Turkey's ambassador considers letting bygones be bygones, making friends and visiting Rila Monastery
Issue 68, May 2012
interview and photography by Anthony Georgieff
We sit on the porch of one of Sofia's most elegant residences and sip some sweet Turkish tea. The large house, located next to Sofia University and overlooking the remnants of the much reviled and intermittently painted-over Red Army Monument, was built in 1903 for the Sirmadzhiev family. It was acquired by Turkey for its embassy a few years later. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the "Father of modern Turkey," worked here as a military attaché when Bulgaria attacked Turkey in the Balkan Wars of the 1910s.
Now it may be one of the most desirable addresses in Sofia, yet I cannot help but think how hard life must be for a Turk in Bulgaria, where a significant proportion of the population perceives Turkey, the former imperial power, as the arch-enemy. The result of many years of propaganda feeding distrust and animosity, this attitude has evolved into a sinister blend of anti-Turkish Bulgarian nationalism, including political extremism. But Ismail Aramaz, Turkey's current ambassador to Sofia, who describes himself as a man in his "fearless 50s" – to quote Gail Sheehy's theory of "passages in a man's life" – is quick to dispel my sentiments.
I am enjoying myself enormously. The food, the popular culture and some of the vocabulary are reassuringly similar. The people have a familiar temperament, such as a tendency to criticise everything and everyone, including themselves. I am at a pleasant stage in my life, when I'm comfortable with myself, warts and all.
I am grateful to the Sofia City Council for renovating the street in front of the residence and adding a lovely pedestrian walkway. I believe that I have contributed to the appearance of the street by voluntarily removing the iron railings belonging to the residence that used to cut off the pavement. By the way, I have had the railings and the concrete bollards in front of our chancery removed, too. The next challenge is to ensure that we are actually treated like a normal embassy.
Is there anything in Bulgaria's public inclinations that you as a Turk find disturbing?
There is too much emphasis on the past, not enough emphasis on the present and certainly too little emphasis on the future. I'd like to reverse this trend.
How would you explain this preoccupation with history in Bulgaria?
It's a relatively recent phenomenon. Prior to 9 September 1944, there was hardly any anti-Turkish sentiment in Bulgaria. The Ottomans did not oppose the Principality of Bulgaria's unification with Eastern Rumelia in 1885, or Bulgarian independence in 1908. The Ottomans did not start the First Balkan War in 1912. Bulgaria did, along with three other countries. The Ottomans did not start the Second Balkan War in 1913 either.
Bulgaria did. The Ottomans and Bulgaria were allies in the First World War. In 1916, the Ottomans dispatched 36,000 troops from the 6th Ottoman Corps to Bulgaria to help win back southern Dobrudzha from Romania. Around 20,000 of them perished in the fighting. Both Dobrudzha and southern Romania are dotted with Ottoman military cemeteries from that campaign. Somehow this has got lost in history.
In the 1930s, the friendship was cemented when Mustafa Kemal Ataturk said "anyone who is against Bulgaria is against Turkey."
The breaking point came when the Red Army crossed the Danube in September 1944. Bulgaria would become a faithful member of the Warsaw Pact. Turkey subsequently joined NATO. Turkish-Bulgarian relations assumed an ideological dimension. For 45 years, the Otechestven Front and the Rabotnichesko Delo, the bulwarks of Communist propaganda, churned out the most awful messages of hatred against the "enemy next door, preparing to invade."
By comparison, in the 1890s, so soon after Bulgarian independence that you would be forgiven for thinking that anti-Turkish sentiment would be strong, Bulgarians merrily made up the largest contingent at Robert College in Istanbul.
70 years ago, on 10 March 1943, Bulgaria's pro-Nazi government decided to defy Berlin and halt the deportation of Bulgaria's 50.000 Jews. This was down to the actions of one man - Dimitar Peshev. Just two years later he faced Communist justice and found himself on trial for his life. His niece Kaluda Kiradjieva remembers