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SAT, 14 APR 2001 18:37:36 GMT

Comparing Aromanian, Bosniak, Macedonian and Roma -Late or Failed- Nation-Building in the Balkans

AIM Athens, April 14, 2001

Nationalism is by its very nature an imprecise area of study. When examining the historical development of certain nations, the student of nationalism must address incongruent and conflicting situations that resist simple explanation. A study of the Balkans, an area of extraordinary diversity where identities often overlap, highlights the difficulty of attempting to provide clear and straightforward answers to problems associated with nationhood and the development of nationalities. The Balkan region has undergone a history of change and turmoil over the past few millennia, and the result of this history is a complex social and cultural environment. Because of this complexity, no one explanation can exclusively account for why some groups have been successful in establishing and consolidating a national identity, and why others have not been as successful.

Despite the multifaceted nature of the Balkans, one may be able to discern the general reasons that contributed to these developments. This essay will argue that some common characteristics have hindered the formation of nationhood for Aromanians (Vlachs), Bosniaks, Macedonians, and Roma, but in the end the particular features of each group account for why nationhood has been slow to develop among these peoples. The study will initially discuss a few of the common aspects that have limited the possibility of nationhood for the four groups, and will then consider each group's individual features in relation to the difficulties of nation-building projects.

What does "achieving nationhood" mean?

The meaning of "achieving" or "accomplishing" nationhood in relation to the four ethnic groups mentioned above might be easily understood in a general sense, but, when used analytically, these terms tend to obscure rather than clarify. They should first be defined with greater precision before determining why some groups have been less successful than others in realizing nationhood and national identity in the Balkans. Benedict Anderson proposes that a nation is an "imagined community" with which one feels associated due to shared cultural elements. A national identity to a member of this imagined community is a primary source of identity that is mutually exclusive with the identity of other nations, meaning that as a rule a person feels to be a member of only one nation. Additionally, nations are most often distinguished by a commitment to a political project, predominately to a sovereign nation-state where a nation-building project may commence without outside interference. This essay will examine the accomplishment of nationhood in the Balkans with the above precepts as a theoretical guide.

Common features which have prevented nation-state formation

One feature common in varying degrees to all four ethnic groups is a high level of geographical dispersion and ethnic intermixing. The most striking minority in this regard is the Roma, who are mostly located roughly in the region between Hungary and Greece in varying numbers, though always in a numerical minority. Similarly, Aromanians are not concentrated in any one region, but may be found interspersed among other nationalities in present-day Albania, Macedonia, Greece, and Romania.

Yet the demographic fact of dispersion and intermixing do not completely prevent the formation of a national identity. The majority in Macedonia has accepted a Macedonian national identity, despite the existence of a large number of ethnic Macedonians in Greece and Bulgaria and a sizable Albanian community within this country. Likewise, the Bosniaks, from the period of Ottoman rule to the present day, have always been highly intermixed among Christian Slavs, yet Bosniak national identity is a present reality. Certainly the dispersed and intermixed nature of these two ethnicities have slowed their national aspirations, but the relative territorial concentration of both the Macedonians and the Bosniaks has helped to overcome the limitations in the formation of a national consciousness.

Another important common factor in the slow development of these ethnicities to consolidate nationhood has been the lack of an educated upper stratum of ethnic or religious society, what one might call a "national elite." Jack Snyder argues that an elite is a crucial element in the promotion and dissemination of national consciousness. According to Snyder, an elite often utilizes symbols and stories from a shared historical memory to generate and disseminate a national identity. A national elite also plays an indispensable role in conveying a sense of national distinctiveness to the outside world, a crucial factor when the nation attempts to attain statehood or secure another type of political project.

The four ethnic groups in consideration, however, have all been slow to develop a national elite. Roma have historically been systematically excluded from the societies where they are present, and as a result are typically less educated than the majority culture in these places. The dearth of an educated stratum has strongly hindered the establishment of a Romani national elite. While elites do exist within Roma cultures, traditionally they have not been national elites in the sense of promoting the unification and consolidation of an all-encompassing Roma nation. Only recently has such an elite emerged to promote Roma interests in these terms. Likewise, elites in Aromanian cultures have tended to be rich bourgeoisies who played key roles in nationhood formation for ethnic groups other than the Aromanian itself. Although the Ottoman Empire founded an administrative millet territory based on Vlach identity in the early 20th Century, this did not result in the creation of a national elite to trumpet the cause of "pan-Aromanianism."

