The Case of the Vlachs: Should a Small, Minority Ethnic Group in the Balkans Keep a Low Profile?

 Authors’ Note: The following text is modified from a paper delivered on April 13, 1996, at the Eastern Bloc Scholars Conference, University of California at Davis. It does not reflect any changes in the situation in the Balkans since that time. The characterization of political forces and positions reflects our best analysis of that time; these forces and positions are more complex than can be reflected in a short paper, and they constantly change with events.

In 1993 Gail Kara found, in a used bookstore in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, a scholarly book on Romance languages for her husband Phillip Guddemi’s father. Before passing it along to him, Dr. Guddemi read it, and commented on his surprise at a little-known language or dialect of which we had never heard. When he said that the speakers of Aromanian lived in the Balkans in the southern part of the former Yugoslavia, Dr. Kara flashed back to a long-forgotten childhood memory from Omaha, Nebraska. Her grandfather, Mike Kara, had once told her that he was “a-Romanian”. Her grandfather completely assimilated to the American way of life, so much so that he rarely answered questions about his ancestry. He spoke only English, and thought it best to leave the “old country” behind. After his death, the family puzzled over the limited information about his ancestry. For years, family members said he was “a Romanian.” Later they believed he was Yugoslavian. Dr. Kara’s father had in his possession a letter with a return address from Bitola, and it was discovered that her grandfather was born in what later became Yugoslav Macedonia. It was Dr. Kara’s memory that he had answered her direct question by saying he was “a-Romanian” that piqued a burning curiosity when she learned about the Aromanian Romance language. How did all these puzzling geographical and national references fit together? Especially, what would connect Romania with Yugoslav Macedonia? Through family research, again with the slimmest of leads, Dr. Guddemi and Dr. Kara attended the 90th Anniversary Dinner Dance of the Society Farsarotul, the American organization of the Aromanians, in Bridgeport, Connecticut. In talking that night to Society members, repeatedly Dr. Kara was told that this confusion was proof positive that my grandfather was an Aromanian. (She was directed to the Ohio table, where dinner guests recalled the stories of the brothers who settled in Omaha.) Time and further family research would prove that they were correct.

A similar ambiguity about ethnic identity may characterize other Balkan groups, particularly minorities without states. But in fact, many Aromanians characterize themselves as being more especially prone than other groups to assimilate into the dominant societies which surround them. To understand why, it is necessary to give a brief account of this group.

The defining characteristic of the Aromanians, who are also known as Vlachs, Koutzovlachs, or Tzintzars, has historically been their Romance language. This language is related to Romanian, sharing most of the latter’s grammatical features and much of its word stock including words derived from early non-Latin sources. In the multiethnic Byzantine and Ottoman empires, another key defining characteristic of Aromanian identity was a pastoralist transhumant way of life, involving a migration in summer to high mountain pastures herding (in recent times) primarily sheep and goats. For at least the last four centuries, many Aromanians had become merchants or gone into the professions; but they were never peasant farmers (unlike the linguistically related Meglen Vlachs). A third characteristic of the Aromanians was adherence to the Orthodox religion.

Pastoral transhumants described as Vlachs or as speaking a Romance language can be documented, beginning in A.D. 976, in one or another of the mountainous regions of the southern Balkans.1 By the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the regions of Aromanian speech were primarily the Pindus and Thessalian mountains of Greece, and the Grammos and Pelister regions which today lie in border regions of Greece, Albania, and formerly Yugoslav Macedonia. Similar dialects were spoken by the largely agricultural Meglen Vlachs, near the Vardar river on the contemporary Greek-Macedonian border, and by the Istrian Vlachs in contemporary Croatia near the Italian city of Trieste.2 All these national borders were of course different during the period before the Third Balkan War in 1913, prior to which most of these areas were ruled by the Ottoman Empire. The Aromanian population of the Balkans today can only be roughly estimated as being between 50,000 and 300,000 people.

The anthropologists Muriel Schein (1974) and Claudia Chang (1993) have described the persistence of the transhumant way of life among some Aromanians even today. Schein’s argument goes beyond this, however, to more difficult aspects of identity. Aromanians during the Ottoman period began to move beyond pastoralism by mediating as merchants between pastoralists and the wider societies in which they were enmeshed. Partly by such a strategy, Aromanian traders and merchants established themselves as early as the 18th Century throughout the towns and cities of the Balkans and northward to Austria, subsequently establishing themselves also in the professions.

