Exploring the monotonous streets of Bulgarian towns where the overwhelming majority of people are obviously Bulgarian, it may be hard to believe that multiculturalism existed in the Bulgarian lands a long time before the very term was coined in the West. Situated on what used to be a busy crossroads between Europe, Asia, and the Mediterranean, Bulgaria attracted settlers, traders, and invaders for centuries if not millennia. Its long history of local wars, migrations, and – in later times – constant changes of national borders has complicated the picture further, turning what is now called Bulgaria into a place where a significant number of diverse minority groups live.
Distinguishing between them is sometimes a strenuous task. Some of them are ethnic, others – religious. Yet a third is a combination. The origins of most are obscure and often disputed.
This truly Balkan hodgepodge is best illustrated with the case of the Pomaks. They speak Bulgarian and share many cultural characteristics with the Eastern Orthodox, but are in fact Muslim. In Bulgaria they are traditionally put into the group of ethnic Bulgarians, but because they are distinctive enough owing to their religion and lifestyle they deserve to be represented separately.
The number of Bulgaria’s minority populations are difficult to obtain, even when using the 2011 census results. Its data is unreliable because 683,590 of the 7,364,570 Bulgarian citizens refused to specify their ethnicity. The National Statistical Institute did correlate the ethnicity and the so-called mother language of respondents but did not compare religion and mother tongue. The final problem is that some minor groups were collectively put in the Others section. Thus, about 20,000 people are in it.
All the groups presented here are united by one thing – they have lived in Bulgaria for generations and they call it their home.
How many: 588,318 (2011 census)
Where: Kardzhali area in the Rhodope, the Ludogorie and the Silistra areas in the North East; pockets in the Stara Planina
Language: Turkish, visibly archaic compared to that spoken in Turkey
Religion: Sunni Islam, Shia Islam
Who are they?
The biggest ethnic minority in Bulgaria is the descendant of the Turks who settled here during the Ottoman Empire and decided to stay in spite of the political changes introduced by independent Bulgaria in 1878 and the wars that followed. Until 1944 their rights – as well as the rights of other minorities – were theoretically protected by law and were more or less not violated. However, few Turks held any position in the civil service and the army, and the great majority remained uneducated. After the Communists seized power in 1944, plenty of state money was poured into Turkish communities and schools in order to make them exemplary Communists. However, soon the Communist state saw the Turkish element as a menace to national security. In 1950-1951 about 150,000 Bulgarian Turks left the country in a carefully staged “spontaneous emigration.” In the following decades, the policy of the Communist government was at best inconsistent. Turkish-speaking schools and theatres were opened and then closed, Turkish-language literature was encouraged and later banned. In 1968-1978 Bulgaria and Turkey agreed to help to reunite families divided by the previous migration. About 114,000 Turks left Bulgaria as a result.
Nothing compares with the events of the late 1980s. Following the successful renaming of the Pomaks, the government decided to proceed with the Turks and proclaimed that they were Bulgarians who had “forgotten” their origins. In the winter of 1984-1985, the state forced 850,000 Turks to change their names with Bulgarian ones. Speaking Turkish and wearing traditional clothes was banned. Tensions, however, started to mount, erupting in civil disobedience and several terrorist acts by clandestine organizations. In 1989 the government realized that the so-called Revival Process had failed. Trying to let some steam off, it opened the border with Turkey. Between 3 June and 21 August, about 350,000 Bulgarian Turks left the country, often forcibly, and carrying few belongings with them. Many of them returned to Bulgaria afterward.
In 1990, after the collapse of Communism, the Turks were allowed to get their names back. The political scene saw the emergence of the Movement for Rights and Freedoms or DPS. Led by former State Security agent Ahmed Dogan, the party soon turned into the major representative of Muslims in Bulgaria, which it still is to this day.
How many: About 150,000 (estimated)
Where: The Rhodope, pockets in the Stara Planina. Outside Bulgaria significant numbers in Greece, Turkey, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina
Religion: Sunni Islam
Who are they?
Religion is the major dividing line between Muslim Pomaks and Christian Bulgarians, and language – between them and the Turks. This peculiarity has troubled both the group and its neighbors as in the past religion was often associated with ethnicity. Today some Pomaks believe that they have descended from Turkic or Arab tribes, who had settled in the Balkans long before the Ottomans arrived. Others claim ancient Thracian origins.
The more plausible explanation is that Pomaks are descendants of Bulgarians who, like fellow Christians in Bosnia and in Crete, converted to Islam under the Ottomans. Their reasons were purely practical, Muslims in the empire were exempt from a number of heavy taxes. Since the 19th Century, however, nationalist propaganda pushed with the opinion that Christians in Bulgaria were forcibly Islamised by the Ottomans in the middle of the 17th Century. The theory still lingers although no evidence has been discovered.
Religion, however, proved to be a great obstacle between Christian and Muslim Bulgarians. Pomak regiments did the massacres that ended the April Uprising of 1876. In 1879 Pomaks created the independent Tamrash Republic in the Rhodope because they did not want to be governed by the Christian governor of the Eastern Rumelia province. The young Bulgarian state reciprocated. In 1912, the 1930s and the 1970s Pomaks went through campaigns of sometimes forcible Christianisation and Bulgarisation. In recent years nationalist propaganda and spectacular but arbitrary police action have represented the more conservative Pomaks communities as “nests” of “radical” Islam.
Ambiguous relations between the Pomaks and the Bulgarians are clearly visible in the popular explanation of the etymology of the word. According to one, the root of Pomak is pomachen, or repressed. According to another, it is pomagach, or helper, collaborator.
The use of the word “Pomak” can be sensitive. Some Pomaks prefer to be called balgaro-mohamedani, or Bulgarian Muslims.
To be continued …