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WED, 04 APR 2001 20:07:49 GMT

The Balkans' Hidden Minorities: Greece's Vlachs and Bulgaria's Pomaks

AIM Athens, April 4, 2001

Situated at the gates of the Orient, at the crossroads between two worlds, the Balkans are one of those transitory regions par excellence. Always caught in the webs of several empires battling for influence over the region, the people living in this territory - itself problematic to define - had to devise throughout their troubled history various survival strategies that enabled them to make a living and strike some roots in such fluid circumstances. Most of these very diverse groups thus developed ways of life and identities that allowed them to adapt to unpredictable changes in rule and borders, which have been drawn and redrawn so many times that it is very hard to disentangle them anymore. One way of doing this was by becoming inconspicuous, blending into the background and adapting to the times, a strategy encapsulated in a saying from my home country, Romania - the water flows, but the stones stay.

A perfect example of this 'chameleon' strategy are the two 'hidden minorities' I discuss here - the Vlachs in Greece and the Pomaks in Bulgaria. This essay will first try to explain why and how these two groups are 'hidden minorities,' and, secondly, it will place their situation within the framework of international minority rights.

Though very different in terms of linguistic, ethnic and religious characteristics - a widespread feature of Balkan coexistence - these two groups share some common traits of 'hidden minorities.' Neither Vlachs in Greece nor Pomaks in Bulgaria are officially recognized by state authorities, which claim these groups belong to the majority population of the respective country. Moreover, members of these groups have tended to identify - at least outwardly - with various majority populations among whom they live, for obvious survival reasons. This, in turn, has led to a tendency to assimilate in such majority populations, along religious lines in the case of the Vlachs, and along either linguistic lines in the case of Pomak inclusion in the Bulgarian group, or along religious lines in the case of Pomak inclusion in the Turkish group in Bulgaria. This tendency has been traditionally exploited by Greek and Bulgarian state authorities that played the old game of divide et impera in an attempt to undermine the claims of their various minorities. This is more obvious in the case of Bulgaria, who incited the Pomaks in the Eastern part of the Rhodope Mountains against the Turks, but Greece also tried the same with its own Pomak minority.

Having identified some common features that define these 'hidden minorities,' we turn to a closer look at the particular situation of each of the two groups in question, Vlachs first and then Pomaks. Before proceeding with the actual analysis, a clarification of a terminological aspect: with the term Vlachs we understand primarily the more numerous Aromanian group, as they are paradigmatic for the Vlach population in Greece (which also has a small Meglenoromanian group).

The Vlachs in Greece could be seen as the epitome of the 'hidden minority' category. Forming the largest Vlach community in the Balkans, their situation is a delicate one. As Greece does not recognize the presence of national minorities within its boundaries - and only reluctantly admits to the existence of religious minorities - the Vlachs are not recognized as a minority with an identity that is distinct from the Greek majority. Rather they are considered to be Vlach-speaking Greeks, although even this description is problematic, since Greece does not recognize minority languages either The January 2001 conviction in Athens of an Aromanian activist who had distributed a European document on lesser minority languages is a proof in this sense.

Secondly, Vlachs in Greece tend to strongly identify with the Greek nation. One explanation for this would be the legacy of the Ottoman millet system which divided the empire's population according to religious affiliation, leading to a long-lasting correlation between religion and identity. This made it very easy for the Vlachs to be included in the Orthodox Greek population, although for a short period of time the Vlachs were recognized as a separate millet. This assimilation was mainly voluntary, as a way of adapting to the surrounding culture, with many Vlachs strongly supporting (both ideologically and financially) the aspirations of the Greek nation. Yet, the prevalent reason behind the assimilation was probably a more calculated and interested choice, one facet of the survival strategy mentioned in the beginning. Nevertheless, this identification with the majority Greek population was not as smooth a process as it may seem. It also came about as a result of the Greek state policies of assimilation, which implied refusal of recognition of both minority status and minority language. Due to lack of mother tongue education and media facilities, together with the urbanization process, the process of assimilation has been gaining momentum, despite recent attempts to revive a distinct Vlach identity.

