Turkey, Bulgaria and the EU’s Nobel Peace Prize

Turkey, Bulgaria and the EU’s Nobel Peace Prize

“So where does your government get its strength?” a Bulgarian think tanker I met at a conference asked me. “From the people,” I replied. “The ruling party got 50 percent of the votes.”

“Does it count? In Bulgaria you can still buy votes,” he told me. “I have many criticisms about Turkish democracy, but holding fair elections is not one of them,” I said.

I was, however, astonished to hear about vote rigging in an EU member country. Obviously I did not want to jump to a conclusion from just one comment. Still, when this has come in addition to the anti-democratic steps taken by Hungary, another EU country, on press freedoms, my invincible conviction about the soft power of the EU as a transforming force was a bit shaken… until I started to do some homework about Bulgaria, as I was set to have an interview with the country’s president.

The EU’s transforming effects seem to be at work in Bulgaria, and one of the areas where it is best manifested looks to be Sofia’s relations with Turkey as well as its Turkish minority.

Let’s be frank. When you are neighboring an 75 million-strong country and 10 percent of your own population has ethnic kinship with that neighbor, this can lead to some uneasiness. Communist Bulgaria’s ethnic assimilation campaigns constitute dark pages of the two countries’ relations. In this respect it has been unfortunate that the Bulgarian Parliament’s adoption at the beginning of this year of a declaration of apology did not get the attention it deserved from the Turkish press.

The declaration was not adopted as a result of diplomatic pressure from Ankara. Neither was it pushed by Bulgaria’s Turkish party nor by the European Commission. It was therefore a clear manifestation of Bulgarian political maturity. Being an EU member has certainly played a role in attaining this maturity, as has been the case with all of the other European countries, which explains why the EU has got the Nobel Prize.

Obviously there is still room for improvement about the demands of the Bulgarian Turks. The problem over who should be the legitimate religious representative seems to have been solved according to the preferences of the Bulgarian Turks. Expectations as to the use of Turkish, be it in education or broadcasting, have still not been met fully, but there seems to be a healthy ground for dialogue to solve the issues. “When you look to the Turkish minority in Greece, you can’t even compare it; the situation is so much better in Bulgaria,” a Turkish diplomat told me.

No doubt pragmatism also has a role to play in the improvement of relations between Turkey and Bulgaria. The government in Sofia most probably sees more room for prosperity when it looks to its east, where there is a rising economic center like Turkey, than when it looks to its west, where European states are struggling with financial troubles.

The municipal council in the town of Yambol in southern Bulgaria, for example, has revoked its October 2010 declaration recognizing Armenians’ claims of genocide because of complaints from a local organization that said it was hampering their business with Turkey. The decision, taken last October, was immediately followed by the visit of the governor of Edirne, who was accompanied by a group of businessmen.