Can Europe Make It?

A genocide of our own: Bulgaria and the memory of Ottoman Armenians

In Bulgaria, Armenian communities have thrived since the fifth century and found refuge there during Ottoman massacres. So why has Bulgaria yet to officially recognise the Armenian genocide?

Dimitar Bechev
23 April 2015

Wretched exiles, rare survivors

Of a brave and martyr race,

Children of a captive mother,

Heroes with no resting place,

Far from home in squalid hovels,

Sick and pale from lack of sleep,

See them drink to drown their sorrows,

Hear them sing and singing, weep!


Penned by Peyo Yavorov, Bulgaria’s foremost symbolist poet at the turn of the twentieth century, Armenians (1900; English translation by V.H., 2013) has long become part of the literary cannon. A depiction of the survivors from the Hamidian massacres of 1894-6, the poem has grown into a powerful anthem for the Armenian diaspora in Bulgaria, which has roots reaching as far back as the fifth century AD.

Yavorov, who has a school named after him in Yerevan, has become an icon of the community, especially the heirs to those 22,000 finding refuge as the deportations, forced marches into the Syrian desert  and slaughters known as “Medz Yeghern” (Great Crime) decimated the 2 million-strong Armenian population across Anatolia, but also Eastern Thrace.

Never strong in numbers (no more than 30,000 or 0.4% of the overall population) Armenians have thrived in Bulgaria. They are remarkably well-established and therefore visible in public life, occupying prestigious positions in politics, business, the media, arts and science. Some have made it big abroad too – like the French pop-celebrity Sylvie Vartan and Philipp Kirkorov in Russia.

Armenians have traditionally been at the core of urban life in large towns such as Plovdiv, Burgas, Varna and others, as testified by the temples of the Armenian Apostolic Church (12 in 10 cities – plus an Armenian evangelical church in Plovdiv), the jewelers’ and watchmakers’ shops, community clubs sporting maps of  “historic Armenia”, restaurants (there is one just around the corner from where I’m writing these lines). As anywhere around the world, local Armenians run a network of charitable associations, schools, cultural clubs and even a boy and girl-scout organisation (established in 1924).

armen church.jpg

An Armenian Apostolic church in Plovdiv, Bulgaria. Wikimedia/Edal Anton Lefterov. Public domain.

Armenians in Bulgaria: a little-known history

Historically, Armenian nationalism has found a safe harbor and large support on Bulgarian soil. The two peoples share the sentiment of being fellow victims of the Ottoman Empire, which ruled Bulgaria until 1878 – and some areas all the way to 1912.

Poet Yavorov was in fact part of the so-called Internal Macedonian-Adrianopolitan Revolutionary Organisation (IMARO) which fought against Ottoman authorities and even forged an alliance with the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun).

One of the Dashnaks’ original leaders, Christapor Mikaelyan lost his life during an accident in a makeshift bomb-making facility run by the IMARO. Another Armenian leader, General Garegin Nzhdeh, leader of the short-lived Republic of Mountainous Armenia suppressed by the Bolsheviks in 1921, spent the interwar period in Sofia, having commanded, together with General Andranik, an Armenian volunteer corps within the Bulgarian Army in the First Balkan War. More recently, in September 1982, the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia (ASALA), a terrorist organization, assassinated Bora Süelkan Administrative Attaché, at the Turkish Consulate in Burgas.

The average Bulgarian might not know much about those past episodes. They would hardly be aware that Talaat Pasha, the architect of the genocide, was born in today’s Bulgaria and might have been of Pomak extraction and therefore a native speaker of a Slavic dialect not far from standard Bulgarian.

Armenia’s millennial history is mostly a terra incognita. Nevertheless, there is widespread sympathy for the historical grievances and demands of the Armenians, both in the diaspora and in the republic, against Turkey as a successor to the Ottoman Empire (notwithstanding the fact that Bulgaria was actually an ally of the Ottomans in the First World War from September 1915 onwards).

A monument in Plovdiv, unveiled in 1930, commemorates the tragic events of 1915, with khachkars, traditional cross-shaped stelae, erected in multiple places as of late. Calls for authorities to recognize the Armenian genocide have proliferated in recent years. Typically, they are bound with appeals to put pressure on Turkey to pay indemnity for the properties of Bulgarians cleansed from Turkish or Eastern Thrace in the summer of 1913 – events often termed as genocide as well.

For instance, popular historian Bozhidar Dimitrov, director of the National Museum of History and a spokesperson of mainstream nationalism, characterized the condolences offered by Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan to Armenians as a “half step” and further speculated that “condolences or an apology to the descendants [of Eastern Thrace Bulgarians], of which I am one, means not only a recognition of genocide but a boost for the Bulgarian stance in the negotiations for financial compensation”.

Recognising the genocide

The most vocal advocate for the recognition of the Armenian genocide is the xenophobic, ultranationalist Ataka (“Attack”) which has been campaigning on an anti-Turkish and anti-minority ticket. Starting from 2006, the party has periodically introduced motions in the Bulgarian Parliament to acknowledge the genocide.

In 2008, after yet another failure to secure majority support for one such motion, the party turned turned to the municipal assemblies in key towns and obtained declarations from 15 of them, starting from Plovdiv and including Sofia, Burgas, Varna, Ruse and Stara Zagora. It obtained support from VMRO, another nationalist party claiming descent from the historical IMARO, as well as, in the case of Sofia Council, from the centre-right Democrats for Strong Bulgaria (DSB).

