by Albena Shkodrova, Balkan Investigative Reporting Network; photography by Ivo Hadzhimishev

Bulgaria was a multicultural society long before multiculturalism got talked about


Most Bulgarians encounter problems dealing with their insurance companies. They may have miserable experiences with the state health and pension systems. But, usually, in spite of these and other complaints, it's the Roma or Turkish minorities who become the scapegoats for their woes. Several factors influence discriminatory attitudes in Bulgaria. One of the most insidious is the stirring up of intolerance by populist politicians and opinion makers, who exploit traditional prejudices.

Bigoted attitudes are not unique to Bulgaria. However, the country's history of isolation under Communism means that it lacks experience in accommodating different groups. Blatantly racist behaviour and language, unacceptable in most Western societies, are a regular part of public discourse. Even Bulgaria's establishment has described Gypsies in terms that would have caused public outrage in the West.

Such attitudes strangely coexist with a new optimism in the country. Many Bulgarians believe they are on the road to “normality”. The brutal and perverse Communist regime has gone. The devastating social and economic conditions that ruined so many lives are being swept aside. Poverty is being tackled. Above all, EU membership promises a bright future. Yet, in spite of economic improvement and democracy, recent polls show that Bulgaria's ethnic and religious groups are more divided than ever.

The state seems unable or unwilling to address these divisions. After 1989, all ethnic groups regained their human rights. Ironically, the freedom to speak and study their languages, practise their religion and enjoy political representation seems to have exacerbated tensions.

Bulgaria's leaders intone platitudes about their society's “natural ethnic tolerance”. But Valentin Danchev, a political analyst and sociologist, believes that this just “allows some Bulgarians to indulge in offensive behaviour while flattering themselves for their ethnic tolerance”.

A significant number of Bulgarians hold completely unacceptable views of minorities. Nationalism is firmly entrenched in Bulgaria's political life, as shown by Ataka, the extremist party whose rhetoric has poisoned the mainstream. Racism and intolerance can be seen everywhere – in the media and in political debates and activities – and offenders often seem unaware of the harm they do.

Take one example: Bulgaria's hostility to what in America is known as “affirmative action”. Taxpayers complain that they foot the bill for the comfort of “lazy” minorities. That view dominates ordinary conversation, public forums and news publications. “Taxpayers' money will continue to support Gypsies,” read one comment under an article about new social housing for Roma families in Plovdiv. “It would have been better, just for a change, to help young Bulgarian families with two or more children, but it seems the state cares more about the Gypsies!” Even a government minister was heard using this kind of language. Emilia Maslarova, Social Affairs Minister, said that she wished she were Roma, so she would not have to pay her utility bills.

More and more people blame minorities for their problems. The truth is very different. Bulgarians are regularly harassed by other Bulgarians, not by minorities. The police often protect criminals. Ordinary citizens have been intimidated by mutri, drug dealers and corrupt officials for years. However, very few Bulgarians have ever been attacked by Gypsies. Yet the idea that the Roma are all criminals is an article of faith among most people. The belief that the Muslim minority cannot be trusted, that it could unleash a terrorist tidal wave overnight, is also gaining ground.

The far right's populist rhetoric touches on all of these themes. “Insolent Gypsy Robs Innocent English Tourist” is an all-too-typical recent headline from Ataka's newspaper. Ataka politicians, and their fellow travellers in the media, claim that such talk wins votes because it voices people's feelings. Yet their rhetoric also influences opinion. And so the vicious cycle continues. An Alpha Research poll taken last March showed that more people than ever, 32 percent, view ethnic conflict in Bulgaria as increasingly likely. An even higher figure, 38 percent, believe that the conflict would occur between ethnic Bulgarians and the Roma.


Roma, Bulgaria

All estimates of the Bulgarian Roma's population are speculative. During the last census, in 2001, about 384,000 people identified themselves as Gypsies. But experts say the real number is between 700,000 and 800,000. The discrepancy is explained by the tendency of many Roma to associate themselves with Turks, Bulgarians, or the Vlachs, ethnic Romanians living in northern Bulgaria.

All Gypsies living in Bulgaria are Roma. Nevertheless, the ethnic composition of the Roma minority is as variegated as their traditional costumes. Having arrived from different places at different times, they do not make up one uniformly distinct group.

