Bulgaria’s Turkish minority party: What went wrong?

News from Bulgaria’s domestic political scene seldom make it to the European mainstream. On one such rare occasion, in December 2015 Reuters reported the sacking of Lyutvi Mestan, the leader of Bulgaria’s Turkish minority party – the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF, or DPS as transliterated in Bulgarian). The general reader could have dismissed the event as trivial but such a view would have been based on a wrong assessment of MRF’s actual weight in Bulgaria’s political architecture. Ever since its creation in 1990 after the collapse of the communist regime in Bulgaria, the MRF has been represented in the country’s parliament without interruption. Together with the Bulgarian Socialist Party, the MRF has managed to survive almost unaltered throughout the whole 25 years of Bulgaria’s bumpy transformation to an EU member.

According to a MRF speaker, the sudden reshuffle in the party appears to have been caused by internal divisions over its (now ex) leader’s position on the recent stand-off between Moscow and Ankara after a Russian military jet was shot down by the Turkish air force in November 2015. However, this publicly announced version of the events downplays the complex reality behind the MRF’s facade and is to serve as a convenient smokescreen for the more pragmatic and rather domestic motivations for this unexpected change.

A right question to ask is how an ethnic Turkish party leader in Bulgaria came to be caught in the geopolitical strife between Russia and Turkey, his choice of position being a dilemma which should not be at all difficult. To understand what lies below the tip of MRF’s “iceberg”, we should take a closer look at the party’s background.

The background

The MRF was officially born in 1990 just days before the staging of the first free elections in Bulgaria after the end of the single-party communist regime. The MRF came to represent politically the interests of Bulgaria’s ethnic Turkish minority in the aftermath of one of the darkest episodes in Bulgaria’s communist rule – the so called “Revival Process”. In the mid-1980s, the Bulgarian communist leader Todor Zhivkov and members of the Politburo took a decision to initiate a policy of forced cultural assimilation of the country’s ethnic Turkish minority, then about 700-800,000 strong and located in major enclaves in the south and north-east of the country. Naturally, Bulgaria was thrown down the path of violence, instability, and repression which concluded with the end of the communist regime in 1989 and roughly 300,000 Turks who fled or were expelled to neighboring Turkey, refusing to change their names and way of life. Although the violence never reached the extremes later seen in Yugoslavia, conflicting reports place the victims between a few dozens and about 100, with another roughly 1,000 impacted by imprisonment and internment . The “Revival Process” struck the final nail in the coffin of the Bulgarian communist regime, deserted by Moscow and isolated by the West. In November 1989, an unexpected coup within the Politburo deposed Todor Zhivkov, who had been at the helm for 35 years, and opened the way for a multi-party system.

Getting back on topic, there are a number of peculiarities around the MRF, which are crucial for understanding its unique context. For the sake of brevity, I will not delve further into the entire 25-year history of the MRF, but will pin point a few essential details.

