Erdogan has no influence over Bulgarian Turks

Interview with the Bulgaria—based expert on Turkey about the relations between the Turkish president and Bulgarian Muslims and about the future of Turkey after the introduction of a law which could limit the activities of NGOs

Mehmet Űmer is a former correspondent in Bulgaria for the Turkish newspaper Zaman, which was banned after the failed coup d’etat of 2016. Before that he was a professor of Turkish language in the high school and university education system in Bulgaria. The interview with him was realised by Yuliana Metodieva — editor-in-chief of the site Marginalia, which focuses on human rights and is republished with her permission. It came out on 11 January 2020.

Mr. Űmer, happy new year! Before the holidays you promised us an interview, given the special event that happened at the online congress of the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS) — the Turkish president sent a video message to the delegates. As an authoritative expert on the problems of the Republic of Turkey, what is your general comment on the video greeting to the DPS from Recep Tayyip Erdogan? For years he was invited to the congresses of the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, but before he never responded. Is that a turnabout in the relationships?

Happy new year! This video address by the Turkish president, sent to the Tenth National Conference of the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS) (the conference was held on December 12, 2020), was an expression of Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s understanding of his broad spiritual boundaries. It was not a renunciation of his ambition for influence and surrender to the DPS’s leading role among the Turkish minority group in Bulgaria. He did not mention the honorary president, Dr. Ahmed Dogan, by name, which is also not an insignificant sign. So be afraid of Erdogan, even when he gives you gifts! 

Erdogan will not completely give up his ambition to influence the Turkish minority community in Bulgaria — an influence which he does not have at the moment. Here we must clarify that part of the Muslim community in the Western Rhodopes respects him along the lines of Islam – they consider him a ‘great’ leader in the Islamic world, who behaves boldly and does not yield to the West. These are old complexes among the Muslims in the so-called Islamic world, left over from the time of colonialism. But for the most part, Bulgarian Turks have completely secular views and do not suffer from such complexes, which is why the doctrine of Islamism, followed by Turkish President Erdogan, does not have a following among them. These are fundamental differences that cannot be ironed out, at least for the current generation. 

A long time ago, even before he was in big politics, Erdogan spoke about the Bulgarian Turk emigrants in 1989 (who were forced to flee by the socialist Bulgarian regime — note of the translator). At that time, he spoke about emigrants based on their Islamic affiliation, ie. for him it matters only that they are Muslims. Among the generation that remembers the forcible change of names, the attempts to break through and split the DPS through external force/means inevitably fail. Because Ahmed Dogan and the DPS have a solid lore among their constituents in the mixed regions. Of course, we should not miss the fact that a significant mass of dissatisfied and offended people was formed among the DPS electorate, some of whom switched to DOST in its active period (DOST is a party which broke away from DPS and was considered at the time of its launch as being pro-Erdogan — note of the translator), and others went to GERB (the ruling party for most of the last 11 years — note of the translator). President Erdogan’s message was also a sign to the leaders of the People’s Party ‘Freedom and Dignity’ and DOST – to seek dialogue with the DPS. On the other hand, the emigrants also received a signal in this way for whom to vote. But his very appearance through a video address at the Movement’s conference clearly shows that he wants to mark his influence on the Turkish and Muslim communities in Bulgaria.

Indeed, it has been known for many years that the Turkish president has demonstrated a distance from the honorary leader of the Movement for Rights and Freedoms Ahmed Dogan. But for this video address to the DPS congress, many observers thought that Erdogan considered the DPS an important factor for Bulgarian democracy. Is this just geopolitics?

Today, the Turkish government is dominated by a radical Turkish-Islamic fusion. According to the doctrine of the Turkish-Islamic synthesis, the ‘Tűrklűk’ has its historic mission. For example, in 2020, we have clearly seen that the Erdogan regime had no intention of abandoning military policy abroad. Erdogan is convinced that the war was given by God, it is part of the Islamist doctrine, hence the culture of martyrdom is widespread in Turkey. Even some Russian media has reported that Turkey is pursuing the ‘five states one people’ doctrine after the events in Nagorno-Karabakh. This refers to Turkey’s ambitions to influence the Turkic states in Central Asia. 

In this line of thought, we can say that Erdogan’s Turkey is trying to influence the so-called Islamic world in general through Islam, secondly through the ‘Tűrklűk’ it is trying to influence the Turkic world, and it attempts to influence the Balkans mainly on the basis of the Ottoman past. The important thing in this case is how much the minority group will give in to this. Here we must note an important fact: After the wave of emigration in 1989, some of the Bulgarian Turks continued to emigrate to Turkey in the following years. There were several reasons — it was easier for them to find a job, they were relatives and friends there, there was no language barrier, etc. But after Bulgaria joined the European Union, this trend sharply decreased, I would even say that it was reversed. The eyes of the Bulgarian Turks are now turned to the EU. And the connection with Turkey is largely reduced to relations with relatives and friends who are there. But there is no ideological connection. That is why Erdogan’s address to the DPS congress stuck out, as if posed, unnatural. In other words, Erdogan does not want to completely lose what he has no full control over.

