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The tangled history of Turkish-Bulgarian ties shows that crises can often have a bright side.by Boyko Vassilev 21 August 2018
The Turkish lira’s plunge this month set off an invasion by even larger tourist hordes than the August average. Suddenly, you could buy a pair of decent leather shoes for the equivalent of 12 euros. Another 12 would get you a lavish lunch for two, provided you didn’t ask for lobster.
Bulgarians found it easiest to take advantage. No need to book plane tickets. Just jump in the car and hit the road south to Edirne at the border or further to Istanbul, the paradise of sales. Pack up the car with everything Turkish – from olive oil to dresses, from baklava to all kinds of home appliances – and head home. Good for them – and also good for the Turks, who exploited the tourism boom to alleviate the currency stress.
This is not the first time Bulgarians and Turks have established mutually advantageous ties on the everyday level. Soon after 1989 Bulgarians discovered the beaches of Bodrum and Antalya – and the neo-patriarchal warmness of Turkish soaps, the unbeatable champion of Bulgarian TV ratings. Ordinary folks get along well, often referring to each other as “komsu” (pronounced “comshu”) – “neighbor.”
Neither history nor politics helped here. Bulgaria’s road to independence in the
19th century meant breaking free of the Ottoman Empire. Writers, artists and educators threw their weight behind the effort, and all Europe recoiled at the arbitrary massacres in the wake of Bulgaria’s April Uprising in 1876, known as “the Bulgarian horrors.” War soon followed. In 1877-1878 Bulgarians, alongside other Balkan Ottoman subjects, eagerly joined Russia’s war against Turkey, and again in 1912-1913 much of the Balkans rose up against the tottering Ottoman Empire.
From 1944 to 1989, Bulgaria and Turkey were isolated in two blocs; their common border marked the front line of the Cold War. Bulgarian communists viewed their Turkish minority with suspicion – and in 1984 started officially changing their names into Bulgarian ones, claiming they were descendants of “Islamized Bulgarians.” Thus confrontation reached its peak. Soon thereafter changes came and relations started to warm. Bulgaria and Turkey became allies in NATO. The Movement for Rights and Freedom, a party supported by Bulgarian Turks and Muslims, grew into one of the most potent Bulgarian political forces.
Such ups and downs make the picture positive yet fragile. So when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan praises the Ottoman Empire and says that the Bulgarian city of Kardzhali is “in his heart” – and Bulgarian nationalist politicians send back slanderous echoes – old passions are quick to arise. Komsu disappears for a while and the ancient foe comes out of the shadows.
This is perhaps unavoidable in these times of profound change in Turkey.
Who could have ever predicted that Turkey, the most loyal ally of the United States, would quarrel with Washington, resulting in sanctions, punitive tariffs, and a currency crisis? That Turks would smash their iPhones and spit on their dollars as none other than Qatar came to the rescue?
Changes bring fear. Whatever may have gone before, Bulgaria has never fought a war with the modern Turkish republic, established in the 1920s. Its founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, served as a military attache in Sofia in 1913-1914. The rapid progress he witnessed in the former Ottoman province became a model for his drive to modernize and Westernize Turkey. Maybe because of that – or the pleasant memories from his Sofia days – Ataturk’s relationship with Bulgaria was said to be special.
If Erdogan is now attempting to undo the Kemalist legacy, putting Turkey on a more Islam-centered and anti-Western course, Bulgarians wonder: how will this affect us? So far, the Turkish president remains on good personal terms with Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov. Last winter, they inaugurated together the restored Bulgarian iron church in Istanbul. Two months later, during Bulgaria’s term at the helm of the EU presidency, Borissov hosted a dinner in Varna for Erdogan and EU leaders Donald Tusk and Jean-Claude Juncker, in a bid to keep the dialogue open between Europe and Turkey.
This is promising. Nevertheless, the balance is delicate and unpredictability hangs in the air. Bulgarian Turks too are trying to read the writing on the wall. Until two years ago their leaders praised Ataturk’s legacy and made anti-Erdoganist statements, reflecting their base in Bulgaria and European Turkey – and an alleged attempt of Erdogan to split their party. Now, they are keeping quiet on these matters.
If only things could be left to the common people. They practice what former Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu once described to me as “the komsu concept” – a good neighborhood. Sometimes this can mean putting politics aside, even in times of crisis.
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