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Use (and abuse) of religion in building up

or scaling down regional conflicts in the Balkans?


- Bulgarian perspective -


CCADD - Annual Conference


Bellem, Belgium


29 August - 2 September 2003





Some introductory words


Being an integral part of The Balkans - the boiling pot of ethnic and religious conflicts for centuries - Bulgaria surprisingly (or may be not) remains a lonely island of ethnic calmness and peace, enshrining (perhaps amazingly) all tolerance and friendliness in its relations with the neighbours. And though the overall political and economic development of the country over the last 12 years has not been always smooth, the country managed to build up the most stable civic peace in the region, successfully integrating all its 22 minority groups.


Building a stable and reliable civic peace has never been and still is not an easy task in the Balkans. Why and how has Bulgaria grown up as a key factor of security and stability, in terms of ethnic relations in the region? Answering this question, in the limited framework of time, is the modest goal of this short paper.





Christian-Muslim relations in Bulgaria in the Context of New Bulgarian History



Bulgaria became an independent kingdom in 1878 after Russia won the second Russian - Turkish war for the Straits (1877-1878).  This led to the liberation of the Southeast part of the Balkan Peninsula from Turkish political domination.


Soon after the Peace Agreement signed in San Stefano, the Kingdom of Bulgaria adopted its First Constitution. Paragraph four of the Constitution granted basic political rights to all Bulgarian male nationals, including the right "to participate in politics regardless of their wealth, educational qualification or confession". Eliminating the roots of potential political discrimination on the basis of religious or ethnic belonging, the first Bulgarian Constitution, and the legal provisions implementing basic political rights, successfully managed, even in the dawn of the country's existence as an independent state, to eliminate potential political conflicts based on religious differences.


The first Bulgarian Constitution created the legislative framework for a new, democratic governance of the country, guaranteeing equal chances for all nationals in terms of their political representation.  The Constitution embodied very high moral principles of governance; principles of universal humanity. The moral and human principles of political and economic governance were embodied in Test Acts, and in the oath the elected members of the Parliament were obliged to take while entering into their duties. The member of Parliament should serve "his King, his Kingdom and his nation following the dictates of honest conscience, respect to the law, and obeying the principles of decisiveness, energy, skilfulness, persistency and goodwill".  By implication, the moral framework of the Test Acts was obviously based on Christian values, albeit not explicitly formulated as allegiance to the "true God" and "true faith". In the context of a still fragile ethnic balance in the society on the eve of 20th century, this political solution was very important, as any hasty political act which neglected confessional principles and religious feelings, would cause explosive ethnic conflict.


This is how a spirit of democracy started to penetrate and dominate Bulgarian political life; a spirit of democracy which was deeply influenced by the belief that morality should control the use of power. This conviction had had its deepest roots even further back in history, when under the economic framework of the Ottoman Empire the foundation of Bulgarian national economy was being laid. It was an important moment in Bulgarian history, since before political liberation the economic foundation became the most important precondition for the dynamic development of the country after the liberation in 1878. The nature and specifics of economic relations between Bulgarians and Turks, established long before 1878, reflected the nature of entrepreneurial activities and trade, which were based mainly on the principles of honesty, dignity, mutual respect and trust. Turkish economic activities, especially in the field of trade, wood processing, tobacco an textile industry, became a very important part of a prosperous, developing internal Bulgarian market. From the point of view of internal policy, it quite soon became clear that political acts impeding, in any way, the smooth integration of Turkish economic actors into the national economy would impede the economic development of the country itself.


During the first parliamentary elections in 1886, the first political parties representing the richest industrialists and land owners, but also different ethnic groups, appeared on the political scene. And it seemed that all necessary internal preconditions for smooth democratic development based on stable civic peace were in place. Unfortunately, a range of external factors, including those which redrew the political map of Europe after the First World War, influenced the ethnic peace of Bulgaria. 


Nevertheless, the first decades of the independent Bulgarian state were and still are an excellent historical example of a civic peace, which resulted from experience collected during a quite long period of time (more than five centuries); an experience of how to survive and how to co-exist in a dangerous and hostile environment without losing national identity, morality and dignity. It was the context in which Bulgarian political culture was created; a culture infused with the conviction that the power of arms was not the only way to protect national interests; that much more important was the power of the spirit, which cultivated mutual understanding, respect and tolerance toward those who were different.


