to flourish, was only viable with the support of the DPS. In 2001, Dogan again had two ministers in the cabinet of the Simeon II National Movement, or NDSV, government but quickly consolidated his position and nearly toppled it by opposing the sale of Bulgartabac to British American Tobacco. This state-owned company buys tobacco produced mainly by DPS voters but has been loss-making for years.

The Falcon had an even stronger position in the government of the BSP-dominated coalition (2005–2009), a marriage of convenience between the BSP, the NDSV and the DPS, entered into with President Georgi Parvanov's blessing. Dogan's priorities were again the Ministry of Agriculture, which controls much of the EU funding, the Ministry of the Environment and Waters, which issues construction permits, and the brand-new Ministry of State Policy for Disasters and Accidents, seen by many as a very convenient way to divert state funds earmarked to fight disasters.

Dogan achieved all this using the same bargaining chip, the so-called ethnic card. His message was simple: if you don't deal with the DPS, Bulgaria will experience what happened in Bosnia in 1992–1995 and Kosovo in 1999. Christians will be ranged against Muslims and ethnic conflict will result.

Is this just a bluff? On the one hand, tension between the two ethnic groups was strongest during the Revival Process, when the DS played a decisive role. On the other hand, the brazen behaviour of the DPS when in power caused another political monster to appear in the shape of the extremist Ataka party. Another new party, Yane Yanev's Order, Law and Justice, entered parliament mainly because of its populist slogan "Let's stop Doganisation!" Dogan's "efforts" have not remained unacknowledged. In 2004, the president awarded him the highest national accolade, the Stara Planina Order, for his contribution to "ethnic peace." Soon afterwards, The Falcon would return it in protest against the decoration of Professor Vasil Mrachkov, chief prosecutor during the Revival Process.

This was a histrionic act. In 2007, when it became clear that the case against those responsible for the Revival Process might be dropped due to statutes of limitation, the truth came to light: the DPS might have spoken out against the Revival Process but had done nothing to help the legal system convict the perpetrators.

Many DPS voters in the Eastern Rhodope live in Third World conditions but continue to support Ahmed Dogan

Many DPS voters in the Eastern Rhodope live in Third World conditions but continue to support Ahmed Dogan

This is not the only time the party has deceived its voters. Anyone travelling in the areas with a Turkish population will note the stark reality of their existence, often in Third World conditions – only 100 kilometres from Plovdiv. Dogan never helped to provide an alternative livelihood for those who rely mostly on growing tobacco, turning them into Bulgartabac's serfs. The only chance that many young Turks have to succeed in life is to link their future with Dogan's political party. It gives them an education and a career; they give it their loyalty. For the rest, their only prospect is to become seasonal construction workers somewhere in Bulgaria or abroad, or small-time farmers.

After the 2009 election Dogan is no longer part of the establishment. For the time being. Boyko Borisov's government has pledged a full-scale investigation into Dogan's activities. It remains to be seen what – and whether – it will deliver. Dogan currently keeps a low profile as a leader of a major opposition party. He was even fined to failing to attend his workplace, the National Assembly.

The fact, however, is that he did it once. Dogan tried, very successfully, to fool all of the people all of the time. Will he do it again, or will he retire on one of his yachts? The answer to this one is now in Boyko Borisov's hands.


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