The Muslim elites that existed in the former Yugoslavia, before that state's formation, felt that the Islamic faith served as a primary source of identity, though they were sometimes partial to a Croatian or Serbian identity. After World War II, the non-Muslim Marshal Tito and the Communist Party of Yugoslavia served as a type of "proxy" elite which concretized the idea of a Bosniak nationality. Since both the Croats and Serbs each claimed the Bosnian Muslims as their own people, Tito believed that the most prudent solution to this rivalry would be to create a completely separate nationality based on religious affiliation. A true Bosniak elite has emerged only since the break-up of Yugoslavia to resume this nation-building process. Regarding Macedonians, Loring Danforth claims that they possessed a national elite in the nineteenth century which attempted to "imagine" a Macedonian national community separate from the Greeks and Bulgarians. As with the Bosniaks, the Yugoslav Communist elite contributed significantly to the creation of a distinct Macedonian national identity and culture.

Finally, all four groups have lacked consistent foreign patronage for support in their nation-building projects. Past experience has shown that the patronage of other nation-states or international fora can be critical in the development of national consciousness. An independent Israel was guaranteed by the United Nations in 1948, thus paving the way for Israeli nation-building policies in this state. In the Balkans, Serbia attained and maintained independent statehood from the Ottoman Empire in the late nineteenth century largely due to the Russian Empire. Romania also claimed a sovereign state and expanded its territory after World War I thanks to France's support for the Romanian national cause. International patronage allowed the means for these nations to establish a sovereign territory, from where they could consolidate a sense of national consciousness.

The four cultures considered here generally have obtained only weak or inconsistent foreign patronage. No large nation or international body has ever strongly promoted the cause of the Romani nation. The Aromanians have received some support from Romania as a Latin-speaking kin, but this support has been limited, and moreover, not all Aromanians look to Romania as a patron. Certain Islamic states in the Middle East have provided patronage and support to Bosniaks only during and after the war in Bosnia in the 1990s. Macedonians received international support for their national cause only in the course of the break-up of the former Yugoslavia. Since the international community generally recognized that Yugoslavia was in the process of dissolution along internal administrative borders, with the significant exception of Greece, it passively accepted the inevitable reality of an independent Macedonian state.

Individual characteristics which have prevented nation-state formation

* Macedonians

Due to turbulent history and geopolitical surroundings, the Macedonians developed a national identity later than most other "successful" nationalities in Central and Eastern Europe. The Ottoman Empire's millet system of administrative division by religious belief had a strong hold on the mentality of the peoples in this area. As a result of this emphasis on religion, for many years the most important form of identity for the Slavs in current-day Macedonia was an affiliation with Orthodox Christianity. When the concept of nationalism spread throughout Europe in the mid-nineteenth century, it failed to have the effect of creating a distinct Macedonian national identity. One important reason why this did not occur may have been the lack of an autocephalous Orthodox Church in Macedonia, which had been instrumental in generating national identity in Greece and Bulgaria. Moreover, the neighboring Serbs, Bulgarians and Greeks carried out nation-building policies in this period, and each attempted to claim the people now known as Macedonians as part of their own respective nations. Consequently, by the start of the twentieth century, most Macedonians considered themselves to be ethnic Bulgarians.

By recognizing Macedonian as a constituent nation of Yugoslavia in the 1940s, the Communist Party of Yugoslavia helped accomplish the Macedonian national identity, expressly for political purposes. Gradually that distinct national identity developed and spread into the mentality of the Slavic people living in the present area of Macedonia, where it is now entrenched. Although a latecomer to the nationalism process, Macedonian nationhood is as valid as any other long-established national identity.

* Bosniaks

Like the Macedonians, the consequences of the Ottoman millet system had great significance for the Bosniaks. For most of their history, Muslims in Bosnia and the Sandzak did not ascribe to the ethno-confessional term "Bosniak," as the Islamic faith and its related culture instead were primary sources of identity for people who lived in this region. The establishment of Yugoslavia, a decentralized state for southern Slavs, had a decisive effect on spreading a Bosniak national identity in the twentieth century. Hugh Poulton writes that the concept of a Bosniak nation was "enhanced through state policies." The Bosniaks essentially saw their ethnic group transform into a nation in the Yugoslav state, since Tito found it politically expedient to create a new nationality to reconcile Croat and Serb claims that the Bosnian Muslims were part of their respective nations. Following World War II, Tito gradually granted greater recognition to Bosniak nationhood, culminating in the classification of Bosniaks as a separate -Muslim- "nation" within Yugoslavia in 1981. However, Bosniaks found this source of identity targeted during the Bosnian war of 1992-1995 by Serbs and Croats, who endeavored to physically eliminate all Muslims within Bosnia and Herzegovina. The war served as a powerful nation-building tool for the Bosniaks, and effectively solidified the sense of a distinct national identity for them.

