The Vlach metropolitan groups in 1769 Ladies and gentlemen,

First of all allow me to thank you for your kind invitation to take part in the centenary proceedings of the Farcarotul Society. It is a great honour to travel so far to be with you, and a unique opportunity to present my views on the contemporary reality of the Vlachs of Greece.
I must, of course, make it clear that I am here tonight only to represent my own views and the results of my many years of research. I most certainly do not represent - and do not intend to present myself as a representative of – the Vlachs of Greece, and I say this in a spirit of respect for the Vlachs as a collective group.

 

Allow me to indulge in a brief review of my own interest in the subject that brings us together here. My own interest in the Vlachs began as a personal quest; as someone of Vlach descent, even if only on one side of my family, I was as interested as anyone else would be in exploring my own roots. I was born and bred in Veria, in a family and community with strong Vlach elements, where people shifted back and forth in their daily lives from Vlach to Greek, without giving it a second thought. Unfortunately I myself never learnt to speak Vlach properly – not because it was forbidden me, but simply because my family saw no need for me to learn it. Within the four walls of a house it is difficult to prohibit the use of a language and its transmission to others. Nevertheless, in my post-adolescent years I began to ask myself a number of more or less natural questions: ‘How is it that my father’s family came to be speaking a Romance language?’, ‘Who are these Vlachs?’, ‘Should I feel proud or ashamed of my Vlach descent?’. In the early 1980’s I began to devour anything written about the Vlachs which came my way. I found myself confronted with a host of different, often contradictory views. Views of an intensely political nature, with nationalistic overtones, which sometimes concealed the evidence and sometimes exaggerated it. Views which were quite often unflattering and offensive to the Vlachs, but sometimes excessively laudatory. I experienced a certain disillusionment, and my questions remained unanswered.

Nevertheless, my interest coincided in time with the revival of a more general interest in the Vlachs; I was not the only person to be troubled by these questions. Thus, at the beginning of the 1990’s, in a desire to uncover the truth, I found myself working more systematically, conducting research in libraries and official archives. I began to travel, seeking out the Vlachs themselves, both in city apartment blocks and in their remote villages. I travelled throughout Greece and the Balkans, conducting dozens of interviews and amassing a vast collection of material. And it was this material which led me to my final target: what I wanted now was to present a contemporary response to the question ‘who are the Vlachs?’. I had realised that the question ‘what are the Vlachs?’, in other words the matter of their racial origin, had no real meaning, apart from its purely academic interest, since whatever their provenance was it would not necessarily endow them with a contemporary, collective identity. I wished to present the Vlachs without reference to the age-old prejudices and dogmatism which had led to long years of polarisation. Thus I found myself navigating between two reefs. On the one hand there was the view that the Vlachs were a group of uncivilised, uncouth nomadic livestock breeders, a group beneath notice, and on the other there was the view that the Vlachs were an unknown, neglected and oppressed, stereotypical Balkan minority, in need of protection. It was without doubt a challenge, one requiring no little courage, to set oneself up in opposition to these two contradictory and powerfully established opinions. I hope I have managed to remain objective and impartial, and that you will have the opportunity to read my work and enjoy a Balkan journey in search of the historical reality of the Vlachs, from the first references in the mediaeval era up until the time of the Second World War.

But let us now turn our attention to the image presented by the Vlachs today, especially those living in Greece. In what activities are they engaged? How do they feel about what I describe, perhaps impulsively, as the ‘contemporary Vlach identity’? What are their concerns and anxieties and how do they confront them?

Contrary to the general impression, there have been Vlach associations, societies and fraternities in Greece for many decades now. Some of them are extremely well-established, with an active history stretching back over about a hundred years: for example, the associations of the Vlachs of Olympos, Klissoura and Monastiri in the city of Thessaloniki, and the association of the Vlachs of Samarina in Larissa. It is true that in the years immediately following the war (leaving aside the earlier period) the Greek political scene did not provide a hospitable environment for groups like the Vlachs. Much the same was true, of course, in the other Balkan countries, those behind the so-called Iron Curtain. Nevertheless, from the 1960’s and 1970’s – as the widespread internal migration of the period gradually brought large waves of Vlachs to the major cities, where they established themselves - more and more associations began to be founded, with an interest in the traditions, culture and place of origin of each group. Here in the city, far from their villages and cut off from the traditional way of life they had previously enjoyed, the Vlachs felt a more pressing need to come together and form their own associations. The next big step was taken in the early 1980’s. Post-war democracy in Greece had now come of age. A significant number of Vlach associations came together to form a second-tier organisation, the ‘Panhellenic Federation of Vlach Cultural Associations’, which now numbers 89 members, associations from all over Greece, from Prossotsani in Eastern Macedonia to Paleomanina in western Mainland Greece. The word Vlach now began to be heard more and more frequently. The Vlach Federation is indisputably the largest of its kind in the Balkans, and still growing; there are at least 25 other associations waiting to become members, and new ones are constantly being established in all parts of the country.

