Big Excursion

Big Excursion

The "Big Excursion" also known as "The Great Trip" and "the grand excursion of 1989" are terms used to refer to the forced expulsion and the resulting mass exodus of the ethnic Turkish minority out of Bulgaria in 1989. Beginning in May 1989, "amid organized, neo-fascist mass public demonstrations" [Dennis Hupchick, "The Balkans", 2002, p.428] in support of "national unity", some 360,000 to 370,000 Turks were forced to flee to Turkey, under the guise of being granted "tourist" exit visas for "vacations". The "Turkish Problem" played an important role in the collapse of Bulgarian communism later that year. [Dennis Hupchick, "The Balkans", 2002, p.428] The "Big Excursion" is the biggest mass exodus in post-Second World War European history. [Eminov, 1997: 97]


In 1939 population growth in Bulgaria had been 1.5 per cent per annum, but in 1974 it was 0.74 per cent and in 1981 a mere 0.3 per cent. It was generally assumed that the decline in the birth rate is more marked amongst Bulgarians than amongst the Turks and particularly the Roma people.

In 1940 the Turkish names of towns and villages were Bulgarianized. In the late 1940s the Islamic religion and Turkish-language schools were subjected to state regulation. The 1950s collectivization drive in predominantly Turkish-inhabited tobacco-growing regions was an escalation of official anti-Turkish policy, with Turks compelled either to emigrate or to have their property confiscated. The situation degenerated into the forced emigration of 150,000 to 162,000 Turks to Turkey between 1950 and 1951. The émigrés arrived at the frontier at such numbers and poverty that Turkey, unable to handle the situation adequately, closed its borders. The miserable refugee camps caused an international scandal, and rising international diplomatic pressures convinced the Bulgarian Communist Party to ease their collectivization policies.In 1968 Bulgaria and Turkey signed a bilateral emigration agreement permitting a controlled number of Turks to leave for Turkey. Some 130,000 Turks emigrated between 1969 and 1977. The remaining Turks - whose numbers were kept relatively large by a birth rate higher than that of Bulgarians - experienced continued discrimination. In the early seventies teaching of Turkish was prohibited in Bulgarian schools, and in 1974, the Department of Turkish at the University of Sofia was closed and replaced by a Department of Arabic Studies. [Henckaerts, 1995: 110]

In 1981 national identity was deleted as an item on internal Bulgarian passports, and in 1984, with the December 1985 census in view, a fierce, massive, often insensitive and at times violent campaign was launched to force all of Bulgaria's 900,000 ethnic Turks to Bulgarianize their names. Scholars, high-ranking party and government officials toured the country making such assertions as that the ‘Turks’ of Bulgaria had never in fact been Turks, but were Bulgarians who had been Turkified immediately after the Ottoman conquest. Through mass intimidation, Bulgarian names replaced Turkish ones in all official documents, the public and private use of the Turkish language was proscribed, all public Islamic rituals banned, and numerous mosques were demolished.Dissidents were locked up on a prison island on the Danube. Bulgarian troops were mobilized to crush those who resisted, killing at least 100 people 1984 alone. [Hugh Pope, "Sons of the Conquerors", 2005, pp.42 Overlook Duckworth] Jailed Turkish and Muslim leaders staged hunger strikes. Whole Muslim-inhabited regions came under martial law.

By 1989 the situation was tense. Bulgarian President Todor Zhivkov came under growing diplomatic pressure to resolve the problem. Domestically, the situation crippled economic activity and eroded the regime’s credibility even further among a growing number of dissident intellectuals. The Communists tried to end the affair definitively by expelling the Turkish minority.

The actions of the Bulgarian government

In the spring of 1989, some Turks engaged in protest actions demanding the recovery of their names. A number of leading Turks began a hunger strike. Within days there was a confrontation. The Turkish areas of the north-east were in a state of virtual revolt. Clashes with the security forces killed several people. A clash in the village of Todor Ikonomovo resulted in seven deaths after the police fired at villagers. Peaceful demonstrations in May of 1989 prompted the Bulgarian authorities to expel in a direct manner several thousand ethnic Turks during May and June of 1989. [Henckaerts, 1995: 110] According to Helsinki Watch:

The government, apparently alarmed by the growing human rights movement and the large-scale May demonstrations, expelled many of those who had organised or participated in the demonstrations. The government also expelled members of the independent human rights groups, Turks who had opposed the assimilation campaign in 1984, and other activists. Turks with advanced degrees were particular targets: teachers, physicians, economists, and engineers. One educated refugee explained: "The Bulgarian government did not want us to lead our people, so they expelled us."