The earliest arrivals were the Yerilii, or Gypsies, who adopted a sedentary life. They came to Bulgaria in the 13th or 14th Century in one of the first waves of Roma migrations. First as residents of Byzantium, and later of the Ottoman Empire, they were forced to abandon their nomadic ways and settle in towns and villages.

Many converted to Islam. Others chose Christianity. The Muslims call themselves horohane-rom and often describe themselves as Turks, while the Christians are called discane-rom and sometimes see themselves as Bulgarians. Other Roma groups did not assimilate into the surrounding communities but preserved their original identity. Among these are the drundari or the kutkadzhii.

The next large wave of Roma migration occurred between the 18th and 19th Centuries. Some arrived directly from the Romanian territories of Vlashko and Moldova. Others came through the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This influx is known as “the Kelderarian invasion”, and the group who arrived at that time as the Kaldarashi.

The Kaldarashi are devout Orthodox Christians and the ones who have best preserved their traditional society and beliefs. Their group is the only one still to use the Roma social institution of the meshere, or popular court. The Ludari are another group of Bulgarian Gypsies. They also came from Romania, but, unlike other Gypsies, they don't speak Romani, only archaic Romanian, and think of themselves as Romanians.

Like everywhere in Europe, Gypsies in Bulgaria were oppressed over the course of centuries. In the days of the Ottoman Empire they were persecuted by both Christians and Muslims. Some Bulgarian classics, such as Zahari Stoyanov's Notes on Bulgarian Uprisings, reveal that the Roma minority received horrible treatment at the hands of patriots. Sometimes they sought protection from the Turks, but usually to no avail.

The modern-day segregation of Bulgarian Gypsies began in the 1960s. The Communists built special elementary schools for them, concentrating on technical education. This step did not augur well for the labour prospects of several generations of Roma.

When Communism collapsed in 1989, Bulgarian Gypsies were particularly badly hit by the ensuing economic crisis. In 1998, over 80 percent were unemployed – compared to 16 percent of Bulgarians. World Bank data from 1999 indicated that 32 percent of Bulgarians were living in poverty. A staggering 84 percent of Roma suffered the same conditions.

The poor state of the Roma is a matter of serious concern. Despite a number of optimistically named initiatives, the government has failed to deliver. Meanwhile, relations between the Gypsy minority and the Bulgarian population continue to deteriorate.



Various sources estimate that there are between 10,000 and 13,000 Armenians living in Bulgaria. They are bilingual, most belonging to the Armenian church. However, about a third of the community now subscribes to the Bulgarian Orthodox church.

Armenians were among the earliest immigrants to the Balkans. Historians claim that some arrived here at the same time as the Slavs – and before the Proto-Bulgarians – in the 5th Century. Another wave, in fact several hundreds of thousands of people, were transported here by Byzantine emperors between the 8th and 10th Centuries.

There is little evidence that any settlers from that era either survived or preserved their national identity. But historians have found many traces of this particular community. They claim that the Armenians, with their Orthodox beliefs, played an important role in Bulgaria's Christianisation, as well as in the royal dynasties.

The older Armenian immigrants have been thoroughly assimilated, but they left their imprint in many place-names – from Armyankovtsi to Armenopolis. One of the important Bulgarian monasteries, in Bachkovo, was built by Armenians.

The bulk of the community now living in Bulgaria arrived after the country gained its independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1878. In the 1890s, 20,000 sought refuge from the oppression of Sultan Abdul Hamid II. During the massacres in Turkey between 1915 and 1922, another 22,000 arrived. At that point state documents recorded almost 50,000 Armenians in Bulgaria.

In subsequent years, many moved to Europe and North America, and some returned to Soviet Armenia. Those remaining in Bulgaria settled mainly in Sofia, Varna, Burgas, Plovdiv and Ruse.

Between the end of the 19th Century and 1940, there were over 50 Armenian publications in Bulgaria.

Armenians only experienced oppression during the Communist era, when the authorities adopted a policy of forced assimilation against all ethnic and religious groups. The state nationalised private Armenian schools and forced them to teach the language of Soviet Armenia, not the dialect used by the local population.

In 1961, these schools were closed. Armenian churches fell victim to the general policy against displays of religious belief. Only one newspaper, Erevan, continued to serve as the community's voice.

After 1989 the Armenians' fortunes slowly recovered. Now they have 12 churches, four newspapers, and a number of NGOs. They have received no state support, but at least they were spared the prejudice, racism and xenophobia that marred the lives of so many other minorities in today's Bulgaria.