But a key aspect to Aromanian adaptation is described by the title of Schein’s article, “When is an ethnic group?” The contemporary Aromanians she describes utilize Aromanian ethnicity at times when it is advantageous for them, in developing and perhaps utilizing ties of kinship and common origin; but faced with sometimes hostile encompassing national populations, Aromanians (especially of the merchant and professional classes) make use of multilingualism and a “cosmopolitan” ability to appear not to be different from the local group. This strategy can lead to near-complete assimilation in such places as Belgrade, Serbia, where several prominent families of merchants and others have been documented as having been of 18th- and 19th-Century Aromanian origin (Murvar 1956). A strategy of revealing Aromanian identity only when verifiably safe to do so is certainly a survival strategy in the Balkans since the development of strong forms of nationalism there in the 19th and 20th centuries, although it does make it nearly impossible to estimate how many Aromanians there are in the region. It has been proposed (starting with Brailsford in 1906) that a combination of outward assimilation with the maintenance of language and identity in the private sphere corresponds to the historic household structure of the Aromanian merchant class. The multilingual and cosmopolitan men functioned in the wider world and the dominant language and national situation. The women, remaining in the domestic sphere, passed on the language and the fundamentals of local Aromanian culture to the children, often in the company of elders such as grandparents. This stereotypical scenario in spite of its oversimplification may capture part of a real dynamic among Aromanians.

Vlach shepherds keeping in touch
(photo by James Prineas)

From the late 19th Century onwards there has been a substantial migration of Aromanians out of the southern Balkans, to the United States and to Romania, and later to Australia, Canada, and Western Europe. Some of these emigrants subsequently returned; and many American Aromanians lost touch with their heritage in the American assimilative “melting pot.” Interestingly, however, because of the Ottoman date of much of the migration to the United States, Aromanian immigrants who are in touch with an ethnic heritage define it as Aromanian, while later post-Ottoman Aromanian emigrants to other nations often define themselves as Greek or Macedonian, or sometimes Romanian, rather than as Aromanian.

The Aromanians because of their particular heritage form an interesting case study with respect to the dilemmas of ethnicity in the Balkans today. The most interesting place to examine these issues is perhaps the Republic of Macedonia, which declared its independence (somewhat reluctantly) from the Yugoslav Federation in 1991. The Republic of Macedonia has a unique multiethnic constitution, adopted in 1991, which in principle recognizes five groups: the Macedonians, Albanians, Turks, Vlachs, and Romanies or Gypsies. The wording of the Constitution, however, reveals a fundamental conundrum: whether Macedonia is a “national” state or a “citizen” state. As these terms are used in the Balkan context, a “national” state is one which primarily serves to realize the aspirations of a single people or group, conceived as a unity. This people can define itself in terms of a common language, a common religion, and/or a common history, and is usually defined in terms of all three. At its extreme, often realized in Europe, the identity of a national group is symbolized as “blood and soil” — common heritage and a common territory. The other conception, that of a citizen state, can be exemplified by multiethnic nation-states formed by immigration, such as Australia, Canada, and the United States. These grant citizenship to anyone of any origin born within the national borders, and at least in principle do not grant greater national status to any group within them. As anyone familiar with history can observe, even these purportedly multiethnic countries have in the past privileged particular heritages, languages, and religions as more in line with national identity than others, and they all possess significant political movements even today that wish to restore a particular “national” group as (so to speak) “first among equals.”

Post-World War II Yugoslavia was conceived by Tito on the model of the Soviet Union as a uniquely Communist reconciliation of these two principles: as a multi-national, multi-republic federation. In principle, the larger federation was multinational with every component nation being equal. Each component republic, or in some cases each “autonomous region”, however, represented within its own borders the ethno-nationalist principle. (The exceptions in Yugoslavia were the multiethnic Vojvodina and Bosnia/Herzegovina.) While minority rights were supposed to be respected under the communist system, in practice they took a back seat to the self-realization of the nationhood of a dominant ethnic group. In the Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, this was the Macedonian ethnic group of Slavic language, a group with its own problems in that its very distinct existence was disputed by Serbians and Bulgarians, both of whom claimed that it was only a subgroup of themselves. The Yugoslavian Republic of Macedonia presented the opportunity for the first time for an official recognition of a Macedonian “nation” in the European sense involving a distinct official language, literature, and history. The very existence of the distinct Macedonian people, language, and history were disputed from the beginning by Greeks, Bulgarians, and Serbians, each of whom claimed and still claims a prior right to the name, or to the language, or to historical figures. The Macedonian nationalist project thus acquired a defensive and somewhat aggrieved posture from the outset, which is not to say that these qualities are not discernible in the discourse of other Balkan nationalists.

