Religion and Identification among the 1989 Re-settlers from Bulgaria to Turkey

Magdalena Elchinova


This chapter discusses the case of one of the biggest population relocations that has taken place in the Black Sea region after the Second World War—the exodus of Bulgarian-born Turks to Turkey in 1989. It aims to shed light on the role of religion in the transnational experience of these migrants, with regard to their identification strategies in the neighbouring Bulgarian and Turkish societies. Religion, which is regarded here as a sphere with shifting functions, performances and significance in modern society, has affected in specific ways both public and private life in Bulgaria and Turkey. Consequently, it has been assigned varying importance in the formative socio-political and cultural discourses in the two societies in focus. The essay tackles questions related to processes and developments specific for the entire Black Sea region. How does religious and political diversity lead to the formation of different religious regimes across borders and across social strata? How do these religious regimes influence migrant experience? How do religion, gender and social status interplay and call into being various categorisations of migrants? In what way do

M. Elchinova (*)

Department of Anthropology, New Bulgarian University, Sofia, Bulgaria © The Author(s) 2017

E. Sideri, L.E. Roupakia (eds.), Religions and Migrations in the Black Sea Region, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-39067-3_7

categorisations shape migrants’ experiences and identification strategies? The present discussion draws upon anthropological fieldwork conducted between 2000 and 2013 in north-eastern Bulgaria and the Turkish cities of Istanbul, Izmir and Edirne.

The flight of Bulgaria’s Turks to Turkey in 1989 and the preceding nationalistic campaign in Bulgaria have been described and analysed in a number of academic publications.1 For this reason, I will only briefly touch upon these historical events here. Within the span of less than three months in the summer of 1989, more than 350,000 ethnic Turks from Bulgaria crossed en masse the border with Turkey (Zhelyazkova 1998, 392), trying to escape from the harsh assimilation campaign, instigated upon them by the communist government. This campaign, known as the ‘re-birth process’, was aimed at the overt change of their ethnic, cultural and social identity. The immense flows of people caused chaos at the border that lasted for months and endangered the stability not only of the receiving Turkish society but, to a no lesser extent, of the society they left behind.

The re-settlers from Bulgaria were welcomed as “ethnic kin” (Parla 2007, 160) by the Turkish authorities, who provided for them housing, jobs and education, and assisted them in their further accommodation on the Turkish soil. After the collapse of communism in November 1989 which initiated profound political, social and economic transformations in Bulgaria, nearly one-third of the re-settlers returned to their homes (Zhelyazkova 1998, 392). Still, quite a big number of Bulgarian-born Turks permanently settled in Turkey. Due to various reasons, among which employment opportunities and relatives already residing there, they chose to go to bigger cities and industrial centres like Bursa, Izmir, Istanbul, ?orlu, Edirne and Ankara.

These people, who have become known in Bulgaria as ‘the re-settlers’ (izselnitsi), have developed for more than 25 years specific strategies of identification across the Bulgarian-Turkish border, which are the focus of the following discussion. Soon after their mass migration, they were granted Turkish citizenship and access to the rights, obligations and resources available to all Turkish nationals. The political changes in Bulgaria and the re-formulated bilateral relations in the early 1990s have stimulated most of them to keep their Bulgarian citizenship as well, thus becoming in the long run citizens of the EU—an option which remains open for their children and grandchildren born in Turkey too.

In the Bulgarian context, the 1989 re-settlers have been treated as a separate category both in formal and informal discourses (Elchinova 2012). In Turkey, they have been officially accepted as people of Turkish ‘stock’ and are not considered immigrants by statistics (Parla 2007, 159). Nevertheless, they are often perceived as a separate group by the various publics there. This is not to say that re-settlers form and should be conceived of as a given entity, a fixed community with clear-cut identity. In fact, despite the similarities in their migration and post-migration experience, within their vast group a number of differentiations are to be observed, referring to individuals’ social background, education, profession or place of origin. Their migratory experience may further vary significantly with respect to gender, generation, place and social setting of re-settlement. Because of these variations, the different representatives of this seemingly homogeneous category share in fact various forms of ‘commonality, connectedness and groupness’ (Brubaker and Cooper 2000, 19-20). Diversity is further enhanced by the various subjective reflections of their past experience and current situation. Even though 1989 re-settlers do not form a coherent community, they are often perceived as such by the wider public in Bulgaria and Turkey, and develop similar strategies of identification which come as a reaction to these public perceptions.

The border plays a significant role in conceptualising the 1989 resettlers. It is a key factor for the formation and understanding of their experience, strategies and identifications. After the exodus, re-settlers from Bulgaria have become transnational migrants. Moreover, they are defined not only by geopolitical borders, but by conceptual ones too, for example, as a minority in Bulgaria, as representatives of a specific quality of Turkishness in Turkey, and as holders of dual citizenship, they engage in a number of discourses of hybridisation, exclusion and inclusion on either sides of the state border. In the course of time, they have interacted with and expressed their identity vis-a-vis multiple publics in Bulgaria and Turkey.

The following discussion tries to reveal the role of religion in shaping the unique experience of these transnational migrants. The first two sections of the chapter present a historical overview of the politics of religion in Bulgaria and Turkey, respectively, thus contextualising the religious experience of the 1989 re-settlers before and after migration. The third section analyses the impact of religion on gender roles and patterns, which played a prominent role in the re-settlers’ adaptation to the receiving society. The conclusion summarises the discussion from the perspective of their present-day situation and in-group diversity.

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