  • The MRF has managed to secure seats in every Bulgarian parliamentary election after 1990. On several occasions the MRF has been part of ruling coalitions both with partners on the left and on the right.
  • The MRF has a solid electoral base due to its ethnic character. Bulgarian Turks represent about 10-11 % of the country’s population and almost exclusively vote for the MRF at all elections. Since about the year 2000, the MRF has steadily received greater support, drawing votes from the Roma minorities as well as due to the ethnic Bulgarian majority’s disenchantment and gradual withdrawal from the political process
  • The MRF is considered and integral part of the so called “Bulgarian ethnic model” (of tolerance). Indeed, since the end of the communist regime, Bulgaria has seen no outbursts of ethnic violence or antagonism unlike most neighboring states in the Western Balkans. Political representation through the MRF may have been a factor that mitigated a hypothetical occurrence of other sorts of “uglier” developments.
  • Naturally, Bulgarian nationalists are not on good terms with the MRF. The reason can be traced in Bulgaria’s history – around 1400 the Ottoman Turks subdued the Bulgarian medieval state, which was to be restored in its modern form in 1878 after a period of national revival. This period of almost 500 years being a subject of the Ottoman Empire is known in Bulgaria as “the Turkish Yoke” – a centerpiece of the nation’s historical drama.
  • The MRF’s political existence has been marked by the controversial figure of one of its co-founders Ahmed Dogan. He led the party from 1990 to 2013 when he stepped down amidst a mock-up assassination attempt and assumed the title of “honorary chairman”. It was Ahmed Dogan’s speech on 17 December 2015 which gave reasons for the deposition and later expulsion of Lyutvi Mestan. For many observers, Ahmed Dogan had never really stepped down from the running of the MRF but had merely become an “eminence grise”, retired from public appearances.
  • The controversy around Ahmed Dogan thickened in 2007 when a state commission working on the lustration of former communist regime collaborators uncovered Dogan’s past commitment to the counterintelligence department of the Bulgarian communist State Security (DS) secret service. The event has since fueled all sorts of conspiracy theories. However, any actual transparent explanations or relevant institutional actions have never been undertaken. Nevertheless, Ahmed Dogan’s reputation has remained tarnished and many logical questions have arisen about the actual role the communist secret services had played in the very formation of the MRF. 

Power base

There are several ways one can look at the MRF. The party has certainly evolved over those 25 years on the political scene in Bulgaria. It has been talked of as a “guarantee of ethnic peace”, an offshoot of the Bulgarian communist secret services, which transformed into a Russian wildcard in Bulgaria, a proxy of Ankara’s interest in Bulgaria, and a mere “business circle” buying into politics. It would be fair to say that there is a pinch of truth in all these views.  However, the main two characteristics of the MRF, which have remained overwhelmingly unaltered, are its non-transparency and constant access to Bulgaria’s parliament.

In the decade after the fall of communism in Bulgaria, the MRF managed to secure a firm monopoly over the votes of the Bulgarian citizens of Turkish descent, living mostly in parts of the south and north-east of Bulgaria. The dominant political parties of the period had largely given up on those ethnic minorities. Bulgaria’s society and economy was going through a tumultuous period and the establishment’s attention was consumed by other pressing issues. Moreover, the MRF was playing tit-for-tat with the majority representatives as a balancing factor on the political landscape, often securing enough seats to support or depose governments. This important balancing role led to the MRF being “left alone” in its electoral districts – a sort of a candid agreement whereby the MRF received its monopoly over the ethnic Turkish vote in return for political support for those needing it to cling to power.

In time, the influence of the MRF grew to an extent which placed the impoverished and largely agrarian ethnic Turkish minority in an almost feudal dependency. All levels of public and economic life in those regions today depend on, or are somehow connected to, the local MRF network. The party has managed to perfect the ways it mobilises its electorate to the maximum – calling in on local voters in Bulgaria, and also those Bulgarian Turks who live in the EU or Turkey, a considerable force. The democratic electoral process in the MRF strongholds has, therefore, eroded to a mere rubberstamp procedure whereby the local constituents are rallied to the polls without necessarily even willing to vote for the MRF. The full control over the economic and political life in those regions gives the MRF powerful leverage to influence voter preferences and quell any deviation of opinion.

This exclusive position has also enabled the MRF to name itself a “guarantor of ethnic peace” in Bulgaria. Although usually not running on any inflammatory rhetoric, MRF politicians have occasionally allowed themselves to push their weight into the political bargaining using ethnic stability as a subtle threat.

MRF as corporation

The real rise of the MRF came in the decade after the year 2000. The uninterrupted access to Bulgarian governance during a period of steady economic growth made the MRF look like an attractive option through which business circles could secure political influence. The MRF stood firm in the increasingly fractured political landscape of Bulgaria during the first decade of the 21st century. The cash which was flowing into Bulgaria from the EU funding programmes before and after the country’s accession in 2007 proved to be an irresistible temptation for Bulgaria’s mature business oligarchy.

