06 October 2007
Bulgarian Ambassador Branimir Mladenov is very happy to be in Turkey as an ambassador and is pleased with relations between the two countries.
Mr. Ambassador mentions the poor relations the two countries had in the past but he adds that relations now are wonderful. Ambassador Mladenov speaks Turkish. He was formerly consul general in İstanbul. He thinks that serving in the same country more than once is a privilege and has its advantages. Ambassador Mladenov says that İstanbul is unique and he loves to visit, but is always very happy to return to Ankara. He also speaks about the Turkish minority in Bulgaria, Bulgarian citizens in Turkey and Bulgarians who have lived in İstanbul for a long time.
He says that the Turkish word for neighbor, “komşu,” is widely in use in Bulgaria. “I don’t think there is one Bulgarian who does not know this word,” says Mladenov, smiling. Mr. Ambassador explains more on how komşu has become a key word in Bulgarian language and culture. “Neighboring houses in the Bulgarian villages had a small gate in the fence between them. It was called a komşuluk. Via the komşuluk people from the two houses could easily enter each others’ yards. Their relations were closer than with their own relatives. They helped each other. Komşuluk, this gate, signifies that your doors are always open to your neighbor.”
But at times the neighbors did not enjoy such open relations. “Years ago, our countries did not enjoy such good relations. But at the beginning of the 1990s relations improved very rapidly. And now we have wonderful relations -- the best relations in maybe the last 50 years. These relations are also very important for stability in the region. We are not only good neighbors and friends, but partners, too,” says Mladenov.
In the 1980s Bulgaria implemented an assimilation policy directed at its Turkish minority. It was forbidden to speak Turkish and practice Turkish culture. In 1989 more than 300,000 Turkish Bulgarian citizens were forced to immigrate to Turkey. Later this policy changed. Turks were given back their rights. But the actions of the 1980s led to a negative image of Bulgaria in Turkey. When Mr. Ambassador was asked if this image still exists, he started his explanation by emphasizing that not Bulgaria or Bulgarians, but rather some practices and policies, created such a negative image.
“But between Bulgarian and Turkish people there have never been bad or hostile feelings. I myself have never seen a negative attitude towards Bulgaria or Bulgarians in Turkey. People always seem to be friendly in their approach. I think this is the same in Bulgaria towards Turks,” he says. “There are many people of Turkish origin in Bulgaria. They have no problems with Bulgaria. They have rights and freedom. For the last 18 years they have been well integrated. These are positive factors for relations. There are also Bulgarian citizens with Turkish origins living in Turkey. Their number is quite large. It is very difficult to give a precise number but there are around 350,000. Many of them hold dual citizenship. There is also another interesting group -- local Bulgarians in İstanbul. People who were born in İstanbul; their grandparents were born in İstanbul. Now they are a very small group, 400 to 500 people. They were more of them but their number has decreased. They have their own church, which is called the Iron Church, at the Golden Horn -- a historical monument for İstanbul,” Mr. Ambassador says.
According to him the existence of the Iron Church is another manifestation of cooperation because last year the Greater İstanbul Municipality spent money to reinforce the church’s foundations. “The church is very interesting; the whole building is made of iron. It is a unique monument,” he says.
One of the Turkish Bulgarians who took refuge in Turkey is Naim Süleymanoğlu, the famous weightlifter. Two years after his immigration to Turkey, he broke nine world records at the 1988 Seoul Olympics. “He was a world record holder and champion before coming to Turkey. He is a great sportsman. I am sure Bulgarians enjoyed his success when he was performing for Turkey. There are Bulgarian weightlifters competing for the Qatar national team just as there are black football players in Turkey. Turkey also has Elvan [Abeylegesse, Turkish athlete of Ethiopian origin]. The world has become so much more globalized; ethnic differences and origins are not so important any more,” says the ambassador.
I love İstanbul, but also returning to Ankara
Ambassador Mladenov speaks Turkish. When he asked how he learned Turkish, he smiles and says: “By spending so many years in Turkey. This is not my first assignment to Turkey. I served as a consul general in İstanbul when I was a younger diplomat. I wanted to learn Turkish. When I am together with Turkish friends, I speak Turkish,” he says.
It is impossible to not to wonder about the age of Ambassador Mladenov, when he is talking about “his younger days.” But when asked about, he says, “If I don’t tell you my age, will I be in the position of a lady,” and laughs, replying that he is 50.