Being an educated Turk was a sufficient clause for expulsion. [Henckaerts, 1995: 110]

A second wave of expulsions, which later became known as the "Big Excursion", took place from mid-June to late August, 1989. After the direct expulsion of thousands of Turkish prominent ethnic citizens the Bulgarian government in phase two "encouraged hundreds of thousands of Turks to leave under somewhat less pressured conditions". This phase was initiated after the then leader of Bulgaria, Todor Zhivkov , anounced a new policy.

On Sunday May 28th President Zhivkov called an emergency meeting of the Politburo. The following day Zhivkov went on TV and demanded that the Turkish government open its borders to "all Bulgarian Muslims" who wished to go to Turkey temporarily, or to stay there permanently. The then Turkish prime minister, Turgut Özal, responded in the affirmative stating that the border had never been closed. This unleashed the so called "Big Excursion" phenomenon.

In his speech during a session of Politburo of Central Committee of the Bulgarian Communist Party on June 7, 1989, Zhivkov announced:

"It is absolutely necessary for the People’s Republic of Bulgaria to expatriate 200,000, and if possible even 300,000 persons from that [(Turkish)] population. … If we do not get rid of 200-300 thousands people from that population, in 15 years Bulgaria would not exist. [Because that population increases] with about 15,000 persons per year. Can you imagine what will happen in 20 years?" [Shorthand record of a meeting of CC of BCP Politburo with the first secretaries of the regional BCP committees; the chairperson of the permanent membership of the Bulgarian Agrarian Party (БЗНС), the secretary of the Bulgarian Youth Organisation (DKMC), and the Minister of Internal Affairs, on 7 June 1989 (p.44) (No archive indication of this document).]
As a result, the Ministry of Internal Affairs was duly ordered to organise "quickly" the expulsion of all "extremists and fanatics" among the Turkish Muslims, and to "stimulate" the emigration of the rest, who wanted to leave. It was decided on the same session that the potential immigrants would not be allowed to take more than 500 leva with them, sell their property or damage it, failing which they were to be refused international passports and prosecuted. [BULGARIAN HELSINKI COMMITTEE, "The Human Rights of Muslims in Bulgaria in Law and Politics since 1878", 2003, pp. 82]

The clause "all Bulgarian Muslims" was not meant to include the Pomak Muslim population in "the permitted to leave" category of Muslims. There was a covert order that "the emigration of Bulgarian Mohammedans – Pomaks, was not to be allowed, [and] decisive measures were to be taken to halt any Turkish attempt to exert influence on them."

According to data of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the total number of application for emigration from Turkish-Muslim persons as of July 6, 1989, was 370,291 allocated as follows: 89,321 application from Varna region; 124,543 - from Razgrad region; 42,438 - from Burgas region; 97,194 - from Haskovo region; 539 - from Sofia city and region. International passports were already handed to 125,441 applicants as of the same date -namely, to 60,352 people residing in Varna region; to 42,710 from Razgrad region; 6,900 from Bourgass region; 11,768 from Haskovo region; and to 460 persons from Sofia city and region. Of the 125,441 Turkish-Muslim international passport holders, 111,336 had already left Bulgaria by July 7, (1989), which included: 36,314 emigrants from Varna region; 32,197 - from Razgrad region; 11,681 - from Bourgass region; 26,662 - from Haskovo region; and 99 - from Sofia city and region. [Four-page document No.I 3839 of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, dating from 7 July 1989, and signed by Internal Minister, Georgi Tanev (2nd page) (No archive indication of this document).]

Turks lost jobs if they applied for passports. Anyone leaving had to pay water and electricity bills for months in advance. Bank accounts were confiscated. State farms appropriated private livestock. Farm laborers were forced to stay to pick crops. The Bulgarian army obliged young Turks to do their national service, in unarmed, labor-oriented units, as usual.

In the period May-August 1989, 369,839 [That figure presumably includes Bulgarian-speaking Muslims (Pomaks) who managed to emigrate as well, in spite of the prohibition on their departure.] Turkish-Muslim immigrants left for Turkey. [Stoyanov, Valeri., "Турското Население в България между Полюсите на Етническата Политика (The Turkish Minority in Bulgaria between the Poles of the Ethnic Politics)", Sofia: Lik, 1998. The paragraph is based on pp.213-14.] Between 3,500 to 4,000 Bulgarian Muslims daily were crossing the Bulgarian-Turkish border, and temporarily accommodated in special tent camps on the Turkish border area if they did not have relatives to meet them. Some 320,000 people had already departed as of August 22.

After more than 300,000 Turks of Bulgaria entered Turkey, Turkey all of a sudden reversed its policy and refused to admit any Turks from Bulgaria without a Turkish visa which largely stemmed the wave of refugees/expellees. [Henckaerts, 1995: 112]

However, with the fall of the Communist regime on 10 November, and the start of democratic changes in Bulgaria, 154,937 of those who left for Turkey (or 42% of the total number, 369,839), returned to Bulgaria. The rest 214,902 Bulgarian Turks stayed abroad permanently. Thus, the Turkish minority in Bulgaria was reduced to 75% of its number, or to 632,682 people altogether. The unparalleled "Big Excursion" of Muslims reflected badly on the Bulgarian economy as half of the agricultural work force of Bulgaria was lost by the end of 1989. [The departure or return of Bulgarian Muslims and Turks to and from Turkey continued in the following several years as well, but this time due to economic reasons.]

