The bizarre attempted “assassination” over the weekend of a Bulgarian MP sheds light on that country’s long persecuted ethnic Turkish minority.
During a televised party congress in the capital city of Sofia on Saturday, as millions of people watched live, an assailant named Oktai Enimehmedov -- armed with a gas-pistol -- jumped the stage where Ahmed Dogan was speaking and pointed his weapon before he was wrestled away by security guards and beaten.
Dogan, leader of the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, or MRF, which largely represents Bulgaria’s Turkish and Muslim ethnic minorities, was not hurt as the attacker was unable to get off any shots.
Gas pistols are nonlethal and used primarily for self-defense, although at close range they can cause injury.
Enimehmedov, who has a criminal record, including incidents of drug possession, assault and robbery, was arrested by police and now faces a prison term of up to five years on charges of “hooliganism” and six years for making death threats.
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According to reports, Enimehmedov, 25, an ethnic Turk himself, left a note at his home in which he claimed he did not intend to kill Dogan but just wanted to show that the MRF chief was not "untouchable.”
But Bulgarian media and lawmakers are wondering if the episode was a genuine assassination attempt or a publicity stunt designed to promote the MRF’s image in a country where, despite Dogan’s influence, it is relegated to the sidelines as a minority party.
"It seems like [the gun incident was] a pretty artificial attempt to present their party as a victim, to rally their voters, to strengthen their line," Ivan Dikov, editor of Sofia News Agency, said, according to the Guardian newspaper. "They have a lot to recover from."
Dogan, 58, who has led the MRF party for a quarter-century, has faced accusations of corruption for years; even facing a trial on such charges two years ago (he was acquitted). One hour after the attack, Dogan returned to the stage and received a standing ovation. He is planning to relinquish his leadership role to his aide, Lyutvi Mestan.
"Now [Dogan is] this targeted leader, the spiritual head of his community -- like a victim, a martyr," Dikov added.
"Even among ethnic Turks in Bulgaria he's considered pretty controversial. [Dogan] runs the organization really tightly, there's a system of patronage and nepotism. It's plausible that there was somebody who hates this sort of 'tyrant' who just wanted to get rid of him and was ready to sacrifice himself."
Indeed, the Sofia News Agency reported that many Bulgarians and ethnic Turks have expressed support for Enimehmedov. On a Facebook page for the detained young man, one comment read: "Okay, we are with you. Many Bulgarian Turks oppose the policies of the [MRF]… We support you.”
Contrarily, MRF officials suggested a conspiracy behind the strange incident and accused the state security services of failing to protect their leader. Mestan, the new chairman of the party, is even calling for an international probe into the near-shooting.
"The main goal of the investigation would be to focus on finding out who was the political mastermind of this attack," Mestan said at a news conference on Sunday.
“The authorities are working on the lead that this was an individual action of a criminal. We know why this is being done; we know that this is a huge stain on Bulgaria's image. We are alarmed as are all institutions in the country, but we will not erase the stain by replacing the truth, but by revealing the truth.”
Parliamentary elections will be held in Bulgaria this July.
Regardless of the legitimacy of the assassination attempt, what cannot be denied is that the Turkish/Muslim minority of Bulgaria, accounting for about 12 percent of the total population, have long suffered from discrimination in the Balkan nation.
Turks, who alone account for between 8 and 9 percent of the population, have lived in Bulgaria since the days of the Ottoman dynasty, which ruled much of the present day Eastern Europe for centuries.
Scholars are not certain if the contemporary Turks in the country are the descendants of Christian Bulgarians, who were forced to convert to Islam during the Ottoman period, or if they are related to ethnic Turks, who moved into the area after the 14th century conquest. Others claim they are the offspring of Turkic-speaking tribes who swept into present-day Bulgaria in an even earlier period.
According to Minority Rights Group International, or MRGI, prior to the communist takeover of the country in 1944, Turks in Bulgaria lived largely separate lives – with their own schools and court systems -- leaving many unable to speak the Bulgarian language.
Muzaffer Kutlay, writing in the Journal of Turkish weekly, said Bulgarian Turks “were exposed to severe oppression. Due to the perception of them as a threat to the integrity of the country, there were attempts to assimilate them. Whenever the assimilation policy failed, they were forced to migrate.”
After the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953, Sofia gradually commenced a full assimilations program, to integrate the Turks into the Bulgarian mainstream, culminating in the elimination of the Turkish language from schools by 1975 and from the media by 1984.
In the mid-1980s, in a bid to create a “unified Socialist state,” the government forced Turks to drop Turkish or Muslim names and customs altogether and adopt Bulgarian names. Those Turks who refused to comply were often fired from jobs, fined, imprisoned and sometimes even killed.
The government’s heavy tactics only further emboldened the Turkish minority into staging mass protest and hunger strikes, leading to Sofia’s order to expel Turkish leaders to Turkey and elsewhere by 1989.
These developments prompted a massive emigration (largely voluntary) by ordinary Turks out of Bulgaria. MRGI estimated that some 350,000 Turks departed by August 1989 -- however, about 130,000 returned after the communist regime fell later in the year.
Over the following years, Turks were again granted to right to take on Turkish names and to freely practice Islam in the country. The Turkish language was also permitted in school’s curriculum and in the media.
However, a poor economy and high unemployment among the Turks (particularly in the Turkish-dominated tobacco industry) in the 1990s prompted a new weave of emigration, primarily to Turkey or Western Europe.
The Turks who remained largely held tight to their language and customs.
MRF, which was founded in January 1990 to represent the interest of the Turks, has been criticized by parties across the political spectrum for its narrow focus on ethnic issues. As early as October 1991, members of the National Assembly (primarily belonging to the former Communist Party) called the MRF “unconstitutional” since the state bans the formation of political parties based on ethnic, religious or racial grounds. The ultra-nationalist, right-wing National Union Attack party continues to make the same charges about MRF.
Nonetheless, MRF has steadily drawn enough voter support to periodically make it a partner in Bulgaria’s various coalition governments.
Kutlay proposes, however, that Bulgaria needs to make further amends to the Turks for past injustices.
“It is hard to say that Bulgaria has completely faced up to its past,” she wrote.
“The necessary steps have still not been taken appropriately. The first phase is to acknowledge the ethical side of the tragedy. In this regard, the Bulgarians have done their part by apologizing and ... condemning those [forced assimilations] policies. However, the second phase, which includes criminal prosecution, could not be implemented. Up to today, none of the officials [who imposed assimilation] were tried in a court and penalized.”