Ergodan referendum splits Bulgaria's Turks

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Bulgaria's ethnic Turkish community makes up 10 percent of the country's population

Turkey's upcoming referendum on expanding the president's powers has sparked deep rifts among ethnic Turks in neighbouring Bulgaria, who find themselves caught in a tug-of-war between Sofia and Ankara.

With ties dating back to Ottoman times, the 700,000-strong minority makes up 10 percent of Bulgaria's population, proportionately the largest native Muslim community in a European Union member.

Many hold dual nationality and have relatives in both countries.

But fears are mounting that a spiralling diplomatic feud, coupled with the rise of anti-immigration nationalists in Bulgaria, could disrupt this peaceful co-existence.

Bulgarian Muslim Shukri Mustafa Hussein says he is worried that the spat could leave him facing an impossible conundrum.

"If the two countries are at odds, then I won't be able to go there nor come back here," said the 72-year-old from a small village in the southern province of Kardzhali, where most ethnic Turks are based.

Tensions first flared when Sofia accused Ankara of "meddling" in last month's election by openly backing a new Turkish minority party, Dost, which recently broke away from Bulgaria's long-established Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF).

Although Dost failed to win any parliamentary seats in the March ballot, it gathered an impressive 22 percent to MRF's 43 percent in Kardzhali province.

The Turkish vote on April 16, seeking to grant sweeping powers to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has become a key point of contention.

While Dost supports Erdogan's ambitions, the MRF is urging people to vote 'no'.

MRF's long-time leader Ahmed Dogan has lashed out at Erdogan for trying to turn Turkey into "a sultanate".

"Erdogan wants to obtain unlimited power. The referendum is a threat to democracy," the MRF said in a statement on Friday.

- 'People are afraid' -

"The Turkish referendum and the recent arrival of Bulgarian nationalists have exacerbated the pressure on the Turkish minority" and played into Erdogan's camp, political expert Antonina Jeliazkova told AFP.

A new study conducted among 1,200 Bulgarian Muslims showed that Erdogan's popularity is high and that Turkey is competing in popularity with Germany, also home to a large Bulgarian Muslim community.

According to study author Evgenia Ivanova, the trend goes hand in hand with "Muslims' fear" of the rise of the far-right United Patriots (UP), which came third in the March elections.

The nationalist grouping jumped on Bulgaria's spat with Ankara to boost its support, railing against Erdogan, Muslims and migrants in its election campaign.

Last month, UP supporters blocked key crossing points on the Turkish border to prevent ethnic Turks from returning to Bulgaria to vote in the election.

All this has added to a growing sense of unease and mistrust in Kardzhali's Muslim-populated villages and towns.

Most locals there refuse to speak to journalists.

"People are afraid... We've never been more worried about the rise to power of nationalists in Bulgaria," said the mayor of Dzhebel town, Bahri Recep Omer.

According to the mayor, the anti-Muslim rhetoric is stirring bitter memories of oppression under Bulgaria's communist regime, which forced Turks to adopt Slavic names as part of forced assimilation policies.

After the fall of the Iron Curtain, they got their Arab names back and many received Bulgarian and Turkish citizenship.

For the mayor, who recently switched from MRF to Dost, close ties with Ankara are essential both from a cultural and economic point of view.

"The Turks have suffered a lot during the waves of assimilation and expulsions," he told AFP.

"All we want is normal relations with Turkey, an economic power that can invest in our disadvantaged region," Omer said.

Some observers including political analyst Boriana Dimitrova warn that the threat of nationalism and poverty have fostered a tendency in the Turkish community "to isolate itself" and "retreat back into its traditions", pushing it closer to Erdogan.

But for Shinasi Syuleiman, the MRF mayor of the Kirkovo municipality in Kardzhali, it would be an "exaggeration to say that Bulgaria's Turks love Erdogan".

"We have biological links with Turkey but they should not be confused with support for Erdogan," he told AFP.