After the breakup of the Yugoslav federation, which like that of the Soviet Union was made (in retrospect) all the more feasible because of the creation of mini-nation-states within it, the Republic of Macedonia was placed in a multiply untenable position. Independence was inevitable because of the character of rump Yugoslavia as a Serbian national state, but an independent Macedonia could not hope for international recognition as the nationalist project of the Macedonian people alone. At least this was the feeling of the ex-Communist architects of the new Macedonian state. The nationalist party of Macedonians, whose name (VMRO-DPNME or the so-called “Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization”) has a history which is beyond this paper, and which forms the main opposition party, favored a Macedonian national state and objected to the inclusion of the names of the minority peoples in the preamble to the Constitution. But the ruling coalition, initially composed of ex-Communists and Albanian parties, favored a multiethnic state to try to avoid ethnic tensions and to facilitate international recognition. (The Albanian minority is the most unhappy, claiming longstanding Macedonian discrimination against it, for example the prevention of the erection of mosques and of the establishment of an Albanian-language university. Some Albanians are thought to favor integration into greater Albania.) The precariousness of the new Macedonian state is well known. Greece prevented its admission to the United Nations except under the name of “the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia,” and imposed an embargo which crippled the Macedonian economy until it was recently lifted. The Federal Republic of Yugoslavia has engaged in border disputes with Macedonia and American troops have been deployed along that border under United Nations command.

In this disputed ground the position of the Vlachs or Aromanians is fraught with dilemmas and conundrums inherently related to the larger national picture. A poll was conducted in December 1993 (MILS, from “Nova Makedonija” 7.12.93) among the different ethnic groups within Macedonia about the question of how Macedonia should be constituted as a state. The results are interesting but confusing, since results in important categories exceed 100%. Most of those polled, including members of the opposition “nationalist” party, seemed to favor a “citizen’s” state rather than a “national” state. This was favored by majorities in all ethnic groups polled, and by “all polled Vlachs.” Among the Macedonians, however, majority opinion seemed to favor their own nation as being the only “constituent” nation; although this was contradicted by another mentioned result. The murkiness of this research underlines, we think, the fluidity and confusion on these issues in contemporary Macedonia.

The dilemma of Vlachs in Macedonia in this situation is that between assertion and assimilation. Assimilation is a time-honored strategy of the Vlachs or Aromanians, as we have already indicated. The dimensions of assimilation in the Balkans and in Yugoslavia as a whole are thought by many contemporary Aromanian spokespeople to be reflected in census figures.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries the population of Aromanians in the Balkans was estimated variously as 373,520 (Weigand 1888), 500,000 (Wace and Thompson 1914), and over 5,000,000 (an anonymous Romanian cited in Winnifrith 1987). Later figures, both totals and within national boundaries, are equally fluctuating. T.J. Winnifrith, a British literary scholar who is the most respected modern historian of the Aromanians, has varied his own estimate from 50,000 in 1987 to a figure five to ten times higher in 1995, based on his discovery of thriving Aromanian communities in Albania. Scholars turn to estimates rather than official censuses for understanding of population numbers because the numbers in censuses fluctuate so wildly. To return to the Yugoslavian and Macedonian case, in Yugoslavia the number of “Vlahs” in the 1948 census was 102,953 (Singleton 1976). In 1953 it was 36,728; in 1961 it was 9,463. The number jumped up in 1971 to over 23,000 (Ibid.). In 1991 it went back down to 8,129 (Colakovski in Talabac 1993), and in the most recent 1994 census of formerly Yugoslav Macedonia the figure was 8,467 (MILS 15.11.94, available on the World WideWeb at mils.html). The fluctuation of statistics in censuses has much to do with differences in how individuals identify themselves, which can vary in two respects: firstly, the degree of overt ethnic consciousness as a member of a distinct group, and secondly, the feeling of safety or danger with respect to nationalistic pressures within a larger nationally defined state.