In 1997 the newly elected Bulgarian president Peter Stoyanov delivered a speech to the Turkish National Assembly asking forforgiveness for what had been done to the Turkish minority in his country. [Petkova, Lilia, "The Ethnic Turks in Bulgaria: Social Integration and Impact on Bulgarian – Turkish Relations, 1947-2000", The Global Review of Ethnopolitics Vol. 1, no. 4, June 2002, 42-59, pp. 55]

The reaction of the international community

The "big excursion" phenomenon - a direct concomitant of the Bulgarian "revival process" - further impaired the international image of Bulgaria, which once more became a subject to sharp criticism and condemnation. On July 18, 1989 the Senate of the 101st Congress of the USA voted unanimously on the Byrd-DeConcini resolution No.279, which expressed "Congress’s condemnation of Bulgaria’s brutal treatment of its Turkish minority." By virtue of that resolution, the US Congress allocated about $10 million as assistance to the Turkish government to cope with the huge influx of refugees (Senate Record Vote, 1989). Furthermore, the then US President George H. W. Bush recalled their ambassador from Bulgaria as protest against the human rights abuses of the Muslim-Turkish population in the country. [Document entitled “Position on Politburo of CC of BCP on Some Current Problems on the Revival Process” dating from 30 September 1989 (p.7) (No archive indication of this document).] In a resolution of protest, American congressmen accused the Bulgarian authorities of sending armed forces and militia against peaceful demonstrations of Muslims, and of "killing or wounding hundreds of demonstrators during these attacks." [Document No.01-04-27 of the Ministry of Economic Relations with Foreign Countries sent to Person in Chief of the “Patriotic Upbringing” Department of CC of BCP, contending Andrei Lukanov’s letter-response to the resolution adopted by the US Congress, 28 July 1989 (p.2) (No archive indication of this document).] In the letter-response of Andrei Loukanov (the then Minister of the Economic Relations with Foreign Countries) [See the previous footnote.] , it was not denied that there had been "clashes with law-enforcement units", and was added that in one such "clash" the number of killed "from both sides" were 7, and the number of wounded - 27, which was intended to demonstrate that the "accusations of Congress" were greatly exaggerated.

Israel’s reaction to the "big excursion" affair of the Bulgarian authorities was no different from the US Congress’ position. In the message of the Israeli Parliament Chairperson, Dov Shilanski, to its Turkish counterpart, the Meclis, it was said:

"We, the Israeli, are very troubled by the situation of the Turkish minority in Bulgaria, and by the suffering it is exposed to. This is natural not only because we are a part of the international community, but also because there is no other nation in the world, which could better fathom the dimensions of the experienced pain and humiliation. We hope that this absurd suffering would be relieved to the extent necessary once the problem is brought to the attention of the international community, and negotiations between the two countries [(Bulgaria and Turkey)] start at the same time."
The position of the Israel’s Prime Minister, Shamir, was far sharper by comparing the repression against the Turkish minority in Bulgaria with "the terror at the time of Hitler."

Serious concerns about "the intimidation of the human rights of the Turkish minority in Bulgaria" were expressed by a number of international humanitarian and human rights organisation, among which the Red Cross, the Red Crescent and Amnesty International. Notes of protest against the human rights abuses of Muslims in Bulgaria were handled by France, almost all Islamic countries, including Socialist countries as Romania and the then Democratic Republic of Germany - 55 countries altogether reacted negatively as of July 12, 1989 according to an information of Turkey’s newspaper Millyet cited by the Bulgarian Telegraph Agency. [A classified bulletin of the Bulgarian Telegraph Agency, appendix C-2 from 12 July 1989 (afternoon), p.1.] On October 30, 1989, Bulgaria and Turkey sat once more on the negotiation table in Kuwait in an attempt to reach some sort of consensus on the Muslim-Turkish minority problem in Bulgaria as it was of interest to both countries. On one hand, Bulgaria’s reputation at that point had been crippled too badly already, and the authorities were looking for a way to rectify this. That is why Turkey’s invitation to negotiate was welcomed by Bulgaria at that particular moment, not because it was ready to retreat from its assimilation endeavours, but to show off good will for constructive negotiations. On the other hand, Turkey was interested to stop the mass migration of Bulgarian Muslims, which it already had difficulties in accommodating, but whom it felt morally responsible for. Negotiations for restoration of their human rights were the way out. Turkey’s Foreign Minister, Mesut Yilmaz, proposed that Bulgaria afforded religious freedoms to its nationals professing Islam; secured the right of ethnic Turks to use their mother tongue; and provided for the opportunity for recovery of the Turkish-Arab names by Muslims who wish to do so. ["Isik" (Svetlina) newspaper, Year XLVI, No.45, 11 May 1991.] The Kuwait negotiations were not constructive at all as the Bulgarian authorities adopted a general position of "protracting and fusing" the settlement of the Bulgarian Muslims’ issue. On the two fundamental questions of signing up "a comprehensive [bilateral] emigration agreement", and of recognising the existence of Turkish minority in Bulgaria - which actually necessitated the negotiation - Bulgaria’s authorities were outright: these "c [ould] not be discussed with Turkey."

