The leader of Bulgaria’s ethnic Turkish party has been ousted from his post and expelled from the party yesterday (24 December), officially for declaring support for Turkey in its row with Moscow over the downing of a Russian warplane.
Lyutvi Mestan, who headed the opposition DPS party (Movement for Rights and Freedoms) which represents ethnic Turks, voiced support for Turkey’s action last month. In a declaration to the Bulgarian parliament, Mestan said Russia’s violation of Turkish airspace amounted to a violation of sovereignty of NATO territory and that Russia had previously been given many official warnings.
Turkey said it shot down the plane in defense of its airspace. Moscow denied its plane had passed over Turkish territory.
A spokeswoman for the MRF said on Thursday that Mestan had been dismissed from his post and expelled from the party by a unanimous decision of its leadership taken at a meeting in the villa of party founder Ahmed Dogan.
“All the decisions regarding Mestan were unanimous,” the spokeswoman, Velislava Krasteva, told reporters.
Dogan, a respectable elder statesman of Bulgarian politics, said during the meeting that “this would be the fate of everyone who stands up against Bulgaria’s national interests,” she said.
The declaration in support for Turkey in the context of the downed airplane may be only the tip of the iceberg.
In a speech to the DPS leadership on 17 December, the text of which was published a week later, Dogan said that the EU had hardly the motivation to be an international player, while Turkey and Russia became more and more assertive. In this context, he criticized Mestan for taking sides and transforming DPS into a Turkish “fifth column” in Bulgaria.
“If you want to play that game, this is recipe for political disaster”, Dogan said.
The move highlighted Bulgaria’s unusual role in mainstream Europe. Though a member of the European Union and the NATO alliance, it still feels close to Moscow, for historic reasons dating back to the 1877-78 Russian-Turkish war.
In a statement on Thursday, Mestan said the declaration he had made to parliament had been adopted by the party’s parliamentary group and showed DPS support for NATO values.
“Bulgaria’s national interest has been connected with the EU and NATO for years now, and not with Russia,” Mestan, who was not invited to the extraordinary meeting, said in a statement.
Bulgarian political scientist Ognyan Minchev was quoted as saying that the attitude of Turkey vis-à-vis Bulgaria was aggressive, although it came in covert forms. Minchev criticized in particular the push of the Turkish authorities to legitimise Bulgaria as an integral part of the Ottoman space.
The DPS party represents ethnic Turks and other Muslim groups who make up about 13% of the 7.2 million population. DPS is affiliated to the European liberal ALDE party.