The Vlachs of Macedonia

The number of Aromanians or Vlachs recorded in the 1994 Macedonian census was 8,467. I obtained this figure with some difficulty from B Hunter, The Statesman’s Year Book, London: Macmillan, 1996, p843. Other sources are confusing. Hugh Poulton in his excellent summary of the Vlachs of Macedonia points to a decline from 8,669 in 1953 to 6,392 in 1981 and suggests that this is due to assimilation, but elsewhere gives the figure of 7,1901. R and B Crampton even more confusingly lump together Aromanians (Vlachs) with Roma (gypsies) and supply a figure of 2.7% for the 1991 census, the last to be carried out when Macedonia was part of Yugoslavia2. Elsewhere I have seen the figure of 0.4% for the 1991 census3, and this from a total population of around two million would produce about 8,000 Vlachs. Figures before the Second World War are confusing because there was no separate identity for Macedonia, and Vlachs tended to be lumped together with Romanians of Eastern Serbia4.

For what they are worth these figures give a fairly consistent picture. The assimilation noted by Poulton was reversed when it became more politically correct to proclaim that one was part of a minority culture. In censuses before 1991 some Vlachs would be keen to proclaim themselves as Yugoslavs, always a popular refuge for small and potentially vulnerable minorities5. Thus the fluctuations are easy to explain, and they are not very marked. Nevertheless every Vlach I spoke to in Macedonia regarded the census statistics as damned lies, and maintained that the actual number of Vlachs was far higher.

I have always been cautious about exaggerated claims for the number of Vlachs in the Balkans. In my first book, written before I had a chance to visit Vlach communities in Albania and Romania, I was clearly at fault in putting the total number for all Balkan countries as low as 50,0006. One basis for this figure was an examination of the five Vlach communities near Bitola which had a population of ten thousand in the days of Wace and Thompson but are now down to a thousand. Wace and Thompson thought there were half a million Vlachs in the Balkans, and I decimated them accordingly, not paying sufficient attention to the fact that in many cases, people who have moved from villages like Gopesh, now deserted, and Nizopolje, where there has been extensive emigration to Australia, do somehow manage to preserve their culture and identity even in the unpromising surroundings of high rise flats in big cities7.

Nevertheless, at the risk of making myself unpopular with Vlach friends in Macedonia, many of whom live in such high rise flats, I do not think the census figures are all that inaccurate. I count as a Vlach someone who thinks of himself or herself as a Vlach and who regularly speaks the language, even if only at home. Clearly there are some in both categories who for one reason or another did not count themselves as Vlach in the 1994 census. I met one such individual in my short stay in 1996. She had declared herself a Macedonian as a good Macedonian patriot. Another group who might well not register as Vlachs are the Vlach-speaking wives and children of Macedonian husbands. Macedonia is still a male-dominated society, and therefore conversely there may be Vlach husbands of Macedonian wives who may have registered their families as Vlach although the children learning to speak at their mother’s knee may not be able to speak more than a few words of their father’s language.

Competence in Vlach covers a wide range. At one end of the scale there are monolingual speakers, of whom I have met a few, old and female, but this is a group that is unlikely to survive into the next century8. We also have quite a large group who have learnt the odd word, or are creditably trying to learn more than the odd word, but it is difficult to see how these can count as real Vlachs. Cornish counts as a minority language, because of people in this category, and Irish counts as a strong minority language, but in fact nobody really speaks Cornish and very few speak Irish9. Even among those who have a fair command of Vlach there are gradations of fluency. Interestingly and embarrassingly, when speaking on the Vlach program for Macedonian television I worked my way through two interpreters. Both spoke English a great deal better than I spoke Vlach, but sadly it was their Vlach which let them down. One said he spoke the wrong kind of Vlach, coming from Beala on the Albanian border and speaking Farsherot Vlach. Another was the daughter of a Macedonian mother and Vlach father; her father (and grandfather) had had no truck with the mother’s knee, but her Vlach was rusty as a result.