By the beginning of November 1989, the political situation in totalitarian Bulgaria threatened to slip out of control. This reality prompted the November 10th Party plenum, which released Todor Zhivkov from the position of General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Bulgarian Communist Party. Several days later he ceased to be a President of the State Council as well. The then Minister of Foreign Affairs, Petar Mladenov, replaced Zhivkov as a party leader and President of the State Council. He remained on that post for about two months as at the beginning of 1990 the State Council was closed down and Petar Mladenov became Bulgaria's first President. Andrei Loukanov assumed the post of Prime Minister in January 1990. Both Petar Mladenov and Andrei Loukanov were active Bulgarian Communist Party members. [Both of them forced to resign in 1990.]

Public reaction

The Turkish government provided accommodation for the 1989 refugees who did not have relatives in Turkey by building ten camps for the purpose. The state provided some assistance in findingemployment. The official Turkish state policy of providing accommodation, food etc. and the attitude of the Turkish people, differed. Ordinary Turks of Turkey tended to give the Turkish immigrants from Bulgaria a cold reception.

During the "Big Excursion" a number of neo-fascist mass demonstartions aimed at "national unity" were staged. The departure of the Turks created labor and food shortages.

When the anti-Turkish assimilation drive was officially ended in December 1989 and the rights of ethnic Turks began to be restored, this reversal of policy provoked an explosion of nationalist sentiments among majority Bulgarians. The leaders of neo-nationalist groups even denied the existence of any ethnic minorities in Bulgaria. The agenda of extremist groups were built around ant-Turkish and anti-Muslim xenophobia, stressing a Slavic and Orthodox Christian identity. [Mudde 2005, p.3] In an atmosphere of heightened tensions and nationalist mass protests, the ethnic Turkish-dominated Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF), the largest and most influential ethnic minority party in Bulgaria, barely won legal recognition and for a time its very existence was in danger.


"Bulgaria has a history of repressive anti-minority policies. Between 1912 and 1989 several forced name- and religion-changing official campaigns were targeted at Bulgarian-speaking Muslims, Muslim Romas, and Bulgarian Turks, resulting in three mass exoduses in 1950-51, 1969-78, and 1989." [Mudde, p.2] The names of Bulgarian Turks were restored in the beginning of the 1990s and their situation gradually improved. However, according to Mudde "prejudice, intolerance, and discrimination are widespread against Roma, non-traditional believers, African and Arab refugees and migrants, Muslims, and Bulgarian Turks" and "negative stereotyping of minorities is common in official speech and the media." [Mudde, p.2] . Surveys consistently show that prejudice towards ethnic and religious minorities is prevalent at all levels of Bulgarian society. For example, in 1997 47% of Bulgarians agreed that "Bulgarian Turks can not be trusted or relied upon" and 29% agreed that "Everything possible should be done to make more Turks emigrate to Turkey." 59% Bulgarians thought there was no need to punish perpetrators of crimes committed against Turks of Bulgaria during the forced name-changing and assimilation campaign between 1984-89.

ee also

*Turks of Bulgaria
*Emigration of Refugees to the Ottoman Empire



* [ BULGARIAN HELSINKI COMMITTEE, "The Human Rights of Muslims in Bulgaria in Law and Politics since 1878", 2003]
* Crampton, R.J., "A Short History of Modern Bulgaria", 1987, Cambridge University Press.
* Crampton, R.J., "A Concise History of Bulgaria", 1997, Cambridge University Press
* Eminov, A., "Turkish and Other Muslim Minorities of Bulgaria", 1997, Routledge
* Henckaerts, J., "Mass Expulsion in Modern International Law and Practice", 1995, Martinus Nijhoff Publishers
* Hupchick, D.P., "The Balkans", 2002, Palgrave
* Mudde, C., "Racist Extremism in Central and Eastern Europe", 2005, Routledge

External links

Slavs Continue Anti-Turk Protest (NY Times Jan. 7, 1990) []

Various NY Times Bulgaria Coverage, mainly 1989 []

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