Over the last twenty years the various associations have been involved in a wide range of activities. Apart from providing a structure through which the Vlachs can support their village and remain in touch as a group, the associations also do valuable work in preserving Vlach traditions. They have organised groups which conserve the Vlach heritage of music and dance, passing on these traditions to the younger generation. Some of the more active associations stage performances involving dozens of young dancers. They also engage in collecting, preserving and putting to good use the wealth of traditional costume and other material associated with Vlach folklore. The public events they arrange – open to Vlachs and non-Vlachs alike – often involve presentations of this rich and diverse material. They take great pains to maintain traditional popular festivities, which were in danger of being lost in the frenzied pace of modern life. They also organise gatherings and lectures, inviting speakers on various aspects of Vlach life and culture. They publish calendars, newspapers, books and CDs. They have their own websites on the internet. They collaborate with scholars and academic institutions. They set up and run museums and libraries. Their annual dances are very well attended. The members of the associations give unstintingly of their own time and money to support these activities. The second-tier Federation, led by an elected Presidency, focuses on more collective activity. The annual Vlach Gathering, known as the Andamoma, organised by the Federation each summer in a different Vlach village or other Vlach settlement, brings together the associations and their thousands of members for a three-day programme of excellent events. Invitations are issued to delegations of Vlachs from the other Balkan countries. Nowhere else and at no other time have so many thousands of Vlachs come together in one place – tangible evidence that Greece is still the ‘Metropolis of the Vlachs’. However, the most important aspect of the Federation’s activities is its role as a kind of lobby group, representing the Vlachs in their relations with the state. It also functions as an independent, elected and collective representative and mouthpiece for the Vlachs in Greece in their relations with various organisations, local and international, and any other interested parties. It is hard to reconcile this picture with the idea, cultivated in an atmosphere of misconceptions and disinformation, that the Vlachs in Greece are oppressed or, even worse, the victims of persecution. The truth is that the associations and the Federation receive frequent grants and subsidies for the whole range of their activities from the Ministry of Culture. Knowing the past as we do, it is clear that none of this would exist if the Greek state really harboured any hostility to the thousands of members of these Vlach associations and their activities.

Alongside the interest in associations and the representation of Vlach interests, there has also been a rapidly growing interest in research and the writing of articles and books on the Vlachs. Apart from the conventional academic studies referring more and more frequently to the Vlachs, there has also been a spectacular rise in the number of ordinary people, most of them of Vlach descent, carrying out research and writing projects. Since 1974 there have been more than 100 monographs dedicated to the history and traditions of various Vlach villages, communities, and settlements. An interest in Vlach studies in Greece, whether on the part of academics or amateurs working alone, ceased to be taboo during the final quarter of the 20th century. In fact there are now scholars and writers vying with one another to produce the most comprehensive studies. For years now universities have been suggesting aspects of Vlach culture and history as dissertation topics for graduands and postgraduate students. In the early 1990’s the study of the Vlach language, and classes in the language, were introduced by the Linguistics Department of the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. In the light of all these developments, it would be no exaggeration to speak of a true renaissance.

The life of the Vlachs in Greece appeared to be progressing peacefully and naturally, until the collapse of the communist regimes in eastern Europe and the bloody disintegration of Yugoslavia. The Yugoslavian crisis brought to the surface problems which the Cold War had concealed beneath a mantle of silence. The Balkans seemed destined to become, once again, the powder keg of Europe. Various minority groups began to be harassed, and they in their turn began to cause problems for the region and the global community. Although the borders had now been opened and contacts among the Vlach populations of the Balkan countries were now easier and more frequent than before, problems and concerns which had been forgotten for decades now resurfaced. Such questions as whether the Vlachs are a minority, and if so, what kind of minority. The Vlachs of Greece were forced to ponder what was happening in other countries, being particularly concerned by the frequent references to their identity, questions which were being raised without the consent of their own collective organisations or indeed any appeal on their part. They now found themselves forced to defend the substantial progress made with so much effort over the years.

