Skip to main content

Ethnic Identities in the Making: The Case of Bulgaria


The population of Bulgaria includes several different groups which can be identified according to the criterion of ethnic self-ascription. The most important of these are the Bulgarian Turks, the Bulgarian Gypsies, the Pomaks and the Gagauzes.

According to a National Statistical Institute survey of December, 1992, in a state of 8,472,724 citizens, 85.8% declare themselves Bulgarians, 9.7% Turks, and 3.4% Roma. 87% of Bulgarian citizens embrace the Eastern Orthodox, and 86.3% consider Bulgarian their mother tongue. Estimates of the size of the Pomak population in Bulgaria at present range from 100,000 to 270,000. The Gagauzes, while their number is statistically insignificant, nevertheless hold an important position within the cultural context of the Bulgarian nation. When interpreting these data, it should be taken into consideration that there are other conflicting estimates of the size of these minority groups. For example, the official publications and media reports of the number of Turks in Bulgaria ranges from 700,000 to 1,250,000, while the number of Roma ranges from 450,000 to 1,000,000. Of all ethnic groups in Bulgaria only the Bulgarian Turks are territorially concentrated, comprising 66% of the population of the Kurdzhali district in south-east Bulgaria and 48% of the Razgrad district in north-east Bulgaria.

According to three important criteria of ethnicity-self-ascription, mother tongue, and religion - there is considerable overlap of group boundaries in Bulgaria. It is true that most of those who identify themselves as Turks are also Muslim and state that Turkish is their mother tongue. Some of those who identify themselves as Turks, however, are Christian Bulgarian and report that Gypsy is their mother tongue.

The situation of the Roma in Bulgaria is especially complex. Recent statistical data indicate that 3% of the population of Bulgaria consider Roma to be their mother tongue. Most Roma are bi- or tri-lingual. Roma tend to identify themselves differently, depending on the immediate social context, for example, some identify themselves as Bulgarians in a context of "outsiders" (non-Romanies), but as Turks when among other Roma. So, are those individuals who are officially assigned by the state to the Roma minority, but who consider themselves Turks and speak Turkish, Turks or Gypsies? A modern understanding of ethnicity as a self-ascriptive concept suggests that they should be considered members of the Turkish ethnic group. However, the Turks in Bulgaria severely, ostracize these "Turkish Gypsies." Another subgroup of the Roma minority is officially defined as "Romanian Gypsies." The Bulgarians they live among call them "Vlach Gypsies" or "Vlaches"; the other Gypsy subgroups call them "non-Gypsy Gypsies"; while they define themselves as "Rumanians" or "Vlaches." They do not consider themselves Roma and do not speak Roma.

The Pomaks are a culturally marginal group who are officially defined as "Muslim speakers of Bulgarian." There is a widespread view that the Pomaks are of Bulgarian origin. Most members of this group identify themselves as Pomaks, but there are certain indications, especially at present, that some Pomaks tend to identify themselves as Turks. The Pomaks are severely ostracized by members of the Turkish minority in Bulgaria. There are reports that some Pomaks have recently converted to Christianity.

In Bulgaria there are also Turkish speakers who are Christians: the Gagauzes. They occupy a particularly marginal position in Bulgaria because they do not belong to either of the two major categories of Turkish-speaking Moslems or Bulgarian-speaking Christians. The Gagauzes are few in number, and many, especially the better educated, become well assimilated into mainstream Bulgarian society. In Bulgaria, the Pomaks and the Gagauzes are not considered ethnic groups and have not been counted separately in most censuses.

All this unequivocally points to the complexity of the ethnic situation in Bulgaria. An important question this situation raises is: How are these ethnic identities constructed and maintained in a state like Bulgaria, which strives for cultural homogeneity and unity?

How can we accurately define an ethnic group? Furthermore, what criteria (and whose) justify declaring an ethnic group a "national minority" imply that the particular ethnic group "belongs to" or "is part of" another nation? If so, this will inevitably lead to a situation in which different states make endless claims on "national minorities" living in other states.

In an attempt to avoid confusion, I use the terms "nation-state" and "ethnic group," rather than "nation" and "ethnic minority," in the following discussion. While I argue (as many authors do) that members of a nation share a common ideology of being a unified entity, a nation-state is a product of an elaborate synthesis of citizenship, national ideology, and national culture. In the case of nation-states, it is essential to emphasize that state formation has an undeniable and profound impact on nation formation.

Such a stance does not deny the important role of ethnic identification and ethnic self-ascription. Persons and groups must have the ultimate right to declare ethnic or national identity. Unfortunate as it may be from a liberal, humanistic viewpoint, most Balkan state - in whose national ideologies "state," and "nation," and "culture" are equated - tend to suppress cultural diversity and adopt some form of assimilationist policy. Often members of ethnic groups within these nation-states adhere strongly to their religion, language, and culture, which are all jeopardized by the assimilationist policies of the state. However, does persistence of some cultural elements maintain ethnic cohesion and enhance ethnic identities? Overt cultural differences between the national culture and the culture of the ethnic group may be minimal, but the group may still differentiate itself sharply from the national majority. I argue here that cultural differences do not automatically result in ethnic differentiation. The symbolic use by a group of any aspect of its culture is able to differentiate it from the dominant group and maintain its cohesion as an ethnic minority.