If we were not too fussy about what constituted competence in Vlach or what constituted the feeling of a Vlach identity we might get up to a figure of 15,000 Macedonian Vlachs. I would prefer 10,000, which with a total population in 1994 of just under two million, would make 0.5% of the Macedonians belong to this minority. Much larger figures of a quarter of a million rely on a vague knowledge of Vlach ancestry. But this is a very unreliable criterion. Bulgarians, Greeks, Serbs, Albanians, Gypsies and Turks could use the same criterion to inflate their numbers, so that the population of Macedonia would not be two but ten million. Under the same criterion the Queen of England would be a German, and I and practically every presidential candidate in the United State would be Irish, although former Governor Michael Dukakis would of course be both Greek and Vlach10.

Ten thousand does not seem a very large number and 0.5% does not seem a very large percentage. In other Balkan countries the number is larger, but the percentage is smaller except in Albania. Numbers are equally hard to calculate with an equally wide variation both with official statistics and optimistic Vlach estimates. A figure of between thirty and fifty thousand Vlachs in each of Romania, Albania and Greece would probably please neither the Vlachs nor official quarters. The total population of Greece and Romania clearly makes the Vlachs a very insignificant percentage, and even in Albania we are only up to one per cent. Moreover there are difficulties in all three countries for the Vlachs which are not present in Macedonia. Albania has many economic problems, and the preservation of minority cultures and languages is not a high priority. Greece claims that all Vlachs are Greeks, and that there are no minorities in Greece. In Romania the Vlachs are late arrivals, and the process of assimilation is easy because of the similarity in language. There are Vlach associations in all three countries, but most in Greece take a very pro-Greek line, and in Albania there is a division of loyalty between those who favor Greece and those who favor Romania11.

For closer parallels with the Vlachs of Yugoslavia we have to look closer to home. The number of Gaelic speakers in Scotland is probably between 30,000 and 50,000 if we use the same stern criteria that I have applied to the Vlachs. This is between 0.05 and 0.1% of the population of the United Kingdom, and 0.5 and 1% of the population of Scotland. Regular users of Irish form about one per cent of the population of Ireland12. The two languages receive a great deal of support from the government. Bilingual road signs and books on and in Gaelic can be found as far South as Fort William and as far East as Inverness. There is a new program for teaching schoolchildren through the medium of Gaelic. In the Western Isles outside the main centers of the population the road signs are only in Gaelic. Remote communities on the mainland and the islands have been enabled to survive through new roads built with money from the European Community. Of course the language is still in a precarious position, but at least efforts are being made to preserve it.

And so are efforts being made in Macedonia to preserve Vlach. There is an established program, initially handicapped by lack of textbooks and some resistance on the part of pupils, faced among other difficulties with the task of forming a different alphabet. There are radio and television programs to which I listened and on which I appeared, although I could not help feeling that my appearance on two separate occasions was a sign that there was a slight shortage of material. There are Vlach writers and poets and singers, many of whom I met. Macedonia is a country with a high reputation for poetry, but publication is difficult in these hard times13.

There are also Vlach associations in most of the major cities of Macedonia, not only the obvious ones near Vlach villages like Bitola and Ohrid and Stip, but also in Skopje, and as far north as Kumanovo. Under the Communists there was a great tendency, encouraged by the Government, to move from picturesque but remote villages to practical if ugly housing estates on the edge of big cities. It would be natural if this process of uprooting led to the forgetting of Vlach culture and language, but the existence of Vlach associations in most towns in Macedonia suggests that this process has not happened, as indeed it has not really happened in even more unpromising places like Manhattan and Melbourne. Apparently it is only in the Western part of Macedonia in towns like Gostivar and Tetovo that Vlach associations have not been started. I met a fanatical Vlach from Tetovo in Krushevo which is the nearest approach to a Vlach town in Macedonia. He gave me some extraordinary figures for the number of Vlachs, and declared that Alexander the Great was undoubtedly a Vlach because in the Himalayas people spoke languages which had many words in common with Vlach14. I therefore did not wholly believe his explanation that there were many Vlachs around Tetovo who had unfortunately been assimilated. However it is possible that in those areas of Macedonia such as Tetovo where Albanians form a majority, Vlachs have seen the disadvantages of forming a separate group and made common cause with the Macedonians.