The spasmodic and largely ineffectual activities of a number of small ‘Irredentist Organisations’ – most of them from outside the Balkan region – took on a new lease of life as their members endeavoured to pose as the only advocates and defenders of any Vlach identity. The irredentist revival culminated in the celebrated Proposal 1333 of the Council of Europe. In the early 1990’s an official observer, Mr. De Puig, spent a few days travelling in Greece, made casual visits to just one or two of the dozens of Vlach associations, and to one or two Vlach villages. Without any serious or meaningful scholarly intention, he then casually threw together a report which was subsequently adopted without question, and with no small degree of naivetι, by the Council of Europe. At the same time foreign, non-Vlach researchers had begun to tour the Vlach communities and settlements on either side of the Balkan borders, seeking out the Vlachs and investigating their identity. During the same period various NGO’s - some of them of international stature, like the  Helsinki Watch - dedicated to the monitoring of the rights of various minority groups, officially recognised or otherwise, attempted to voice their own opinions on the subject. Official departments and agencies of the European Union, like the European Bureau for Lesser-Used Languages (EBLUL) also became involved. Semi-official state organisations, like the Centre for Research into Minority Groups (KEMO) began to take an interest in the Vlachs, perhaps wishing to foster the impression that the Greek state now had a more tolerant, European image. It is also true that the official Romanian state – usually acting behind the scenes, but sometimes quite openly – once again turned its attention to the Vlachs of other Balkan countries, contriving to inject new life into old and familiar nationalistic views. The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia was officially recognised by Romania when it agreed to describe its Vlach population as a minority. In its annual reports on Greece, the US State Department refers to the Vlachs as a minority group. Even the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs mentions the Vlachs and the need to protect minority rights on its official website, perhaps unaware of the existence of several thousand Muslim Vlachs within its own borders. Certain Greek nationalist circles now began to draw attention again to the treachery of a number of Vlachs during the Axis Occupation. The official Greek state appeared to be taken by surprise, hesitant and slow to react.

In all this confusion the reaction of the Vlachs of Greece was what one might expect, whether that expressed by ordinary people who were passive spectators of these developments, or the more official reaction of the collective associations. They had the impression that spectres from the past, and new self-appointed protectors and patrons, were blatantly ignoring their own sense of identity, their hard-won achievements of recent years, and generating wave after wave of disinformation, cultivating a new cold-war climate. I shall always remember the indignation expressed by a woman from Larissa: ‘Enough is enough! All these people need to understand that we Vlachs are not some savage tribe somewhere in the jungle of Papua - New Guinea waiting for the missionaries to come along and save our bodies and souls’. Her reaction appears to be well-founded. I know of no individual Vlach or Vlach organisation which officially invited the intervention of these various parties, with their academic studies and their rash political speeches. The current reality of the Vlachs in Greece, the sense of identity shared by the overwhelming majority of the Vlachs, has always been quite different. The mere mention of the word ‘minority’ is enough to cause them an allergic reaction.

Of course it is not the first time the Vlachs have seen such unwelcome interventions on their behalf. Their history goes back much more than a hundred years. At the beginning of the 20th century, when the fate of the last Ottoman provinces in the Balkans was being determined, the Vlachs were led into a dramatic, bloody civil conflict, with incalculable consequences, whose repercussions are still felt today. For many decades there were two opposing camps. Those – the overwhelming majority, led by the traditional ruling class and the more affluent and better educated section of the Vlachs – who maintained the traditional Greek orientation, and a feeble minority of less privileged and influential groups who adopted the tenets of Romanian nationalism. But now alongside these two dominant and opposing positions new ones and new attitudes have made their appearance, since in each of the Balkan countries which hosts a Vlach population, whatever its size, a different view of the citizens of Vlach descent is cultivated. There is also a new approach that the Vlachs should be regarded and treated as an independent ethnic group dispersed around the Balkans. The polarisation and fragmentation of attitudes are now entrenched and there is no immediate prospect of tempers cooling.