Nation-states often deprive ethnic groups of their culture, frequently by preventing them from making full use of their native language. For example, for a period of time under the socialist regime in Bulgaria the Qur'an was translated into Bulgarian and made available only in Bulgarian, and periodicals of the Turkish minority were permitted only when published in Bulgarian. There exists, however, a more cunning approach to "cultural homogenization" - depriving an ethnic group of its very symbols of group identity.

A classic example is the forceful assignment of "ethnically neutral" names to the groups. Until the beginning of the 1980s, the Turks in Bulgaria were officially designated as "Turks." Ostensibly, this contradicted the fact that "Turks" in Bulgaria were not officially recognized as an ethnic minority for most of this century. The censuses and surveys taken during the period of state socialism did not report them; secret statistics were kept, however. The official government stance maintained that the term "Turk" did not designate an ethnic group, but rather applied to those Bulgarian citizens who incorrectly (the state alleged) considered themselves to be of Turkish origin. Denying the existence of an ethnic group, however, may only lead to the enhancement of group cohesiveness.

In 1984 the Bulgarian government changed its strategy toward the Turkish minority. It began to exclude the term "Turk" from official discourse. "Turks" became "Muslim Bulgarian citizens," "Muslim Bulgarians," or "Bulgarians with restored [Bulgarian] names," simplying that these so-called "Turks" were "Bulgarians" in origin. History books and textbooks were re-written to avoid the noun "Turk" or the adjective "Turkish." The growing size of the Turkish community in the late 1960s and 1970s, and their yet increasing coherence as an ethnic group, were undoubtedly among the motivating factors for this action.

The assimilationist strategy of abolishing ethnically specific names has also been applied to the Bulgarian Roma as well. In the 1960s, official Bulgarian policy restricted discourse on "Gypsy." The last time census data on "Gypsies" were separately recorded was 1956, and then the data were gathered secretly. The category "Gypsy" reappeared on the census because of the recent socio-political changes in Bulgaria. Now the name "Roma" has been introduced in order to avoid the negative connotation of "Gypsy."

This type of manipulation of ethnic names and labels also raises the issue of ethnic self-ascription for those Bulgarian citizens who identify themselves as Macedonians. In the 1940s, the state applied political pressure on the population of the Pirin region in south-west Bulgaria to identify themselves as "Macedonians," and in this way to differentiate themselves ethnically from the members of the Bulgarian nation. In the late 1950s, however, "Macedonians," as an ethnic label was officially prohibited in Bulgaria. These ethnonational, political "somersaults" may have enchanced a Macedonian ethnic identity in this part of Bulgaria. As some recent research points out, an increasing number of people in this part of Bulgaria may prefer to identify them selves ethnically a Macedonian.

As early as the turn of the century, the Pomakes were given the name "bulgaro-mohamendani" (Bulgarian Muslims). The motive seemed to emphasize their Bulgarian origin, while acknowledging their religious identity as Muslims. The Pomarks, who mainly have thought of themselves throughout this century as a specific group (different from both the Bulgarians and the Turks), have recently came to regard the name "Pomak" as derogatory. Most of them seem to prefect the designation "mohamedan" (Muslim). Lack of a consensus as to the proper name for this group may have contributed to the recent increase in the number of Pomaks who identify themselves as Turks.

Another political method used by the Bulgarian government to assimilate members of an ethnic group into the national majority was the forcible replacement of Turkish names by "traditional Bulgarian names." In the official Bulgarian rhetoric this process was called "re-naming," of the forcibly Islamized Christians." "Re-naming" is an established means of "cultural unification, and has a long history. In Bulgaria it was considered a powerful mechanism to "prove the Bulgarian origin" of citizens of different ethnic groups. However, it has proved to be a failure within the recent Balkan socio-political context.

Replacing Turkish and Roma names with Bulgarian names may have been the most wide-scaled action of openly brutal assimilation undertaken by the Burlagian government. During such attempts made by the Bulgarian political elite-in the 1950s (a campaign to "re-naming" the Roma), in the 1960s (a campaign to "re-naming" the Pomaks), and in the 1970s (again "re-naming" the Turks) - the existence of various ethnic groups were ignored internationally. During the campaign of 1984-1989, when the political context had changed dramatically, the issue received unprecedented international response. These "re-naming" campaigns in general have very limited assimilative effects.

The government of different political systems in Bulgaria always seem to have been in the unsavory position of attempting to impose a mask of national homogeneity on the complex ethnic patchwork that exists in the country. paradoxically, this policy of assimilation has resulted, by and large, in the enhancement of the ethnic boundaries, and in the stabilization of the ethnic groups. It has also led to the stabilization of the ethnic groups in Bulgaria. The ideology of diversity and ethnic tolerance is not reality in this part of the world. The most important question for us, therefore, may be: How can we foster the development of an ideology of diversity there?

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

Our website houses close to five decades of content and publishing. Any content older than 10 years is archival and Cultural Survival does not necessarily agree with the content and word choice today.