The MRF, as the party with most stable electoral position, became the most convenient and risk-free entry point for buying into politics and securing access to the billions available for public tendering. The party slowly opened up to members of Bulgarian ethnicity and even sent some to parliament as deputies. Increasingly today, the MRF started to be seen as “crossbreed” between a political party and a business corporation. On the surface, it is a party representing the Turkish ethic minority in Bulgaria, a pro-European member of the ALDE group in Brussels, while in reality it possibly sits on top of the largest political influence peddling scheme in Bulgaria. In 2009, caught on tape while delivering a speech to constituents, then-leader Ahmed Dogan said he was the one “who allocated funding in the state” and went about explaining how “informal positions” were more important than legislation. I would restrain from going into further details, but in a few words, the MRF is also known to have been entangled with the business empire of the Bulgarian oligarch Delyan Peevski since at least 2009. A scandal erupted around his name in 2013 when the MRF, part of the then ruling coalition, allegedly suggested his appointment as head of the Bulgarian State Agency for National Security (DANS) sparking a rare outburst of public discontent, which brought thousands to protest on the streets of capital Sofia. Peevski’s networks of offshore-registered companies have been receiving public tenders under usually non-transparent and highly controversial conditions. His interest in the large cash flows, expected around mega-projects like the now-suspended South Stream gas pipeline, is an “open secret” in Bulgarian public life. The same goes for Peevski’s alleged connection to the 2014 default of a major bank, which is said to have roughly costed about €2 billion to tax payers.

Geopolitics exaggerated

The sudden dismissal of Lyutvi Mestan, who had chaired the MRF since Ahmed Dogan stepped down in 2013, brought about a wave of interpretations among experts and the public. Mestan was hastily portrayed as a “traitor” and “Turkish spy” by a number of media outlets connected to media mogul Delyan Peevski. A speech by the honorary chair Ahmed Dogan was instrumental in providing the grounds on which Mestan had to go – he had chosen to “stand against the interests of Bulgaria”. Dogan was later depicted by some as a “strategist” who had reined in to restrain Mestan, the pariah that was supposedly making the MRF a “vassal” to Ankara. Dogan’s image of a “patriot” and a “saviour”, which is being constructed, logically requires also a “traitor”, politologist Ognyan Mihchev told local media.  The geopolitical dimensions of these arguments placed the discussions around the MRF shake-up on a foreign policy footing, perhaps diverting attention from a rather trivial reality.

It would certainly be fair to say that the MRF has juggled with foreign policy in its long history on the Bulgarian political scene. Equally so, it would be awkward if Turkey had no aspirations to look for proxies among the Turkish minorities in Bulgaria – this is something that any other country would do in its shoes. In comparison, official Sofia has also established links with Bulgarian ethnic organisations in Moldova, Ukraine, and Serbia, where most Bulgarian minorities in the region are concentrated.

At the same time, there are reports that during his tenure Ahmed Dogan has largely been on bad terms with Ankara and particularly Turkey’s strongman Recep Tayyip Erdogan. On the other hand, under Lyutvi Mestan’s leadership the MRF has moved towards rapprochement with Ankara. Mestan is believed to have maintained friendly personal relationship with the Turkish ambassador in Sofia.

Ahmed Dogan’s record with the Bulgarian communist State Security gives enough reason to believe that the MRF has since its beginning maintained a relationship with representatives of the Bulgarian, and quite possibly also Russian, secret services. When most of the secret service establishment in Russia and Bulgaria re-labelled itself to entrepreneurs and businessmen, Dogan’s links probably transferred to the economic field. It has always been difficult to disentangle political and business links between Moscow and Sofia in the aftermath of communism’s collapse in Eastern Europe. Many say the MRF has been once again trading its influence between Moscow, Sofia, and Ankara depending on the situation and the expected material returns.

