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