KARDZHALI, BULGARIA, JULY 22 -- Bulgarian nationalist strikers took it upon themselves last week to shut down this city of 60,000 people.

In their anger and apprehension about what the country's ethnic Turks are up to, members of the Fatherland Labor Party and other groups forced factories to close, blocked highways and prevented townsfolk from doing their shopping. They also paralyzed four other nearby cities.

Behind these strikes is a growing realization among anti-Turkish nationalists that the end of totalitarianism in Bulgaria and the coming of democracy are not such wonderful things, particularly if you happen to be a Bulgarian living in a region where ethnic Turks are the majority.

That realization has echoed across much of southeastern Europe -- in Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union -- as the spread of democracy empowers Islamic ethnic groups and rattles the nerves of the long-dominant Slavs.

Until longtime Communist leader Todor Zhivkov was toppled last year, the government here had systematically persecuted the 1.5 million ethnic Turks who make up about 16 percent of Bulgaria's population. Mosques were closed, ethnic Turks were compelled to change their Islamic names, and many thousands were brutalized by police.

The new government here has reversed those discriminatory policies, and the coming of free elections is giving ethnic Turks their first chance to vote as a bloc and elect representatives who will protect their interests.

Here in Kardzhali, about 80 percent of the region's 300,000 people are ethnic Turks. Most of them are farmers, and almost all voted for the Turkish party, the Movement for Rights and Freedoms.

In last month's parliamentary election -- the first free vote in Bulgaria in nearly a half century -- the Turkish party ran 10 candidates from the Kardzhali region. All 10 won, and 23 members of the party now sit in the 400-member parliament.

Next on the democratic agenda is local voting. Town elections are expected in the next few months, and it is dawning on Bulgarian nationalists living around here that they are probably going to be defeated by the ethnic Turks at the ballot box.

In statements to the press, the nationalists complain about how the ethnic Turks have violated the Bulgarian Constitution by organizing a political party around an ethnic group. They also voice dark -- and rather vague -- warnings about how the Moslem Turks are secessionist and how they constitute a threat to Christian Bulgaria.

"Bulgarians here are very sensitive. We need legal guarantees. We have nothing against the Turks, but we want guarantees for us as the minority," said Christo Georgiev, editor and publisher of a nationalist weekly newspaper called Bulgaria.

The nationalists ended their strike Saturday after the National Assembly in Sofia passed a blandly worded resolution that promised to look into the influence of ethnic groups in the country.

Nationalist leaders are reluctant to spell out exactly what legal guarantees should be given to ethnic Bulgarians, but Georgiev concedes that the nationalists may demand job quotas in areas where Bulgarians are outnumbered by ethnic Turks.

Before the fall of Zhivkov and of his highly centralized Communist system, the Bulgarian minority in this region held nearly all the top jobs in government and industry.

Local mayors and town officials, most of whom are Bulgarian, were chosen in the Communists' rigged elections, and the party made sure that management positions in state-owned industry were held by Bulgarians, not ethnic Turks.

"In Kardzhali, they -- 'the nationalists' -- want to protect the privileges they had before. There is no manager of any enterprise in this town that is of Turkish origin," said Mumum Emin, chairman for Kardzhali of the Movement for Rights and Freedoms.

Emin and other leaders of the Turkish party have tried to head off confrontations between ethnic Turks and striking Bulgarian nationalists, and, so far, their strategy has succeeded. In last week's strike, and in anti-Turkish strikes earlier this year, there have been no significant outbreaks of violence.

In regions where they are a majority, the ethnic Turks are ready to endure the strikes. "We are waiting for elections," said Emin.