Adem Baba does not look like your typical villain. His smile reveals a life-long lack of proper dental care, but it is good-natured.
Yet, this 64-year-old resident of one of the hamlets comprising the village of Tatul in the Rhodope is responsible for all the troubles that have befallen Bulgaria over the past 20 years. Blocked SAPARD funds? Adem Baba is to blame. A circle of privileged companies formed around whoever happens to be in power? Adem Baba must be vilified. Overdevelopment on the Black Sea coast and in the mountains with illegal and semi-legal hotels? Crucify Adem Baba. For 20 years now he has been voting for the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, or DPS, and its leader, Ahmed Dogan. As a coalition partner in the governments of the Simeon II National Movement, or NDSV, (2001-2005) and the Bulgarian Socialist Party, or BSP, (2005- 2009), the party of the Bulgarian Muslims systematically abused its power to such an extent that it basically became a corporation. To outside observers, whose criticism has become increasingly hostile recently, this corporation acts like a well-constructed hierarchy, where even those on the lowest rungs are systematically rewarded. At the last general election in June, these "cogs" totalled nearly 620,000, this being the number of people who voted for the DPS.
Soviet cars are still in use by the local residents of Tatul, famous to tourists for its Thracian necropolis
The idea that Ahmed Dogan's voters enjoy a privileged status is deeply rooted in the minds of those Bulgarians who will never vote for the DPS. "You can always tell when you are going into a DPS controlled region. Take the road from Asenovgrad to Kardzhali, for example. It is full of potholes when you start from Asenovgrad (whose mayor is from the Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria Party, or GERB), but all the holes disappear when you enter the Region of Kardzhali (one of the DPS bastions)," Bulgarians travelling in that part of the country often say. The urban myth that in the area of Kardzhali you won't be served in cafés and shops if you ask in Bulgarian is very popular indeed.
The GERB government has added fuel to this fire by fanning the perceived advantages enjoyed by Turks and Pomaks in Bulgaria. The village of Lyulyakovo near Ruen, for example, received 43 million leva under the Environment Operational Programme to build a wastewater treatment plant and sewerage system. This would not have made the news had there been at least 10,000 people living in the village, as the European Commission requires to fund such projects. Lyulyakovo, which is mainly inhabited by Turks, had a population of only 1,800. At the same time, larger settlements with the necessary number of residents did not have their sewerage projects approved.
Elderly Turks do not or will not speak Bulgarian
Hearing these stories is one thing. But seeing how Ahmed Dogan's voters live with your own eyes is an entirely different matter. The most concentrated groups of DPS voters are found in the Eastern Rhodope, the eastern areas of the Balkan Mountains and northeastern Bulgaria.
The first thing you discover the moment you turn off the well surfaced, new road from Kardzhali to the Makaza Pass, where there will be a border crossing point into Greece, is the potholes in the roads connecting the villages. The second is the scenery. We don't mean the romantic hilltops of the Rhodope, but the villages. Most of them belong to the Third World rather than the EU.
Adem Baba lives in a house without sanitation. The nearest asphalt road is 5 km away from his hamlet. Adem Baba used to work on construction sites in Sofia and in the tobacco fields in Greece. His red Moskvich stands parked under a tree, carefully shielded from the vagaries of weather with old bedcovers. Adem Baba no longer drives it. He has no money to keep the old car in good repair and now the Moskvich stands as a monument to the past. Locals use it as a marker when directing tourists to the track leading to the Petrified Forest, a local site of interest. The best way to find it is to ask Adem Baba. He will gladly help anyone. He prefers a two-hour cross-country walk and a chat with strangers to overseeing his daughters and in-laws picking tobacco in one of his five tobacco fields. Adem Baba does not complain about the life he leads. He is almost proud that his hamlet has electricity.
A visible achievement of the DPS: the countryside of the Rhodope is now dotted with minarets
The Rhodope is full of villages, hamlets and people like Adem Baba. Most of the elderly women living there do not even speak Bulgarian and have never travelled outside of their villages. The birth rate among Turks is higher and here you will see more children and young people than in an average Bulgarian village. But the population of the Rhodope is ageing too.