Of course, one could say that such a political philosophy is actually inevitable for small nations. It might be true, but not necessarily and always. This political philosophy goes far beyond national borders, becoming a necessary prerequisite for creating a national cause, which is perfect in a moral sense because it acknowledges the superiority of moral principles in politics over economic ones. And for Bulgarian political life it did not remain only a philosophy. Bulgarian history at the beginning of 20th century presents very interesting examples of how this philosophy was implemented in real political life.

In 1901, Prime Minister Petko Karavelov, leader of the Bulgarian Liberal-Democratic party, strongly supported his Minister of Finance in preparing the State Budget for the year 1902. The Budget was introduced by a three hour speech in Parliament. It was dominated by the idea of strong savings in all fields of governance and public life, impeding and removing all forms of wasteful governmental and public expenditure. The Budget contained also a proposal aiming at abolishing the unpopular law which proportioned taxes to incomes. The Minister of Finance, following basic Biblical principles, proceeded
according to the assumption that this tax law was immoral precisely because it stimulated wasteful governmental expenditures, and drove taxpayers to conceal their incomes. For those active in Turkish political and economic circles the above-mentioned tax law did not contain any contradiction with the moral values determined by the Koran, since the Koran blessed as virtues all human activities contributing to creating and preserving affluence and wealth - both private and public. (Significantly, the law was necessary particularly for the biggest Turkish land owners.) On the other hand, the distinction, implicit in the Koran, between pursuit of private affluence and of public wealth was not wholly clear for Christians. Where to draw the line between the two remained vague. This confusion created tensions between the Turkish minority and the rest of the population. The Budget Proposal was adopted only on the third reading, after a very pragmatic compromise had been found. In Turkish political and economic circles abolition of the income tax law was favoured, gaining political support for adopting another tax law - linked with diminishing the  taxes for goods imported from Turkey.


So, gradually, mounting difficulties in finding political compromises disappointed the post-liberation generations of politicians. The leading politicians, thinkers and philosophers came to the conclusion that it was utopia to believe that the idea of "Christian politics" could be realised in the framework of the existing state structure. This assumption led to a constant and deep alienation of politics from ethics, of principles of governance from principles of morality, of political, social and economic values from Christian values. Nevertheless, a very positive experience was accumulated in Bulgarian political life during the first decades after the country gained its independence, especially in the field of inter-ethnic relations. This precious experience would be of fundamental importance 100 years later, when the southern Balkan states were set alight again by the fire of drowsy but never forgotten old ethnic and religious passions.





Current Christian - Muslim relations in Bulgaria and their impact on regional security and stability in the southern Balkans



The most recent surveys and analysis of the political situation in the Balkan countries (Security Challenges and Development of Southern Balkans - 2001, International Fact-finding Mission to the Republic of Macedonia - 2001, Security and Reconstruction of Southeast Europe: A Policy Outlook from the Region - 2000) argue that ethnic tensions pose the most serious threat to security and stability in the region. They are recognised as regional and international concerns, while all other factors influencing security and stability, such as organised crime, economic and demographic development, infrastructure and military policy are regarded as mainly domestic concerns. This division is quite tentative and could be accepted only on condition that all the above-mentioned factors, even those which are called “domestic” are understood in the context of their broad regional and international dimension, and are seen as factors with enormous power and influence, They determine the nature, and shape the form and degree, of tension in ethnic relations.


Christian/Muslim relations in Bulgaria present a symptomatic example of how  political instability and immaturity, economic backwardness and weak development of regional infrastructure, rather than Christian/Muslim ethnic and religious relations, influence and endanger  ethnic peace between the two major ethnic groups, endangering in this way the civic peace itself. Christian/Muslim relations are also an example of how ethnic tensions, enflamed not by religious intolerance or enmity, but mainly by political manipulation, could become a real threat to security and stability in the whole region.


