A city council’s decision to scrap names that sound Turkish or Arabic has drawn complaints from ethnic Turkish parties and the country’s Grand Mufti – who called it racist and intolerant.
Bulgaria’s nationalist United Patriots coalition, which is part of the government, has caused tension that may also provoke a dispute with Turkey after its city councillors in Stara Zagora, in central Bulgaria, voted to scrap 838 place names that pointed to Turkish or Arabic origins.
The vote passed with 39 “for”, two “against” and four abstentions, the VMRO party announced, and follows a year-long process in which academics helped to translate the Turkish-Arabic names to Bulgarian ones.
The vote was passed on Thursday despite “pressure on the local administration” from the Turkish consulate in Plovdiv, a VMRO Stara Zagora councillor, Anton Andonov, claimed on TV.
According to him, the consulate had “warned the municipality that the change of names will worsen relations with the city and Turkey”.
The consultate declined to comment to BIRN on the issue.
In parliament, a VMRO MP, Alexander Sidi, accused Turkey of interfering – and called on Bulgaria’s Foreign Ministry to “act tough” and take “all available diplomatic measures … to stop Turkey from yet again interfering in Bulgarian domestic politics”.
Sidi added that “the change of names of areas in the Stara Zagora region is a great victory for patriotism and Bulgarianism” and called on other municipalities to follow suit.
Sidi meanwhile added that Bulgaria had never interfered with Turkey when it changed names that were previously Bulgarian in origin, such as Odrin, now Edrine, and Lozengrad, which is now Kirikkale.
The Ottoman Empire ruled Bulgaria for centuries, and ever since independence in the 1870s, Bulgarian nationalists have agitated against signs of the Ottoman Turkish legacy.
In 2014, Ataka party leader Volen Siderov, now head of the parliamentary group of the United Patriots, called on then-President Rosen Plevneliev to change Turkish-Arabic toponyms across the country to Bulgarian ones.
Under the constitution, the President has the power to change the names of towns, villages and places of national importance.
The plea targeted specifically the name of Rila Mountain’s Musala peak, the tallest peak in Bulgaria and the Balkans, which nationalists want changed to St Ivan Rilski.
Similar calls were made in the first months of President Rumen Radev’s mandate. Both presidents rejected the proposal, citing “lack of public consultation and general consensus”.
In 2012, Plovdiv nationalists tried to change the name of a central square in the city, Dzhumaiata. However, centrist GERB party councillors voted against the proposal.
The Stara Zagora decision drew a sharp reaction from the country’s Grand Mufti, and from ethnic Turkish Parties.
The Grand Mufti criticised the decision, calling it “seriously concerning for the Muslim community in Bulgaria”.
His office said it showed that “the level of racism and intolerance towards Muslims and all things connected with them is reaching critical levels.”
A local councillor from the mainly ethnic Turkish Movement of Rights and Freedoms, Tuncay Ozturk, said he was never invited to the committee that decided to change local names.
He compared the move to the so-called “Revival Process” in the last years of the communist regime that targeted Turkish Bulgarians in the 1980s, forcing them to change their names and driving many of them out of the country.