BY HARUT SASSOUNIAN
Bojidar Dimitrov, Bulgaria’s Minister in charge of the Agency for Bulgarians Abroad, stirred a hornet’s nest at the start of the new year by threatening to block Turkey’s accession to the European Union (EU), unless it paid billions of dollars in compensation for Bulgarians who were forcefully displaced during the Ottoman era.
Dimitrov said Turkey owed Bulgaria $20 billion for expelling hundreds of thousands of ethnic Bulgarians in 1913. The Republic of Turkey, which was founded in 1923, had assumed the obligations of the Ottoman Empire and agreed to make reparations in a 1925 treaty. However, thus far, Bulgaria has received no compensation from the Turkish government.
“Turkey is surely able to pay this sum, after all, it’s the 16th largest economic power in the world,” Dimitrov said, capitalizing on a statement that Turkish officials often make, bragging about their country’s economic strength!
Dimitrov disclosed that the payment of compensation as required by the 1925 treaty is one of Bulgaria’s three pre-conditions in order not to veto Turkey’s admission to the EU. The other two pre-conditions involve energy and water management issues.
Veselin Ninov, a Bulgarian government spokesman, confirmed to the EUobserver on January 4, that Dimitrov’s announcement represented official state policy. He revealed that the dispute was being handled by a “Bulgarian-Turkish intergovernmental working group” and that Prime Minister Boyko Borissov would raise the compensation issue during his upcoming visit to Turkey.
Turkish officials reacted quickly and harshly! Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, repeating the same baseless accusations that Turkish leaders often make regarding the Armenian Genocide, alleged that the Turks suffered as much as the Bulgarians during that period. According to Zaman newspaper, Davutoglu warned that Bulgaria’s demands for compensation might harm bilateral relations, although, he confirmed that the two countries have been discussing “issues relevant to the mass transfers of Turks and Bulgarians during the last days of the Ottoman Empire.”
Bulgarian officials immediately backed down realizing that an open confrontation with Turkey on this issue may not be as beneficial to them as quiet, behind closed doors negotiations. Bulgaria’s Deputy Foreign Minister Marin Raykov sought to downplay Dimitrov’s demands by stating that his country did not make Turkey’s EU bid conditional on the resolution of the compensation issue for displaced persons. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Borissov rebuked Dimitrov, threatening to fire him should he make a similar statement in the future without first consulting him.
Minister Dimitrov quickly apologized in order to retain his job. Press official Veselin Ninov, however, was not as fortunate. He was fired for endorsing Dimitrov’s earlier statement.
For the time being, Bulgaria’s leaders may find it premature to openly link their demands for compensation from Turkey to its bid for EU membership, even though many Bulgarians have persistently demanded such reparations for decades. Consequently, this issue is bound to remain on the agenda of the two countries, undermining Turkey’s oft-stated claim that it has zero-problems or disputes with its neighbors.
Despite Prime Minister Borissov’s disclaimer, Bulgaria has now added yet another wrinkle to Turkey’s bid for EU membership which is becoming increasingly elusive. Already several European countries such as France, Germany, Holland, and Austria strongly oppose Turkey’s EU membership bid. Greece and Cyprus would not allow Turkey to join the EU, unless its troops withdraw from Northern Cyprus. Furthermore, it would be impossible for Turkey to join the EU without fulfilling one of its key requirements — open borders with all neighboring states. Turkey, thus, cannot become an EU member, unless it opens its border with Armenia, independently of the fate of the Armenia-Turkey Protocols.
Beyond the obstacles in joining the EU, Turkey is swamped with a large number of lawsuits filed against it in the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). Should it refuse to compensate Bulgaria for the 1913 refugees, it is likely to face more legal troubles.
However, Turkey’s record on winning lawsuits in the ECHR is not very good. It has already lost several major court cases for its occupation of Northern Cyprus. Also, Greek and Armenian minority foundations in Turkey have successfully recovered through the ECHR some of their real estate assets that were confiscated decades ago.
Encouraged by these successful lawsuits, Armenians living in Turkey and throughout Europe should seek legal redress through the ECHR for their countless losses suffered during the Genocide. Claims could be filed for the loss of personal property, bank accounts, real estate, monuments and churches.
No peace without justice!
No reconciliation without restitution!