by Dimana Trankova; photography by BTA

Exactly 20 years ago, 350,000 Bulgarian Turks left as a result of the Communist government's policies of forced Bulgarisation. Now they vote for the Movement for Rights and Freedoms

Within three months 350,000 Turks were forced to leave Bulgaria for Turkey

On 15 September 1989 the school year began in an unusual way. Our class teacher announced in a stern voice: "Children, we have to be very happy that Marin did not leave for Turkey. If he had, he wouldn't now be sitting at his desk; he would be shining shoes on the streets of Istanbul instead. But he and his family remained here because they know that their true motherland is Bulgaria, not Turkey."

Marin was the only Turkish child in the class. We were only nine years old and never thought about why he had a Bulgarian name. Even our parents did not know exactly how, in December 1984, hundreds of thousands of Muslims in this country had their "Turko-Arabic" names changed overnight to Christian Bulgarian ones. They were not even sure whether such a thing had happened at all. In the hazy information environment of Communism, even sinister reports such as the number of casualties of devastating earthquakes like the one in Svishtov in 1977, or the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, were censored. People would often learn exactly what had happened years afterwards.

What the Communist authorities at the time referred to as the "Revival Process" was no exception. There are no documents to reveal who made the decision or gave the orders, nor has anyone been brought to justice over the grave violation of human rights, including the mass violence perpetrated by the Bulgarian police and army. The fact, however, remains that the Revival Process was an extensive campaign in which all Muslims in this country parted with their birth names. The official explanation was that all of them were descendants of Bulgarians who had been forcibly Islamised under the "Turkish Yoke." What citizens outside the areas with sizeable Turkish minorities heard about was rumours. "We could tell something was going on in other parts of Bulgaria," says Georgi Simidchiev, in an interview for My Century (you can see it here). "We knew there were problems with the Turkish minority and with the Pomaks... I had little to do with these people. We'd heard that these people were forced to change their names. We knew this was humiliating, but when a humiliation is far from home it doesn't affect you."

Communist leader Todor Zhivkov was never brought to justice over the Revival Process

Communist leader Todor Zhivkov was never brought to justice over the Revival Process

State propaganda presented the Revival Process as a voluntary decision to "go back to one's national roots." But the humiliation was real. It was not only the living, to whom the authorities issued brand new birth and education certificates, that were given new names. The dead also had to be "revived." Their names were deleted from tombstones and new ones inscribed. Mosques were regarded as hotbeds of pro- Turkish propaganda and were shut down. Traditional clothing – shalwars and headscarves for women, and caps for men – were outlawed. Speaking Turkish in public places was banned. In a typically Communist surreal fashion, there were attempts to change retroactively place names in literature and art.

Earlier name-changing campaigns had already hit other Muslim groups in Bulgaria: Tatars, Gypsies and Pomaks had already experienced what it was like to have your given name Hasan changed to Asen. But the 1984-1985 Revival Process surpassed anything seen previously because of its repercussions. It gave birth to terrorist acts, shaped the political face of present-day Bulgaria and brought about a cataclysm – in the form of what the Communist government euphemistically called the Great Excursion in the summer of 1989, the biggest migration of people in post-Second World War Europe, that my classmate Marin did not take part in.

The Great Excursion began shortly after Comrade Todor Zhivkov announced that anybody who did not consider himself Bulgarian could leave. In Communist Bulgaria it had never been easy to go abroad. Passports were extremely difficult to obtain. Emigrants were regarded as a special kind of criminal, the so-called nevazvrashtenets, a person who "refused to return," and was automatically given a jail sentence in absentia.

Zhivkov's statement on 29 May 1989 was preceded by a liberalisation of passport policy effected specifically with the "persons with revived names" in mind, although the official version differed and cited Perestroyka. Suddenly, it was no longer illegal to be a nevazvrashtenets.

A city hall clerk issues new passports to Bulgarian Turks in 1985

A city hall clerk issues new passports to Bulgarian Turks in 1985

The first lines of emigrants headed for the checkpoints on the Turkish border at the beginning of June. Barrows piled with beds and fridges hand-pushed by weary people formed mile-long queues. Some waited for days to cross the border and go to one of the makeshift refugee camps on the Turkish side.

The Turks were in a hurry to give up their Bulgarian homes, which they sold for a song, not because they were full of enthusiasm for Turkey, as the Bulgarian media claimed. Many of them were forced to move out, sometimes at 24-hours notice. Some left driven by the fear of new repression – through May 1989, the Bulgarian Turks had staged protests against the Revival Process, and not everybody dared to hang around to see how the authorities would retaliate for the civil disobedience.

To understand better the reasons for the Great Excursion, so dubbed because Todor Zhivkov and his cronies insisted the Turks at the Kapitan Andreevo border were "tourists", you need to go back in history.