According to Mr. Ambassador, serving in the same country more than once certainly has its advantages. “You don’t need much time to get accustomed to culture and politics. The good thing about Turkey is that it’s always exciting and interesting. Being an ambassador here in Turkey from a neighboring country is a professional challenge and a responsibility. I should say that this is a privilege and I feel lucky to be ambassador of Bulgaria in Turkey,” he says.
Mr. Ambassador also came to Turkey as a member of Bulgarian delegations between his two appointments here, so he has been a continual observer of the country. “Turkey is changing very rapidly. You can see it everywhere. It is very different compared to five, 10 years ago. You can see the economic dynamism. A couple of months ago I was in Çanakkale. They were opening a regular air route to İstanbul and Ankara. This is proof of economic dynamism,” he says.
Since Mr. Ambassador worked both in İstanbul and Ankara, he makes a comparison between the two cities. “I am always happy to see İstanbul. Local people are not so happy but to foreigners the city looks wonderful. Of course, İstanbul is something unique. It cannot be compared with any other part of the world. Every time I go to İstanbul, I see something new. But the traffic is unbearable. I am always happy to be back in Ankara,” he laughs.
Apart from speaking Turkish and liking patlıcan kebap (eggplant kebab) especially if it is prepared by someone “who is an expert of Gaziantep cuisine.” Mr. Ambassador has another Turkish habit --supporting Beşiktaş football club.
He is so hopeful that his team will do well this year. He says he does not know why he supports Beşiktaş. “You just like a team. Everybody supports Galatasaray or Fenerbahçe. Beşiktaş is more modest. I went to some games of Bulgarian teams playing against Beşiktaş, but the result was not favorable for the Bulgarian teams,” he laughs.
When it comes to skiing, one of the most favored sports of Bulgarians, Mr. Ambassador laughs again. “I just try to follow my wife,” he says. Most of the Turkish tourists who visit Bulgaria go there during the winter for skiing, Mr. Ambassador says. “Many more Bulgarians are coming here for the summer. Some have even started coming every summer. First they were going to Kuşadası, but now they are going everywhere.”
One of the impressions of Turks who have been to Bulgaria is the nation’s interest in culture, reading and education. “Maybe it is a matter of tradition. In order to give a good education to their children, the parents are ready to sacrifice anything. Even ordinary people send their children to Europe to study. It is very normal to sell land in order to send their children to Switzerland to study engineering. This is how Bulgaria has developed its own intellectuals and scientists, even when it was part of the Ottoman Empire,” Mr. Ambassador explains.
He adds that the young generation of Bulgaria is interested in software. He mentions that some multinational companies like Hewlett Packard have built global service centers in Sofia. “We are very thankful for this. Perhaps our engineers are born to be software experts,” he jokes.
Bulgaria is not only famous for its software experts but also for its rose oil, which is called liquid gold. “Yes, it is a tradition to produce high quality rose oil. This is why it is expensive. China and Turkey produce it too, but not with the same quality as we do. Rose oil is an indispensable part of the perfume industry. We have special roses to extract the oil from. They are grown in the middle of Bulgaria, in a place which is called the valley of the rose,” he says proudly.
The EU, a feeling of belonging
Ambassador Mladenov says that his country’s first year as a member of the EU has been joyful. He thinks that joining the EU was a historical development for Bulgaria and for the region. He notes that Romania and Bulgaria joined the EU at the same time, on Jan. 1, 2007, but what is unique about his country compared to all the other member states is the perfect consensus for membership.
“There were never discussions about the EU. Why did discussions about Bulgaria joining not take place? There was a perfect consensus among the political parties and among the people. Of course it was not easy. We needed a lot of reforms. But politicians took the necessary political actions and carried out these reforms. On Jan. 1, except for becoming a member of the EU, nothing else changed because changes had already been implemented long before. They did not take place in one day either. There were not such high expectations for the period immediately following our membership. The economy is not doing so badly; the growth rate is good; unemployment is low. Of course everybody wants better quality of life, but there is one fact -- after joining the EU, the economies of all the new members are functioning better. They have changed for the better.
Mr. Ambassador offers some advice for his komşu on the way to the EU. “First of all, the willingness to follow this path and move forward with reforms, no matter whether legal, economical or structural is very important. Secondly, a feeling of belonging is very important; it can perhaps help Turkey overcome its obstacles.”
AYŞE KARABAT ANKARA