This is a story about Serbia, two quintets, and walnuts.

During his visit to Serbia this week, the Romanian president, Traian Basescu, stoutly restated his country’s rejection of Kosovo’s independence. This is no surprise, as Romania has consistently rejected any moves to recognize Kosovo since the province broke away from Serbia in 2008. Romania has restive minorities of its own, like other non-recognizer EU members Cyprus, Slovakia, and Spain, while the fifth in the group, Greece, has been a friend to Serbia since the days of Milosevic.

However, just a hint of disagreement over a different, far less obstreperous minority community did emerge, according to Serbian and Romanian media. The Vlachs, or Aromanians, speak a language closely related to Romanian and can be found all over the Balkans, mainly Greece and Albania. Traces of Vlach cultural influence are still present as far afield as Poland and Moravia, places that Vlach shepherds migrated to in the Middle Ages.

The origins of the Vlachs are subject for endless disputation, which can be ruthlessly boiled down to the question: what are the historical links between the Romanian-speakers living north of the Danube and the Vlachs, speakers of a closely related language, living further south? Was the cultural and linguistic movement from north to south, or south to north? Did Romanized Dacians from Wallachia (“Vlachia”) and other parts of modern-day Romania migrate to other parts of Eastern and Central Europe, or did the people we now know as Romanians move north of the Danube in the early medieval period from the southern Balkans? The last notion may seem counterintuitive but has respectable scholarly legs – see for instance Noel Malcolm’s history of Kosovo.

The 2002 Serbian census gives a population figure of roughly 40,000 Vlachs, nearly all in Central Serbia, and 35,000 Romanians, six-sevenths living in Vojvodina. So are these two separate ethnic/national categories, or two parts of a single whole? I won’t presume to say (for some context, see this article from Balkan Insight, and this blog post), but let me cite Serbian President Boris Tadic, who during Basescu’s visit said, “In our country there are people who identify as Vlach, there are citizens who identify as Romanian, and there are also those who say they are both Romanian and Vlach and believe the two are one and the same.”

The word Vlach, of Germanic origin, is cousin to the English words Wales and the “wal-” in walnut. In various European languages, forms of the word may refer to Romania, Wallachia, speakers of Romance languages, Celts, and/or to shepherds, objects used by shepherds, and again those walnuts. (Czech has Valašsko, “Vlachia,” both for Wallachia and a region in Moravia historically settled by Vlachs; vlašský ořech, walnut; and the obsolete Vlachy, vlach, Italy, Italian).

The linguistic history of the word suggests that at base, the Vlach, as seen by non-Vlachs, is someone different, a speaker of an unfamiliar language, someone that lives in the hills, cultivates exotic fruits. A Serbian Vlach woman once told me that her people are reputed to practice old rituals and spells.

Tadic and the Serbian government are under a different spell, though – the dream of joining the EU. In a month the European Council is expected to decide whether to offer a Stabilization and Association Agreement to Serbia – a big step toward eventual membership. But the second EU quintet in this story comprises member states that are still to ratify the agreement, including Romania. Bucharest has raised the question of minority rights for the Vlachs/Romanians in the past. However, Basescu this week denied any connection between the Vlach issue and SAA ratification.

“We will continue to raise the question of Vlachs, who still declare themselves as Romanians. However, you have to take into account that there is no relation whatsoever between the SAA ratification and this matter,” B92 quoted Basescu as saying.

Basescu also said the SAA has been ratified by the lower house of the Romanian parliament and hoped the Senate would do so prior to the EU vote on Serbia’s association agreement on 9 December.

I’ll give the final word to Tadic because I share his view that ethnicity is a matter of personal choice. Of course, there may be a political subtext here as well, in that Tadic is extremely eager to present his country in a good light to EU leaders. “We respect the right of our citizens to declare their ethnic background, including the protection of languages. We, as a people, understand the situation of the Romanian people when raising this topic. We have never wanted to impose [an identity on] our citizens.”

The photo shows the Iron Gates gorge on the Danube, a physical and cultural feature separating Romania from Serbia.

Ky Krauthamer

Ky Krauthamer is a senior editor at Transitions Online. Email: ky.krauthamer@tol.org

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