Kurdish in Turkey, Turkish in Bulgaria

Kerem Öktem compares how the governments of Bulgaria and Turkey treat the language rights of their most important minorities.

The case

Both Bulgaria and Turkey are home to large minorities: in Bulgaria, between 8% and 10% of the population is of Turkish origin and in Turkey around 15% identify as Kurdish. Both countries have state traditions that can be described as unsympathetic towards minorities, and in both countries, ethno-religiously defined nationalism is still very much the norm in educational institutions and public debate. In both countries, the use of the minority language is seen, in principle, as a threat to the integrity and unity of the nation, which is considered to be Bulgarian-speaking in Bulgaria and Turkish-speaking in Turkey. Yet, again in each country, policies differ with regard to where the use of minority languages is accepted and where it is prevented in reality.

In EU member state Bulgaria, education in the mother tongue is a right in principle, not enshrined in the constitution but granted by a decision of the council of ministers. While minority schools (with the exception of four religious colleges) do not exist, members of the Turkish minority are entitled to basic language education. Yet, implementing provisions and micro-politics within local educational administrations and schools diminish these rights: for a Turkish class to be established, there need to be Turkish teachers and a minimum of 12 students, who are willing to take Turkish as a “foreign language elective class”. These classes do not count towards the student’s overall grades and they do compete with other elective classes such as computer literacy courses or additional foreign languages. In addition, evidence suggests that headteachers seek to discourage students from taking Turkish classes. Finally, the educational institutions, where the country’s Turkish language teachers used to be taught, have been closed down on grounds of financial reasons. As a consequence, only a fraction of Turkish students in Bulgaria take Turkish as an elective, and the language capabilities of Bulgaria’s Turks is receding, with many Turks being more fluent in Bulgarian than in Turkish.

For the last eight years, Bulgarian State TV has aired a daily 15-minute news bulletin in Turkish. While this is the only Bulgaria-based Turkish TV programme available for around 750,000 Turks in the country, there have been repeated campaigns to ban the programme, as it allegedly promotes a foreign language. Even Prime Minister Boyko Borisov supported this campaign with the rationale that there is only one official language in Bulgaria: Bulgarian. The future of the daily TV news, which is broadcast in the early afternoon, is far from certain.

In EU-candidate state Turkey, there is no education in minority languages at primary and secondary level, with the exception of a limited number of non-Muslim minority schools. Kurdish school children have no access to education in Kurdish. In the last few years, however, university departments on Kurdish language and culture have been opened, and Kurdish diploma courses have become widespread at universities in the Kurdish region. There is also the possibility of opening private Kurdish language courses, yet the insistence of local educational inspectors on exaggerated building specifications for the venues, where the courses were to be given have stalled the proliferation of such courses. Many of the ones that were opened nevertheless had to charge high fees and stood little chance to reach what is still a mostly impoverished community. Most of these courses have now shut.

In the area of the media, however, the situation is markedly different: for the last few of years, the Turkish State Channel TRT 6 has broadcast 24 hours in Kurdish. TRT 6 has been joined by two private TV stations, which also have 24-hour programming in Kurdish.

Author opinion

Both countries actually do a really bad job of protecting the language rights of their most important minorities. In Bulgaria, an abstract right to education in the minority language is upheld in principle. In reality, however, all state actors, from the ministry of education to the local headteacher seem to work against the provision of education in Turkish. The fact that even a 15-minute news programme, broadcast at a time slot, when very few people would watch it in the first place, triggers national petitions and campaigns hints at the lack of understanding regarding basic human rights for members of linguistic minorities.

In Turkey, the right to primary and secondary education in the mother tongue is denied to Kurds and other Muslim minorities. Because the right to education in one’s mother tongue is withheld in principle, this is a clear breach of international and European human rights norms. The fact that TV programming in Kurdish is allowed and even promoted by the state does not even out the breach of human and language rights; to the contrary, it creates an awkward situation, where the state acts as promoter of the Kurdish language in one place, and prevents its teaching in another.

- Kerem Öktem

Read more:

Comments (0)

Automated machine translations are provided by Google Translate. They should give you a rough idea of what the contributor has said, but cannot be relied on to give an accurate, nuanced translation. Please read them with this in mind.

  1. Your comment is awaiting moderation.

    Dear Friends,

    I am a Kurdish/Turkish girl living in Lebanon, holding both IDs, the Lebanese and the Turkish. My grandfather moved to Lebanon because of the Turkish violation against kurds and the breach of their rights. They have suffered long history with discrimination and persecution in many surrounding countries as well. They were not allowed to raise their flag nor use their native language (that is the reason why I am weak in speaking kurdish!). Both sides hope for a peaceful settlement to avoid bloody civil war. The mass Kurdish exodus from Iraq triggers foreign government and public opinion to firmly engage on the kurdish question.

  2. Your comment is awaiting moderation.

    Dear colleague,

    I am somewhat puzzled by your conclusion that Turkish people in Bulgaria are more and more fluent in Bulgarian. As far as I know it is exactly the opposite — they know less and less Bulgarian, although this does not mean that all is good with the Turkish language education. Can you please quote your sources of information, academic, statistic or others?

    Milena Borden (Dr. UCL-SSEES)

  3. Your comment is awaiting moderation.

    Very nice example of collaboration between two nations.

  4. Your comment is awaiting moderation.

    Dear mpetkova,

    Thank you very much for your thoughtful comments.

    You are right about the DPS’ importance for the Turkish community (there, however, several Turkish parties in Macedonia, I should add).

    What I conclude from my fieldwork is that the DPS needed to walk a very fine line as ethnic politics are unconstitutional in Bulgaria. It seems that while they were perceived as a ‘Turkish party’, they had to take great care in demonstrating their commitment to being a ‘Bulgarian’ party, hence also including Bulgarians from other backgrounds. For what reason exactly one might disagree, but the DPS seems to have been much better in clientelist politics than in expanding the rights of the Turkish and other minorities.

    In fact, this does resound a bit with the Turkish case, where there also is a de-facto Kurdish party (BDP), which is legal but the moment it crosses into the territory of Kurdish identity politics is ruthlessly prosecuted.

    By the way, after writing this case, I received news of the Bulgarian Parliament’s apology for the “Renaissance” campaign. I wonder what you think about it? Is it a sign that things might be about to change?

    Best wishes


  5. Your comment is awaiting moderation.

    Thank you, Kerem, for this insightful article. Indeed, the rights of the Turkish minority in Bulgaria have long been abused. Towards the end of the communist regime, the party leadership sought the escalate ethnic tensions in my country by launching the so-called “Renaissance Process” to change the names of all Turks to “Bulgarian” ones. Of course, this resulted in violence, arrests, and even deaths and thousands of embittered Turks left. Since the fall of the regime and its pro-ethnic-tension politics in Bulgaria, there has not been an attempt to re-think recent history and launch discussions on the position of minorities in the country because our amateurish political elite cannot move beyond populism. Furthermore, the way history is taught in Bulgarian textbooks has not changed since 1989, so all propaganda targeting the “Western NATO enemy” Turkey has not been removed. To this day Bulgarians cannot come to terms with the Ottoman conquest. It’s been 150 years already. So do not be surprised about the petitions against the 15-minute news in Turkish. I do have to note, however, that unlike many of our neighbors, we have had a Turkish party (DPS) in parliament since 1989. How representative they are of the Turkish minority is another question.

Leave a comment in any language


Swipe left to browse all of the highlights.

Free Speech Debate is a research project of the Dahrendorf Programme for the Study of Freedom at St Antony's College in the University of Oxford. www.freespeechdebate.ox.ac.uk

The University of Oxford