Yet there has arisen within Macedonia an interesting development: a self-assertive part of the Vlach population which openly lobbies in the parliament and elsewhere for Vlach minority rights in the country. In 1994 this group was represented by the League of Vlachs in Macedonia, which had the following to say about the census (as quoted in the MILS news for 22.09.04 posted on the Internet at mn/mils.html):

“Prematurely announced unofficial census figures were described by the League of Vlachs in Macedonia as completely incorrect and illogical. They claim 8,000 Vlachs are presently living in Macedonia. This is, they say, a continuation of the old Communist methods of assimilation of the Vlach population. This act is another attempt to justify the thesis on Macedonia being a state for Macedonians only, leaving the remaining nationalities in an utterly subordinate position. The League considers the State Statistic Bureau’s figures as invalid and incorrect, and the census as fabricated and tendentious at the cost of Vlachs and Albanians in Macedonia.”

On the other hand, speaking of the earlier 1991 census an Aromanian physician from Macedonia did not blame the authorities for the census figures. He had a different explanation:

“This is a ridiculously low number! I mostly blame our own people for hiding their identity during the census. Contemplating this figure creates great bitterness in me. When I think about all the work accomplished, time sacrificed, and money spent by our people in the diaspora in terms of promoting our identity — and even foreigners work to help us — it galls me that many native Aromanians in Macedonia hide their identity. I am sure the true figure for our people in Macedonia is at least 10 times more than the 1991 statistics indicate…This desire to camouflage our identity exists in Greece as well. Greek Aromanians can support international Vlach unity and still be loyal Greek citizens.” (Interview in The Newsletter of the Society Farsarotul August 1993.)

This “hiding of identity” is facilitated by the fact that most Vlachs speak fluent Macedonian as well as Aromanian. Family letters in fact confirm scholarly observations that many of Aromanian heritage are no longer fluent in the language. The Aromanians also share the Orthodox faith with the Macedonian majority, unlike the largely Muslim Albanians and Turks. Thus we come to the title question of the paper: should a small minority in the Balkans keep a low profile? Some interpret these census figures as meaning that many Aromanians in Macedonia are doing exactly that. In spite of the constitutional recognition of Vlachs as a constituent nation, a status with no real parallel in the region, many do not feel safe to identify themselves as a member of a minority group. The international leadership of the Vlach community is elsewhere; it is significant that the “diaspora” is mentioned as having promoted Vlach identity.

Those who overtly promote Aromanian identity do so according to concepts of human rights which are part of the “transnational” world. The anthropologist Loring Danforth uses this term in his recent masterful study of the Greek/Macedonian ideological struggle worldwide, entitled The Macedonian Conflict: Ethnic Nationalism in a Transnational World (1995). The transnational world partly arises out of the increased power and influence of international organizations such as the United Nations, the European Union, and the Council of Europe. Concomitant with the influence of organizations is the spread of “universalist concepts, ultimately Western European in origin, of individual equality, personal freedom, and human rights.” (Danforth 1995:108) Danforth further writes:

“Nation-states are being challenged simultaneously from above and below — from without and within — by international organizations, on the one hand, and by national minorities, on the other. National minorities struggling for recognition and human rights from the nation-states they inhabit attempt to mobilize the support of diaspora communities abroad. National minorities also seek to shift the balance of power in their favor and away from the nation-states they are struggling against by appealing to international organizations that are committed to human rights and cultural pluralism. It is not surprising that these organizations often prove more responsive to the concerns of national minorities than the government of nation-states with their commitment to nationalist ideologies of purity and homogeneity.” (p.109)

It is ironic indeed that in Danforth’s study, the beleaguered national minority in question is that of Macedonians [of Slavic language], in the nations in which they form a minority such as Greece. It should be apparent that the Vlachs in Macedonia have far more official recognition than the Macedonians (i.e. the Slavic-language speakers) in Greece, whom the Greek government does not recognize as a minority. Macedonian Vlachs are not to my knowledge treated as potential subversives for advocating the preservation or encouragement of their language and culture. It would be surprising, however, if they were not vigilantly aware of what has been possible elsewhere in the Balkans.