The composition of the Bulgarian population is quite [?very] diverse. About twenty-two minority groups live in the country. A very important precondition for ethnic peace, and a very important sign of real democracy, is the current state policy of integrating minorities, and not keeping them in separate compartments. The policy aims at eliminating any form of state preference for one church or religion over another. Equal political, civil and cultural rights are granted to all citizens regardless of their belonging to a certain religious or ethnic group. Thus, all principal preconditions for eliminating religious conflicts in their deepest roots are fulfilled. Nevertheless granting collective rights to ethnic minorities remains particularly perilous (and unsolved).  Historical experience shows that those rights create a climate which induces irredentist territorial claims. But, unlike the Kosovar and Macedonian Albanians, unlike even the Albanian Greeks, who raised claims for boundary adjustment along ethnic lines, the Bulgarian Turks never formulated their goals in territorial terms. Territorial proximity of some ethnic Turks to Turkey does not threaten regional stability. The explanation rests with the goals pursued by the Bulgarian Turks. What they demand is participation in the national and local structures of power and the extension of cultural rights.  And actually the current integration policy of the Bulgarian government toward minority groups promotes integration, by assuring them of their political, civil and cultural rights. Thanks to these rights, minorities really begin to play the role of inter-state “links” narrowing, and even bridging, previous gaps in inter-state relations.


Since 1990 the major Muslim minority group, the group of ethnic Turks, is politically represented by the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF) at both local (municipality) and national (parliamentary and governmental) levels. The party is considered to be a political organization based on ethnicity. While it represents the interests of the ethnic Turks, the party also attracts votes of some ethnic Bulgarians.


Turks enjoy a large spectrum of communal rights. Their participation in Bulgaria’s democratic politics does not differ much from that of the ethnic Bulgarians. They include cultural and political rights, such as free selection of personal names and free practice of minority religion; education in one's own language; participation in national and local authorities.


Cultural rights and political representation at national level dominated Turkish ethnic politics from 1990 through 1995. Actually issues of cultural rights and political participation at national level consolidated the Turks as a politically significant group in 1990 as Bulgarian nationalists organised strikes and mass protests against granting political and cultural rights to minorities. Bulgarian nationalists, ethnic Turks and Muslims, the government and the opposition, eventually reached an agreement aimed at defusing the ethnic tension in the country. The agreement asserted the cultural rights of the ethnic Turks, in particular the right to free selection of name and the free practice of minority religion. The agreement simultaneously confirmed the integrity of the state that the Bulgarian nationalists thought was under threat by the extension of communal rights


In 1991 issues of language education were on the political agenda. The Bulgarian Socialist Party (former Communists) attempted to ban the MRF and to prohibit Turkish language classes in state schools. The Supreme Court eventually ruled out banning of the MRF. Turkish language classes were allowed in state schools after the democratic opposition, the Union of Democratic Forces (UDF), won parliamentary elections in 1997.


Political participation on local level dominated Turkish ethnic politics in 1995 when another ethnic problem awaited its resolution. The problem was the access of the Turkish minority to the structures of local authority. The problem emerged in the city of Kardzali, where the MRF won the municipal and mayoral elections. BSP (the Socialist Party) contested the Kardzhali’s mayoral election in court and delayed the opening of the session of the newly elected municipal council. The court annulled the election. In 1996 however the Supreme Court confirmed the election of an ethnic Turk as mayor of Kardzhali.


At present, the right to free selection of name and the free practice of minority religion seem not to be endangered by any political factors. Education in the Turkish language as a mother tongue is guaranteed by a set of educational institutions at all levels, including university level. This set of educational institutions is particularly well developed in those geographical regions of Bulgaria where the density of the population of Turkish ethnic origin is very high, i.e. in Northeast Bulgaria, Southeast Bulgaria and in the eastern part of the Rhodopa Mountains. This week the first Muslim religious textbooks for secondary schools have been published. The textbooks have been approved by the Ministry of Education, which is also now considering the proposal of the Office of the Supreme Mufti to introduce Muslim religion as a compulsory subject in all secondary schools. The law guarantees the equal right to existence of state educational institutions at all levels for all minority groups on an equal basis through the principle of equal financing. There are no restrictions on establishing private educational institutions. The first Muslim University in the town of Kardzali, financed mainly by the Turkish government, is registered according to Bulgarian higher education law; and its diplomas are recognised by Bulgarian authorities.


It seems that the enduring political will, together with all real efforts to built stable civic peace, tend to be rewarded.  We can now admit that the Turks of Bulgaria do not seem to pose a threat either to regional security, or to domestic stability.


Obviously, the dark days of the late 1980s, the only time in the new history when the ethnic situation in Bulgaria really challenged regional stability, are far behind us. In 1989 tens of thousands of ethnic Turks were forced to leave Bulgaria for Turkey. This mass exodus of the ethnic Turks was the final episode of an unsuccessful assimilation campaign of ethnic Turks launched in 1984 by the communist regime. The campaign aimed at replacing the Islamic names of the ethnic Turks by Slavic ones. The exodus signalized a mass violation of human rights. Bulgarian-Turkish interstate relationships significantly worsened so much, that it led some analysts to predict Bulgarian-Turkish interstate war.


