Tensions rise as Bulgarian nationalists block Turkish border to bar ‘electoral tourism’

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A woman pulls her suitcase as she crosses the Bulgaria-Turkey border on foot during a rally of Bulgarian nationalists aimed at preventing ethnic Turks with Bulgarian passports from crossing to vote in the country's general elections on March 24, 2017 at the Kapitan Andreevo checkpoint on the Bulgarian-Turkish border. Turkish President hit back on March 23, 2017 at what he called "pressure" on the 700,000 Turks in Bulgaria, as tensions mounted between Ankara and Sofia ahead of elections in the EU state. Bulgaria has voiced anger at Turkey's open support for a party for the ethnic Turkish minority, which is running in the general elections for the first time on March 26. / AFP PHOTO / Dimitar DILKOFF

Bulgarian nationalists blocked border checkpoints with Turkey on Friday to stop buses carrying ethnic Turks who are Bulgarian citizens to vote in Sunday’s election amid growing tension between the two neighbors.

According to Reuters, about a hundred supporters of the nationalist coalition United Patriots blocked the main checkpoint at Kapitan Andreevo-Kapıkule and vowed to stay until the end of the vote. Bulgarian nationalists also chanted slogans “Hands off Bulgaria” and “No to electoral tourism.”

On Thursday, Bulgarian President Rumen Radev slammed remarks made by his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who criticized the Bulgarian government for “putting pressure” on expatriate Turks, saying his country would not accept democracy lessons from Turkey.

Radev said, “Bulgaria does not give, but also does not accept lessons in democracy, especially from countries that do not respect the rule of law,” during a press conference on Thursday,

Underlining that he wants the elections in Bulgaria to proceed smoothly, he also said Bulgaria is a European country “that follows its laws, not others’ emotions.”

Earlier on Thursday, Erdoğan criticized Bulgaria for “putting pressure” on expatriate Turks, Bulgaria’s largest ethic minority, ahead of a vote on March 26.

Last week, Bulgarian Ambassador to Turkey Nadejda Neynski was reportedly recalled to Sofia for consultations over Turkey’s interference in Bulgaria’s upcoming election.

According to local media, Bulgaria decided to recall its ambassador to Turkey after the Turkish ambassador in Sofia, Süleyman Gökçe, was summoned by the Bulgarian Foreign Ministry on March 6 over reports that Turkish officials called on Bulgarian-Turks in Bulgaria to vote for Lyutvi Mestan’s DOST party.

Bulgarian media also reported that Ambassador Gökçe appeared in a campaign video for DOST.

A statement from the Bulgarian Foreign Ministry on Friday did not include any reason for recalling Neynski to Sofia; however, Bulgarian government officials expressed concern over Turkey’s “meddling in Bulgaria’s elections” by encouraging Bulgarian-Turks in Turkey – about 60,000 people – to vote for DOST in the March 26 elections and defined this as a “direct intervention in Bulgaria’s domestic politics.”

Bulgaria’s ethnic Turks are estimated to number more than half a million in a population of 7.2 million. More than 400,000 Bulgarian nationals live in Turkey, most of them Bulgarian Turks descended from Ottoman-era Turkish settlers in the Balkans.

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