The Pomaks

Caught in a Three-way Tug-of-War

The Pomaks are Bulgarians who converted to Islam during the Ottoman occupation of the country. In the course of the 20th century, they have been used as pawns in the conflicts between Bulgaria, Greece, and Turkey. According to political scientist Emil Mintchev, the solution to their problem lies in the EU

A group of Pomak women in Bulgaria, dressed in traditional garb (photo: AP)
Searching for an identity in a trilateral conflict: Bulgaria's accession to the EU has opened up new opportunities for the Pomaks, a Muslim ethnic group

​​The Pomaks, an ethnic group that resides in the mountains and valleys along the border between Bulgaria and Greece and has been almost forgotten by the rest of the world for decades, are striving to use the new era of democracy and open borders to bolster their religious and cultural identity.

For many, many years, the Pomaks were caught up in the conflicting interests of three countries: Bulgaria, Greece, and Turkey. Now, however, new cross-border opportunities are opening up: the ever closer union between the countries of Europe allows the Pomaks to search for their roots, address their oftentimes tragic history, and seek new prospects for joint cultural development in a United Europe.

Because they are Muslims and speak a Bulgarian dialect, the Pomaks (of which there are 200,000 to 250,000 in Bulgaria, 36,000 to 40,000 in Greece, and approximately 30,000 in Turkey) have been entangled in the trilateral political conflicts that have repeatedly flared up between these three countries since the 19th century.

Pawns in a game of power politics

Firstly, the flames of the conflicts between Bulgaria and Greece in the Balkan war and both world wars were fanned by the dispute over territorial claims to Thrace. Secondly, the Pomaks were used by both Bulgaria and Greece as a kind of security in the face of Turkey's repeated attempts to influence the position of Turkish minorities in both countries.

On two occasions, namely on the eve of World War I and between 1975 and 1989, attempts were made to 'Bulgarianise' the Pomaks in Bulgaria, primarily by means of their names, with a view to eliminating their special religious and cultural status.

In this way, the identity of the Pomak minority has always been directly influenced by the relations between these three states: on the one hand by hegemonic foreign policies and irredentism (which believes that all members of an ethnic group should live together in the same state) and on the other by the marginalisation of the Pomaks by the rest of the population.

Greek-Bulgarian alliance against Turkey?

Together with the Turks in Thrace, the Pomaks are the only officially recognised minority in Greece. In the early years of the Cold War, when Greece considered Bulgaria to be its biggest enemy, the Pomaks were known as 'Turks'.

Later, when the tension between Turkey and Greece overshadowed the enmity between Sofia and Athens, the Greeks tried to differentiate between the Pomaks and the Turks. In was around this time that "Pomak schools" were set up. Children attending these schools were taught a 'Pomak' syllabus.

Because Athens for many years defined its Muslims in the Rhodopes and in Thrace as 'Turks', Ankara felt it necessary to stylise itself as a spokesperson for and defender of the Pomak minority. And so the Pomaks became a pawn in Greece's domestic and foreign policies.

The attempts of the political party representing the Turkish minority in Bulgaria (BRF) to establish itself as the political representative of all Muslims, including the Pomaks, is causing alarm in Sofia because it is feared that this would allow Ankara to step up its influence on the Pomaks.

In this regard, mutual distrust could create new areas of tension between Sofia and Athens, especially because for some time now, Greece has been attempting to restrict Turkey's influence on the Pomaks in Thrace and the Rhodopes.

Does Europe hold the key?

The trend towards a more European outlook in the relations of these countries, the fact that both Bulgaria and Greece are now members of the EU, and Turkey's gradual rapprochement with the EU are the best guarantee for a sensible solution to the conflicts which, when examined closely, are really quite spurious.

After all, in addition to the aforementioned political developments, there has been an increase in economic co-operation between Bulgaria and its two neighbours. Greece is Bulgaria's fourth most important trading partner and its third largest investor. A series of joint projects, such as the Burgas-Alexandropolis oil pipeline, will further intensify these economic ties.

Economic relations between Bulgaria and Turkey are also progressing well. Joint projects such as the Gorna Arda hydroelectric power plant in the Rhodopes or the Nabuko gas pipeline from Central Asia to the EU via Turkey and Bulgaria are sure to play a very important role.

Greece and Turkey have been trading partners for a very long time and both are keen to make the most of synergies in joint ventures in the energy sector in particular. The three countries intend to work more closely with each other in the future in order to combat the risk of flooding along their shared border. The regions in question are home to the Pomaks.

In addition to the opening of national borders, economic prospects and new political liberties will create the framework that is needed to fashion a new European future for this little known ethnic group.

Emil Mintchev

© 2007

Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan

Islam in Bulgaria
New Freedoms and New Conflicts
Around one million Muslims live in Bulgaria. Like all religious groups, they enjoyed more freedoms after the political changes of 1989. But the coexistence with Bulgaria's non-Muslim population is not free of political and social tensions. Mirko Schwanitz reports

Islam and the Imagery of Fear in Bulgaria
The Barbarians of Batak
A research project at the Free University Berlin on historical and present-day anti-Islamic stereotypes in Bulgaria has led to massive protests from Bulgarian nationalists. At the center of the conflict is a patriotic painting from the late 19th century. Sonja Zekri reports

The Countries of Central and Southeastern Europe
Tarnished Relationship to Ankara
Similar to western Europe, the new EU members in central and southeastern Europe initially gave positive signals regarding Turkey's EU membership bid, but these views have shifted toward skepticism or even rejection. A summary by Emil Mintchev

Related Topics