This is one of Bulgaria's most economically successful and integrated minorities. They define themselves as ethnic Greeks espousing Eastern Orthodox beliefs.

Famous for raising their own breed of sheepdogs, karakachanska ovcharka, as much as for their ornate traditional costumes, they are often high achievers. Many Bulgarians actually equate their ethnicity with business success. The media have reported several cases of people inquiring about how to become Karakachani.

The community was not always wealthy. Their forebears were 10,000 Greek shepherds, who, fleeing oppression in the early 19th Century, settled in southern Bulgaria. At that time Bulgarian and Greek lands were both part of the Ottoman Empire. In the 1830s, Yanina in northern Greece was ruled by Pasha Ali, who persecuted Christians on his lands. The shepherds and their families, accustomed to a nomadic life, decided to migrate north to escape his brutality.

Karakachani legends say that the property of their richest families then amounted to “one horse load”. Preserving their nomadic life, they would move to the mountains in the summer, making shacks from tree branches. In the winter they stayed in the plains, building temporary shelters where they produced cheese and yoghurt.

Socialism brought an end to their wandering life. In 1954, the Communist government ordered that the Karakachani settle permanently. In 1958, because of their unwillingness to comply, the authorities nationalised their property. After this blow, the Karakachani settled in a few small towns. They built their first houses, usually in the suburbs. Many established themselves in Sliven, Karnobat and Kazanlak in southern Bulgaria, but they could also be found north of the Balkan mountain range – in Karlovo, Sopot, and as far north as Vratsa and Montana near the Danube.

For several decades this minority intermarried and merged with ethnic Bulgarians. They tried to avoid being too conspicuous, fearing social, rather than state, oppression. After the demise of socialism, the Karakachani prospered quickly. Because their children were highly educated, they avoided the fate of other minorities. In 1991 they were given the right to study the Greek language at school.

Many of them survived the economic crisis of the early 1990s by travelling to Greece for seasonal work. Unlike other Bulgarians, who also sought employment in Greece, the Karakachani had the advantage of knowing the language. They also received preferential treatment from Greek authorities, and found it easier to acquire long-term visas and work permits.

In the mid 1990s many opened businesses in their Bulgarian hometowns and, in time, became the wealthier citizens of places like Sliven and Karnobat. And they preserved their skill for making delicious cheese.



According to official statistics, there were only 1,363 Jews living in Bulgaria in 2001. For a country that prides itself for saving 50,000 Jews from the Holocaust only 60 years earlier, this is a remarkable fall in numbers. In 1946, as many as 44,209 people identified themselves as Jews in Bulgaria.

Jews have been in the Balkans since Antiquity, but the forebears of today's community arrived at the end of the 15th Century – the Sepharads, expelled by the Spain of the Reconquista. After the formation of Bulgaria's modern independent state in 1887, they were joined by a significant number of Ashkenazi coming from Central Europe. In the Middle Ages Bulgarian Jews enjoyed a tolerant climate, as proved by the marriage of Ivan Alexander, an important king, to Sarah, a Jewish woman, who then changed her name to Theodora.

The Ottoman Empire also provided a hospitable environment for a number of ethnic and religious groups, including the Jews. Large synagogues in Sofia and Vidin, built at the beginning of the 20th Century, reveal that there was no change in mainstream attitudes after independence.

Trouble began in the early 1940s, when Bulgaria, hoping to regain territories in Macedonia, allied itself with Nazi Germany. In March 1943, the government deported almost 4,000 Jews from Skopje and other Macedonian towns, handing them over to the Germans. Most were sent to the concentration camps in Poland. Almost none survived.

Documents recently made public show that the Bulgarian government also negotiated with the Nazis for the extradition of Jews from Bulgaria itself. However, subsequent developments thwarted this plan, and Bulgaria joined Denmark in saving from extermination its entire Jewish population.

However, most Jews emigrated to Israel after the war. A small fraction, less than five percent, remained in Bulgaria.

Today, anti-Semitism in Bulgarian society is gaining ground, driven mainly by the rise of nationalism and Volen Siderov, the leader of Ataka, whose language dwarfs that of Jörg Haider. Perhaps it poses little actual danger, but it is an obnoxious “novelty”.