It is indicative of the concerns now being felt among the Vlach people in Greece that there are Vlach associations which have not joined the Panhellenic Federation, like the ten or more associations of Samarina, or which have actually withdrawn from the Federation, like the associations of Smixi, expressing reservations as to whether and to what extent the Vlachs should be presenting themselves as separate and different from the rest of the Modern Greeks. However, the most notorious and most publicised incident resulting from this new state of affairs was the Bletsas case. In the middle of the 1990’s an architect was found to be distributing a leaflet from the European Bureau for Lesser-Used Languages, referring to the Vlach language, at the Annual Vlach Gathering being held that year in Naoussa. He was doing so despite the admonitions of the panel of the Federation, which was organising the Gathering, and which made it clear that they did not agree with the content of the leaflet and did not wish to see it distributed at the event they were organising. The upshot was that Mr. Bletsas was taken to court on a charge of disseminating false information; at his first trial he was convicted, but was justly acquitted on appeal. Justice had run its course, as it should in any modern and well-governed democracy. But the damage had been done. All those involved in the case had given a truly unique opportunity to those who wished to claim that the Vlachs of Greece are the victims of persecution, hounded by the authorities. Nonetheless, the real victim of the whole saga was not Mr. Bletsas, who was later appointed Vice President of the European Bureau in Greece, but the image of the Vlachs in Greece. The attention of the self-appointed patrons and protectors of the Vlachs was monopolised by this one isolated episode. All the significant achievements of the Vlachs in Greece over the last two decades were apparently to be blatantly ignored.

Of course, the truth is that these achievements endure, evidence to any objective and well-disposed observer that the Vlachs in Greece enjoy a position of stable equilibrium between their linguistic or any other ‘otherness’ and their inalienable right to be considered members of Romiosyni, the modern Greek nation – sharing their history with that of the rest of the Modern Greeks. Perhaps the only unresolved issue is that of their language – a language which is in any case now used by fewer and fewer people, and is almost unspoken among the young. It is the only issue which might be invoked by those at odds with the desires and attitudes of the overwhelming majority of the Vlachs in Greece. In all other areas these malcontents have been left behind. Yet the language issue cannot be resolved that easily. It is feared that for as long as these tensions continue, for as long as certain parties persist in these uninvited interventions, the rate of decline in use of the language will accelerate. The issue remains deeply political, above and beyond the technical problems involved. The collapse of the traditional way of life of the Vlachs, which has been in progress for decades now, and the Vlach people’s own pursuit of modernism, are trends difficult to reverse. The necessary decisions and actions lie entirely in the hands of those directly concerned. Perhaps when they feel that the cultivation and dissemination of their language will not be exploited as a lever to overturn their own sense of identity and the equilibrium they have achieved with the society in which they live – perhaps only then will they take action.

However that may be, those who are genuinely interested in the Vlachs must give serious consideration to the views, feelings and concerns of the Vlachs of Greece. The individuals of Vlach descent living in Greece outnumber all their fellow Vlachs living in the other Balkan countries; even more, they continue to live in what is indisputably the ancestral land of all the Vlachs. How can we call ourselves democrats while we speak of – and even worse act on behalf of – the Vlachs without seeking the consent of the majority of the Vlach people? Is the interest of all these self-appointed experts in Vlach affairs, academics and politicians, really to be their salvation? Or does it not rather threaten to hasten the conscious process of discarding the Vlach identity? Perhaps, finally, if the ‘missionaries’ were not so grimly dogmatic, if they renounced indoctrination in favour of cooperation, they might succeed in allaying the concerns of the Vlachs and overcoming their reservations. Yet the fact is that in the contemporary world there is no longer any place for missionary activity. The best course would appear to be to leave the Vlachs of Greece to deal with the issue of their identity by themselves. They have already proved that they possess the necessary talent and ability to speak out for themselves. The main objectives, especially for the Vlachs living beyond the Greek borders, must remain peace, prosperity and progress. If these can be secured, perhaps things will be different.

Bridgeport 5th of July 2003
CONTEMPORARY VLACH IDENTITY AND REALITY IN GREECE
Asteris I. Koukoudis

 

The Life of the Vlachs at 1900

The Life of the Vlachs at 1900

 

Photographic collection
Asteriou Koukoudi

Photographic collection Asteriou Koukoudi

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