The Balkan Vlachs: Born to Assimilate?

(Editor’s note: This article is reprinted from the Summer 1995 issue of Cultural Survival Quarterly.)

The Vlachs are a Romance-speaking Balkan population once characterized by a transhumant lifestyle. Among their many other characteristics one must count an uncanny way of making those who study them question their most fundamental notions about ethnic groups and cultural survival.

It all begins with their genesis: The Romans conquered Macedonia in the second century B.C., intermarrying with the indigenous Balkan peoples. The Vlachs are descendants of this union. Although their language is similar to Romanian, the Vlachs are located at quite a distance from Romania, in Greece, Albania, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.

The main distinguishing features of the Vlachs have long been their Romance language and their transhumance, which involved migration between summer (highland) and winter (lowland) pastures. Although today relatively few Vlachs are true transhumants, those who retain a Vlach identity still tend to make summertime pilgrimages to their mountain villages. Because there are few books in Vlach and no standardized alphabet, Vlach culture has been fast losing ground to modern advances in communications, from books and schools to satellites and MTV. Parallel to these changes has been the hectic pace of Balkan state-building (read: fast-track efforts to assimilate minorities). Once wholly contained within the (Turkish) Ottoman Empire, early in this century the Vlachs were divided among the modern Balkan states. At the time, their population was estimated at 500,000; recent estimates cite less than half that number. Vlach population figures are notoriously hard to substantiate; the most recent scholar to study the Vlachs, Prof. Tom Winnifrith of Warwick University in England, estimated in 1987 that there were 30,000 Vlachs in Greece and 20,000 in Albania, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, and Romania (he has since stated that the latter figure may be five to ten times higher). Communities of Vlachs also exist in Western Europe, North America, and Australia, which together host several thousand Vlachs.

The situation seems pretty straightforward: Another ethnic and linguistic group is disappearing under the indifferent juggernaut of modernity; what’s happening to the Vlachs is bad, because assimilation is bad, right?

Well, perhaps . . . except that the Vlachs are themselves the product of a successful assimilation.

One of the forerunners of modern Western civlization was the civilization of ancient Rome. Two thousand years ago, the Balkan Peninsula south of the Danube may have been as diverse as it is today; there were Thracians, Illyrians, Epirotes, Macedonians, Greeks, Scythians, Moesians, and many others. Though the memory of Rome has long been lost, Those who were Romanized created a new Balkan group that in most cases calls itself Rumani or Arumani (in English, Aromanians or Aromanians), though outsiders have dreamed up a host of other names: Vlachs, Koutsovlachs, Tsintsars, Karagouni, Chobani, Vlasi, and Macedo-Romanians, to name just a few.

By all indications, once the Roman conquest was completed, the process of adopting the Romans’ language and religion was fairly passive. Rather than force these on locals, the Romans built roads, bridges, and other means of communication; they created and enhanced industries and markets; and, perhaps most importantly, over the centuries they opened up a vast new realm of opportunities in the army and administration. The process of Romanization gave indigenous groups entrée into a more developed collective entity and civilization. Two thousand years later, another conquest is taking place in the Balkan Peninsula, not at the tip of a sword, but at the touch of a TV remote control. It is therefore difficult to argue today that assimilation is an evil that the Vlachs must avoid, when it was assimilation that gave birth to the Vlachs in the first place.

The Vlachs make us question other cherished notions, such as that of “indigenous groups.” One can argue that the Vlachs represent indigenous Balkan peoples (Thracians, Greeks, Illyrians, and others) who continued to survive in their ancestral lands — albeit speaking a new language — after the Romans came. However, as far as we know, those groups were themselves Indo-European invaders who only happened to settle in the Balkans many thousands of years ago. In our search for the legitimacy conferred by the title “indigenous,” where do we draw the line?