Nearly 750,000 people identified themselves as ethnic Turks during the 2001 census. However, the figure is inexact because some members of the Roma minority prefer to claim Turkish origins, believing this confers a more acceptable social status.

The Turks settled here in much greater numbers in the days of the Ottoman Empire, which ruled Bulgaria between the 14th and 19th Centuries. Seljuk Turks, and later Anatolian Turks, were the first to settle here, mainly in the towns.

When Bulgaria gained independence in 1878, many Turks voluntarily left for what was to become the modern Turkish state. The country itself encouraged this as much as possible, but attempts to expel or assimilate the minority lasted all through the 20th Century. Numerous uprisings in Bulgarian territories that remained part of the Ottoman Empire and the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913 only deepened ethnic animosity.

The treatment of Turks, Pomaks and Gypsies under Communism was one of the most shameful episodes in Bulgarian history. A series of repressive measures drove half a million Turks to leave the country between 1950 and 1989. The early imposition of cooperative farms was directly responsible for the emigration of 155,000 Turks to Turkey.

In later years, several attempts to force the Muslim minority to adopt Bulgarian Orthodox names followed. This “manoeuvre”, ironically called the “Revival Process”, drove another 360,000 Turks away. Only 120,000 returned after 1989.

Now ethnic Turks are concentrated in two parts of Bulgaria: in the south, extending from the eastern Rhodope and the plain leading to the Balkan mountain range, and north of Stara Planina, in Dobrudzha. Many live in the towns of Shumen, Turgovishte, Haskovo and Kurdzhali.

The majority of Turks are Sunni Muslims. Their religious convictions are similar to those of the Turks in Turkey, relatively secular and moderate.

Politically, ethnic Turks in Bulgaria have formed the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, the DPS. Although it has always received less than 10 percent of the vote, it has been a member of almost every governing coalition since 1989.

The DPS and its politics are a frequent target of the far right Ataka party's criticism. Other Bulgarian parties have traditionally refused to cooperate with Ataka, but, now Citizens for the European Development of Bulgaria (GERB) have found common cause in opposing the DPS. Alarmingly, the two parties have announced they will unite to support a controversial priest's candidacy for the post of mayor of Kurdzhali.

While their candidate has no chance of winning in a town whose population is more than 80 percent ethnically Turkish, this development undermines efforts to promote ethnic harmony.



According to official statistics, there are 330,000 Pomaks in Bulgaria. The majority live in the south, in small villages scattered over the Rhodope Mountains. Mired in poverty, lacking jobs, and often separated from the outside world by poor infrastructure, their lives are only a little better than those of the most disadvantaged Bulgarian minority, the Roma.

National historical research defines the Pomaks as ethnic Bulgarians who adopted Islam when the country was part of the Ottoman Empire. Muslim by religion and Bulgarian by language and ethnicity, many are considered aliens by both ethnic Bulgarians and the ethnic Turks who dominate the Muslim community in the country.

They have regularly been harassed. Ever since independence, Bulgarian authorities have made attempts to convert them to Christianity. The first took place soon after the end of the Turko-Russian war of 1877-1878, which gave Bulgaria its freedom. Another drive followed the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913. A third was undertaken during the Second World War.

First the royalist and later the Communist state forced the adoption of Bulgarian Orthodox names and banned Muslim clothing and religious practices. The most vicious of these campaigns resulted in violent clashes and deaths, in 1912 and again in the early 1970s.

Today the Pomaks live in the poorest parts of the country. During the transition to democracy they were amongst those who suffered most from the economic crisis. Many worked in the tobacco industry, which shrank dramatically with Bulgaria's integration into the EU. Other common Pomak occupations are harvesting, mining and textile work – all unskilled and low-paid jobs.

In recent years their situation has improved. The rapid development of tourism and the construction boom everywhere in the country have increased the income of many Pomak families. Improvements in infrastructure, though partial and slow, have ended their isolation.

Regional media have recently reported an improvement in the political situation as well. Until a couple of years ago, no political party seemed concerned about the well-being of the Pomaks. But now the DPS, in a bid to win their votes, has started addressing some of their problems.

The development has alarmed many politicians, who fear the consolidation of large areas of southern Bulgaria under the control of the Turkish party. Ataka accused the DPS of distributing pamphlets falsifying history. Its newspaper called the tactic an attempt to erase the Bulgarian national character of the Rhodopes.

However, this fear did not prompt the other parties to develop their own strategies to aid the poor Pomak areas.


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