After a spurt of activity during the 1980s, the Vlach cultural revival has stalled. The reasons are not hard to find.
Greek nationalism was brought to a fever pitch by the breakup of Yugoslavia and attempted creation of a republic named Macedonia, and now over the question of “Northern Epirus” (southern Albania, long claimed by Greek nationalists). Since the Vlachs represent the main Greek claim to both of these regions, which host more Vlachs than Greeks, it once again became necessary to argue that the Vlachs are actually Greeks.
Macedonian nationalism has also been on the rise. The Macedonian Slavs feel it very important to assimilate the Vlachs for two main reasons: to blunt Greek claims to have a minority in Macedonia, and to ensure that the Macedonian Slavs constitute a majority in that country (if the Vlachs here listed themselves as “Albanian,” for example, the number of Albanians might approach the number of Slavs, which would mean trouble).
Albanian nationalism is marching forward, too, in response to the Serb threat in Kosovo and the revival of Greek claims on southern Albania. By counting the Vlachs as Greeks, Greece ends up with a sizable minority in Albania, so the strategy of Albanian nationalists is first to pretend that the Vlachs do not exist (i.e., that they are regular ethnic Albanians). But our Orthodoxy tends to make us resist assimilation in Muslim-majority Albania and opens the door to our claiming we are Greek. The Albanians would much rather we identify ourselves as anything but Greek, and so they have at times treated us as a Vlach minority, at other times as a “Romanian” population on Albanian soil.
Indeed, the Albanian Vlachs can determine the direction the “Greek question” will take; if they declare themselves Greek, the Albanians have a real headache, but if they say they are Vlach or Romanian, Greek claims will be undermined. And so the Romanians and Greeks have been competing heavily for our loyalties in Albania. Romania, for example, made several dozen scholarships available to young Albanian Vlachs and invited a delegation of Albanian Vlachs to Romania, where they met with officials and with Romanian Vlachs. In fact, Ianku Balamaci recently lost his position as President of the Aromanian Society of Albania at least in part because of objections to his taking his family on this junket, and because he allegedly distributed the Romanian scholarships himself, without the advice of any committee. He was also thought to be aligning himself too closely with the Romanians.
There have been many signs lately that the Vlachs of Albania are aligning themselves with the Greeks. The attractions are nearly irresistable — almost the only way out of Albania’s economic misery is to obtain a visa to work in Greece, and our people can do so simply by declaring themselves “Greek.” And every time Albania strengthens its ties with the Islamic world — an astute political move, considering Europe’s abandonment of the Bosnian Muslims — the Vlachs, Greeks, and Orthodox Albanians are brought closer together by their fear of Islam.
These are the external reasons for our faltering revival. But there are plenty of internal reasons as well, starting with the trait most often cited by observers of the Vlachs — our uncanny, chameleon-like ability to assimilate. Until recently, we have tended to adopt any identity except our own.
That trend was broken during the 1980’s by a group calling itself the Union for Aromanian Language and Culture (ULCA), based in Freiburg, Germany. Although its leader, Prof. Vasile Barba, was educated in Romania, sometime during the last decade he realized that our only chance of survival was to assume our own (as opposed to a Romanian) identity. This was a real breakthrough for our people, one that held great promise for resolving the old Greek- Romanian division among us.
But Prof. Barba’s group has sadly been unable to move much further than this first concession. Not only have they failed to reach out to the Vlachs of Greece, they have consistently alienated them. The latest faux pas came in a recent issue of their organ, Zborlu a Nostru, which harshly described the Greek-dominated Ecumenical Patriarchate of the Orthodox Church as a “wolf.” Now it’s obvious that such intemperate language will help nothing. But beyond that, it’s not even true; I happen to know Patriarch Bartholomew as well as some of his staff, and “wolf” is the last word I’d use to describe him — rather, he represents the best hope for Orthodox unity and progress in many years.
Barba & Co. have also been under harsh attack by Romanian nationalists almost from the start. His latest nemesis is a fellow named Hristu Candroveanu, “Director” of Deshteptarea (Awakening), a Romanian periodical aimed at our people. So strongly does Mr. Candroveanu believe we are Romanian that he campaigned in Deshteptarea for the Vlachs in Romania not to declare themselves “Aromanian” in the recent Romanian census. Candroveanu has also taken on the Vlachs of the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, who happen to believe, like Mr. Barba, that we are Aromanian and not Romanian. So greatly has he alienated the Macedonian Vlachs that they recently wrote a formal letter of protest to the Romanian Minister of Culture.
On the Greek side, there is a fellow named Achillea Lazarou who is as fervent in his belief that we are Greeks as Candroveanu is that we are Romanians. Things have reached such a fever pitch that not long ago Mr. Lazarou felt compelled, like Richard Nixon, to issue a sort of “enemies list” of heretical writings, i.e., publications that do not follow the party line that the Vlachs are Greeks. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry when I discovered that this Newsletter made the Lazarou list. We are hated by pro-Romanians and pro-Greeks alike.
Nationalism is killing us. We have to make some decisions about our identity; either we Vlachs are a unique ethnic group, and our language and culture are worth saving, or we are members of some other ethnic group (Romanian, Greek, or what have you), in which case the thing to save is Romanian or Greek language and culture. We have been unable to resolve this dilemma for some 200 years now; unless we do so soon, the question will be moot.