The mainstream parties, both on the left and right, have preferred to dodge the question. Dependent on the backing of the Movement of Rights and Freedoms (DPS) in two governments (2005-9; 2013-4), representing chiefly the Turkish and Muslim minorities, the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) has shied away from taking a stance.

Irrespective of the nationalist leanings of influential members and the heavy baggage of the controversial Rebirth Process of the 1980s (the name given to the forced assimilation and expulsion of Bulgarian Turks), the ex-communists have let satellite structures such as the Union of Thracian Organizations do the tough talking.

It is only of late, after BSP and DPS fell out in the summer of 2014, that the centre-left became more outspoken. In a similar vein, the centre-right GERB (“Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria”, in power 2009-13, and from October 2014 onwards) has kept a low profile, fearful of straining relations with Turkey and alienating DPS. It was GERB’s councilors in the town of Yambol, south-east Bulgaria, who rolled back in October 2012 a resolution by the local assembly to recognise the genocide. The party leader, Prime Minister Boyko Borisov, on a visit to Yerevan the same year, commemorated “the victims of this terrible tragedy”, coming short of using the “g-word”. 

As the centennial of 1915 approaches there is a fresh push to have official recognition by the National Assembly. On 20 March 2015, one hundred intellectuals, mostly but not exclusively leaning towards the Socialists, issued a declaration urging Bulgaria to join the ranks of “France, Russia, Greece, Cyprus, Canada, Lebanon, Belgium, Uruguay, Argentina, Sweden, Wales , Netherlands, Slovakia, Lithuania, Venezuela, Poland, Chile, Brazil, Bolivia, Scotland and Switzerland”. MEPs Andrey Kovachev (GERB) and Angel Dzhambazki (VMRO) were amongst the co-sponsors of the resolution adopted by the European Parliament on 15 April.

Unsurprisingly, on 22 April, Ataka tabled a fresh motion in parliament, to be debated and put to vote three days later. Its chances of being adopted are slim, as it won’t be backed by the MPs from the governing coalition, comprising GERB and the Reformist Bloc, and DPS. The European Parliament vote has already offered the perfect opportunity for GERB to show sympathy and support without going all the way in confronting Turkey. Or Azerbaijan, for that matter, as Caspian gas is prized as a welcome alternative to full dependence on Russia.

The blatant use of the Armenians’ tragedy and historical trauma by the likes of Ataka has also tainted the cause, and the recent appeal of the 100 intellectuals could be seen as a belated attempt by middle-of-the-road nationalist figures as well as one or two bona fide human rights advocates to “decontaminate” it. Encouragingly, a small liberal party, Movement for European Unification and Solidarity (DEOS), has lately taken up the cause of recognition too. This is in addition to the ongoing commemorations by the country’s Armenian communities.


St Sarkis Armenian church in Varna, Bulgaria. Flickr/Alexanyan. Some rights reserved.

A peaceful conclusion?

Bulgaria is one of the countries formerly part of the Ottoman Empire where Turks - more than one-tenth of the 7.5 million inhabitants - and Armenians continue living peacefully side by side. But sadly, it is largely oblivious to the significant efforts in next-door Turkey by prominent academics, journalists, left liberal politicians, minority rights activists and public figures such as Nobel prize winner Orhan Pamuk to reach a common understanding and heal past wounds.

Not many have heard the name of Hrant Dink and, in my personal experience, nearly everyone is surprised to hear that 24 April has been commemorated for years in Turkey’s urban centres – as well as in the Kurdish-majority southeast. The Armenian genocide has unfortunately turned into an instrument to demonize and condemn “the Other” - Turks and Muslims - and perpetuate the notion of victimhood central to nationalist ideology.

Rather, the story of 1915 offers a gloomy example of the destruction and human suffering resulting from the drive to build homogenous nations and states. Bulgaria has a fair number of skeletons in its own closet (there were cases where Bulgarian authorities were rendering refugee Armenians back to the Ottomans, a wartime ally). This is not to relativize the Armenians’ tragedy as many Turks often do ("we were victims too, of repressions and expulsions in the Balkans which were nothing short of genocide," or, "it was a war in 1915 and no one was innocent really, Turkey was fighting for survival.")

Truth be told, with some notable exceptions, the Balkans have fared much, much better than Anatolia in terms of preserving ethnic and confessional diversity. As parties in Turkey field, unprecedentedly, Armenian candidates in the forthcoming elections on 7 June, Bulgarian Turks are a central constituency in the country’s political landscape.

One can even meet their MEPs in Brussels and Strasbourg – arguing passionately against a resolution qualifying the events of 1915 as genocide.

Addendum: On 24 April, the Bulgarian National Assembly passed a resolution referring to "the mass extermination of Armenians" and establishing the date as "Commemoration Day for the Victims". The motion drew support from 142 out of 240 MPs, with 12 against and 4 abstentions.

Ataka opposed the replacement of "genocide" in the draft, done by GERB, and DPS walked out from the session. MPs paid their respects with a minute of silence. Later on, speaking to journalists, Prime Minister Borisov commented that today's Turkey is not the Ottoman Empire, remarked that "victims are victims, including the Bulgarian ones" and that, iztreblenie (extermination) is a Bulgarian word, unlike genocide. To balance, he also acknowledged Ankara's cooperation on several bilateral issues. 

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