Bulgarian politician Ahmed Dogan was in the news this weekend after surviving a dramatic assault at a party conference in Sofia. Dogan is the controversial leader of the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF), an organization established in 1990 that has largely championed the rights of ethnic Turks and Muslims living in Bulgaria. Dogan was going to announce during this speech that he was stepping down as the head of the party.
It was not a clear-cut assassination attempt. The assailant, Oktai Enimehmedov, used a gas pistol, usually a non-lethal weapon though it could do considerable damage at point-blank range. But the pistol was loaded only with pepper spray and noisemakers. Enimehmedov, who is an ethnic Turk himself, was immediately set upon by members of the audience and security personnel, who punched and kicked him. The video of the dramatic scrum has gone viral.
It's not entirely clear why Enimehmedov engaged in this half-attack on Dogan. He may simply have disliked the MRF leader and wanted the media limelight. This being Bulgaria, however, conspiracy theories abound. The most popular seems to be that Dogan orchestrated the whole affair, though this scenario makes little sense.
Ahmed Dogan is no stranger to controversy. He has long been criticized for his autocratic style and the many years he was on the payroll of the state security services prior to 1989. And the MRF has witnessed various fissures, most recently when former deputy chairman Kassim Dal broke with Dogan and later established his own party.
Despite these controversies, the MRF has achieved considerable successes, both as a political party and as a movement to advance the ethnic Turkish and Muslim community in Bulgaria. I spoke recently with Krassimir Kanev of the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee. He has worked on human rights issues in Bulgaria for more than two decades and helped write one of the first reports on the situation of ethnic Turks in Bulgaria in the 1980s.
"Overall, I think that the Movement for Rights and Freedoms was quite positive in Bulgaria," he told me. "They were able to both protect the human rights of the ethnic Turks, as well as to advance their welfare in the regions where they live -- especially when the Movement was in government, which was for much of the past decade."
"There were, however, also some negative developments," he continued. "They created a political ghetto for the Turkish minority. If you're an ethnic Turk, the expectation is that you vote for the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, and there has been little incentive for the other parties to work among the Turkish minority. Although some parties made some moves in that regard, it was mostly the MRF that focused on the issue."
In addition to the rights of ethnic Turks, we talked about a current court case against 13 imams accused of promoting violence, the declining status of human rights NGOs in Bulgaria, and why Roma in Bulgaria have not replicated the success of the MRF. Below this interview, to provide a point of comparison, I have appended excerpts from an earlier discussion we had in 2007 about identity questions.
When you look at the level of prejudice in society over the last 22 years, do you think the Movement or any other efforts have succeeded in reducing the overall level of prejudice specifically toward ethnic Turks?
Oh, yes, I think so. The very fact that ethnic Turks became visible in society reduced a lot of prejudice. The research also indicates that this has happened. There's still a lot of prejudice, but certainly not at the level that we had in 1992-93. The fact that we now have government ministers who are ethnic Turks is quite significant. This was unthinkable in the 1990s. When the Movement for Rights and Freedoms was involved in the government in the 1990s, it had to propose a Bulgarian as a government minister because at that time it would have been unacceptable to have a Turkish government minister.
Someone told me that an important cultural indication of the change is the popularity of Turkish soap operas here.
Indeed, yes. But that was a recent thing. I think that they too contributed to better acceptance of ethnic Turks.
When I talked to people in 1990, there were some people who really thought that ethnic Turks would be a fifth column for Turkey to re-colonize Bulgaria. But I don't have the sense that those suspicions still exist.
They do exist, but at a much lower level.
For the rest of the interview, click here.