However, ethnic Turks reportedly returned to Bulgaria in 1989 and 1990 following the collapse of the communist regime in Bulgaria.  So now, for more than 12 years, ethnic relations in Bulgaria have been calm and the civic peace has remained stable. There is no  reason for saying that there are serious signs of conflict on religious grounds. The major Turkish concern seems to be the same as before: the improvement of their economic status and the democratization of the society. And if, despite all the results achieved, some potential for ethnic unrest still does exist, this unrest is mostly of political, economic and social character. All three factors are again closely interrelated.  The economic situation is still very weak, while political institutions and institutions of executive power are still very vulnerable. These processes are exacerbated by the extremely slow and painful transformation of political parties into modern political organisations with clear strategic visions based on strong principles and wise political philosophies. These difficulties influence, in a very dangerous way, the whole society; evoking the deepest and the most genuine reasons for tension, conflict, and instability.


Consider an example. An indicator, quoted very often as one of the most important reasons for social unrest and tension, is unemployment. The unemployment rate among the ethnic groups is considerably higher than the country average. The Turkish ethnic group is no exception. For example, in 2001 in districts of Razgrad, Turgovishte and Shumen (one of the regions where the Turkish minority group is concentrated) the unemployment rate was 18 %, 23 % and 17 %, respectively, and exceeded the country’s average rate of 11.86 %. Any attempt to explain the situation by invoking ethnic discrimination would be misleading. The explanation is very simple. There are persistent problems now in selling tobacco and cotton, the staple crops of the Turkish ethnic groups in these regions.


This kind of economic vacuum creates favourable conditions for foreign investment. The excellent augmented economic programme of the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (the political party of the Turkish ethnic group in Bulgaria) creates conditions for wide economic initiatives undertaken by Turkish businessmen supported by the Turkish government. At present, Turkish financial capital is invested in more than 95% of all developing projects in the regions of Northeast and Southeast Bulgaria. Of course, new infrastructure also means new places of work.  In many cases it means also new training centres where very often the language of instruction is Turkish.


And when a wanderer crossing this part of the country by chance, not being able to see the other side of the way, notices a surprisingly large number of mosques everywhere, and hardly any churches anywhere, he might feel the first spark of emotional discomfort and discontent. Then the question arises: May not the civic peace be quite precarious here?  Just because it is at the crossroads of religions?




Some concluding remarks 


Four major conclusions appear to express the main concerns coming down as a conclusion from the reflections shared above: 


1.      The tensions in present relations between Christians and Muslims in Bulgaria do not have purely religious roots, either in an historical dispute (since traditionally, during their 600 years long period of co-existence, the two groups have hardly had purely religious conflicts) nor in present political and social dialogue.



2.      The observable tensions are a result of the present political and economic situation, though some of them appear to be purely religious.  Of course, we could not and should not forget that, among Christians, there is a whole set of prejudices and stereotypes about Muslims, and vice versa among the Muslims about Christians.  In the context of an extremely complicated political situation in the region these might become an explosive cause of conflict and thus a serious challenge to stability and security. Abolishing old stereotypes and improving perceptions becomes a very important element in the process of early warning and preventing conflict.  The ultimate goal  appears to be a broader process of overcoming regional backwardness.


3.      The major problem which should be solved by Governments, political parties and the wider public, not only in Bulgaria but also in the other Balkan countries, is the old concept of sovereignty. The Balkan countries should definitely change their old concepts of sovereignty and pay special attention to redefining the ‘enemy’ in the context of modern, complex national doctrines harmonised with the latest developments and modern world standards.


4.      Judicious and wise state policy, especially sensitive toward minority groups, is extremely important when we accept that old prejudices, stereotypes, enmity and suspicion still do exist. Obviously, the presence of great political thinkers, philosophers, religious and political leaders, statesmen with strong influencing personalities, led by strong moral and human principles, capable and willing to work toward sustainable ethnic peace and reconciliation, is of supreme importance for all countries within the southern Balkans. Unfortunately, those great personalities are still only a dream for the Balkan societies.






Dr. Teodora Kosturkova

CCADD, 2003