There are advantages for the Vlachs in being so widely scattered. Again one thinks of Scotland where the Gaelic speakers have a good redoubt in the Western Isles, something of a presence in Skye, scattered pockets in other parts of the islands and on the Western Coast, but in the rest of Scotland and the United Kingdom whose taxpayers help pay for the road signs the Gaels are nowhere. There are of course Gaelic associations and a fine tradition of Gaelic scholarship in Glasgow and Edinburgh, but little enthusiasm for the Celtic fringe in Dumbarton or Dumfries, let alone Doncaster or Dover. In Ireland the position is roughly the same, except that there is slightly more interest in the position of Irish over the whole of the country and that the Western redoubts in Donegal, Galway and Kerry are remote from each other as well as the world, and indeed speak a different kind of Irish from each other. I have seen people in a bar in Donegal, briskly dismissing the Irish program on television as not our kind of Irish before turning over to the BBC.

I hope the equivalent briskness is not shown by the Macedonian Vlachs in spite of possible dialect differences in a equally scattered population. The thin spread of Vlach speakers in Macedonia means that they can never really be a political force. It would be just possible with a bit of gerrymandering to carve out a parliamentary constituency near Bitola including Krushevo and the Pelister villages in which a Vlach candidate might achieve a respectable vote, although it is difficult to see what such a candidate could offer, nor would there be any chance of victory, since even if all Vlachs moved to Krushevo they would barely form a majority. Wisely therefore the Vlachs have not tried to form a political party, only a cultural association. Other minorities do have political parties and representation in parliament, albeit not much above token representation. The Vlachs have done better. Three Cabinet Ministers are Vlachs, and they have achieved the remarkable success in education, media and publishing that I have outlined.

It would be nice to say that just as Macedonia is ideal for the Vlach minority, so this Vlach minority is ideal for Macedonia and indeed an example for any multi-ethnic state, asking and receiving cultural privileges, but making no political demands for independence or union with another state. There is no harm done if citizens of the United Kingdom support Ireland at football, or go to Gaelic evening classes; planting bombs for the IRA is another matter. Vlachs, always a cautious race, seem intent on following the former path, and, though this may be disappointing to those anxious to find in minorities a source of journalistic excitement, the Vlachs of Macedonia do not seem set to give many thrills.

But it would be wrong to be too optimistic.

Macedonia has many problems. I attended in September 1996 the celebrations in Skopje of the fifth anniversary of Macedonian independence. It was a curiously muted affair. The spectators did not quite seem to know what they were celebrating or what cause they had for celebrating. The empty shops and the complete absence of tourists told their own tale. The trains to and from Skopje used to be late and full of gastarbeiter (Macedonians working abroad, often in Germany) and backpackers; now they are punctual and empty. The situation is apparently even worse in the tourist area near lake Ohrid. Through no fault of its own, Macedonia has become isolated from Serbia and Greece, and thus isolated from Western visitors. All this cannot be good for Vlachs.

Sadly, as was seen in the former Yugoslavia, economic difficulties heighten ethnic tension. It is difficult to see how in spite of their caution the Vlachs can totally avoid this tension, and indeed the privileges awarded to them may actually exacerbate this tension if larger but less privileged minorities create trouble. The Albanians have of course their own television program, and I spent happy hours in my Skopje hotel watching bad westerns dubbed into Albanian. But they are less happy about political representation and educational opportunities, especially the unfulfilled demand for an Albanian University. One sometimes feels that the Vlachs have been granted their privileges in the same way, and for the same reasons that someone about to be made bankrupt is punctilious about paying the milkman.