Perhaps the leading international group promoting Aromanian/Vlach identity is that of the Union for Aromanian Language and Culture (ULCA) in Freiburg, Germany. The ULCA issues a quarterly publication, Zborlu a Nostru (Our Word) and holds international congresses. It has published a bibliography of Aromanian studies (1984). The leader of this organization, Prof. Vasile Barba, advocates an official, Latin, alphabet and a separate identity for Aromanians as against a Greek or Romanian identity. Other active organizations include the Society Farsarotul in the United States and emigre groups in Australia, Canada, and Romania. In both the United States and Australia there are strong differences in opinion about the Macedonian question, with Aromanians of Greek descent often taking Greek nationalist positions and those of Macedonian descent taking the Macedonian side.

The Romanian government may also be taking on a role as a protector of Vlachs — something of a reversion to a pre-1912 role. Like so many things in the Balkans, acceptance by a small minority group of a larger nation as a patron has its risks as well as benefits. Often it seems that in the Balkans a people is not recognized as one unless it has a territorial homeland, preferably one that comprises a nation-state. A foreign government certainly has more resources to advocate for those of its ethnic extraction under foreign rule than do local groups; and Macedonia has insisted on the right to assist Macedonians in Greece and other nations in spite of very vociferous fears and objections by these other nations. On the other hand, acceptance of assistance from another nation-state, or even from diasporan emigres in Germany or Australia, can expose members of a minority to suspicion, however unwarranted, as to their loyalty to the nation-state in which they live. In the specific case, acceptance of Romanian patronage or sponsorship can also commit Aromanians to versions of their history that serve Romanian interests rather than that of their own identity as an ancient and separate people of the southern Balkans, diverging from the historical development of Romania proper for a millennium or more. It can lead to a submergence of Aromanian identity under a Romanian identity; when the Romanian government subsidized Aromanian schools in the early part of the 20th Century, the language they taught was Romanian, not Aromanian. The existence of a substantial Aromanian population in Romania itself, comprising several emigrations from the Southern Balkans within the 20th Century, may enable Romania to appreciate the distinctness of Aromanians; on the other hand, there are evidently some Romanians in Romania who have campaigned for Aromanians to submerge their identity in the Romanian census.

All these themes are reflected in the following recent news story, taken from MILS news on the Internet ( which took it from the Puls news service dated 29 September 1995:

“Romanian parliamentarians Mocily, Gabrielesky, Rudulesky and Botica moved an amendment to the document for admittance of Macedonia into the Council of Europe:

To prevent the extinction of the Vlach (Aromanian) language, suppressed since 1913, and to put an end to policies of forced assimilation, the Macedonian Government has enabled the Vlachs to freely use their language in their community and publicly will also return school buildings which belong to them. As an autochthonous nation of Macedonia, the Vlachs (Aromanians), Macedo-Romanians or Greek Vlachophones, as they are also called, should be given back their properties in Jelovishte and Gopesh from where they were expelled during the communist regime. Freedom of religious worship should be given back to them, as well as their confiscated or ruined churches, as well as their graveyards, which should be returned to the minorities that own them. Vlachs should be allowed to revert to their original personal names, consistent with their own original alphabet. [The question of the alphabet for the Aromanian language is still disputed — P.G.]

“This amendment was moved by Mr. Mocily at the session of the Council before consideration of the admission of Macedonia [into the Council of Europe]. The representative of the Political Committee, Mrs. Kornet, explained that the position of the Vlachs in Macedonia is somewhat different to that described, as they do have rights, in a like manner to other minorities in Macedonia, although they are in smaller numbers. However, the mover of the amendment, in addition to several other Rumanian representatives voted in its favor.

“It goes without saying that in the democratic atmosphere of the Council of Europe, there is an unfettered freedom to place on the agenda many and various problems. However, two days ago five representatives of the International Association of Vlachs were received by Nikola Popovski [a prominent ruling party parliamentarian and the head of the Macedonian delegation]. They were led by Professor Barba from Freiburg and a certain Samara, a Vlach from Romania. They highlighted the same problems which were the basis of the amendment before the Council. The key point was their insistence on the provision of greater rights for the Vlachs, because according to their view, they did not have the opportunity in Macedonia to freely declare their identity, and therefore their numbers for example, in the census, are incorrect. In any event, their manner was very radical and even aggressive, notwithstanding the explanations and comments offered by Popovski. However, the exposition of the problems of the Vlachs living in Macedonia in the Council, passed almost unnoticed in the Council. Yet notwithstanding this, there was surprise as to why exactly Romania and its representatives are highlighting this problem. Most probably, the Vlachs living in Macedonia have some responsibility for this. In this way Romania may well be promoting itself as the “protector” of the Vlachs.”

