interview and photography by Anthony Georgieff

Turkey's ambassador considers letting bygones be bygones, making friends and visiting Rila Monastery

ismail Aramaz 2.jpg

We sit on the porch of one of Sofia's most elegant residences and sip some sweet Turkish tea. The large house, located next to Sofia University and overlooking the remnants of the much reviled and intermittently painted-over Red Army Monument, was built in 1903 for the Sirmadzhiev family. It was acquired by Turkey for its embassy a few years later. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the "Father of modern Turkey," worked here as a military attaché when Bulgaria attacked Turkey in the Balkan Wars of the 1910s.

Now it may be one of the most desirable addresses in Sofia, yet I cannot help but think how hard life must be for a Turk in Bulgaria, where a significant proportion of the population perceives Turkey, the former imperial power, as the arch-enemy. The result of many years of propaganda feeding distrust and animosity, this attitude has evolved into a sinister blend of anti-Turkish Bulgarian nationalism, including political extremism. But Ismail Aramaz, Turkey's current ambassador to Sofia, who describes himself as a man in his "fearless 50s" – to quote Gail Sheehy's theory of "passages in a man's life" – is quick to dispel my sentiments.

I am enjoying myself enormously. The food, the popular culture and some of the vocabulary are reassuringly similar. The people have a familiar temperament, such as a tendency to criticise everything and everyone, including themselves. I am at a pleasant stage in my life, when I'm comfortable with myself, warts and all.

I am grateful to the Sofia City Council for renovating the street in front of the residence and adding a lovely pedestrian walkway. I believe that I have contributed to the appearance of the street by voluntarily removing the iron railings belonging to the residence that used to cut off the pavement. By the way, I have had the railings and the concrete bollards in front of our chancery removed, too. The next challenge is to ensure that we are actually treated like a normal embassy.

Is there anything in Bulgaria's public inclinations that you as a Turk find disturbing?

There is too much emphasis on the past, not enough emphasis on the present and certainly too little emphasis on the future. I'd like to reverse this trend.

How would you explain this preoccupation with history in Bulgaria?

It's a relatively recent phenomenon. Prior to 9 September 1944, there was hardly any anti-Turkish sentiment in Bulgaria. The Ottomans did not oppose the Principality of Bulgaria's unification with Eastern Rumelia in 1885, or Bulgarian independence in 1908. The Ottomans did not start the First Balkan War in 1912. Bulgaria did, along with three other countries. The Ottomans did not start the Second Balkan War in 1913 either.

Bulgaria did. The Ottomans and Bulgaria were allies in the First World War. In 1916, the Ottomans dispatched 36,000 troops from the 6th Ottoman Corps to Bulgaria to help win back southern Dobrudzha from Romania. Around 20,000 of them perished in the fighting. Both Dobrudzha and southern Romania are dotted with Ottoman military cemeteries from that campaign. Somehow this has got lost in history.

In the 1930s, the friendship was cemented when Mustafa Kemal Ataturk said "anyone who is against Bulgaria is against Turkey."

The breaking point came when the Red Army crossed the Danube in September 1944. Bulgaria would become a faithful member of the Warsaw Pact. Turkey subsequently joined NATO. Turkish-Bulgarian relations assumed an ideological dimension. For 45 years, the Otechestven Front and the Rabotnichesko Delo, the bulwarks of Communist propaganda, churned out the most awful messages of hatred against the "enemy next door, preparing to invade."

By comparison, in the 1890s, so soon after Bulgarian independence that you would be forgiven for thinking that anti-Turkish sentiment would be strong, Bulgarians merrily made up the largest contingent at Robert College in Istanbul.

Public sentiment is very hard to change.

Firstly, lay the ghost of Turkey to rest. Bulgaria has made its peace with all its neighbours and former enemies, except Turkey. I think it is time we buried the past and became very good friends. Once the Bulgarians rid themselves of their prejudice and angst, it will have a liberating effect on their perceptions. My mission here is to ensure that the Bulgarians treat Turkey like any other neighbouring country.

Secondly, keep an open mind on Turkey. I once read that "the human mind is like a parachute; it is only useful when it is open." I am mystified that, while we are next-door neighbours, Bulgarians know so little about Turkey.

Then avoid a selective reading of history. No one here mentions the well-documented atrocities on Turkish civilians, especially during and after the 1877-1878 Russo-Turkish War. There are specific names, dates and numbers that we could come up with, which are likely to make you blush. But that is not how our mind works.

Winston Churchill once said "If we pick a quarrel between the past and the present, we shall find that we have lost the future." We cannot ignore or undo what is done, but with time and mutual sympathy, we can learn to moderate our perspectives and narratives, and to accept our history as it is and then move on.

Notwithstanding the past, Bulgaria and Turkey seem to be getting on well together now, at least on an official level.

Prime Minister Recep Erdogan and his Bulgarian counterpart Boyko Borisov have a good rapport. They trust each other. They have identified some specific priorities for cooperation in the near future: in road infrastructure, energy and flood management.

