04/25/2013 08:18 am ET Updated Jun 25, 2013

Inside the Movement

When I met Miroslav Durmov in 1990, he was a spokesperson for the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF), a political formation that focused on minority rights in Bulgaria, particularly those of ethnic Turks. We conversed in Russian, since he didn't speak English. He wasn't himself ethnically Turkish. But he had been concerned for some time about the human rights abuses that the Bulgarian Communist government had committed against the largest ethnic minority in the country.

In 1990, we talked about the two of these violations. In the mid-1980s, the Bulgarian government forced ethnic Turks to change their names to Bulgarian ones. Later, in the absurdly named "renaissance process," the government expelled upwards of 300,000 ethnic Turks from the country. The political opposition did not take up these issues, largely in deference to its more nationalist faction. So ethnic Turkish activists and a few "freethinkers" formed the MRF to champion the restoration of these rights.

Back in 1990, it looked as though the Movement would form sufficient political alliances to push through its agenda: restoration of names, freedom of religion, restitution for those expelled from the country, and Turkish-language instruction in schools. It emerged as a third force in Bulgarian politics, representing enough votes in parliament to determine ruling coalitions. It survives to this day, with its controversial leader Ahmed Dogan only recently stepping down to serve as honorary chairperson.

It is relatively easy to follow the trajectory of the MRF over the years. But I lost track of Miroslav Durmov after our interview in Sofia in 1990. When I started looking for him again in 2012, it was not easy to track him down. I found some references in the Bulgarian newspapers. He left the MRF and formed his own party. He served in the Bulgarian parliament until the mid-1990s. And then he disappeared.

It was only through the good services of Facebook that I was able to find someone named Miroslav Durmov. But he wasn't living in Bulgaria. He was living in Kentucky.

I sent him a note in the hopes that this Kentucky Durmov might have heard of his namesake in Bulgaria. It turned out that they were one and the same person.

How did a Bulgarian parliamentarian who didn't speak English and who worked on the issue of ethnic Turks end up in Kentucky? You'll just have to read further. Along the way, you'll learn the inside story of Ahmed Dogan and the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, the role of the Soviet Union and the Bulgarian intelligence service, the way that the elite maintained their position during the economic reform, and why Kentucky is not necessarily the best place to end up as a new immigrant in the United States.

The Interview

When was your first contact with the Movement for Rights and Freedoms?

It was in the spring or early summer of 1989. I joined the opposition and I started visiting the meetings of the Club for the Support of Perestroika and Glasnost. One of the founders who organized the meetings, a filmmaker I knew, introduced me there. I met people who wanted to do something about the ethnic Turkish victims and the forced name change. I started to communicate with them. We created an organization for national reconciliation. However, I saw that the Turks didn't accept us since most of the people in the group were Bulgarian. My understanding at that time was that they wanted to see someone of Turkish origin to represent and organize them.

In one of these meetings, for the first time I saw Ahmed Ahmedov -- or Ahmed Dogan (Dogan is the name that Bulgarian intelligence decided to give him). He stayed at the meeting for a couple minutes and left. Later, I contacted him, and he thought that I could be of some use for his organization, the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF). So I started working with him.

At that time, I was too idealistic. Later, it became clear to me that the MRF was created by the Bulgarian intelligence service. It was a brilliant operation. Obviously, the Turkish people wanted to be represented by their own representatives. They wanted to receive their names back. They wanted religious freedom. Because anyone who expressed oppositional views about this process of forced assimilation was expelled from Bulgaria, there were no leaders left in the community. The ones who remained in Bulgaria were ordinary people or those connected to the security service. The Central Committee of the Communist Party ordered the Bulgarian intelligence service to prepare an organization of Turkish people that would be separate from the Bulgarian opposition and, at the same time would support the nomenklatura. If the Communist Party created the MRF, it was not because it wanted the restoration of communism. The nomenklatura simply needed an ally in the transition process, particularly for privatization, and to reduce the level of uncertainty during this period.

In my understanding, the entire transition was planned, organized, and prepared. I don't know, if this was the case in other Eastern European countries, but what was done in Bulgaria was very similar to what happened in Russia and the rest of the former Soviet Union. I did not like it, but I did appreciate how clever the nomenklatura was. They managed to replace the old state ideology with a new ideological doctrine, a combination of pseudo-anticommunism and pseudo-liberalism. In addition, they instituted a new foreign policy to legitimize the old-new elite, which served to tranquilize the Americans, appeared very European, and always was and still is in accordance with Russian strategic interests.

The forced name changes for the ethnic Turks began in the mid-1980s?

Actually, it started a little bit earlier. It was first applied to people working for the state and local administration and for the Ministry of Interior. There was no resistance because no one wanted to lose their jobs. That was in the late 1970s. At that time, I knew a person of Turkish origin who worked at the Central Committee. They forced him to change his name. He wasn't happy, but he didn't want to lose his position. Later, in the Ministry, I worked with a guy with a Turkish name, and they forced him too to change his name. He didn't react, didn't resign. But I never addressed them by their new names.

When did it become widespread?

It began in the winter of 1984. In January, it started first in northeast Bulgaria. A year later, they went south, and that was where the army and police intervened.

And you think this was a Russia-instigated experiment?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.