To fully grasp the importance of these recent PR exchanges, one needs to understand how sensitive the topic of Turkey’s influence is for Bulgarians from a historical perspective. As I touched upon it earlier in the text, in Bulgarian collective historical memory Turkey is seen in negative light, while Russia is considered to be the “liberator” since its imperial armies defeated the Ottomans in a war ending with the formation of Bulgaria in 1878. Simply put, the suggested narrative should be clear – when Turkey and Russia are “partners”, we dance together, however, when the two are at odds, we need to choose sides. For the same reasons above, it is easy to see that throwing blames on Turkey in Bulgaria can be a much more effective populist weapon than doing so with Russia, especially in its non-USSR form. Going about geopolitical squabbling on Christmas Eve is certainly a convenient way to influence the hearts and minds of the majority and secure a less rational discussion on the actual reality. The strangest point here was that an ethnic Turkish leader in Bulgaria had taken the opportunity to throw accusations at Ankara – a domain reserved usually for nationalists.

All that said, it is hard to believe that the latest crisis in the MRF has been sparked by geopolitical or idealistic considerations on behalf of Ahmed Dogan. Indeed, the rift between Russia and Turkey may have complicated the party’s balancing act, but most probably the grievances have remained largely commercial in their core. The swift move by the media network related by Delyan Peevski to condemn Lyutvi Mestan only speaks of a fall out between the two. Curiously enough, in the days after the coup in MRF, it became clear that a Turkish company had lost a tender bid for a highway construction contract valued at about €400 million; the winner – a company allegedly owned by Delyan Peevski. There have also been speculations about a possible restart of Gazprom’s South Stream project, the elephant in the room, after the suspension of its alternative Turkish Stream.

Conclusion

The main difficulty in interpreting developments around the MRF stems from the fact that is shrouded by a chronic lack of transparency. To describe this, the Bulgarian daily Kapital coined the catchword “MRFology” drawing a parallel with the concept of Kremlinology, used by western experts and journalists to make sense of the decisions taken by Russia’s political elite during the Soviet era (and afterwards).

Although, Lyutvi Mestan was formally chairing the MRF between 2013 and 2015, it is said that actual decisions in the party had been taken by Ahmed Dogan. Insiders and former MRF members have described his ways as “dictatorial”. “The “eternal leader” (Dogan) can depose anyone within 24 hours of his decision, without suffering any consequence”, Kasim Dal, a former MRF member and co-founder said in an interview. In this light, some tended to see Mestan’s formal leadership position in the MRF as a façade, behind which Ahmed Dogan had never released the reigns.

Mestan’s dismissal in December, therefore, opened some questions on the actual role he was playing in the MRF lately. In 2013, Mestan, also a former collaborator to the communist secret service, was elected chairman of the MRF upon Ahmed Dogan’s exclusive recommendation.  However, this is not the first time a close associate has been dismissed. Many of the co-founders of the MRF from the early days have left or been expelled from the party over the last decade or so.

Yet, the MRF has never been challenged by a serious alternative for the ethnic Turkish vote in Bulgaria. Some of those who had left the MRF formed their own political parties which never gained steam. On 7 January, Lyutvi Mestan announced similar plans at a press conference, while ironically taking the opportunity to harshly criticise the MRF’s dependence on shady business circles during the period in which the party was headed, actually, by himself.

Lately, the story around the MRF has mostly run out of steam. Neither Mestan, nor the new MRF interim leadership have engaged into further public activities. What remains to be seen is whether the MRF will remain as monolithic as it used to be and whether Ahmed Dogan would formally return to the chairman post. It is also interesting to see how Mestan’s pledges to remain in politics will materialise and how much support he may seek from Ankara for a possible new political project.

In the meantime, experts and public are talking of the increasing collusion between the centre-right coalition behind prime minister Boiko Borissov and the MRF’s “business core”, although the two formally remain on opposing sides in parliament. That said, it is worth noting the MRF is not the only blemish on the reputation of the political elite in Bulgaria. It is rather its grotesque reflection, feeding on the weak institutional order and the mock-up state of the rule of law. The ethnic dimension of the MRF only holds thousands of Bulgarian Turks hostages to politics. The vicious model can be broken only by a working judicial system and restored access for the ethnic minority to the mainstream political parties in Bulgaria. Else, Bulgarian society could easily continue to fall for the different overtures of populist puppeteers.

Image: www.novini.bg