Furthermore, not all Vlachs chose the Greeks as a source of identification; some looked up to their linguistic kin, the Romanians, who for a while set up schools in the Romanian language, a development that generated a split within the Vlach community. Such tendencies were not easily tolerated by the Greeks, who obviously preferred the Hellenized Vlachs. This rift in the Vlach community in Greece resulted in the migration of most pro-Romanian Vlachs to Romania, yielding the ground in favor of the 'better-suited-for-adaptation' pro-Greek Vlachs.

Apart from being a successful survival strategy for a 'hidden minority,' this fervent Vlach identification with the Greek majority does not seem to be particularly problematic, especially in the context of Balkan patterns of coexistence. Speaking from personal experience, as a half-Tatar from the ethnically highly diverse region of Dobrogea, I can say that there should not necessarily be a tension between the Vlach and Greek identities. One can very well be both a Vlach and a Greek patriot, the same way that I consider myself a Romanian patriot without that chipping away anything from my Tatar heritage. And in the context of Balkan states, which tend to favor an ethnic definition of the nation rather than a civic one, such 'hybrid' cases could offer a model of peaceful coexistence.

This strategy of voluntary identification with the Greek majority does not imply an outright negation of Vlach identity. This appears rather to be the Vlachs' way of successfully adapting themselves to the majority culture. And it is exactly this feature that best characterizes the Vlachs as a 'hidden minority' - this inclination to keep their identity somewhat hidden, outwardly professing support for and adoption of the majority identity, while inwardly retaining a sense of particularity.

The same could be said about the other 'hidden minority' discussed here - the Pomaks of Bulgaria. Living mostly in compact communities in the Rhodope Mountains in southern Bulgaria and numbering around 220,000, the Pomaks too are denied recognition as a distinct group by Bulgarian authorities. And their case is even more complicated than that of the Vlachs in Greece, because the Pomaks are contested by three different ethnic groups, as Bulgarians, Turks, and Greeks believe this group actually belongs among their midst. Bulgarians believe Pomaks to be ethnic Bulgarians who were forced to convert to Islam during Ottoman rule, and their main argument is the fact that Pomaks speak a variant of the Bulgarian language. The Turkish official line is that the Pomaks are descendants of pre-Ottoman Turkic tribes, the stress being laid on the shared religious affiliation. Finally, Greece considers the Pomaks as descendants of Hellenized Thracian tribes who were later converted to Islam. None bothers to ask the Pomaks themselves about their preferred self-identification, and with this we move on to another feature of this 'hidden minority.'

Caught in between these divergent identities, Pomaks have a peculiar pattern of self-identification, a perfect example of the survival strategy that enables them to adapt and recreate their identity according to various circumstances. As mentioned before, in the eastern part of the Rhodope Mountains, with a significant Turkish population, the Pomaks tend to identify with the Bulgarian majority. The communist authorities obviously encouraged this tendency and regarded them as Bulgarian elements infiltrated into this predominantly Turkish region. Thus the process of assimilation into a majority group may overlook religious affiliation and favor linguistic unity. This process was aided by appointing Pomaks in administrative and economic positions to the detriment of the Turkish population.

Contrary to this, in Western Rhodopes, where Pomaks live among Bulgarians, they refer to themselves mainly as Turks. During the 1990s this identification along religious lines gained momentum, but this trend seems to be on the decline now, with significant numbers of Pomaks opting for a distinct Pomak identity, usually referred to as 'Muslim' or 'Musulman.' Still, we can notice the permanent pressure on the Pomak community in Bulgaria to take sides and identify either with the Bulgarian or with the Turkish populations. Caught in traditional nationalistic conflicts between Bulgarians and Turks, the Pomaks find it hard to establish an identity of their own. This process was definitely exacerbated by the aggressive communist policies of assimilation and 'Bulgarization,' which added to the confusion with respect to their identity. (In four successive waves, the Pomaks of Bulgaria were subjected to forced campaigns of name changing, that also targeted dress codes and banned any signs of a pan-Islamic identity.) Amidst all these pressures to assimilate into either the co-religious Turkish group or the co-linguistic Bulgarian group, Pomaks have developed their own way of identification. But exactly because of these different pressures to assimilate into groups that would facilitate their survival, there are many different varieties and no standard version of Pomak self-identification. Not having the 'monopoly on truth' - that is the monopoly on means to create and disseminate national myths, which the Bulgarian authorities grossly manipulated to demonstrate the 'Bulgarianness' of the Pomaks - maybe it can only be said that the Pomaks are convinced that they are a separate entity, which is neither Bulgarian nor Turkish. Moreover, what is extremely interesting is how divergent these versions of self-identification can be. The Pomaks often describe themselves as either 'the purest Bulgarians' or 'Muslims before the Turks.' In the words of a sociologist who conducted field studies of Pomak self-identification patterns, these divergent folk explanations seem to reveal a desire to compensate for a status which is perceived as inferior to that of both the Bulgarians and the Turks.