Even a cursory acquaintance with the Vlachs will make anyone wonder what constitutes an ethnic group. Is it a common language, religion, culture, or some other such “barrier” to outsiders? The Vlachs are famous for the ease with which they assimilate, but when they’re not actually assimilating, they are known for holding their Vlach identity in reserve, to be displayed when favorable circumstances exist. It was in an article about the Vlachs that anthropologist Muriel Dimen Schein decided to pose an old question in a very new way: “When is an Ethnic Group?” (italics added).

The Vlachs thus present a fascinating case study of a traditional society adapting to modern life. They provide a valuable contrast with many of the groups whose plight is usually presented on these pages. But as much as they may differ on the particulars, the general outline of their history is much the same: the modern world has not been friendly to their survival as an ethnic group.

A “People without History?”

Although the origin of the Vlachs is pretty straightforward, their trail is difficult to follow through the historical record. The Romanization of the Balkan Peninsula began during the late stages of the Roman Republic, and continued under the early Empire. Latin remained the language of officials in the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire until the sixth century A.D., when Greek came to dominate. But in the more remote areas of the Balkan Peninsula, a new Romance language took root. Today, two Balkan groups trace their ancestry to these Romance-speakers: the Romanians, to the north of the Danube River, and the Vlachs, to the south.

While there is a gap of several hundred years in the history of the Romanians, the Vlachs seem to have existed in the southern Balkans (though not necessarily in the same precise locations) since the Roman conquest. Here we enter the turbulent waters of Balkan history, which has regularly been subordinated to present national imperatives. In this case, the Romanians and Hungarians both covet Transylvania and have sought to legitimize their claims to it by asserting historical priority in that region. Thus, the Hungarians theorize that the Romanians are really Vlachs from the southern Balkans who migrated north of the Danube during the Middle Ages, i.e., after the Hungarians got there. The Romanians respond by asserting that they are the descendants of the indigenous Dacians north of the Danube who, though conquered and partially assimilated by the Romans, have continued to exist in all current Romanian lands since antiquity; the Romanians see the Vlachs of the southern Balkans alternately as indigenous Thracians south of the Danube who were Romanized (the Dacians were a Thracian tribe) and as Romanians from north of the Danube who migrated south.

Ethnic Conflict, State-Building, and Assimilation

Like other ethnic groups, the Vlachs’ consciousness and primary loyalty have long been linked to their immediate environment — clan, village, mountain, valley, — and not to any national concept; such ideas were born in Western Europe in the early nineteenth century and only since then have Vlachs and others come to see themselves as part of a “nation.” Whereas the Romanians eventually went on to create their own nation-state in the nineteenth century, the Vlachs, due to their proximity to Greek populations, have come more and more under the influence of Greek culture. In fact, all Balkan groups during the Ottoman occupation were marked by the fluidity with which they adopted aspects of each other’s culture, especially Greek culture, which not only predominated through the Orthodox Church, but was also the language of trade and commerce — so much so that to prosper as a merchant was to become “Greek”. Once nationalism became a force in European political life in the nineteenth century, however, this relatively peaceful Balkan coexistence ended and, as Ottoman strength in Europe faded, the various Balkan national groups began to fight over the remaining Turkish lands in the peninsula.

A nationalist movement began among wealthy Vlach merchants in Vienna and Budapest at the start of the nineteenth century, but the rising Romanian state soon co-opted it, claiming the Vlachs as long-lost kin and investing large sums in Romanian schools and churches for them. While genuinely fraternal feelings certainly existed under the romantic form of early nationalism, the Romanians also hoped to use the Vlachs as a bargaining chip in their territorial claims against neighboring Balkan countries. This Romanian nationalist movement gave rise to the new ethnic designation Macedoromâni, “Macedo-Romanians,” which meant to signify that the Vlachs were simply Romanians who happened to come from Macedonia. But the Greek state opposed the Romanian movement, and the Vlachs soon came to be divided into pro-Greek and pro-Romanian factions. The bitterness between the two was not great, however, until Greece, in conducting a guerilla war at the turn of this century against various armed groups of Slavic nationalists for possession of Macedonia, made the unfortunate decision also to use force against the unarmed pro-Romanian Vlach nationalists.

