THE WESTERN TERRITORIES

In 1919,  the diplomats of the victorious Allied powers forced Bulgaria, a defeated country in World War I, to sign in the Paris suburb of Neuilly a  treaty of peace including some extremely burdensome terms. Among other things, the country lost large portions of its territory (today in Greece, Macedonia, and Serbia), as well as its outlet to the Aegean. The lands ceded to Serbia under this treaty comprise 1545 square kilometres - several villages in the north and two larger areas in Central Western Bulgaria known as the Western Parts.

These two regions lie some 50-70 km to the west of Sofia and include several dozens of villages with the small towns of Tsaribrod (Dimitrovgrad of today) and Bosilegrad as centres of the respective localities. At the time when they were transferred to Serbia, these territories were inhabited by about 50 thousand ethnic Bulgarians (95 per cent of the population), as well as by small numbers of Wallachians, Gypsies, Turks and some other ethnic groups. Of Serb origin were some 1300 people, most of whom lived in a single village.
Immediately after the Treaty of Neuilly had been signed, about 10 thousand of the population of the Western Parts migrated to Bulgaria most often joining their relatives in the neighbouring towns and villages across the border, or moving to the capital city of Sofia. Some of the refugees settled in several villages of the north-east of  Bulgaria, where their descendants are distinguished today from the native people by their dialect and customs.

  • Territories ceded by Bulgaria to neighbouring countries after W.W.I /purple/
  • Territory ceded to Bulgaria by Turkey in 1915 and taken from Bulgaria after W.W.I /green/
  • Boundaries of modern Bulgaria /brown line/
  • Nowadays, ethnic Bulgarians in the former Western Parts have decreased in number to only 28 thousand, that is almost by half, while the number of Serbs in Yugoslavia has tripled.  Autochthonous Bulgarian population is also found in the surroundings of the towns of Surdulica, Vranja, Pirot, and Nis.

    The Western Parts are characterized by remarkably beautiful highlands alternating with fertile valleys. The state border of 1919 was drawn regardless of historical, ethnic, geographical, or economic ties, dismembering the regions around Tsaribrod and Bosilegrad from the "living body" of Central Western Bulgaria. Throughout the 45 years of Communist rule, the authorities in Sofia showed almost no concern about the Bulgarian population in these parts, watching indifferently Belgrade's  policy of assimilation, the destruction of Bulgarian historical and cultural monuments, and the like facts. Because of the lack of  support from the mother land and the low level of organization of the Bulgarians in the Western territories, this ethnic group has been perhaps the most disadvantaged minority in Serbia. On its part, the Serbian administration followed a rather resilient "carrot-and-stick" approach. It officially recognized the Bulgarian minority, the Bulgarian language was taught in the schools, there were radio emissions and periodicals in Bulgarian. Unlike their compatriots in Bulgaria, the people from the Western Parts could freely travel around the world. Besides, in the context of the partly market Yugoslavian economy, they had a higher living standard than the population in the adjacent Bulgarian territories. Those of them who graduated in engineering and medicine were encouraged to move to Belgrade, Nis and the other large cities, where they were "dissolved" in the Serbian sea. In such a  "natural way",  the most bright, initiative, and educated inhabitants were drained away from the Western Parts.

    The year 1989, crucial for all Eastern Europe, gave rise to great hopes in the ethnic Bulgarians in Serbia, but few of these were realized because of the developments witnessed thereafter. The newly established Democratic Union of Ethnic Bulgarians in Yugoslavia (DUBY), which is part of the Serbian opposition movement, is steadily declining with every year, not in the last place because of the fact that to be its member has been far from safe. The Western Parts continue to be overshadowed by fear, which has both ethnic and political roots.

    Apart from this, DUBY is absolutely loyal to Belgrade. All that its adherents demand is: practical implementation of the minority rights provided by Yugoslavia's constitution; free economic, cultural, and information exchange with Bulgaria; increase in the amount of Bulgarian language classes in the schools over the existing 2 hours a week; preservation of the historical and cultural heritage; Bulgarian church services (Serbs in Hungary or Romania have been under the jurisdiction of the Patriarchate of Serbia). Instead, Belgrade has tried to create, on the basis of the local dialect, something like a "standard language", calling it Shopp language at that (after the name of the Bulgarian population in the Sofia area, who belong to a kin, but still different ethnographic and dialect group). What is more, the Yugoslavian authorities even claim the existence of some unidentified "Serb minority" in Bulgaria.

    Paradoxically, the people inhabiting the Western Parts and demanding respect for their minority rights  have been accused of Pan-Bulgarianism, extremism, fascism, etc. not only by Belgrade, but also by the local administrators, members of the party of Milosevic,  most of whom are of Bulgarian origin as well.

    Because of the frequent government changes taking place in Bulgaria since 1989, Sofia, too, has behaved in a quite inadequate way. It came to "denying" by officials of the ruling Socialist party in Bulgaria of the evidence published by the Helsinki Committee in the Western Parts or the international commission headed by former Polish prime minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki, of violations of human rights. A more definite policy was adopted only in 1997, when the former Communist government stepped down. Since then Sofia has stood by the demands of the Bulgarian population of the Western Parts (an example of this policy is the opening of the cultural centres in Tsaribrod and Bosilegrad) declaring at the same time its position against any redrawing of borders in the Balkans.

    At the individual, everyday level, co-existence of Bulgarians and Serbs in the Western Parts is one of full harmony. Their languages and customs are related, although, naturally, there are a lot of differences too. Thus, for example, Bulgarians are more reticent and thrifty, Serbs are commonly more sociable and extravagant. As a matter of fact, the sympathies, friendships, relations by marriage between people in these quarters have depended on personal qualities and preferences rather than on ethnic origin. Both ethnic groups have shared in equal measure the daily human joys and the burden of the last years: economic crisis, poverty, unemployment, embargoes, wars, youths' mobilization in the army.

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