Outrage in Bulgaria after Turkey Says It ‘Intervened’ in Its Legislation, Refuses to Apologize
The diplomatic row erupted over amendments to a law concerning a government debt of the religious authority of the Muslims in Bulgaria.
Comments by Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu that Turkey “had to intervene” in Bulgaria’s legislative process, and Ankara’s ensuing refusal to apologize despite the insistence of Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov have sparked an outrage in Sofia.
The dispute began over Cavusoglu’s comments in a speech in the Turkish town of Tekirdag concerning recently adopted amendments to Bulgaria’s Religious Denominations Act.
With the controversial piece of legislation, the Bulgarian Cabinet led by Borisov and the rightist GERB party at first intended to write off EUR 4 million in debt owed to the state by Bulgaria’s Chief Mufti’s Office, the religious authority of the Muslims in the country who are mostly ethnic Turks.
After public pressure, however, the ruling coalition modified the religious denominations law to give the Chief Mufti’s Office an extension of 10 years to pay the debt.
Up until 2 years ago, Bulgaria’s Chief Mufti’s Office was subsidized by Turkey. Since then, however, it has accrued a debt of BGN 8 million (EUR 4 million) in unpaid social security dues.
“The draft amendments for the Denominations Act in Bulgaria was against all rights and freedoms. Turkey was forced to intervene, and Bulgaria had to make changes,” Turkish Foreign Minister Cavusoglu said in Tekirdag, as cited by the Bulgarian National Radio.
“We work day and night for the interests of the Turkish communities abroad, and this is a priority of this government,” Turkey’s top diplomat added.
The comment led Bulgaria’s Foreign Minister Ekaterina Zaharieva to summon the Turkish Ambassador in Sofia, Hasan Ulusoy, for explanation, while denying that Ankara was able to meddle in Bulgaria’s domestic affairs. Ulusoy said Cavusoglu’s words had been taken out of context.
Meeting with Turkey’s First Vice President, Fuat Oktay, in Romania’s capital Bucharest on Friday, Bulgaria’s Prime Minister Boyko Borisov asked for an apology but did not receive any after talks that drag on for five hours.
“Turkey doesn’t wish to apologize to Bulgaria… I was adamant about any other kinds of joint statements. I was very clear that a nation’s honor and dignity cannot be measured with any other types of benefits,” Borisov commented after failing to get Turkey to apologize, as cited by BGNES.
“Nobody called me, and nobody pressured me,” he said, reiterating that the amendments to Bulgaria’s Religious Denominations Act concerning the government debt of the Chief Mufti’s Office were not introduced and adopted under pressure from Turkey.
Borisov added he understood the election campaign situation before the Turkish local elections but argued that his party GERB never resorted to similar approaches in its own campaigning.
“When everybody else uses anti-Turkish rhetoric, we’ve never done that. And in Bulgaria, the anti-Turkish rhetoric brings benefits. We never do that precisely because of our good neighborly relations,” the Bulgarian Prime Minister said, alluding to three nationalist and far-right formations which are currently his coalition partners united in a grouping called “Patriotic Front”.
“I understand that they have elections [in Turkey] but [that cannot be] at Bulgaria’s expense. Our Muslims do not need any protection in any way because they have absolute rights and freedoms, of religion and of everything else,” he argued.
Turkish Foreign Minister Cavusoglu’s comments about Turkey’s meddling in Bulgaria’s legislative process led VMRO, one of the three nationalist formations in the Bulgarian ruling coalition, to stage protest rallies before the Turkish Embassy in Sofia.
“It is certain that Turkey intervened in our internal affairs, there is no question about that,” Georgi Dimov, Bulgaria’s former consul in the Turkish city of Edirne, told bTV.
“Two years ago, there was the same kind of intervention, and we took no measures. Back then Turkey’s Minister of Labor and Social Policy Mehmet Muezzinoglu directly campaigned in favor of a certain political force in Bulgaria,” Dimov reminded.
In his words, in the present diplomatic row, Bulgaria’s government only partially took the necessary steps to get an apology from Turkey.
According to Dimov, Sunday’s local elections in Turkey completed its transition from a parliamentary republic into a presidential one.
“During the campaign, Erdogan himself said it was possible that his opponents who win elections might face various charges, thus applying a tactic known from the Kurdish-populated regions in Southeast Anatolia… The opposition’s mayoral bidder for Ankara, Mansur Yavas, is facing indictment over a 15-year-old case,” the former diplomat said.
At the same time, Dimov expressed doubts that Turkish leader Erdogan would go through with his plans to turn the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul from a museum back into a mosque.
“Things there are more complicated, and the election campaign situation would be no more. What matters more is that with the Hagia Sophia case and these comments Turkey is making giant steps away from the modern Republic of Turkey established by [Mustafa Kemal] Ataturk,” he concluded.
(Banner image: TV grab from bTV)