In 2011, Turkey was Bulgaria's third biggest export market, with roughly 1.420 billion euros, after Germany and Romania. We have agreed to resume live animal imports from Bulgaria. With the help of that trade, I expect Turkey to become the second biggest destination for Bulgarian exports before the end of this year.

Ismail Aramaz with daughter Umay

At 16 Umay, Ismail Aramaz's daughter, recently played the part of Sandy in a school production of Grease

Several Turkish companies have invested in Bulgaria and between them employ thousands of Bulgarians. Trakia Glass, Alcomet, Zenon, Nursan, Petlas and Tekno Aktas have introduced modern technology and working practices. Two Turkish banks have branches here. Dogus Construction is building part of the Sofia metro network.

But we could do so much more together. The European part of Turkey is next-door to Bulgaria and a big market, with a population twice the size of Bulgaria. And whichever method of calculation one uses, per capita income in Turkey exceeds $11,000. Our high-speed rail network is coming on stream. At the end of 2015, it will be over 3,000 kilometres long, including a portion stretching from Kapitan Andreevo to Georgia, with trains travelling at more than 300 kilometres per hour. Two legs of the network are operational already; Konya-Ankara and Ankara-Eskisehir. It will reach the European part of Istanbul next year.

Turkey and Bulgaria have the potential to become the best of friends in the region, with a spectacular leap forward in bilateral cooperation. But a part of the Bulgarian political elite and bureaucracy has yet to shake off its preconceptions.

In Varna and some other places there have been calls to change some Turkish place names into Bulgarian ones. Isn't that a return to the assimilationist policies of the 1980s?

Bulgaria is a sovereign country, so we'll respect its decisions. However, I must say that I am disappointed. This is out of keeping with the spirit of our times. Some of these names have been in constant use for five or six centuries, why should they cause problems for anyone now? Have you not got other problems to work on? And what if an ethnic Turk-dominated municipality like, say, Tsar Kaloyan or Ardino decide to drop their Bulgarian names and revert to their Turkish ones?

Bulgaria is in a somewhat unique position in that it is the only country in the EU that has a large Muslim population that is not immigrant. The Turks of Bulgaria have lived here for centuries. They are politically represented mainly by the DPS, or Movement for Rights and Freedoms, a party based largely on ethnicity. Do you have an official position on either the Turks in Bulgaria or the DPS?

The Turks in Bulgaria are citizens of Bulgaria. They have always lived here. We would like them to be treated as equal citizens. Nothing more, nothing less.

The DPS is a part of the Bulgarian political system. It is made up of Bulgarian citizens. Bulgaria joined both NATO and the EU when the DPS was a partner in coalition governments. I must say, though, that it does not place enough emphasis on European values. It should logically call for the highest standards in democracy, human rights and good governance. It should insist that the fruits of EU membership should also be extended to the Turkish community.

Does the DPS have a monopoly on Turkish votes in Bulgaria?

That's for the voters to decide. Ahmed Dogan set up the party in difficult circumstances and, despite a lot of resistance and prejudice, brought it to power for several consecutive terms. He could yet adapt the party so that it again becomes a potential coalition partner, with a younger and more democratic management structure. And also in line with mainstream Bulgarian society, with more women in the senior positions within the party. I believe such an adaptation is required because, for any ethnic Turkish politician here, the main purpose should be the better integration of the Turks of Bulgaria into the mainstream Bulgarian society.

At least in theory, the Turkish community in Bulgaria has every legal and constitutional right it needs.

In practice, some of these rights are not easy to apply. In education, there is overwhelming evidence to suggest that Turkish children are effectively barred from receiving Turkish language lessons at school. Some headmasters have been very creative in finding ways of preventing such lessons. Turkish language textbooks have not been reprinted since 1992, because the education authorities have consistently refused to grant the necessary permission for a reprint. Why would officials in an EU country behave that way? And why isn't there any structural emphasis on teaching Turkish children better Bulgarian?

Is Turkey still succeeding in combining Islam and democracy?

Turkey had a narrow understanding of secularism in the past. A girl wishing to attend university while covering her hair was seen as a threat to secularism. We have nothing to fear from that. Interference with individual choices undermines human dignity. We must all resist the temptation to impose our values on others. I believe in "live and let live." Any other approach is a recipe for disaster. In that sense, Turkey now has a better understanding of secularism. For me, secularism comes to an end not when my neighbour's daughter goes to university with a headscarf, but when I cannot enjoy a glass of wine as I wish.

In Bulgaria it seems to work the other way round. You are free to drink as much as you can but there are protests when the imam in Central Sofia calls the Muslims for Friday prayers. If a friend of yours came here on a visit, which places in Bulgaria would you take him to?

To Rila Monastery, Sozopol and Plovdiv. Rila has a firman, or royal decree, issued by Sultan Bayazid the Thunderbolt in 1402. It is perfectly preserved. It instructs the local Ottoman administrators not to tax the monastery or interfere with the monastery rituals and religious work. But even more significantly, it demands that the Ottoman administrator does not settle any Turks in the vicinity of the monastery. Isn't that amazing?


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