The resolution on behalf of the Aromanians in Macedonia did not pass, and Macedonia was admitted to the Council of Europe at the above meeting on September 28, 1995. It must be observed about this news story, unlike the previous one, that it does not in fact deal with the activities of Macedonian Vlachs at all, since its focus was on the activities of diaspora Aromanians and the Romanian government. It has been frequently observed that strong positions on ethnic questions are often taken by diaspora ethnics, as often these positions are confirmation to themselves and others of their own ethnic identity, and as such positions can be taken without much risk for themselves as opposed to the risks of self-assertion by residents of the so-called “old country.” Nevertheless the news writer editorializes to blame the Aromanians in Macedonia itself for the “very radical and even aggressive” manner of their diasporan advocates. A concerned Balkan Aromanian reader of this piece might easily have one of two reactions: an increased commitment to the promotion of Aromanian rights in Macedonia, or a bemused confirmation of a previous decision not to declare Vlach identity in the census.

It appears that the organized Vlach groups in Macedonia have adopted by and large a moderate, pro-government position. Even a presidential candidate of the opposition VMRO-DPNME, looking for votes in the 1994 elections, described Vlachs as “100% loyal” to the nation (MILS 5.10.94). In an earlier meeting with the Council of Europe in May 1994, a representative from the League of Vlachs is said to have “expressed satisfaction with the rights and status of the Vlachs in Macedonia,” including in Vlach “demands” only the reopening of historically Vlach churches and the establishment of optional Vlach language courses in schools. (MILS 25.05.94). There is a twice weekly television program in the Aromanian language, as of January 12 of this year, and religious services are increasingly being celebrated in Aromanian. The government told a delegation from the Macedonian Ethnic Relations Council in March 1995 that optional courses of Vlach language would be introduced in elementary schools. A course in the language was already being taught in Bitola at that time. According to Macedonian news reports, European agencies, such as the Working Group for Ethnic and National Minorities of the Geneva Conference on Former Yugoslavia, are satisfied with the development of interethnic relations in Macedonia generally (MILS 26.02.96). On March 11, 1996, the Foreign Ministers of Macedonia and Romania signed two Protocols on cooperation and friendship; the Foreign Minister of Romania “expressed his positive opinion about the Constitution of Macedonia which respects the rights of the minorities. He said Romania was very interested in and connected with the Vlach minority in Macedonia which, as he stressed, had been given all rights” (MILS 11.03.96).

In spite of positive developments, the Macedonian conundrum remains, and presumably the possibility of a strengthening of Macedonian exclusionary nationalism still exists. It is never comfortable to be a member of an ethnic minority in the Balkans.

The role of Romania in advocating for Aromanian populations, as earlier mentioned, is a consequence of an earlier period in Aromanian history, that between the Congress of Berlin in 1878 and the Balkan Wars, which culminated in 1913.3 During this period most of the places where Aromanians lived were under the rule of the Ottoman or Turkish Empire. Much of the area later disputed under the name of Macedonia had been promised to Bulgaria by the 1878 Treaty of San Stefano; however, the Western Powers later in that same year, via the Treaty of Berlin, gave the area then commonly called geographic Macedonia back to the Ottoman Empire in order to preserve the balance of power and contain Russia. The various populations of the region lived together in an ethnic patchwork, making it unclear how the various surrounding Balkan powers would claim them after they took the area from the Ottomans, who, they believed, were too weak to hold it. Greece, Serbia, and Bulgaria patronized and financed religious institutions, schools, political organizations, and terrorist bands throughout the area, each of these states hoping by doing this to influence the ethnic consciousness of locals who had never had more than a local group, village, or religious allegiance. The Aromanians as a Romance population were not courted by either the Serbs or the Bulgarians, although some of them allied themselves against the Ottoman Turks with the Slavic Macedonians who were the bulk of the nearby peasant population. Many Aromanians felt themselves to be Greek by culture and religion and allied themselves with the Greek Idea; Greeks often included “Hellenophilic” Vlachs in their estimates of the “Greek” population of Macedonia. But the other main influence on local Aromanians was the new nation of Romania, which could not use them to claim territory as the other Balkan states were doing, but which perhaps felt that it could use them as a bargaining chip. Many Romanians felt themselves as well to have a nationalistic obligation towards the Aromanian population, to which they laid a sort of claim in spite of at least a millennium of separate histories. Romania financed schools and religious institutions throughout the Aromanian communities. Although there were comic elements in the “bidding war” among the different states for the allegiance of Macedonian populations, there was also much fratricidal violence, and in the case of the Aromanians the factionalism between pro-Romanians and pro-Greeks is still present, making itself felt for example as one of the rifts which currently has the potential to divide the American Aromanian community.

