Date: Fri, 21 Mar 97 13:02:41 CST
Southern Discomfort: Majorities despise minorities, and the hatred is often mutual
By Panayote Elias Dimitras, War Report, January/February 1997
We are distributing three articles by our spokesperson published in War Report or in - The War Report et al. co-sponsored special English issue of the Albanian newspaper, Koha Jone.
In the 1990s, the conflicts in former Yugoslavia led to an explosion of interest in the Balkan region. Moreover, as Romania was thought to be the only Balkan country that had not rid itself of communism, it too caught world attention. Books, seminars, missions, research programmes and support to NGOs proliferated for these countries; much of that was directly or indirectly related to the minority problems which triggered the Yugoslav wars and brought Romanian-Hungarian relations to a dangerous impasse.
But there was little concern from outside for the southern half of the peninsula, which was generally perceived as stable, notwithstanding some apparent problems. This lack of interest reflected the fact that the Balkan south-Albania, Bulgaria, Greece, Macedonia, and European Turkey-remained misunderstood outside, and sometimes even within, the region. The general impression was that these countries either lacked significant minorities or, where minorities existed, they were treated in a satisfactory way. Such groups as Albanians in Macedonia and Turks in Bulgaria, for example, were seen to be participating directly in, or giving crucial indirect support to, the governments.
Apart from the minorities themselves, only a few genuine (i.e., not government-manipulated) NGOs were aware of the far more complex situation of minorities in the southern Balkans. Thanks to the work of NGOs, the real and unfortunately more disturbing news has slowly come to international attention. At times, governments have aided this process through ill-conceived actions that made some minority problems, if not the minorities themselves, known beyond their borders. Such was the effect of the trials of Greek minority leaders in Albania and of Macedonian minority leaders in Greece.
Hidden Minorities. More than a score of minorities are present in the region. There are ethno-national minorities (i.e., those who identify with the dominant nation of an adjacent nation state), like the more or less officially admitted and by now widely known Greeks in Albania and European Turkey, Turks in Bulgaria and Greece, and Albanians in Macedonia. There are also ethno-linguistic minorities, those with a distinct identity but no affiliation to a cross-border "mother nations", such as the Roma (Gypsies) everywhere, the Aromanians (Vlachs) in all countries but Turkey, and the Arvanites (Albanian-speakers) in Greece. Finally, there are religious minorities: a multitude of historically rooted or recently established non-Orthodox Christian communities in Bulgaria, Greece, and Macedonia; and non-Sunni Muslim communities in Albania and Turkey.
However, a problem probably unique to the area is the presence of "hidden minorities". In some cases, the state vehemently denies their existence: Macedonians in Bulgaria and Greece; and Bulgarians in Macedonia, for example. In Bulgaria, admitting the presence of Macedonians would challenge the national myth that no separate Macedonian nation exists anywhere, let alone in Bulgaria's own territory. In Macedonia, the presence of Bulgarians is considered incompatible with the notion that Macedonians "cannot" be Bulgarians. In Greece, former Prime Minister Constantine Mitsotakis admitted that the recent acrimonious dispute with Macedonia was motivated mainly by Greece's fear of the "emergence of a second minority problem, in [the Greek region of] Western Macedonia."
Then there are minorities whose existence is recognised only within territorial limits: this applies to Greeks and Macedonians in Albania, whose existence the state recognises only in the south. As a result, official censuses underestimate their actual numbers, while the rights the state grants to minorities, especially in education, can be enjoyed only in southern Albania.
Sometimes, a minority is acknowledged but with a name different from the one it wishes to use. In Greece, there are no Turks but only Muslims. Conversely, in Turkey there are no Greeks (Ynanli) but only Christian Orthodox (Rum). In Bulgaria, Pomaks are usually referred to as Bulgarian Muslims. In that way, states pretend to accept the minorities' existence but define them as religious rather than ethnic.
Finally, decades of repression and assimilation have instilled in other minorities feelings of inferiority which have seriously weakened the assertion of their identity. Even if a scurpulously fair census could be carried out in the region-in itself a virtual impossibility-of the half a million Aromanians, fewer than 10 per cent would declare their ethnic identity; the same goes for many of the more than 1 million Roma; and for the nearly quarter-million Arvanites in Greece. In addition, most religious minorities, but also some ethnic ones, seem to loathe the term "minority" fearing that it automatically diminishes their social status and opportunities.
Intolerance and the National Consensus. History may help explain why minorities throughout the Balkans have suffered so much. Until the borders of Balkan states became final, after World War II, ethno-national minorities were perceived, sometimes with justification, as "Trojan horses" of their "mother nations", and vehicles of irredentism. Moreover, the construction of solid national identities almost always followed the creation of the states, and turned out to be much more complicated. The resulting emphasis on national homogeneity and conformity made "otherness" undesirable even for supposedly non-threatening religious minorities or the Roma. Minorities that were not cleansed or expelled in the 150 years of Balkan nationalist wars were doomed to oppression.
