by Dimana Trankova; photography by Anthony Georgieff

Bulgaria's ethnic Turkish minority lives in third-world conditions while their leaders prefer yachts and palaces


A circle of privileged companies formed around whoever happens to be in power? Construction of EU-funded guesthouses that in reality are luxurious private villas? Controlled media used to smear political opponents, business competition, independent journalists and whistleblowers? If you ask the ordinary Bulgarian, one particular party has been responsible for all the troubles that have befallen Bulgaria over the past 30 years: the DPS, or Movement for Rights and Freedoms. To personify the evil, DPS's critics put forward the names of Ahmed Dogan, who founded the DPS in 1990 and was its chairman until 2013, and of Delyan Peevski, who has been an MP for the DPS since 2009.

As a coalition partner in the governments of the Simeon II National Movement, or NDSV, in 2001-2005, the Bulgarian Socialist Party, or BSP, in 2005-2009 and 2013-2014, and as a "unofficial" supporter of GERB's government post-2014, the DPS managed to morph into a corporation. To outside observers, whose criticism has become increasingly hostile recently, this corporation acts like a well-constructed hierarchy, where even those in the lowest ranks get systematically rewarded.

A Turk in the Rhodope

A Turk in the Rhodope

The idea that Ahmed Dogan's voters enjoy a privileged status is deeply rooted in the minds of those Bulgarians who swear they will never vote for the DPS. Roads in Muslim-majority regions are better than those in Bulgarian-dominated ones, people say. Look at the sheer number of mosques built for them, others complain. The urban myth that in the area of Kardzhali you will not be served in cafés and shops if you ask in Bulgarian remains popular. Hearing these stories from some politician is one thing. But seeing how Ahmed Dogan's voters live with your own eyes is an entirely different matter. The most concentrated groups of DPS voters are found in the Eastern Rhodope, the eastern areas of the Balkan Mountains and northeastern Bulgaria.

Some roads connecting villages in the eastern Rhodope are indeed better than the ones connecting villages in Bulgaria's northwest, the EU's poorest region. While the houses in the northwest are in ruins due to abandonment caused by depopulation, the ones in the Rhodope are often inhabited, but look as if they belong to the third world rather than the EU.

The ubiquitous red Moskvich

The ubiquitous red Moskvich

As a general rule, houses in the hamlets and the smaller Rhodope villages have no sanitation and many got electricity only recently. Their inhabitants subsist on the harvest of small tobacco fields. Most of the elderly women there do not even speak Bulgarian and have never travelled outside of their villages. The birth rate among Turks is higher and here you will see more children and young people than in an average Bulgarian village. But the population of the Rhodope is ageing too. Most of the young people who do not want to make ends meet with tobacco growing and small-time farming have two options: emigrate to the EU or Turkey, or enter the DPS ranks to get a job in local administration or in business.

As the people of the Rhodope say, tobacco is pain. This is not an exaggeration. They spend the spring growing seedlings, planting them out and hoeing them by hand. Tobacco is also picked by hand, in the early morning. The leaves harvested during the day have to be strung up and left to dry by the evening. Of course, all this is done by hand too.

Many DPS voters live in third world conditions

Many DPS voters live in third world conditions

The job is not only labour-intensive. It is unpleasant and badly-paid. The hands of the women who pick and string the tobacco get covered with a sticky brownish layer that is hard to wash off. This is the tar whose content you are warned about on every pack of cigarettes. In 2019, when purchase prices were unusually high, the price of dry tobacco was 9 leva per kilo. The yield from an acre is about 400-600 kg.

DPS voters in the towns do not fare much better, although in recent years some municipalities invested in... overhauling central squares and assembly halls. Before 1989, Krumovgrad, for example, had about 20,000 citizens. They earned their living in several factories and a large military base whose sole purpose was to ward off a NATO attack from Turkey. Today, the military base and the factories in Krumovgrad have closed down, the population has dwindled to about 5,000 and the most interesting event in the life of the small town is when the coach for Istanbul departs. If you talk to local people old enough to remember the times before and after 1989, you will often hear, sadly, "it is not as it used to be."

Turkish birthrate is higher than Bulgarian, yet the community is ageing

Turkish birthrate is higher than Bulgarian, yet the community is ageing

Krumovgrad's story is not unique. Neither is the phrase "it is not as it used to be." One hears it often in the Rhodope. For many DPS voters, Communism was a good time, when they all had jobs and security.

Many ordinary Bulgarians, especially those living in provincial towns and in villages, share the same opinion. However, nostalgia has one peculiarity in Doganlandia. Most of its inhabitants still remember the trauma of being compelled to change their names for Bulgarian ones in 1984-1985 and the forced migration in the summer of 1989 referred to as the Great Excursion.