One of the consequences of this period of national rivalry is that Aromanians affiliated themselves primarily with a national cause external to their own identity. In Greece this led to assimilation to the national cause, at the expense of the preservation of the language or local culture. Interestingly, before the Second World War Greece permitted by treaty the perpetuation of Romanian schools for Aromanians financed by the Romanian government. After the Second World War in which Romania participated on the Axis side, many pro-Romanian Greek Vlachs fled the country. Those Aromanians who remained in Greece were generally of the pro-Hellenic faction to begin with and have not generally insisted on rights as an ethnic or linguistic minority within Greece. In Albania, many of the Aromanians remained pro-Romanian in a quiet way throughout the years of communist isolation, but retained their language and customs because of the isolation and poverty of life under the so-called one true Communism of Enver Hoxha. These Vlachs seem to be engaging in some of the same sort of mild ethnically assertive activities that characterize the Vlachs of neighboring Macedonia. Today however a Greek identity may have become popular among a segment of Albanian Aromanians, many of whom are bilingual in Greek. According to sources in the American Aromanian community [Balamaci 1995] this is largely because they can by claiming to be Greek get into Greece easily for employment purposes. There is of course a Greek-speaking minority in southern Albania (termed by Greece Northern Epirus), and the Greek government has been quite active in encouraging these Greeks to gain greater rights within Albania. Some Aromanian sources claim that Greek nationalists include substantial numbers of Aromanians in their estimates of the Greek population of southern Albania; and that many individual Aromanians are happy to take advantage of Greek nationalist agitation by becoming “Northern Epirotes” as a method of gaining drachmas in Greece [Balamaci 1995].

The pressures on contemporary Aromanian populations to assimilate have been strong in Greece, arguably the home of the largest modern population of Aromanians during the last years of the Ottoman Empire. Greek national ideology does not admit the existence of ethnic minorities, except as provided by international treaties, such as the Turkish minority in Thrace. As recently as 1995, an article in the Journal of Modern Greek Studies on “The Legal Status of Minorities in Greece Today” manages to discuss this issue without mentioning the Aromanians (Stavros 1995). (The article also fails to mention any of the Slavic (“Macedonian” or “Bulgarian”) or Albanian language speaking groups of Northern Greece; it does discuss Jehovah’s Witnesses.) Historically, many Aromanians who opposed the Ottoman Empire from the 18th Century onward began by supporting the Greek cause; Greek, the language of the Byzantine Empire, was in the Ottoman period the primary language of both trade and religion in the Christian Balkans. The Greek language and culture was a means of advancement for Aromanians and others. Greeks of Aromanian background have been prominent Greek nationalists throughout the 19th and 20th Centuries, and they have tended not to assert themselves as a self-conscious minority during this period. In the 1980s a Pan-Hellenic Union of Vlach Cultural Societies was founded in Greece to promote Aromanian culture in the sense of dance, song, and language; but recent observers have noted increased pressures against minority self-assertion in Greece since the declaration of independence by the “former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia” in 1991. During some of the more repressive regimes of the postwar period (such as the “regime of the colonels”), Greek Vlachs claim to have been punished for speaking the language, and American Aromanian sources have documented that some Greek nationalists continue to agitate against the language [Balamaci 1987]. Greece does not keep official statistics on the number of Vlachs in its population.

Vlachs or Aromanians in the Balkans survive periods of suppression or repression by assimilating into their larger encompassing societies. Nicholas Balamaci, the editor of the Society Farsarotul Newsletter, has written for Cultural Survival Quarterly an article asking: The Balkan Vlachs: Born to Assimilate? He ironically points out that the Vlachs are themselves the product of assimilation in Roman times — the assimilation of Illyrian or Thracian indigenous groups into an encompassing Roman culture. He points out that assimilation is in part a Vlach strategy for survival, and Vlachs are “merely doing so again” (Balamaci 1995). The world may be poorer for the loss of another figure in its ethnic mosaic, but it is for the Aromanians themselves, severally and individually, to gauge the risks of ethnic assertion in the Balkans and to make their own decisions. These Aromanians in the Balkans must make accommodations with the powerful national realities around them. If these accommodations mean a lessening of a sense of Aromanian identity there, this is, no doubt, tragic. But expatriates, diasporans, and well-wishers who do not themselves undertake the risks of living in the Balkans should not presume to judge the “identity” choices of those who do live with those risks every day. These Aromanians in the Balkans are caught in the crossfire between the ethnonational concept of the state and one based on citizenship which can accommodate minority ethnic and linguistic identities. They cannot presume, in the light of tragic recent events in Bosnia and elsewhere, that it will be the more “progressive” view of the state which will prevail.