These hardships in defining the distinct identity of the Pomaks in Bulgaria show how fluid their sense of identity is. But it is exactly this fluidity and capacity to adapt to the prevailing surrounding circumstances that enabled the Pomaks, just like the Vlachs in Greece, to maintain underneath all this a sense of their own distinctiveness. This sense was buried sometimes under layers of assimilation, but nevertheless was there.

The survival strategies adopted by these two 'hidden minorities' managed so far to assist them in preserving their separate, even though 'hidden,' identity. Nevertheless, for reasons outlined above - mainly assimilation and urbanization - the perpetuation of both Vlach and Pomak identities is under threat. What can still 'save' them is the current trend in the international community that shifted towards a pronounced endorsement of minority rights and respect of minority cultures. The results can already be seen in the case of Vlachs in Greece, who are slowly showing timid signs of a cultural revival. However, the situation in Greece remains the same, the authorities still refusing to recognize the existence of national minorities and languages. Despite international pressure, Greece has not yet ratified the Framework Convention about the Protection of National Minorities, which is the latest European standard in minority rights. In view of all this, it appears that the Greek state denies basic linguistic minority rights to the Vlachs, and for this reason Greece has been receiving a lot of criticism. Bulgaria seems to be doing better, at least in terms of theoretical compliance with most international norms of minority rights, though the actual implementation of these norms is always problematic.

The question when it comes to discussing these international minority standards is a common-sensical one. Do the Vlachs in Greece really want all the minority rights stipulated by these international documents? After all, they survived so far - and in a rather successful and prosperous manner one may say -exactly because of the 'hidden minority' strategy. If they start claiming all these rights - which otherwise they are absolutely entitled to - they would automatically attract the suspicion of the Greek majority, which could spark tension and eventually lead to a situation in which the Vlachs would lose the position they secured for themselves in the Greek community. Better to let them come to terms on their own with the possibilities opened by the current standards on minority rights. It would definitely be in nobody's interest to stoke the fire when it is not burning him (at least not too much).

As for the Pomaks in Bulgaria, the situation is again more complicated due to the economic situation of the country in general and of this group in particular. The fact that Bulgaria continues to deny recognition of their distinct identity is, of course, entirely incompatible with international standards on minority rights. People should always have the right to identify themselves according to their liking, free from outward pressures. The problem in this case is not only to provide recognition of a separate identity, together with all the ensuing rights that enable a minority to maintain its distinctive features, but also to provide some economic assistance too, an issue which is very intricate in the context of the difficult economic transition.

In conclusion, the current international minority rights standards could prove to be eventually, when both Greece and Bulgaria will comply with them unequivocally (because the international commitment to these rights seems irreversible), essential in assisting the Vlachs and the Pomaks in preserving their distinct identities. Until now, the 'hidden minority' tactics, with its peculiar blend of self denial - in the form of assimilation into a majority group - and self-assertion - mainly inwardly - seemed to work fine for both Vlachs in Greece and Pomaks in Bulgaria. But this may not be enough anymore. What we need to do is let each minority group decide what are the best means to advance its interests, especially nowadays, when everybody, from states to international organizations, seems to have a solution for national minorities problems. They know best what is best for them, and the choice between the 'hidden minority' strategy and internationally recognized minority rights is an option that must be available to the minorities, and only to them.

---------------------------------------- * Essyn Levent Emurla is a M.A. student in the Nationalism program of the Central European University (Budapest). This is a slightly edited version of her final essay for the seminar "States and Minorities in the Balkans," offered by AIM Athens editor Panayote Dimitras.

Essyn Levent Emurla*