Unlike the Albanians, Vlachs do not and cannot demand their own University. It is rather sad that at University level little work is being done to ensure the preservation of Vlach history, or research into the Vlach language. There is a certain amount of investigation into folklore15. Events in the past fifty years have not helped. It cannot be easy to remember one’s past if one has had to change from being an itinerant herdsman to living in a high rise flat. Many Vlachs were rich merchants. The fortunes and families of such merchants have been dissipated, and an investigation into these families would be difficult, painful and even unpopular. The Macedonian term for Vlach, particularly used for the rich merchants as opposed to the poor herdsman, is Cincar (pronounced tseen-tsar); it is a word with a slightly derogatory meaning. The rich Cincars were not popular because they were suspected of hoarding their wealth.

From the end of the Second World War Macedonians were taught a version of history that combined dialectical materialism with a fierce if slightly spurious nationalism. This view of history is still shown in the museums of Skopje and Krushevo, which though a Vlach town is also a shrine of Macedonian nationalism, for the Ilinden rising of 1903 took place there16. It must be difficult for Vlach intellectuals to get away from this view, which represents Macedonian history as the struggle of a heroic people to escape first from the Turk and then from the bourgeoisie, and there is a tendency for the Vlachs to see themselves on the side of the people, even though they were on occasions on the side of the Turks and members of the bourgeoisie. The true history of the Ilinden rising has never really been written; it is true that among leaders of the rebellion Goce Delcev was partially and Pitu Guli wholly of Vlach descent, and that many Vlach houses in Krushevo were destroyed, but as in most Balkan battles some people were on one side, some on another, some on neither and some on both17.

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The Miraculous pine tree growing on S’ta Maria church and a memorial to fallen soldiers
–Samarina (photo by James Prineas)

Recent history is painful and difficult to disentangle. Written records are lost or scattered or written in a variety of foreign tongues. It would take a great deal of time to make an objective study of these records. Not surprisingly the average Macedonian Vlach tends to shy away from the recent past and to concentrate on remoter eras in which it is easy to build theories to show how the Vlachs were the original inhabitants of Macedonia. Almost all the Vlachs I talked to subscribe to this theory; one can, pointing to the star patterns on the houses in Krushevo and noting its resemblance to the star of Vergina, the symbol of Alexander the Great, say that here was proof that Alexander was a Vlach.

The star has of course been a bone of contention with the Greeks, and the Macedonian flag has been changed accordingly. The Vlachs appear to agree with the Greeks and disagree with the Macedonians in asserting that the Slavs were late arrivals on the scene, but then insist that it is they who are the original autochthonous people.

This assertion is a variation on the old Balkan game of ‘we got there first’, played in Transylvania between Romanians and Hungarians, in Kosovo between Serbs and Albanians, and in Macedonia between almost everybody. It is a silly game. We are not going to hand over London to the Welsh, and the Americans are not going to yield their United States to the descendants of various Indian tribes. In the Balkans there have been so many invasions that it would be quite impossible for any indigenous group to maintain its identity. The Macedonian Vlachs are of course right in claiming some kind of continuity for their Latin speech. In Northern Macedonia and Southern Serbia the lingua franca was Latin under the Roman Empire until the time of Justinian, himself a Latin speaker. The Slav invasions began at the end of Justinian’s reign, and by the beginning of the seventh century the Balkan Peninsula was full of Slavs. The Latin-speaking Vlachs are in some sense the descendants of the population who survived the Slav invasions. Latin of course did not arrive in the Balkans for more than a hundred years after the death of Alexander, but the Macedonian Vlachs have more claim to continuity than either the Romanians or the Pindus Vlachs, where under the Roman Empire there was either a very brief Latin presence or no presence at all, and in Byzantine times no record of a Latin presence until well after Justinian.

This excursus into ancient history is necessary because it unfortunately puts the Macedonian Vlachs at variance with their Greek and Romanian cousins. Both Greece and Romania are countries with the traditions and resources to produce reasonable historical and linguistic scholarship, and both sets of scholars have labored ingeniously to prove that Vlachs are either Greeks or Romanians18. Indeed this is the accepted tradition of the Vlachs in those countries. The Macedonian theory, as yet unsupported by the full apparatus of scholarly books and articles and brought into discredit by wild claims about Alexander the Great, actually has much to commend it. There was a tradition of Balkan Latinity with Scupi (Skopje) as its center. With the Slavic invasions and the collapse of the Danube frontier, Latin speakers moved from this center northwards to Romania and southwards to the Pindus mountains, possibly joining other Latin speakers in the process. These movements have continued throughout history from north to south and vice versa with some Latin speakers being assimilated and turned into Greeks and Slavs, while other Latin settlements were renewed by fresh arrivals. Only the rise of nationalism in the nineteenth century and demand for a national myth, national schools and a national language put an end to this, resulting in a rapid decline in the number of Vlach speakers19.