"The school functions, but it is not what it used to be," a woman from the village of Potochitsa near Kardzhali says of the huge building that looks like the set of a 1960s horror film. "Once, it was full of children and there was a kindergarten too. Now, the children of other villages come to our school too. They study in mixed classes." "Where are the young people?" "They went abroad, to Turkey. There are no jobs here," the woman says. She and her husband used to work in the kindergarten in Potochitsa but are now growing tobacco.
Tobacco cultivation is the mainstay for most Turkish families in the Rhodope
As the people of the Rhodope say, tobacco is pain. This is not an exaggeration. They spend the spring growing seedlings, planting them out and hoeing them, without any mechanisation. Tobacco is also picked by hand, in the early morning. The leaves harvested during the day have to be strung up and left to dry by the evening. Of course, all this is done by hand too.
The job is not only labour-intensive; it is unpleasant and badly-paid. The hands of the women who pick and string the tobacco get covered with a sticky brownish layer that is hard to wash off. This is the tar whose content you are warned about on every pack of cigarettes. This year the price of dried tobacco is 5 leva per kilo. The yield from an acre is about 400-600 kg. Adem Baba, for example, has five tobacco fields of a quarter of an acre each.
Turks drink beer at the market in Krumovgrad while they wait for the daily coach to Istanbul
Dogan's paradise in the villages of the Rhodope looks more like hell, and the DPS voters in the towns do not fare much better. Before 1989, Krumovgrad had about 20,000 citizens, who earned their living in several factories and a large military base whose sole purpose was to ward off a NATO attack from Turkey. "In the evening, when the restaurant opened, we usually had to cook food for 1,000 people." Metodi Mladenov remembers the time he was a chef at the Bulgaria Restaurant. Today, the eatery in the centre of Krumovgrad is empty. Metodi has a small diner in the marketplace, where he chargrills kebapcheta and lamb chops (in fact, these are a lot tastier than in Sofia). There are customers, but only on market days. The military base and the factories in Krumovgrad have closed down, the population has dwindled to about 9,000 and the most interesting event in the life of the small town is when the coach for Istanbul departs. "It is not as it used to be," sums up Metodi.
Turks attending Friday prayers at the Seven Maids wooden mosque in Podkova
"It is not as it used to be" is a phrase that you can often hear in the Rhodope. For the voters of the DPS, Communism was a good era, when they all had jobs and security. The ordinary Bulgarians, especially those living in provincial towns and villages, share this opinion. However, nostalgia has one peculiarity in Doganlandia, as most of its inhabitants still remember the trauma of being compelled to change of their names for Bulgarian ones in 1984-1985 and the forced migration in the summer of 1989 referred to as the Great Excursion.
"It was good under Tosho," Sali says. He is one of the few permanent residents of the village of Dyadovtsi near Ardino. Dyadovtsi used to be full of life but became a ghost village after the Great Excursion. Tosho is the nickname of Communist dictator Todor Zhivkov. "Tosho made a single mistake. He went for this namechanging thing. But he was not to blame. He was misled into it," Sali says.
The economic crisis has meant unemployment for Turkish builders previously employed on construction sites in Sofia and the big towns
There are no empty houses in the village of Lyulyakovo and there is a wedding in the area nearly every week. But its inhabitants do not live in the lap of luxury either. Weddings are a strange affair here. The bride and groom mark the occasion with hundreds of guests gathered in the square, but don't spend much on a meal. "We get together to help them with a few leva," says 50-year-old Hasan. He is standing in a queue together with the rest of the men. When his turn comes and he reaches the table where the young couple is waiting, he takes out a modest banknote from his wallet and puts it in the copper pot. The bride and groom kiss his hand and an MC announces in Turkish over the microphone: "Hasan: five leva!" When the men finish, a second queue of women takes their place.
Ahmed Dogan was born in the village of Pchelarovo near Dobrich, in northeastern Bulgaria, and grew up in the village of Drandar near Varna. At first glance, the area where the leader of the DPS spent the first years of his life looks more prosperous. In 2005, for example, the Turkish company Şişecam opened its first Bulgarian factory in Targovishte and expanded its activities in the next few years. Dogan regularly attended the celebrations that took place on 6 May at the tomb of Muslim cleric Demir Baba in the village of Sveshtari near Isperih.