On 4 January 1948, the Stalinist dictator Georgi Dimitrov told the Central Committee of the Bulgarian Communist Party: "Along our southern border we have a non-Bulgarian population, which is a constant ulcer for our country. We, as a party and government, face the issue of removing it from there and settling it somewhere else, and moving our Bulgarian population in its place. Under our regime, which gave complete freedom to minority groups, muftis and Turkish agents are starting to become restive and youths are beginning to exhibit Turkish nationalism. This problem has to be resolved this year. To do this, the National Committee of the Fatherland Front must have a commission of minority activists, which will help us carry out this operation."

In an attempt to completely rewrite history, the Bulgarian Communist Party renamed Ottoman bridges in Bulgaria

In an attempt to completely rewrite history, the Bulgarian Communist Party renamed Ottoman bridges in Bulgaria

In 1949–1950, 156,000 Bulgarian Turks emigrated. But the "operation" had an unforeseen consequence, a mistake that the Communists would repeat in 1989: the emigrants were people from agricultural areas. Their absence dealt a severe blow to the post-war Bulgarian economy and made the ruling class change its tactics. The Turks became an object of courtship. From 1951 until 1958, the areas with large Turkish populations could have their own newspapers, radio programmes, magazines, theatres and their children could be taught in Turkish. On the one hand, this reduced the tension, but on the other, it increased the self-isolation. Later, the state would try to solve this problem with an "ingenious" move – it encouraged mixed marriages.

In 1958 Bulgaria changed its policy again. Todor Zhivkov had entrenched himself firmly at the top and conveniently forgot the decisions about "opening up" taken at the 1956 April Plenum of the Communist Party. Communist internationalism gave way to Communist nationalism. Minorities were among its first victims. A new wave of forcible name changing began after 1958 among Pomaks and Gypsies. The reaction of the Pomaks was symptomatic. In 1963–1964 nearly 385,000 Muslims asked to leave the country and in 1964 the Pomaks in the village of Ribnovo near Gotse Delchev rebelled against those who had given them new names.

Obviously, pro-Bulgarian (by default anti- Turkish) propaganda worked at full speed. In that same year Anton Donchev's novel, Time of Parting, put forward the idea that all Muslims in Bulgaria, apart from the Gypsies, were descendants of Bulgarians who had been forcibly converted to Islam. Although a fabrication commissioned by the government at the time, the book continues to be extremely popular, and its "literary merits" put it into the shortlist for the Big Read television campaign earlier in 2009.

This was how the second component of the authorities' strange logic regarding the Turks in Bulgaria appeared. The Turks were considered to be of ethnic Bulgarian origin, on the one hand and, on the other, spies of the enemy, Turkey. For Todor Zhivkov, there was only one solution to the problem even back in the 1960s – expulsion. In 1968 Bulgaria and Turkey signed a 10-year migration agreement. Taking advantage of it, 114,000 Bulgarian Turks left for good.

The Revival Process was administered largely by regular army conscripts and special security forces

The Revival Process was administered largely by regular army conscripts and special security forces

The next step was to change the names of those who stayed behind, in the same way as the Pomaks and Gypsies. But the storm of protest by the Pomaks in the 1970s that escalated into a riot in the village of Kornitsa near Gotse Delchev apparently convinced the Communists to postpone their actions.

Why they had to change their names at all is a question that has no straightforward answer. To some extent, the reason can be found in the aggressive nationalism of the Communist state. This was the result of the actions of Lyudmila Zhivkova, Todor Zhivkov's daughter and minister of culture, whose policies in the 1970s and the early 1980s culminated in 1981 in grandiose celebrations for the 1,300th anniversary of the establishment of the Bulgarian state. An additional reason was the fear of a demographic crisis – at the beginning of the 1980s the birth rate of Turks, Pomaks and Gypsies was considerably higher than that of Bulgarians. The economic crisis also played a role. The state's foreign debt began to soar out of control and shortages of electricity and basic consumer goods became chronic.

The ruling class needed to deflect the public attention from the economic and social woes. Todor Zhivkov needed a scapegoat. And the Turks were the most obvious victim.

The forcible changing of names began on Christmas Eve 1984. The government had prepared itself well. The previous year it had introduced the "Internal Forces," elite units specialising in crushing riots and urban warfare. A convenient excuse came on 30 August 1984, a few months before the beginning of the Revival Process, when bombs exploded at Varna Airport and the waiting room of the railway station in Plovdiv. One person was killed and 42 injured. Allegedly, the clandestine Turkish National Liberation Movement in Bulgaria, or TNDB, was responsible for the terrorist acts. Some sources, however, claim that the movement was only founded a year later.