Balamaci, Nicholas, 1987, “Aromanians: One View from the Diaspora, Part I,” The Greek American Saturday, September 12.

Balamaci, Nicholas, 1991. “Can the Vlachs Write Their Own History?” Journal of the Hellenic Diaspora 17.1:9-36.

Balamaci, Nicholas, 1993. “From the Editor.” The Newsletter of the Society Farsarotul 7(1&2): 61-62.

Balamaci, Nicholas, 1995. “The Balkan Vlachs: Born to Assimilate?” Cultural Survival Quarterly, Summer 1995.

Brailsford, H.N., 1906. Macedonia: Its Races and Their Future. London, Methuen. Reprinted 1971, N.Y., Arno Press and the New York Times.

Chang, Claudia, 1973. “Pastoral Transhumance in the Southern Balkans as a Social Ideology: Ethnoarcheological Research in Northern Greece.” American Anthropologist 95(3):687-703.

Danforth, Loring M., 1995. The Macedonian Conflict: Ethnic Nationalism in a Transnational World. Princeton, N.J., Princeton University Press.

Institutul Roman de Cercetari, 1984. Bibliografie Macedo-Romana. 1984. Freiburg, Germania.

MILS News, Macedonian Information and Liaison Service. “The MILS-NEWS is a digest of the latest developments in the Republic of Macedonia and relevant current events in the Balkans and beyond. It is published daily in English and Macedonian by the M.I.L.S… M.I.L.S. is a non-profit, non-governmental service, and is a registered international bureau of the Australian Macedonian Society Inc. It is supported by the Ilinden Foundation, and the Supporting Committee for European Integration of Macedonia (SCEIM).” It can be found at several Internet addresses, including

Murvar, Vatro, 1956. “The Balkan Vlachs: A Typological Study,” unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, University of Wisconsin.

Nicola, Robert J., 1989. “History of the Society Farsarotul.” The Newsletter of the Society Farsarotul 3(1):n.p.

Schein, Muriel (Dimen), 1974. “When is an Ethnic Group? Ecology and Class Structure in Northwestern Greece.” Ethnology 14:83-97.

Singleton, Frederick Barnard, 1976. Twentieth-Century Yugoslavia. New York, Columbia University Press.

Stavros, Stephanos, 1995. “The Legal Status of Minorities in Greece Today: The Adequacy of their Protection in the Light of Current Human Rights Perceptions.” Journal of Modern Greek Studies 13(1):1-32, May 1995.

Talabac, Robert Nicholas. “An Interview with Dr. Hristo N. Colakovski.” The Newsletter of the Society Farsarotul 7(1&2): 61-62.

Wace, Alan B., and Thompson, M.L., 1914. Nomads of the Balkans. New York, Dutton.

Winnifrith, T.J., 1987. The Vlachs: The History of a Balkan People. London, Duckworth.

Winnifrith, T.J., 1995. Shattered Eagles, Balkan Fragments. London,



  1. This establishes at least 1,000 years of history separating Aromanians from whatever common origin they must have had with the Romanians of modern Romania. The prior histories of both groups are disputed, largely for reasons connected with the modern politics and land claims of nation-states. The Aromanians as a small, geographically dispersed group have not made national claims upon any territories, with the exception of one Fascist-encouraged movement of short duration during World War II.
  2. There are also Vlach populations, speaking an Aromanian dialect, in Bulgaria. The Aromanians or perhaps a different Romanian group were prominent in medieval Bulgarian history.
  3. The historical survey of this period which follows is based on an account by the British writer Brailsford who wrote in 1906; this is to try to avoid later nationalistic biases, which cannot be completely eliminated.

Vlach children dancing at the annual festival in Greece
(photo by James Prineas)


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