05/16/2013 06:04 pm ET Updated Jul 16, 2013

Representing the Movement

Bulgarian voters went to the polls on May 12. The two top vote-getters were the former ruling party, Citizens for a European Bulgaria (GERB), followed by the former Communists, the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP). GERB resigned in February during a surge in protests over the economic situation in the country.

Coming in a distant third, which has been its accustomed place over the years, was the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF), a party closely connected to the ethnic Turkish community. From this pivotal third position, the MRF has traditionally been able to play a kingmaker role in Bulgarian politics.

The campaign was full of the usual allegations and cross-allegations. Former Interior Minister Tsvetan Tsvetanov was accused of conducting wiretaps on his fellow cabinet members in order to collect material for blackmail. Meanwhile, the political vetting process produced a list of 143 candidates who were agents of state security or military security. The MRF had the lion's share of these candidates at 16, one more than the BSP.

The MRF has long been led by Ahmed Dogan, the party's founder. After a bizarre assassination attempt in January, Dogan stepped down. His successor, Lyutvi Mestan, is an MRF stalwart who has led efforts to alter Bulgarian-language-only laws connected to education and electioneering.

The MRF has been criticized for its hierarchical structure. But the party has also been extraordinarily successful in raising the profile of ethnic Turks in the country.

To Tchetin Kazak, these two issues are not unrelated. Kazak has come up through the ranks of the MRF, beginning with his time as a university activist. He was involved in the MRF's youth wing before being elected to parliament at the age of 29.

"The authority and the role of the leader are unquestionable, and this is the key to our success," he told me in an interview in the Bulgarian parliament building last October. "We've seen over the years how many other parties appear like shooting stars. They shine very brightly and then they very quickly fade. The MRF, however, only grew stronger and expanded its influence, because it was developing from within and trying to be proactive to get ahead of events. We involved more and more people within its ranks, and not only from ethnic minorities. We covered the whole territory of Bulgaria, regardless of the ethnic makeup of the region. We embraced universal liberal values and ideas, and supported joining the European and international liberal family. NGOs working in human rights protection have the right to criticize us. But my view is that if the MRF did not operate this way, we wouldn't have been as successful as we have been."

We talked about the accomplishments of the MRF, the rise of nationalism in Bulgaria, and what the party could have done differently over the years.

The Interview

When did you first get involved with the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF)?

In 1990, my twin brother and I finished school and enrolled in the medical school in Varna. At the time the MRF came into being, we decided -- a group of students of Turkish decent--to set up a students union within the MRF. In Bulgaria there's a student holiday on December 8. It's a very special day for all students, with parties during the day and night. So on December 8, 1990, we invited the leadership of MRF. They were already registered as a party. And this is how we met them in person, including Ahmed Dogan and the first MPs in the national assembly.

In fact, I had met Ahmed Dogan earlier during the first rally of the MRF in my hometown, Targovishte. Since that time, we've been a part of the MRF traditions, first as a youth organization, and then after we finished university. Since the end of the 1990s, I've held leading positions in the youth organization, as deputy head of international policy of the youth MRF organization. In 2001, I was elected as an MP at the age of 29.

And what would you consider the major accomplishments of the movement since 1990?

There are plenty of them. First of all, the MRF made it possible for the first time for representatives from the ethnic minorities to have a major presence in parliament. The parliamentary group of the MRF traditionally represents not only ethnic Turks but also other ethnic minorities such as Pomaks and Roma, and ethnic Bulgarians as well. And this has been stable since 1990.

Second, the MRF passed several bills aimed at overcoming the consequences of the "restoration" process, namely the expulsion of the Turkish population. There were bills on the recovery of property and the legal restoration of names. Initially, this happened through the courts. Then, the procedure was simplified at our insistence, and it became an administrative procedure.

Third, we introduced training in the mother tongue in secondary school. As such classes were established, teachers were trained. Turkish philology was introduced in several universities. The first textbooks were published.

Also, the Bulgarian national TV and the Bulgarian national radio program started broadcasting programs in Turkish. Unfortunately, the TV programs are very insufficient in terms of content and duration: just five minutes of news a day of no interest for the population. The programs on national radio are for several hours a day on medium wave. But this is now outdated technology, and only old people in the villages tune into these frequencies. We have encountered the continuous unwillingness of provincial authorities to put real content and meaning into these human rights, and this has been the case since 1990. They are doing only the minimum, in order to say that there are such programs.

Bulgarian Turks that are living in Turkey are now able to receive their pensions in Turkey from Bulgaria, and this all happened thanks to our insistence. And I'd like to emphasize that when the MRF participated as a coalition partner in government for two consecutive mandates, 2001-05 and 2005-09, several thousand youth of Turkish decent and of ethnic minorities--Pomaks and Roma--received the possibility to be employed in the state administration at all levels: provincial, local, regional, and at the national level.

It was also the first time that people of Turkish descent could become ministers. This was unprecedented since the liberation of Bulgaria. We even had a vice prime minister. Unfortunately, since the current government came to power and we are in the opposition, about 90% of these people were dismissed.

Last but not least, we encouraged the government to adopt a more sensitive policy toward the so-called mixed regions and to direct public investments, both national and European funds, toward these areas. In the areas inhabited by ethnic minorities, we encouraged them to apply for infrastructure projects funded through Euro-funds. And quite a lot was done to improve the infrastructure and the living environment. Unfortunately, after the new government came to power it froze these projects for a period of over three years. Only last year have some of these projects started again, perhaps because the government was preparing for the new elections.

Has the level of ethnocentrism or racism among the average ethnic Bulgarian population changed at all since 1990?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.