Islam at the EU Border: Muslim Minorities in Greece and Bulgaria | Wilson Center

Islam at the EU Border: Muslim Minorities in Greece and Bulgaria

Over the last 20 years, Bulgaria and Greece have pursued variable and divergent policies toward their Muslim minorities. During a brief period near the end of the Communist regime, Bulgaria forced Turks to assimilate. This policy was abandoned by the democratic government that took power in the 1990s. At the same time, Greece recognized its Muslim minority and facilitated the "Turkification" of its Muslim citizens throughout the 1980s, but then abandoned that policy by blocking minority rights in the 1990s. Harris Mylonas suggested that these policy shifts are commonly explained by assumptions or models that link minority treatment, regime type, ideology and leadership personalities. Rejecting these hypotheses, Mylonas argued that the structure of the international system was the most salient indicator influencing the treatment of Muslim minorities in both countries.

The Muslim minorities in Greece and Bulgaria are both religiously homogenous and linguistically varied groups that include Turks, Roma, and Pomaks. Despite these similarities, polices of Greece and Bulgaria toward their minorities have differed greatly over time. This provided a solid basis for testing hypotheses on these two cases.

During the Cold War, Greece's educational policy did not identify Muslims as a minority group, but the Turkish minority was officially recognized by the state, as a result of the Treaty of Lausanne signed with Turkey in 1923. This recognition eventually carried over to other groups when Greece pursued educational reform in the 1990s. The reforms sought to achieve the socioeconomic integration of minorities, and resulted in the liberalization of the country's minority policies as well as the "de-facto" recognition of the Turks, Roma, and Pomaks.

By contrast, the Muslim minorities in Bulgaria experienced intense assimilationist campaigns near the end of the Cold War. In order to achieve grater cultural integration of the Bulgarian state, the Communist government curtailed the right of Muslim minorities to use their given names and speak their native languages in public. Communist leaders also manipulated and suppressed census data in order to erase national and religious differences from the country. After communism collapsed, however, the Bulgarian government liberalized its minority policies. Bulgaria signed the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities and has recognized its Muslims as a minority group. Muslim minorities also gained substantial representation in the Bulgarian Parliament through the Turkish party, which in recent years has garnered support of about 10 percent of the electorate.

In order to examine what accounts for differentiation in minority treatment from the Cold War to the present, Mylonas tested several existing explanations. The most prominent theory links variation in policies to a massive overhaul in the political system of a state. Although Bulgaria transitioned from a dictatorship to democracy, Greece did not experience a similar shift. Therefore, the differences in policies toward Muslim minorities cannot be attributed entirely to regime change. Political and ideological outlook of leaders, Mylonas continued, is another metric used to explain the differences in countries' policies toward minorities. In the cases of Greece and Bulgaria, however, leaders of different political persuasions pursued similar policies toward minorities. Moreover, Mylonas argued, since leaders' personalities did not change substantially over time, attributing policy shifts to alterations in individual personalities fails to explain the differentiation in minority policies.

Mylonas concluded that the structure of the international system influences inter-state relations which ultimately affect the treatment of minorities. This theory, when applied to Bulgaria and Greece, explains the divergence between the two countries' policies over time. Since Bulgaria was a member of the communist bloc during the Cold War, Greece, as a NATO member, viewed minorities as part of a unified populace for fear of aggravating tensions with Bulgaria over recognizing the ethnically Bulgarian Pomacks. The relationship between Greece and Bulgaria during the Cold War was defined through the bipolar international system and this ultimately affected the treatment of minorities in the two countries. The liberalization of minority policy, Mylonas noted, coincided with the improvement of relations between Greece, Bulgaria, and Turkey.

Mylonas projected that a policy of accommodation towards Muslims in the Balkans is likely to be adopted if the states pursue integration into international institutions, such as the European Union. Such a move, according to Mylonas, will improve interstate alliances in the region and thus, as a consequence, vastly improve treatment toward the Muslim minority.

By Herma Gjinko and Elizabeth Zolotukhina
Christian Osterman, Director, European Studies


  • Harris Mylonas

    Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at George Washington University
  • Nida Gelazis

    Former Senior Associate