Get along by going along: Most Communist party and state decisions were approved unanimously, making it almost impossible to identify individual culprits

Get along by going along: Most Communist party and state decisions were approved unanimously, making it almost impossible to identify individual culprits

On 18 January 1985 the members of the Politburo were told by Georgi Atanasov, chairman of the Committee on State and People's Control (he would become prime minister in 1986) that 310,000 people had had their names changed in the Kardzhali, Haskovo, Burgas and Plovdiv regions. Todor Zhivkov stated: "It is in our interest to get 100,000–150,000 people to emigrate. If they want to, let them do it."

A month later, Atanasov was equally enthusiastic. He declared the name changing campaign a success, calling it "a true people's movement, spontaneous and encompassing all areas with a Turkish population."

Atanasov concealed the fact that the only "spontaneity" in these areas was that of resistance. There had been riots in the region of Kardzhali as early as 24–28 December 1984. Three people, including a 17-month-old girl, had been killed. The most active protesters were sent to the Belene Labour Camp (officially closed at the time). By 1989, their number had risen to 517. Between 17 and 19 January, while Atanasov was swaggering before the Politburo, the Turks from the village of Yablanovo near Kotel declared themselves an autonomous enclave.

On 9 March 1985 the TNDB announced its existence with a bang, literally. Its members blew up the carriage for mothers and children on the Sofia-Burgas train near Bunovo Station. Seven people were killed, including two children. In 1988 the three Turks responsible were sentenced to death and executed. Years later, in 1997, it leaked out that two of them, Emin Mehmedali, or Elin Madzharov, and Aptula Chakar, or Altsek Chakarov, had been agents for State Security in the 1970s. Emin's brother, Sabri Mehmed Ali, became a local coordinator for the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, or DPS, after 1989.

Man without a face: A rare photograph of Dimitar Stoyanov (1928-1999) who was interior minister from 1973 to 1988. He is believed to have been responsible for implementing the Revival Process

Man without a face: A rare photograph of Dimitar Stoyanov (1928-1999) who was interior minister from 1973 to 1988. He is believed to have been responsible for implementing the Revival Process

The best-known member of the TNDB also appeared in the organisation in 1985 and became its chairman a year later. He was a philosopher with the revived name of Medi Doganov, now known by his real name, Ahmed Dogan. In 1986, he was arrested and later sentenced to 10 years in prison for anti-state activities. From his prison cell, as he himself claimed, Dogan achieved a real feat: he organised the Turkish protests of May 1989.

According to the Commission for the Declassification of the Archives of the Former State Security, or DS, Ahmed Dogan had been recruited as an agent as early as 1974. He collaborated under the pseudonyms of Angelov, Sergey and Sava, and was decommissioned in 1988, while still in prison.

But as the most senior members of the Turkish opposition to the Revival Process were members of State Security, was State Security itself behind the Revival Process and the protests of the Bulgarian Turks? Dimitar Ivanov, head of the most sinister part of this organisation, Department Six of Section Six, has denied this. "The outbreak of the Revival Process at the end of 1984 took everybody by surprise, including the DS staff," he said on bTV. "I won't say that the aim was good; maybe the idea of its architects was not so bad. Unfortunately, its implementation wasn't. The main error was its forcible character," he went on. Boyko Borisov, Bulgaria's new prime minister, made a similar statement last autumn.

The consequences of the Revival Process and the Great Excursion can still be felt – in Bulgaria's political life and in the relations between Bulgarians and Turks.

Turks, including infants and elderly citizens, were sometimes forced to leave at very short notice

Turks, including infants and elderly citizens, were sometimes forced to leave at very short notice

The Turks' "unpatriotic" decision to leave Bulgaria in 1989 caused discontent among ordinary Bulgarians, most of whom had seen a real live Turk only in feature films. The Turks lived in agricultural areas and literally abandoned their crops in the fields. Students and workers from all over the country were organised into brigades and had to pick the tobacco, fruit and vegetables in the deserted areas. Georgi Simidchiev was one of those brigade members who were sent to gather tobacco in 1989. A typical Communist middle class man working as a computer programmer, he encountered odd incidents of prejudice. An injured brigade member received medical help in Haskovo only after stating she was Bulgarian. "The nurse said: 'We don't treat Turks. If they want medical treatment, they should go to Turkey.'" And in a local shop brigade members were sold beer only because they were not Turks.

Understandably, the Turks felt betrayed by their state. The fear of fresh persecution drove them into the arms of the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, or DPS, established by Ahmed Dogan in early 1990. This party is on the fringe of what the Constitution allows, because it relies almost completely on an ethnic vote. However, any time its legitimacy is questioned, Dogan explains that ethnic harmony in this country is kept solely and exclusively by his party. Otherwise, he claims, Bulgaria would have had a history of violence similar to that of Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s.