* Aromanians

The Aromanians (Vlachs) have been able to reconcile the peculiarities of their ethnicity with the national identities in the states where they live, and as a result have never forged a separate Aromanian national consciousness. In other words, the Aromanians could speak their own Latin-based language and live their own way of life, yet not feel as if this were in conflict with the culture of the majority. Aromanians have also tended to conceal their identity from the majority culture and easily assimilate with others around them. Thus Aromanian never "competed" with other nations as a primary source of identity, as the Macedonian identity did (and still does) with Serbian, Greek, and Bulgarian identities in the 20th Century.

Aromanian expert T.J. Winnifrith reveals a startling observation from his travels among this people: Aromanian culture appeared most pronounced to him when Aromanians themselves were least aware of being "Aromanian." Surprisingly, it appears that, with the Aromanians, greater contact and awareness of difference with others tends to lead to Aromanian assimilation or integration with the majority culture, not to more pronounced ethnic consciousness.

Apparently, then, the question is not why Aromanians have been slow to develop nationhood, but rather why Aromanians have resisted complete assimilation, and why a detectable Aromanian identity still persists in terms of unique linguistic and cultural features. Perhaps elements of their culture persist because many Aromanians have tended to remain physically apart from other cultures due to a proclivity to live in remote, mountainous regions and practice a transhumance way of life. This relative seclusion from the rest of the world has occasionally created a sense of awareness of difference for the Aromanians, although this has not translated to the need for an Aromanian national identity. Equally important, a sense of "Aromanian-ness" never demanded primary importance, allowing Aromanians to feel comfortable in a nation-state in which they are not in the majority.

* Roma

Many factors are prominent in explaining why the Roma have been slow to develop a national identity. First of all, the Roma are not one singular homogenous entity, but are a diverse, complex people who vary widely by language and religious affiliation. Some Roma speak the language of the majority culture where they live as their primary language, and others maintain one of many Romani languages in their communities. Because of this diversity, few Roma think of themselves as belonging to a wider "nation" that exists outside of their own community. Moreover, many Roma have historically tended to be nomadic, which has led to their geographical dispersion throughout Europe and the lack of any place that could conceivably be a "homeland" for them.

Furthermore, throughout history the Roma have typically been excluded from mainstream society in the areas they have been living. Majority cultures invariably "ghettoize" them, resulting in widespread discrimination in all facets of life and limited educational opportunities for Roma children. The Roma's status as perpetually outside the mainstream society, coupled with their extreme diversity and nomadic character, have all contributed to their difficulties in achieving nationhood. However, Roma elites have recently begun to emerge and demand recognition from the European Union and other international actors as a specific nationality. One likely reason why nationhood has developed for Roma, as distinct from Aromanians, may be because the latter group was able to assimilate into the majority culture, while the marginalization of the Roma has led to their use of the national concept to further Roma interests.

In summary

Aromanians, Bosniaks, Macedonians and Roma have similar features which have limited the formation of a national identity and national consciousness, such as a tendency to be geographically dispersed and intermixed with other nationalities, the slow development of a national elite, and the lack of international patronage. Each also possesses particular characteristics which have had an even greater effect on the formation of a separate national identity.

It must be stressed, though, that nationalism and nation-building is a process, not a finished product. One relevant example in this regard concerns the Roma, as representatives of Romani have recently begun a nation-building process to unite their disparate peoples in Europe. Whether they or the other cultures discussed here will succeed in consolidating a permanent national identity, or eventually become assimilated into other cultures, is still to be determined.

-------------------------------------------- * Steven D. Nelson is a M.A. student in the Nationalism program of the Central European University (Budapest). This is an edited version of his final essay for the seminar "States and Minorities in the Balkans," offered by AIM Athens editor Panayote Dimitras.

Steven D. Nelson*