We have published a statement from the human rights organization Human Rights Watch (see here). It warns that the new law of the Turkish government is supposed to deal with the financing of terrorism, but hides another goal – to reduce and limit the legitimate activities of any non-governmental organization that it does not like. What is your comment?

Some experts commented on this amendment as a legal possibility to increase the number of restrictions. In general, this amendment covers donations to non-governmental organizations with the idea of blocking the way for the financing of weapons of mass destruction. But there is already a new regime in Turkey. This also raises the question of where will the Turkish political system move from now on? Several scenarios are possible. First, maintaining the status quo depends on no major economic crisis, no external factors putting pressure on Turkey to reform, and the ruling coalition remaining stable inside. In Turkey, for example, foreign capital no longer feels secure and is withdrawing, which will hamper economic recovery. 

The second scenario is for radical reform to take place, that is, for Erdogan to try to return to the rule of law and democracy, but this requires restoring relations with America and the EU on the outside and reconciliation with the Kurds on the inside. If Erdogan does not take steps towards normalization, then it is possible that the West will support figures such as Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu, Ahmet Davutoglu, Ali Babacan and others. In such a development, Erdogan could try to consolidate the ruling coalition and put more pressure on the opposition. He can seek cheap loans from Russia and China and thus maintain the situation for some time. 

However, if the Biden administration and the EU take decisive steps against Ankara and impose tougher sanctions, it would weaken Erdogan’s position. In such a situation, he will turn even more towards Russia and will wave the refugee card more powerfully. If the status quo is maintained, the human rights and democracy situation cannot improve. If reforms are undertaken, it will undermine the foundations of the current regime, but it will not happen without a long-term strategy for the West. Therefore, carrying out democratic reforms is the weaker scenario. As I have already mentioned, if the new political formations receive the support of the West, their chances of coming to power are not small. On the other hand, Erdogan’s close rapprochement with Russia will also increase his chances of staying in power longer. In other words, the scenarios I have listed depend to a large extent on what strategies the West and Russia will develop towards Turkey.

An opposition Turkish media recently wrote that Turkish President Erdogan has huge, purpose-built vaults in his villa to preserve his secret wealth. Is his extravagant style comparable to that of the other dictator, Vladimir Putin?

In 2013, the biggest corruption scandal in the republican history of Turkey erupted and had a strong impact on Turkish society. On December 17, 2013, during a police operation, the son of the Minister of the Interior, the son of the Minister of Economy, the son of the Minister of Environment and Urban Planning and a Turkish businessman of Iranian origin were arrested. It was the Turkish ruling elite. European Affairs Minister Egemen Bagis also resigned, as he was also involved in the scheme. This Iranian businessman named Reza Zarrab was detained in Miami in 2016 and a noisy trial was launched against him in the United States. The main accusation was related to the violation of the embargo against Iran by fictitious companies based in Turkey. And it was in this corruption scheme that the aforementioned ministers participated. During the process, he described in detail how the scheme worked, to whom what and how much he paid, etc. 

On December 25, 2013, the second wave of police actions against suspects began, including the son of the current Turkish president, who was then prime minister, Bilal Erdogan. In connection with this corruption scandal, many recordings of conversations between Erdogan and his son Bilal have leaked on the Internet, in which Erdogan instructs his son on how to empty the vaults in his villa, given the police action. Journalist Jan Dűndar later made a documentary on the subject, entitled ‘Erdogan’s Longest Day’.

What is new in the article in the English-language electronic publication Nordic Monitor (written by Turkish journalists in exile), which you quote, is that they reached two anonymous eyewitnesses who confirmed that they had seen these vaults in the villa in question. Because so far no one has dared to talk about this topic in Turkey, and the proposal to investigate the four ministers in the Turkish Majlis was rejected in 2015, they were not brought to justice.

Anyone who wants an explanation for Erdogan’s avarice for money and power should look at him in his childhood. The sorrows caused by childhood poverty are not forgotten in a lifetime, they remain forever in the subconscious. His father barely fed the family, and the money is not enough forever. And our hero has not been able to banish his memories of deprivation of a poor childhood. Erdogan’s childhood was spent in the stench of the unpaved muddy streets of Istanbul’s Kasampasha district. The similarity in the biographies of Putin and Erdogan is that they both managed to reach the top, overcoming all obstacles. Just as Erdogan left a slum and now lives in a lavish palace worthy of the tales of “1001 Nights”, Russian President Vladimir Putin grew up in humble conditions in former Leningrad, but both have managed to turn their humble origins into legends. For example, for Erdogan, his humble origins are not something he tries to hide, but he demonstrates by telling people on the periphery: I am one of you and only a leader like me can protect your interests. The main common feature between the king and the sultan is that both leaders dream of regaining the status of great powers.

Photo: The Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan sent a video message to the conference of the Bulgarian Turks-dominated party Movement for Rights and Freedoms in December 2020 (source: Pixabay, CC0) 

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