Conflict erupted on the academic front as well. Greek nationalist scholars, seeking to prove Greek historical priority and continuity in Macedonia from antiquity (i.e., before the arrival of the Slavs), adopted the theory that the Vlachs were really “Vlachophone Hellenes,” that is, Greeks by “race” who had learned a Romance language. Though this thesis has never been supported outside of Greece, it has enjoyed a remarkable staying power among both Greeks and Hellenized Vlachs. Its effect on Vlach identity has been tremendous — if one is “biologically” Greek, and one’s Latin idiom merely an anomaly, then indeed why not abandon that idiom and return to one’s true “race”?

Modern nationalism divided the Vlachs in other ways. Once contained entirely within the Ottoman Empire, the various Vlach territories were dismembered along with that Empire through most of the 19th century in order to form or enlarge the modern Balkan nation-states. The Vlachs were by no means passive in this process: When the cession of Thessaly from the Ottoman Empire to Greece was proposed in 1881, a large number of Vlachs joined to petition the Sultan in protest. The document cited their fears of assimilation by the expansive Greek state, as well as the fact that the new border cut right across the main north-south migration route for transhumant Vlach shepheds. But their protests went unheeded. By 1918, the Vlachs were effectively divided among Greece, Bulgaria, Albania, and what was to become Yugoslavia. Mass migrations created diaspora communities in America between 1900 and 1920 and, and in Romania between 1920 and 1940. Vigorous assimilation was the rule everywhere, and after the Second World War, it seemed that the Vlachs’ disappearance as an ethnic group was imminent.

Revival and Renewed Conflict

During the international “ethnic revival” of the 1980s, it looked as if the Vlachs’ situation might change. Emigre communities in America and Western Europe took new interest in their culture and language and encouraged their compatriots in the Balkans to do the same. At the same time, the Pan-Hellenic Union of Vlach Cultural Societies was founded in Greece as an umbrella organization for the country’s far-flung Vlach villages. In Yugoslavia, concessions were made to Vlachs seeking to preserve their culture — books were published, records pressed, organizations founded, and TV and radio broadcasts made. An alternative to the destructive Romanian-Greek dichotomy also emerged as a number of Vlachs in France, Germany, America, and Greece stepped forward for the first time to assert a Vlach identity.

But — perhaps in response to the revival of the 1980s — ethnic pride gave way to ethnic cleansing in the 1990s, with great ramifications for cultural survival. For the Vlachs, the first blow came in 1991, when the crisis between Greece and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia ratcheted up nationalist sentiments on both sides of that border. The Vlachs of Greece had only asserted their ethnicity timidly in the first place, since the Greek state admits of no ethnic minorities within its borders; the Macedonian problem made the assertion of any non-Greek identity almost impossible.

Similar developments occurred in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. Before the break-up of Yugoslavia, the Vlachs there were organized into several associations. They are recognized as a minority in the Constitution of the Macedonian Republic and they enjoy television and radio broadcasts in their language. The Macedonian crisis, however, once again made them a pawn in a power struggle, with both Slavic Macedonians and Greeks making claims on the Vlachs’ loyalties. Slavic Macedonian ultranationalists, apparently fearing the consequences should they constitute less than an absolute majority in that fragile, multiethnic republic, threatened to retaliate against Vlachs who classify themselves as anything other than “Macedonian.” Then neighboring Greece began to claim a “Greek minority” of 250,000, and they included the Vlachs of the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia in that number. A new census has just been completed, in which the Vlachs confirmed their penchant for hiding behind other identities — only 8,000 people said they were Vlach, though local activists say the number is more like 80,000.

The second blow was delivered when relations between Greece and Albania deteriorated sharply in 1994 over the state of the Greek minority in Southern Albania. One of the more surprising discoveries made by western visitors to Albania as it began to open up in the 1990s was the size of the Vlach community there; one scholar who has toured Southern Albania extensively in the last 5 years, Dr. Tom Winnifrith, of the University of Warwick in England, places the number of Albanian Vlachs at up to 200,000 — a huge figure considering that Winnifrith previously had found only about 50,000 Vlachs in the entire Balkan Peninsula. When a new democratic government was elected in Albania in April 1992, the Vlachs there were allowed to organize an ethnic society. For a short while, it looked as if they might be able to hold their own and avoid the fate of all other Vlach cultural preservation efforts over the last two centuries.

