Who is Bulgarian? The Changing Definitions of Nationhood
The changes in the definitions of the Bulgarian nation generally corresponded and justified the strategies adopted by the Bulgarian state to deal with its Turkish minority, although on a number of occasions they acquired a force of their own. As was the case with most Eastern European nations, Bulgarian nationhood was constructed through conscious elite action in the 19th century. The construction was based, however, on a number of primordial elements. In 1878-1944, the Bulgarian nation was generally identified in terms of language and religion, as encompassing the Orthodox Christian Slavic speaking inhabitants of Bulgaria. The Turkish-speaking inhabitants were excluded, as were the Pomaks, Bulgarian-speaking Muslims. At least on two occasions, in 1912-13, and again in the late 1930s and early 1940s, the Pomaks were re-defined as ancestral Bulgarians who had been converted forcibly to Islam under the Ottoman empire and who therefore needed to be reclaimed back by the Bulgarian nation. State-sponsored efforts were made to change the Pomaks' Turkish-Arabic names to ethnic Bulgarian ones, using both coercion and inducements. The first, but not the second assimilation campaign also involved the conversion of the Pomaks to Eastern Orthodoxy. The campaigns proved largely successful in the short term, at least in achieving their nominal objectives. Bulgaria's unstable domestic politics, however, made it difficult for the state to pursue a consistent policy, and both campaigns were reversed within a few years by governments seeking to gain the Muslims' votes. The Turkish-speaking population was regarded as descendants of colonists from Asia Minor, and was therefore seen as alien element which was not liable to assimilation. Whilst tolerated, the Turkish speakers were not seen as having a future in Bulgaria, and were expected sooner or later to emigrate to Turkey. (Stoianov, 1993: 204).
In their first decades in power, the communists denigrated the importance of ethnic differences, both on the Bulgarian and the Turkish side, and expected ethnicity to be submerged with the development of a socialist and then communist society. This made the issue of the origins of the Pomaks and the Turks almost irrelevant. The growing awareness of the importance of ethnic characteristics which emerged with the partial relaxation of the Stalinist system after 1956 and the increasing efforts of the communist leadership to legitimise its power at least partly in nationalistic terms, focused attention once again on the status of the Pomaks. They were redefined as ancestral Bulgarians and pressurised into adopting ethnic Bulgarian names. The initial surge of party pressure was met with stiff resistance by the Pomaks. In 1964, for example, attempts to rename the Pomaks in the south-western region of Blagoevgrad bordering on Greece and Yugoslavia resulted in a virtual revolt in a number of villages. The Pomaks responded to the incursions of police and armed Bulgarian 'volunteers' into their villages by staging mass protests and in some cases, throwing the intruders out. The party leadership in Sofia responded to the protests with a mixture of threats and concessions. On one hand, the Pomaks were threatened that the army would be sent out against them and they would be crushed with tanks. On the other hand, the party leaders in Sofia claimed that their 'true' policy of voluntary renaming had been distorted by local officials in Blagoevgrad, and that the Pomaks could keep their names if they wished to do so (Trifonov, 1993: p. 219). However, this claim did not prove to hold true for future policy. In 1970, the 'renaming' was resumed, using more gradual means, and by 1980 the names of most Pomaks (some 200,000) had been changed. Encouraged by the success, in the beginning of the 1980s local party leaders began to trace the descendants of mixed marriages between the Pomaks and the Turkish-speaking Muslims. Since the two populations were highly intermingled, the scope of this operation grew steadily wider and it was expected to affect some 50,000 people by the end of December 1984 and twice that number by the following year. The elusive search for 'Bulgarian roots' was thus leading the party leaders deeper and deeper into the Turkish-speaking population (Asenov, 1996: 30-31; 70).
At the same time, in the late 1970s research in the Ottoman archives was persuading a significant number of Bulgarian historians that not only the Pomaks but also the majority of Turkish-speaking Muslims had descended from indigenous Bulgarian population converted to Islam during the Ottoman rule. The difference which could be observed between the two groups was explained by insisting that in the case of the Pomaks the assimilation into the ruling group had taken place only on the religious level, whilst the Turkish-speakers had gone further and adopted the language of their occupiers. (Petrov, 1987; Hristov, 1989; Dimitrov, 1992). These findings, which have been vigorously contested by other Bulgarian historians and by most of their Turkish colleagues (Eminov, 1997: 36-37), might have remained of purely academic interest, had not the communist party given its support to a policy of cultural revival in the late 1970s and the early 1980s. The new policy was spearheaded by the daughter of the party leader, Liudmila Zhivkova, who became a member of the Politburo (the highest decision making organ of the communist party) in 1977 and was possibly groomed for succession. Zhivkova surrounded herself with intellectuals and began emphasizing the value and potential of Bulgarian culture. Zhivkova herself was remarkably open-minded, and saw Bulgaria’s cultural revival in terms of the country restoring its broken links with world culture. The fact that she was interested in oriental religions would have made her especially reluctant to suppress what she would have perceived as a valuable aspect of Bulgaria’s cultural diversity. Some of her associates, however, saw the revival as an opportunity to restore Bulgaria’s cultural purity, or rather to create it because Bulgaria had never been culturally homogeneous. Zhivkova’s early death in 1981 resulted in the submergence of the inclusive aspect of the cultural revival, and the ascendance of the narrow-minded nationalists. This made it possible for the theory of the Bulgarian origins of the Turkish minority to become accepted as official party policy. The theory was to provide some of the motivation and the bulk of the official justification for returning the 'prodigal' Turkish 'sons' to the Bulgarian fold (Dimitrov, 1992: 158).
In Search of a Homogeneous Nation: The Assimilation of Bulgaria’s Turkish 1984-1985