In many ways Bulgarians don't care about words. Fed up with partial truths, half-lies and plain nonsense for 45 years of Communism they have come to realise that words don't really mean what they are supposed to. There are many and varied examples from all areas of life to illustrate this. Often Bulgarians would see a sign announcing a shop is "open" whereas the shop is actually very closed. The Communist Party would assure citizens that the "main advantage of Socialism over capitalism is in the planned economy" while people couldn't buy government-issue toilet paper because there was none in retail sales. After Communism collapsed, the truth of words has become post-truth: the prime minister would bill a projected nuclear power plant at Belene a "pool of frogs" and then refer to it approvingly as a megaproject. His right-hand man would declare a bunch of doctors to be "child murderers," but then the International Court of Human Rights would find otherwise. And so on and so forth: words, really, are nothing but words, to paraphrase an old Bulgarian adage.
However, some words tend to to be taken very seriously by the Bulgarians. The Turkish words. The words of "Turko-Arabic" origin as current Bulgarian officials refer to them, echoing the language being used in the 1980s when this country was called the People's Republic of Bulgaria.
Why so? To understand the complex and at times acrimonious relationship between the various ethnic groups living in these lands and how it has influenced language one needs to understand the background.
Bulgarians and Turks have lived side by side since at least the 14th century when the Ottomans conquered the Balkan peninsula. The relationships between the various ethnic groups in the Balkans are still controversial. Depending on whom you speak with in Bulgaria you will be referred to the period as either "the yoke," a poetic word for slavery, or "occupation," or "domination." Why the Ottomans managed to conquer Medieval Bulgaria and why they remained in these lands for about 500 years is besides the point. What is important is that Bulgar, Turk, Greek, Jew, Armenian and many others lived side by side, most of the time as peaceful and well-meaning neighbours. Interactions between the various ethnic groups in the Millet system, which divided the nations of the empire according to religion rather than ethnicity, were daily and multifaceted. The result of the imperial melting pot can still be seen all over the Balkans: in folklore, in fairy tales, in music, in cuisine and, yes, in language.
The Ottomans did not force Ottoman Turkish, the archaic predecessor of modern Turkish, down the throats of the sultan's subjects. All groups spoke their own languages between themselves, but Turkish was given precedence for official business, the empire's intricate tax system and the courts. The overwhelming majority of place names were Turkish. Even those which had Bulgarian equivalents were often Turkicised to make them easier to understand for all others. One example: the Bulgarian city of Plovdiv was called Filibe by the Ottomans and Philippopolis by the Greeks. Just referring to Plovdiv by name would spell out your identity and linguistic preferences.
Bulgaria regained its statehood in the late 19th century and its successive governments became increasingly nationalist. A number of Bulgarisation campaigns ensued. They were meant to convert Muslims to Orthodox Christianity and to change names of Bulgarian towns, villages and localities that indicated a non-Bulgarian identity. The pre-Second World War culmination happened in the 1930s when a proto-fascist government changed as many as 1,875 place names throughout the Kingdom of Bulgaria.
Swapping one linguistic reality for another, in an attempt to change the "real" reality as well, was taken up enthusiastically by the Communists who were installed in Bulgaria in 1944. Various towns and villages, mountain tops, streets and neighbourhoods, schools, theatres and community houses were quickly renamed to Communist "heroes." Some of those remain in use to this day.
By far the biggest, and the cruellest, effort to obliterate this country's past – and the identity of about a million of its citizens – came in the 1980s, the so-called Revival Process. The Communist government at the time ordered everyone who had a name of a "Turko-Arabic" origin to change it with a "proper" Bulgarian one, nice and clean. Thus Ahmed became Asen, Shukri became Orlin, and the person who went to bed by the name of Fahredin woke up the next morning to find out he was now a Kamen. The government used brutal force to accomplish its aims. State Security operatives and even the army were sent to quash any rebellion in far-flung corners of Bulgaria, and there were casualties, including underage children. The Revival Process led to the "Big Excursion" in the summer of 1989 when over 300,000 Bulgarian Turks were forced to leave the country and settle in neighbouring Turkey in what went down in history as one of the biggest peacetime movements of people in post-Second World War Europe.
In the early 1990s, when Bulgaria appeared to be setting forth on the road to democratisation, a court trial of the alleged perpetrators of the Revival Process started. It failed to produce any convictions.
Bulgaria's inconsequential policies regarding its minorities have led to a number of facts very much visible in Bulgaria of NATO and the EU. For one, the anti-Turkish attitudes in the 1980s not only pitched neighbour against neighbour, but led to the creation of a political party, the Turkish-dominated DPS, or Movement for Rights and Freedoms. In the 2000s the DPS was countered by the ultranationalist Ataka, National Front for the Salvation of Bulgaria, and the historically named VMRO, or Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation. The trio, now calling itself United Patriots, is a junior partner in Boyko Borisov's governing coalition.
Against this backdrop it is easier to understand why the city council of Stara Zagora, in 2018, decided to change the names of over 800 toponyms it considered insufficiently Bulgarian. Affected were local areas with little or no meaning to outsiders with no pithy knowledge of Bulgarian or archaic Turkish but that, however, mean the world to the people who inhabit them. Thus Kalpazan Bair became Yalov Rid, Beyska Koriya got its supposed Bulgarian equivalent, Chorbadzhiyska Gora, and Kartalsko Darvo was renamed to Orlovo Darvo.
Obviously, "translating" one toponym with another is not entirely trouble-free. "Kalpazan," which in Bulgarian means "waif," was turned into "yalov," which means "infertile." "Bey," an archaic Turkish word for a well-to-do man was translatded as "chorbadzhi," another Turkish word for a well-to-do man. In this vein the name of Bulgaria, which could be of a Turkic origin, may also have to be changed, and so would the word Balkans. "Balkan" in Turkish means "wooded mountain chain."
The latest bout of name-changing sparked a limited civil society response. Associate Professor Mihail Ivanov, who was a minority policies adviser to this country's first democratically-elected president, Zhelyu Zhelev, billed it "grotesque" and "discriminatory." According to him, Turkish words have penetrated the Bulgarian language for centuries and are an integral part of the local folklore and culture. Swapping them with Bulgarian "equivalents" in fact annihilates significant chunks of this country's traditional culture.
Professor Ivanov considers the Stara Zagora name-changing campaign an act of nationalist populism that has become increasingly prevalent in Bulgaria under GERB. According to him, the timing of what he considers a "continuation" of the 1980s Revival Process – in the midst of the holy Muslim month of Ramadan – was meant to add insult to injury.
Significantly, words rarely mean what the are supposed to in post-Communist Bulgaria. Thus the name-changing effort in Stara Zagora is bound to have only a limited impact. It will certainly create confusion and possibly the need to issue new maps, but not many citizens are likely to start referring to their localities with their new names. The dog is buried elsewhere. By creating an artificial scandal like this in an area that is obviously very sensitive the rulers hope to provide the public with some media fodder to chew on and deflect its attention from the far more important issues of the day.
So far, the current rulers go for changing the names of places rather than human beings. In this sense the leaders of the ultranationalist parties can heave a sigh of relief as they are not immediately threatened. Siderov is Greek. "Karakachan" is a Turkish word for an itinerant sheep herder. And "dzhambaz" means "thief." Angel Dzhambazki is an EMP for the extremist VMRO. Krasimir Karakachanov is his boss. He is now defence minister.