Last fall, I spent the night in the Bulgarian city of Yambol on my way from the Black Sea coast back to Plovdiv and Sofia. Although I drove around the city looking for my hotel and poked around a bit the following morning, I failed to see what is considered the most remarkable bedesten -- Ottoman-era shopping arcade -- in the entire Balkans. It was built in the 16th century and has a four-domed roof and massive outer walls. It survived intact through fires and neglect even as its counterparts in Sofia and Plovdiv were destroyed in modern times. There should have been a sign on the highway with a marker alerting motorists to the historic site. Alas, much of Bulgaria's Ottoman heritage is hidden away, sometimes in plain sight.
Only later was I able to see a picture of the Yambol bedesten in a book called A Guide to Ottoman Bulgaria, which reveals all the glories of Ottoman culture, from mosques to bridges to crumbling towers. I was given the book as a gift by Kasim Dal and Korman Ismailov. They are on a mission. Actually two missions. The first, connected to the book, is to celebrate ethnic Turkish culture in Bulgaria, which includes the influence of the Ottoman period, which lasted from 1396 to 1878.
The second mission is political. Dal and Ismailov have broken away from the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF), the political party that has traditionally represented ethnic Turks in Bulgaria since 1990. In December 2012, they established a new party called the People's Party for Freedom and Dignity. Parliamentary elections are coming up next month. The former ruling party Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB) and the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) are battling it out for the top two spots. As usual, the MRF is likely to take the third spot, which could put it in a key position in terms of determining a ruling coalition. The wild card is the nationalist Ataka party, hovering around 5 percent.
I talked with Kasim Dal in October, with Korman Ismailov translating. They talked of creating a center-right party that appeals to all Bulgarians, tackles the endemic corruption in society, and promotes "clean" politics against the continued influence of the former secret service.
It's this last point that particularly concerns Kasim Dal. "I'm one of the 33 guys who established the [MRF]," he told me. "The ones that were in the secret services of Todor Zhivkov's regime, they took complete control of the political party. They were responsible for doing almost nothing about these reforms. They only got richer and richer by participating in corruption schemes. This was the biggest result of democracy, and this is my biggest disappointment."
His conclusions echo those of another former high-ranking member of MRF, Miroslav Durmov. "Unfortunately, it was only much later that we discovered and read the dossiers of those guys," Dal said. "In parliament, I proposed opening all these files. But that happened too late, unfortunately. When I read all those hundreds and hundreds of papers, I found the explanation of what happened in the past and why it all happened the way it did."
We talked about what the MRF accomplished and what it failed to achieve. And we discussed what still needs doing in the ethnic Turkish community, a mostly rural population that is is suffering disproportionately during this age of austerity.
Even though the MRF was compromised, even though obviously there had been a lot of people who had been cooperating with the secret police, do you believe that the Movement in those early years accomplished anything?
Yes, of course, we succeeded in accomplishing some very important things. During those years, there were big ethnic and religious tensions in society. The establishment of the MRF channeled a big part of this tension into politics and didn't allow this energy to go into the street. Via politics, we fought for our human rights. In the first local elections, it was the first time that representatives of minority groups became mayors and members of city councils. This all helped to lower tensions and to put it on a political level. In comparison to neighboring countries, we helped ensure that Bulgaria managed in a peaceful way to pass through these difficult years.
We also managed to direct some investments into infrastructure in the poorest regions. But unfortunately, in recent years, the people who became MRF representatives as mayors or in other high political offices, they forgot how this whole process started. Many of them didn't participate in those early years. They started to use some illegal, improper means. We lost democracy inside the party. As a result, the rule that we establish in those regions is far from democratic decision-making.
You knew Ahmed Dogan from early on. So when the files were revealed, were you shocked about his activities in the past?
I was probably the most shocked. I didn't hide this. I believed too much in this guy.
Did you confront him personally?
Yes, I told the truth to his face. There was a confrontation. I was 22 when I got involved, and I didn't know anything. But he was part of the system. It's impossible for me to forgive what he did and what he is doing.
Is that the point at which you separated, or did it take a little longer?
This was not the main point over which we separated. There were many issues, many decisions that we took as a political party, that I couldn't understand, that were not logical to me. With these guys in the ruling body of the party, this party has no future. It now serves just these people. During all those years, they were working against the goals of the party in a hidden way.
Looking back, we can see that with our actions, we continued the process of assimilation in a soft way, a peaceful way. You can read the statistics. At the beginning of the 1990s, more than 110,000 young students studied their mother tongues at school. Nowadays, those numbers are less than 10,000. We had two terms in the government. We had the chairman of the parliamentary commission for education, we had a deputy minister of education, we had a vice prime minister. If education in the mother tongue had been a goal for us, it could have been easily solved.
Why would the leaders of the MRF be interested in assimilation?
They were agents, and they were prepared. And during those years, they believed in those assimilation policies. Some regions were left to the Movement for Rights and Freedoms. Other parties stepped back from doing active politics there. So, this is not something that happened by chance. It was planned.
I talked with someone from the Movement for Rights and Freedoms the other day, and I asked him about the lack of democracy inside the party. He said, "We could not be effective without being unified."
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