Today, however, history cannot and should not be accepted as an excuse for intolerance towards minorities. When all Balkan countries dream of joining the multicultural entity that is the European Union, their societies, and more precisely their dominant nations, should be more open and more confident in accepting "otherness" as a potential wealth rather than a necessary evil.
Source: Surveys conducted by Opinion for the Lambrakis Research Foundation (1,200 interviews 20/1-20/2/1993) in Greece; by Marketing Consult (1,161 interviews in Bulgaria) and BBSS (906 interviews in Albania, 1,002 in Macedonia) for the Bulgarian International Center for Minority Studies and Intercultural Relations in spring 1994. We are grateful to Antonina Zhelyaskova and Krassimir Kanev for having made the results available to us.
Source: Surveys conducted for the USIA by the Albanian Independent Center of Sociological Studies in Albania (1,000 interviews in July 1993); the Center for the Study of Democracy in Bulgaria (1,090 interviews in April 1994); BBSS in Macedonia (1,102 interviews in October 1993).
This is far from being the case. The data in the tables here indicates that majorities despise minorities. Other surveys have shown that the hatred is often mutual. The main reason is that the education system in these countries (including the universities) is, with rare exceptions, at best silent on the matter and at worst reproduce traditional negative stereotypes, if not outright hatred. The same is true for the attitude towards neighbouring peoples, who are almost always less popular than the distant nations of Western or Eastern Europe. It is almost inevitable, then, that most media constantly reproduce negative stereotypes and hate speech, thus ensuring that intolerance is solidly rooted in the minds of the majorities. Two comparative media monitoring projects in the region, coordinated by the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights and by the Bulgarian NGO ACCESS, have provided ample evidence since 1994. For example, Serb and Macedonian newspapers frequently refer to Albanians as "Shiptars", while Albanian papers call Serbs "Shkja". Both terms are perceived as insulting by the peoples concerned. Macedonians have been labelled "thieves" in the Bulgarian press, and "usurpers" and "heroin smugglers" in Greece. Radio Skopje, on the other hand, has referred to Greeks as "liars; dishonest merchants."
In this climate, minorities in the southern Balkans are easy targets for official discrimination and popular intolerance, especially when the countries they live in are in conflict with those of their "mother nation". At the height of Greek-Albanian tensions in the mid-1990s, the Greek minority in Albania was persecuted more than ever before in the past 50 years, while the Greek state used the large immigrant Albanian community (technically not a minority) in Greece as a hostage to blackmail Tirana. Tensions in Greek-Turkish relations or in Cyprus are regularly followed by outbreaks of violence against Greeks in Turkey or Turks in Greece.
The sometimes hidden minorities in the Southern Balkans could not fight for their rights in the Cold War period, when East-West conflict marginalised their concerns in international fora. The post-Cold War era, fortunately, has placed respect for human rights at the top of the agenda, even if there is hardly a state in the continent fully committed to such principles. As a result, minorities have become more vocal and demanding. If states and dominant nations continue to treat them without the necessary respect for their rights, there can be only one result: the exacerbation and consequent rise of nationalism among, minorities, phenomena already present to some degree in most cases. This will make it more difficult to solve the problems and will eventually radicalise the reactions and demands of at least those ethno-national minorities who feel they have the backing of their "mother nations". It is obvious that this can only bring more instability to the region.
It is therefore imperative that all countries in the southern as well as the northern Balkans come to grips with the danger and revise their minority policies. A policy declaration to this effect was first proposed a year ago by two Greek NGOs, the Greek Helsinki Monitor and the Minority Rights Group-Greece. It was later adopted by other NGOs in the region, as well as by the International Commission on the Balkans. It calls on states to implement all human rights documents they have signed; to sign and ratify all outstanding ones; and to adapt their legislation to conform to the standards set forth in these documents. This means, first and foremost, to recognise the right of individuals to define their identity and to belong to whatever minority they wish. All religious communities should be equally respected. Educational systems must abandon ethnocentrism and thoroughly revise their curricula. Civil servants, especially teachers and judges, should be trained to implement international principles on minority rights. Special independent institutions (ombudsmen or commissions) are required to oversee the application of these principles and also closely to monitor media incitement to ethnic, racial or religious hatred. Such incitement has contributed significantly to all Balkan conflicts.
Finally, intergovernmental organisations such as the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the Council of Europe and the European Union must introduce measures that will help Balkan countries to apply human and minority rights principles. Credible and practical international sanctions must be devised for states which persist in violating these principles, thus putting regional seucrity at risk. The minority problems in the Balkan south remain less acute than those which led to war in the north. Should they reach the same level, however, the Yugoslav conflict may go down in history not as Europe's last tragedy, but as a mild dress-rehearsal for the conflicts that followed.
Panayote Elias Dimitras
Greek Helsinki Monitor & Minority Rights Group - Greece