But then the Greek-Albanian crisis erupted. The Greeks claim their minority numbers 400,000, while the Albanians place it at 60,000 — neither side’s figures are reliable. Greek nationalists tend to count all the Orthodox Christians of Albania as “Greek,” including Vlachs and Albanians. There has been an active effort to bolster Greek claims by wooing the Vlachs, and in contrast to the half-hearted Romanian attempts to influence the Albanian Vlachs, the Greeks are meeting with a good measure of success, for many reasons. The Vlachs see Greece as a powerful protector against the Moslem majority of Albania. They also see that extraordinary economic opportunities are theirs for the taking across the border in Greece, if only they declare themselves “Northern Epirotes” (the Greek term for their minority in Albania). And, when speaking of impoverished descendants of sheepherders, one must never underestimate the powerful attraction of the dignity conferred by an imputed link with Socrates, Plato, and Homer. The result is that in Albania, too, the Vlachs are playing into the hands of the economic, political, social, and diplomatic forces conspiring to assimilate them.

These Balkan machinations are wreaking havoc in the 3 largest indigenous communities of Vlachs — those in Greece, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, and Albania. Almost all other Vlach communities are transplanted. In Bulgaria, there is no remaining community to speak of, save a few villages in the Dobrogea, which Romania colonized with Vlachs when it held that region briefly between the two world wars. And while a 1992 census found 28,088 Vlachs in Romania proper, Vlachs there routinely cite figures in the hundreds of thousands. Whatever their actual number, the emigre community of Romania is committed to assimilation into Romanian society.

The Vlach Diaspora

Among Vlachs in the United States, interest shown in the overseas community has been complicated by the political situations being played out there. Many of those old divisions are reproduced intact in the USA, with the result that the American Vlach community usually keeps to itself. The United States is the home of the oldest and largest Vlach organization in continuous existence, the Society Farsarotul (founded 1903, 400 members today), which publishes a Newsletter twice a year that attempts to track the situation of the Vlachs throughout the world. The main goal of the Society Farsarotul is to preserve the community in America by providing it with a focal point.

A few Vlachs also settled in Western Europe, and since the early 1980s, some of them have tried to create a base from which to launch an international Vlach cultural revival, holding “Congresses” and appealing to the European Union for help. Led by a professor named Vasile Barba, who is affiliated with the University of Freiburg, this group is known as the Union for Aromanian Language and Culture. Although the group is made up largely of Vlachs who come out of the old pro-Romanian movement, it broke with that movement by advocating a Vlach (as opposed to a Romanian) identity for Vlachs. The ULCA also created an alphabet for the Vlach language rather than use the Romanian or Greek alphabets, as Vlachs in those two nationalist movements try to do.

But the ULCA has been strident in tone towards the pro-Greek Vlachs, who are the key to the Vlachs’ cultural survival. The most developed segment of the remaining Vlach population is in Greece; the only remaining Vlach town, Metsovo, is located in Greece; the most appealing nation-state for Vlachs to throw in their lot with has traditionally been Greece.

The Western European Vlachs have doomed their cultural preservation efforts to failure with their anti-Greek rhetoric — and with them, the Vlachs may have lost their last chance at survival. Their last chance at survival as Vlachs, I should say, because the indigenous peoples who are today Vlachs survived, in part, by assimilating, and are merely doing so again. Unless some kind of incentive is developed to encourage Vlachs to remain Vlachs (such as funding schools to teach the language, and newspapers to extend its currency and usefulness), it is reasonable to expect this ethnic group to disappear within one or two generations. Their case reminds us that, while humankind is diminished by the loss of an ethnic or linguistic group, the members of the group themselves can sometimes gain.


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