When Bulgaria joined the European Union this past January, I believed that my country had finally left its repressive past behind. But the recent arrest and threatened deportation of Annadurdy Hadjiev, a dissident from Turkmenistan who sought refuge here, suggests that some things never change.
If Bulgaria sends this man back to Turkmenistan – where he faces certain torture and the threat of a brutal death – our claim to be part of a democratic, rights-respecting Europe will ring hollow. Moreover, the EU’s image as a defender of human rights around the world will be tarnished by its inability to hold member states to its own standards.
The case evokes memories of the days when the KGB’s influence was pervasive, and dissidents across Eastern Europe and Soviet lands like Turkmenistan lived in fear. Hadjiev and his family fled to Europe in 2001, escaping one of the world’s most repressive regimes: the absolutist dictatorship of the late Saparmurat Niyazov, who fancied himself “Turkmenbashi,” the father of all Turkmen.
A former deputy chairman of the Central Bank of Turkmenistan and later an outspoken critic of Turkmenbashi’s government, Hadjiev, a senior member of the exiled Watan (Republican) Party, received “humanitarian parole” – a protected category of individuals that falls short of refugee status – when he reached Bulgaria. But he has since been subjected to violent and arbitrary reprisals in this supposed “safe haven.” And, although Turkmenbashi died in December, his successor, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, has continued to imprison dissidents, stifle freedom of expression, and scoff at democracy, as February’s rigged elections demonstrate.