When the epic events of 1989 that were witnessed in Eastern Europe are discussed Bulgaria always seems to fall below the radar. This can probably be attributed to a combination of reasons. The first is that it was one of the last countries to actually part with its Communist government – East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Poland had all gone before with far greater fanfare. The second is that there was no one great individual who took the lead. Whereas Czechoslovakia had the playwright-cum-dissident Vaclav Havel and Poland had the shipyard worker Lech Walesa, Bulgaria's move away from Communism seemed to lack a face. The third was the lack of violence and upheaval. There were no great protests such as at the shipyards in Gdansk – there were protests, but they were far less gripping or photogenic - and there was no Ceaucescu-style violence. Bulgaria's revolution saw an internal coup within the Communist party as more liberal and reform-minded members took over and transitioned the country to a market economy.
An extension of the rather low-key end to 50 years of Communist rule was the lack of coverage the aftermath of the revolution also received. Whilst cameras from the BBC and major US networks were capturing the harrowing pictures of Romanian orphans or families reuniting in Berlin, there were some rather less than pleasant events taking place in Bulgaria that went almost totally unreported. In 1990, the government began the forced relocation of the Turkish community 'back' to Turkey. I use the word 'back', yet it is something of a misnomer. The vast majority of the group had lived in Bulgaria all their lives and had never even been to Turkey. The history of the ethnic group dates back to the days when Bulgaria was ruled by the Ottomans. As a consequence of the Ottoman occupation, the Turks are not always the most popular nation in Bulgaria and the country celebrates those who won independence rather fervently. There are statues everywhere and Vasil Levski – the leader of the group that fought for independence – has stadiums, roads and sports teams named in his honour.
So, on a wave of new-found nationalism in the early 1990s, the Turkish population was expelled from Bulgaria. This was a move that caused much heart-ache. My girlfriend's family had to leave everything they had and were stripped of all their money when they crossed Bulgaria's southern border into Turkey. The move lasted for two or three years before the Turkish population began to drift back into Bulgaria. Many found that their houses had been looted and their possessi0ons taken – they were also stripped of their money again at the border.
My girlfriend's family lives in the village of Stoyan Mihailovski in eastern Bulgaria about an hour from the Black Sea and close to the city of Shumen. The village is primarily made-up of the Turkish minority. Her family speak only Turkish at home and watch Turkish TV. The Bulgarian language is decidedly conspicuous by its absence. This threw me somewhat as I had been practising some of my Bulgarian phrases, but had little chance to use them. They also eat purely Turkish food, although there is degree of overlap here. The main dish for special occasions is the seasoned meatball known as kofte, which Bulgarians also eat heavily. They have a dish made of white cheese and pastry that they know as borek, but the Bulgarians refer to as barnitza. It is a really rather strange situation, life at home is almost 100% Turkish, yet signs in village are in cyrillic and the school is operated in Bulgarian. My sister's seven year-old nephew has to practice his Bulgarian language skills in order to go to school.
I found it very strange to step out of the little enclave and into Bulgaria as a whole. For starters, I wasn't great with either language, but having to deal with both was very difficult. It was also tremendously interesting to see the change of ethos. Everything at home had a rather insular ethos. The family looked in on itself. Once out into Bulgarian cities this had to change – suddenly language and outlook flicked a switch! Experiencing the Turkish community was unbelievably interesting. It gave me a window onto history and culture of which I was unaware and which was deeply rich.