After visiting Macedonia in early September 1996, I went to a Vlach congress in Freiburg, Germany, in late September. This was attended by Vlachs from Romania, Greece, Albania, Serbia and Macedonia with members of the Vlach diaspora in Europe and America, and a few interlopers like myself20. In the past at these congresses Greek Vlachs have been attacked for their views, but on this occasion Greek Vlachs were listened to courteously, although the Greek speakers by listing a host of Greek words in Vlach and saying that the Pindus mountains were the center of Vlachdom invited disagreement. Romanian speakers were treated with less courtesy, being for instance asked for a translation into Vlach21. The pro-Greek Albanian speaker attacked the Romanian ambassador in Tirana. The Macedonian delegates were listened to with great respect, and even won some praise from the Greeks who clearly however disagreed with their views and even with the achievements in education and the media that were outlined to them.

Provided that the Macedonian Vlachs can achieve enough backing from their own government and from other Vlach communities, there is no reason why these achievements should not continue. As I have shown, both kinds of support are precarious. It might be that as an exemplary minority being treated in an exemplary way the Macedonian Vlachs should appeal to some international foundation. This would enable them to improve their educational textbooks, do more research into their history and counter absurd nationalist claims which do such damage.

In a way the Vlachs are perfect Balkan citizens, able to preserve their culture without resource to war or politics, violence or dishonesty. In my last book on the Vlachs I drew attention to a Vlach family from the village of Nizopolje near Bitola22. The name of the family was Babo, but falling under Serbian, Bulgarian (in the war) and then Macedonian rule they had in turn adopted the name of Babovic, Babov and Babovski, and it was under these three names that three brothers had emigrated to Australia from whence they returned to visit their mother who had spent the first twelve years of her life under Turkish rule, and who spoke to me enthusiastically in Greek. Albanian is also spoken in the village which seemed to me in 1990 to be a very happy place in spite of its multi-ethnic past and present. I would hope that these rare glimmers of Vlach happiness would be allowed to continue in the future.

1. H. Poulton. The Balkans: Slavs and Minorities in Conflict (London 1994) pp.47-96.

2. R and B. Crompton, Atlas of Eastern Europe in the Twentieth Century (London 1996) p.257.

3. The International Year Book and Statesmen’s Who’s Who, (East Grinstead 1996), p.397.

4. W. Markert, Osteuropa Handbuch: Jugoslavien, (Koln, 1954) gives a total of 102,953 Vlachs in the 1948 census, but only 9,511 of these are in Macedonia. In the 1921 census for the whole of Yugoslavia, Romanians and Vlachs are lumped together as 231,068, and in 1931 as 137,879.

5. Veluki Geografski Atlas Jugoslaije (Zagreb 1987) is a mine of information, now sadly out of date, about ethnographical statistics in various parts of Yugoslavia. Five percent of the population declared themselves Yugoslavs; it is tragic to note that 21.2% was the percentage in Vukovar and 15.9% in Sarajevo. In the two areas of Eastern Serbia where Bulgarians were in a majority, there was also a high percentage of Yugoslavs, and the same phenomenon can be found in areas where there were substantial minorities of Czechs, Slovaks, Ruthenians, Italians and even Istrian Vlachs. It looks as if Yugoslav became a convenient umbrella to hide a dubious or disputed identity. In Macedonia only 9.7% of the population registered as Yugoslav, but this was more than twice the number of Vlachs. Some of the latter almost certainly registered as Yugoslavs or Macedonians, here slightly more politically correct than Yugoslavs, but Macedonia’s other minorities would feel the same pressure.