"It was good under Todor Zhivkov. He made a single mistake. He went for this name-changing thing. But he was not to blame. He was misled into it," said one of the few permanent residents of the village of Dyadovtsi near Ardino, when we visited the place 10 years ago. As of 2015, the village's official population was 105. In reality, it is close to zero. The discrepancy between what is in the books and what is in reality is due to the Great Excursion. Dyadovtsi is not alone. When elections come, many Bulgarian Turks living abroad return to their home places, often on organised coach trips, and then cast their ballots for the DPS.

In summertime, Rhodope women spend their days picking tobacco and stringing the leaves

In summertime, Rhodope women spend their days picking tobacco and stringing the leaves

There are no empty houses in the village of Lyulyakovo, in the eastern slopes of the Stara Planina, and there is a wedding in the area nearly every week. Its inhabitants were not born with a silver spoon in their mouth either. Weddings are a strange affair here. The bride and the groom mark the occasion with hundreds of guests gathered in the square, but do not spend much on a meal. "We get together to help them with a few leva," says 50-year-old Hasan. He is standing in a queue together with the rest of the men. When his turn comes and he reaches the table where the young couple is waiting, he takes out a modest banknote from his wallet and puts it in the copper pot. The bride and groom kiss his hand and a voice announces in Turkish over the microphone: "Hasan: five leva!" When the men finish, a second queue of women takes their place.

Ahmed Dogan was born in the village of Pchelarovo near Dobrich, in northeastern Bulgaria, and grew up in the village of Drandar near Varna. At first glance, the area where the leader of the DPS spent the first years of his life looks more prosperous. In 2005, for example, the Turkish company Şişecam opened its first Bulgarian factory in Targovishte and expanded its activities in the next few years.

Newlyweds in the Turkish village of Lyulyakovo, near Karnobat, thank their guests

Newlyweds in the Turkish village of Lyulyakovo, near Karnobat, thank their guests

The roads connecting the villages in this area are not anything to boast about but in Drandar you will find one of Dogan's most extravagant creation, the so-called Children's Palace. The huge building with towers and a blue roof sticking up above Drandar's rooftops is visible from afar and looks more like a Disneyland castle. Officially, the Children's Palace is a "luxury" kindergarten.

"They said: 'We'll make it for the children'," a woman living in the village explains and then retorts, "What children? There are no children in the village!" The situation calls to mind a Communist-era joke. A Communist Party functionary went to a village and began promising the peasants: "We will build you a bridge! We will build you a cultural centre! We will build you a medical centre! We will build you a school!" A man in the crowd put up his hand. "But we have no children in the village!" The functionary remained unflustered: "Then we'll make you children too!"

Some humble eateries in Krumovgrad serve unexpectedly delicious food

Some humble eateries in Krumovgrad serve unexpectedly delicious food

Dogan's attitude to his voters is similar. He promises Muslims protection against repression, such as forcible Bulgarisation, and economic security. In practice, he gives them little. His provocative behaviour, especially ahead of elections, acts as a surefire trigger to Bulgarian nationalist leanings. This was how political parties such as Ataka and the National Front for Salvation of Bulgaria were born and got into parliament.

Dogan's voters are economically dependent on him. After the DPS for years stopped every attempt to privatise Bulgartabac, in 2011 a Russian bank acquired the majority of shares. During the following decade, the company significantly cut operations and closed premises, making thousands of staff redundant. According to some, the true owner now is Delyan Peevski. Having a monopoly on the market, Bulgartabac exercises control over tobacco producers, who are mainly Muslims, fixing purchase prices and delaying payments.

Men chat in front of a ticket office for Turkey-bound coaches

Men chat in front of a ticket office for Turkey-bound coaches

Dogan's voters are neither deaf nor blind, and can see that the DPS is far from what it promises to be. In the past decade their disenfranchisement became visible. The 316,000 people who voted for the DPS in 2017 are significantly less than the 610,000 who supported the party in 2009.

But the DPS "honorary chairman" still adeptly manipulates the Bulgarian Turks' main fear – that the Bulgarian state will again try to suppress their basic rights the way it has done in the past. He may not build new infrastructure, nor attract proper investors to the regions thanks to which he has been at the top of the political pyramid for 30 years, but he never fails to commemorate the victims of the Revival Process. This message is so simple that no DPS voter fails to understand it. 

A water fountain in Mogilyane village, dedicated to a baby girl killed by the Communist Bulgarian police during the forcible name-changing campaign of 1984-1985. It is often used for DPS-organised rallies and commemorations

A water fountain in Mogilyane village, dedicated to a baby girl killed by the Communist Bulgarian police during the forcible name-changing campaign of 1984-1985. It is often used for DPS-organised rallies and commemorations


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