Bulgaria's Turk minority seeks formal recognition

SOFIA, Jan 31, 2000 -- (Reuters) The leader of Bulgaria's ethnic Turk party has said the Balkan state should amend the constitution and formally recognize its Turkish minority to enhance its bid to join the EU and NATO.

"In the context of the country's European integration, it is mandatory to accept that Bulgaria is a multi-ethnic state," Ahmed Dogan said late on Sunday after being re-elected head of the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF).

The country's post-communist constitution of 1991 says there are no minorities in Bulgaria.

At the time, authorities thought that recognizing the Turkish minority in the constitution could foment separatist feelings and disrupt the country's fragile ethnic balance.

"This is an anachronism. Does it mean that Bulgaria belongs only to Bulgarians?" said Dogan.

A survey by the European Commission last year, which opened the way for Bulgaria to be invited to start membership talks with the EU, urged Sofia to do more to protect the rights of ethnic minorities.

The issue is extremely sensitive for MRF, set up 10 years ago. Ethnic Turks total 829,000 or 9.8 percent of the country's 8.5 million population according to the last census in 1992.

A change in the constitution requires a two-thirds majority in the 240-seat chamber which means that MRF, now the third force in parliament which has frequently held the balance of power in the chamber, needs an alliance with a bigger party.

The next general election is scheduled for 2001 and both the ruling center-right Union of Democratic Forces (UDF) and opposition leftist parties have said they would seek partnership with MRF ahead of the poll.

The Turkish party has so far kept its options open.

Dogan said MRF was open for talks with any party which backed a Euro-Atlantic orientation, but said it was reluctant to set a formal pre-election coalition with the UDF.

He said the MRF's major goal would be protecting the rights of minorities and winning badly needed investment for the poverty-stricken southern regions, populated by ethnic Turks.

In the early 1980s Bulgaria's ethnic Turks were victims of forcible assimilation under communist dictator Todor Zhivkov. They were urged to adopt Slav names and their religious and human rights were severely curbed.

With the overthrow of totalitarian rule in 1989 their rights were restored and more than half of the 300,000 Bulgarian ethnic Turks who had left for Turkey have since returned.