The roads connecting the villages in this area aren't anything to boast about but in Drandar you will find Dogan's most mysterious and extravagant creation, the so-called Children's Palace. Palace is probably not the right word. The huge building with towers and a blue roof sticking up above Drandar's rooftops is visible from afar and looks more like a Disneyland castle. In fact, the lawn in front of the castle is strewn with statues of Beauty and the Beast, Cinderella and other characters from Walt Disney's movies.
Officially, the Children's Palace is a luxury kindergarten. Since it was built, no children have set foot in it.
"They said: 'We'll make it for the children,'" a woman living in the village explains and then retorts, "What children? There are no children in the village!" The situation calls to mind a Communist-era joke. A Communist Party functionary went to a remote village and began promising the peasants: "We will build you a bridge! We will build you a cultural centre! We will build you a medical centre! We will build you a school!" A man in the crowd put up his hand. "But, comrade, we have no children in the village!" The functionary remained unflustered: "Then we'll make you children too!"
Monuments to victims of the 1985 Revival Process in the centre of Momchilgrad
Dogan's attitude to his voters is similar. He promises Muslims protection against repression, such as forcible Bulgarisation, and economic security. In practice, he gives them little. His provocative behaviour, especially ahead of elections, acts as a sure-fire trigger to Bulgarian nationalist leanings. This was how political parties such as Ataka and Order, Law and Justice were born and got into parliament.
Dogan's voters are economically dependent on him. The DPS has been putting a stop to every attempt to privatise Bulgartabac for years. Having a monopoly of the market, it exercises control over tobacco producers, who are mainly Muslims, fixing low purchase prices and delaying payments. At present, the holding is again officially up for sale. Dogan's voters are neither deaf nor blind, and can see that the DPS is far from what it promises to be. But the party leader adeptly manipulates their main fear – that the Bulgarian state will again try to suppress their basic rights the way it has done in the past. He may not build roads nor attract investors to the regions thanks to which he has been at the top of the political pyramid for 20 years, but he never fails to commemorate the victims of the Revival Process. In the centre of Momchilgrad, the town that saw the greatest unrest at the time, there is a monument to those protesters (it is officially dedicated to the victims of Communism in the area, but there are only two Bulgarian names on the list). In the village of Mogilyane in Kirkovo Municipality an official road sign indicating a landmark leads to the Tyurkyan Fountain. Built to commemorate the protesters against the name changing who died in a clash with the Communist militia at the end of December 1984, it is named after a 17-month-old girl who was among the victims.
A water fountain erected in memory of Tyurkyan, a 17-month-old girl, killed by the Communists in 1985
Not all monuments erected by the DPS are so unequivocal. In 1993, the party unveiled a fountain in the village of Tranak, with a plaque to the Turkish terrorists who detonated a bomb in the carriage for mothers and children on the Burgas-Sofia train and killed eight people in 1985.
Their message is so simple that even Adem Baba, who only completed primary school, can understand it.
Whose is this castle?
Officially, Ahmed Dogan has no title deed to any property. However, on 17 May 2002 he bought nearly 56 acres of municipal land in Drandar for about 18,000 leva. The construction of the Children's Palace began soon afterwards. It was supposed to be a place where some 30 children would enjoy their childhood in luxury under the supervision of service and teaching staff. The villagers of Drandar, as the Standart daily claims, were happy with the construction: because of it the road to the village was asphalted and their houses acquired something hitherto unknown – a sewerage system. The palace was built, the furniture arrived, but there were no children. On 29 May 2008 Ahmed Dogan donated everything to the Hermes Foundation (www.hermesbg.org), which he had established himself a couple of years earlier. According to the donation deed, the Children's Palace cost 19,914.90 leva. The main goals of the foundation are: "Construction and rehabilitation of kindergartens, schools, library clubs and churches in the Republic of Bulgaria. Granting scholarships in the educational systems at all academic levels. Promotion of gifted children."