6. I apologize for this error in the second edition of The Vlachs (London 1995).

7. The total population of Gopesh, Nizopolje, Megarovo, Trnvo and Maloviste is under a thousand, and not all are Vlachs. On the other hand I have met many Vlachs from these villages in Bitola, some rather confusingly owning both a flat in the town and a little cottage in the villages.

8. I have met monoglot Vlachs in Greece in the 1980s, but never in Macedonia.

9. The Times of October 26th 1996 says that a third of the Irish population speak some Irish and 4% are fluent in it. But fluency is something different from regular use. I prefer the gloomier views of R. Fidley, Death of the Irish Language (London 1990), and some gloomier correspondence and articles in The Times of November.

10. This view that one is a Vlach because one has Vlach ancestors is in itself perfectly harmless, and involves no fascist theories of race provided that one does not carry it to extremes, in which case except in a few very isolated instances all people would be of all races. But it is very common in the Balkans, and leads to some very dangerous assumptions, as for instance the view among Greeks that all members of the Orthodox Church in Albania are really Greeks, some of whom have forgotten how to speak Greek.

11. There are in fact two Vlach associations in Albania, forming different views. Before the First World War, as recorded by Wace and Thompson in The Nomads of the Balkans (London 1914) most Vlach villages had the same two parties.

12. More gloomy figure of 20,000 for regular speakers of both Scottish and Irish Gaelic would make Vlach in Macedonia stronger than the former and almost as strong as the latter. A figure of 30 to 50,000 might be more reasonable. The population of Scotland is about 5 million, of Ireland 3.5 million.

13. I was given several slim volumes of poetry and cassettes of songs by Mr Dina Cuvata. He like other Vlach poets and singers also works in Macedonia. There are films about Vlachs to be found in the Macedonian television station, including work by the famous Vlach pioneers of photography, the Manaki brothers.

14. I think this extraordinary theory springs from a confusion between the Himalayas and the Alps, where Romantsch does have obvious links with Vlach.

15. C. Leaky-Anovska, The Origin of the Vlach Story-tellers (in Macedonia) (Skopje, 1995) is doing good work in this field.

16. The Museum in Skopje is well maintained with sadly few visitors, but the one in Krushevo is very much a shrine to Macedonian nationalism. There is more information about Vlachs in the former. Unlike the equivalent museum in Tirana there have been few changes made since the collapse of communism.

17. Compare the very different treatment of Ilinden in for example D. Dakin The Greek Struggle in Macedonia (Salonica, 1966) and Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, Macedonia: Documents and Material, (Sofia, 1978). Macedonian historians give another kind of picture. As well as Krushevo the Vlach villages of Neveska (Nymphaion) and Klisoura, both in Greece, were centers of the uprising, but this is partly because they were strategic points.

18. For a not very up to date account of recent Romanian and Greek scholarship on the Vlach problem see The Vlachs (London, 1987) pp, 42-4.

19. Vlach schools never really got off the ground, especially in Macedonia where after the First World War, the Serb-dominated Yugoslav government did not even, as Greece did, allow Romanian schools. The first Vlach school was founded at Trnovo in the nineteenth century, but even on Mount Pelister Greek schools were always stronger.

20. The Vlach association at Freiburg produces a magazine Zborlu a Nostru and has biennial conferences with delegates from all over the world. Held under the auspices of the perfectly respectable Romanian department of Freiburg University it combines scholarly papers, an opportunity for Vlachs to meet each other, and regrettably a good deal of controversy, although I saw less evidence of this on the most recent occasion.

21. Shattered Eagles: Balkan Fragments (London, 1993) pp.48-9.

22. It is partly in this hope that I have written this paper, although such is the situation in the Balkans that it will probably engender more heat than light. Even the name Vlach is likely to cause misunderstanding, although it seemed preferable to the obscure and slightly degrading Cincar, or the confusing Aromanian or Macedo-Romanian. I am grateful to the many Vlachs who helped me in Macedonia and for invaluable assistance rendered by Bill Macalister, James Pettifer and Gaynor Kennard.


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