Ironically, it can be argued that it is now the DPS that inspires ethnic tension. The appearance of the aggressively nationalist Ataka political party was a reaction against the excessive political power and shady economic dealings of the DPS.

Bulgarian politicians left, right and centre swear that Bulgaria has always been a "cradle of tolerance" and usually cite that Bulgaria was "the only" country in Europe that saved its Jews from the Holocaust. But if the changing attitudes toward Bulgaria's Turks and Pomaks are anything to go by, the "ethnic tolerance" of the Bulgarians appears more like the pipedream of President Parvanov who twice depended on DPS votes to get elected.


For the full story of arguably Bulgaria's most cunning post-Communist politician, read our special feature.

Ahmed Dogan

Ahmed Dogan



Turks left Bulgaria in great numbers during and after the Russo-Turkish War


150,000 Bulgarian Turks emigrated from Communist Bulgaria; another 111,000 obtained exit permits but could not leave before the deadline. The government revoked the pensions of the emigrants


Turkish communities acquired newspapers, magazines and education in Turkish; the quotas for ethnic Turkish students in universities increased


A nationalist drift in the Bulgarian Communist Party brought about changes in the attitude to Turks. They were now regarded as ethnic Bulgarians. Bulgarian became the compulsory language in local schools


The first underground Turkish organisation appeared in Bulgaria. According to State Security, it demanded autonomy


385,000 people applied to emigrate to Turkey

March 1964

The forcible changing of the names of Pomaks in the area of Gotse Delchev resulted in a riot in the village of Ribnovo


Anton Donchev's novel Time of Parting was published. Its main idea: all Muslims here are descendants of Bulgarians who were forcibly converted to Islam.


Todor Zhivkov said that the nationality issue had to be settled once and for all


Bulgaria and Turkey signed a 10-year agreement for the immigration of 10,000–15,000 people a year. By 1978, 114,000 Turks had left Bulgaria

Second half of 1972

The forcible name-changing campaign in the area of Gotse Delchev was renewed

28/29 March 1973

The authorities suppressed the unrest against the name-changing campaign in the village of Kornitsa near Gotse Delchev. Participants were resettled

February 1982

The government forbade Bulgarian Turks to settle in the Burgas, Yambol, Haskovo and Kardzhali areas

End of 1983 and throughout 1984

The central authorities began gradual preparations for the Revival Process

19 June 1984

Politburo passed The Further Integration and Association of Bulgarian Muslims to the Tenets of Socialism and the Policy of the Bulgarian Communist Party Resolution

30 August 1984

Bombs in the waiting room of the railway station in Plovdiv and Varna Airport. One person was killed and 42 were injured

24–25 December 1984

The campaign for the forcible changing of the names of Bulgarian Turks began

24–28 December 1984

Three people, including a 17-month-old girl, died during the riots against the name-changing campaign in the area of Kardzhali

December 1984

The labour camp in Belene was reopened. 517 people who opposed the Revival Process would be sent there until 1989

17–19 January 1985

Riot in the village of Yablanovo near Kotel

18 January 1985

Georgi Atanasov reported to the Politburo that 310,000 people had had their names changed in the Kardzhali, Haskovo, Burgas and Plovdiv regions


The clandestine Turkish National Liberation Movement in Bulgaria was established in the village of Drandar

12–13 February 1985

Georgi Atanasov's second report to the Politburo described the name-changing campaign as "a true people's movement, spontaneous and encompassing all areas with a Turkish population"

9 March 1985

Seven people were killed by a bomb in the carriage for mothers and children on the Burgas-Sofia train near Bunovo Station. Another bomb exploded in the café of the Sliven Hotel in Sliven


The screen version of Time of Parting was released. School students from mixed ethnic areas were marched to cinemas in groups to watch

25 April 1988

The three defendants in the Bunovo bombing case were sentenced to death

Beginning of 1989

The authorities deported 5,000 Turks accused of participating in unofficial protest organisations

16 May 1989

The government decided to issue passports to all citizens

19–27 May 1989

Rallies, mass protests and hunger strikes by Turks in Dzhebel, Dulovo and the areas of Tolbuhin (now Dobrich), Razgrad, Shumen and Varna. Between 25,000 and 30,000 people took part, nine of whom died. Northeastern Bulgaria was practically under martial law; there were tanks and troops in the streets

29 May 1989

In a statement broadcast on TV and radio Todor Zhivkov recommended anybody who did not consider himself Bulgarian to leave

31 May 1989

A "spontaneous" Fatherland Front rally gathered in front of the Turkish Embassy and shouted "Death to the Apostates and Traitors"

3 June 1989

The Great Excursion began

6 June 1989

Zhivkov stated before the Politburo: "We do not announce it and we should not announce it, but we must export no fewer than 200,000 people"


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