Eastern Europe

(including Greece but not including European USSR)

Eastern Europe, including the Balkans, has long been associated with upheavals relating to minorities, lending the term “balkanization” to the vocabulary of politics. The sustained attack by European Powers on the subject territories of the Ottoman Empire advanced the peoples of the region to a troubled independence deriving in part from the emergence of States of considerable ethnic and religious complexity. The new States were not trusted by the powers to deal with their minorities and were subjected to various regimes designed to ensure regional stability. The nineteenth century Great Power practice of recognition of these States conditional on fair treatment of minorities was followed in the twentieth century by a broad surveillance by the League of Nations and post-World War II treaties on human rights. All the States, except Greece, now fall into the Communist orbit, but with considerable degrees of diversity and dependence on the USSR.

The emergence of socialism does not appear to have lessened ethnic tensions in the region. On the contrary, Eastern Europe is a cauldron of discontent where levels of dissonance between the States and their minorities are severe. One problem derives from the existence of conglomerate States such as Yugoslavia: the Serb-Croat-Slovene State created after World War I attempted to weld together disparate nationalities in a State which has demonstrated both stability and instability in its short history. The nationalities have recently reasserted themselves in forcible terms and the state structure appears fragile. Another type of minority is represented by the Hungarians in Romania: ethnicity is divided since the cession of Transylvania to Romania from Hungary in 1919; Hungary remains an active kin-state. Neighbourly relations between socialist Hungary and socialist Romania are under strain in consequence of assimilationist policies pursued by the Government of President Ceausescu. A third type of minority is represented by Turkish or Turkicized groups in which religious and ethnic elements are difficult to separate. The Roma are a fourth presence in Eastern Europe, long established, numerous and culturally distinct from their neighbours. The political, ethnic and social mix of Eastern Europe lends distinctiveness to its involvement with minorities: wider lessons can possibly be learned on conditions for the viability of multi-cultural States, and the application of Marxist principles to nationalist issues.

Instruments on Minority Rights

The Eastern European States abstained from voting on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a position which has since been “redeemed” by participation in the Helsinki process (see introduction to section on Western Europe and Scandinavia) and ratification of specific treaties on human rights. Albania has remained outside these general developments, though it has become a party to the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide which recognizes the right to existence of “national, ethnical, racial or religious groups” (Article II). Greece is not a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights with its crucial Article 27 on minority rights, but is a party to the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and to the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.

Besides the general contemporary instruments, the regions of Eastern Europe retain certain “traces” from the League of Nations period when all of the States in this group were party to treaties on minorities (these treaties also contained general provisions for the benefit of all the inhabitants or nationals of the States, but only the minorities’ provisions were “internationalized”). For example, both Greece and Turkey have invoked the provisions of the Treaty of Lausanne 1923 (see Appendix 4.1); Section III of which deals with protection of minorities, accusing each other of violation of its provisions regarding non-Muslim and Muslim minorities respectively. Bilateral arrangements for dealing with minorities issues may still have some plausibility in a region where minority-related inter-State disputes continue: the Protocol of February 1988 between Turkey and Bulgaria providing for negotiations to settle the question of the Turkish minority in Bulgaria is a case in point.

The absence of a specific regional instrument for the promotion and protection of human rights, such as the European Convention on Human Rights, means that particular stress must be laid on legal provisions to protect minorities in state constitutions, and on developments at the United Nations and through the Helsinki process. There has been noticeable United Nations interest in developments in Bulgaria, Greece, Romania and Yugoslavia. The Vienna Conference (see introduction to Western Europe and Scandinavia) recognized the need for States to improve their CSCE commitments: they will (a) exchange information and respond to requests for information and to representations made to them by other participating States on human rights questions: (b) hold bilateral meetings with any other participating State that so requests on human rights questions: (c) enable any participating State to bring the attention of the other States, any questions pertaining to human rights.

It is difficult to be sanguine about the relevance and effectiveness of the various constitutional provisions in the light of such pressing violations of minority rights as are apparent in cases such as Romania. The Romanian Constitution recognizes the right of the “co-inhabiting nationalities” living alongside the Romanian people to enjoy their culture. The cultures of the co-inhabiting nationalities are declared to be a component part of the culture of the country as a whole. Other articles provide rights for all as the basis of equality and non-discrimination; free use of native language and books, newspapers and education at all levels in these languages, and institutional use of local languages in the relevant regions. The problem is not one of concept, but of implementation of such provisions, though respect for local language is not consistently expressed in the constitution: for example, judicial proceedings are conducted in Romanian, ensuring its use in areas populated by people of non-Romanian nationality. The Bulgarian Constitution of 1971 (see Appendix 4.2) also refers to principles of equality and non-discrimination, as well as to the entitlement of citizens of non-Bulgarian extraction to study their own language in addition to the compulsory study of Bulgarian. Article 35(4) provides that: “The propagation of hate or humiliation of man because of race, national or religious application is forbidden and shall be punished.” Citizens are also guaranteed freedom of conscience and creed, freedom of speech, assembly, etc. — the standard formulations of civil and political rights. All of this, and a series of agreements from the period of the League of Nations involving Bulgaria and Turkey, is difficult to equate with the intense policies of Bulgarization pursued by the present regime, primarily affecting Turks, but also other minorities. Bulgaria adopts the expedient at the United Nations and other international fora of denying the existence of various minorities or allowing them only a narrow, partial “existence” by claiming, for example, that there is no Turkish minority in Bulgaria, but only a Muslim minority of Bulgarians who adopted Islam under Ottoman rule.

Treatment of minorities

Eastern Europe retains its historic “status” as a region of fragile relations between states and ethnic or religious groups. The historical effects of Ottoman occupation are still manifest in treatment accorded to Turkish/Islamic groups. “Balkanization” is still a threat. States of complex ethnic construction such as Yugoslavia exhibit fissiparous tendencies as nationalities assert themselves and instances of ethnic repression persist. The treatment of minorities is often closely correlated with general standards of human rights. This is particularly true in the case of Romania where a repressive and totalitarian regime functions as such to all its citizens. The Hungarian minority is singled out for the most intense campaign of assimilation because its economically and culturally independent characteristics threaten the unified, homogenous model of development of Romania favoured by the present regime. These remarks apply, with variations as appropriate, to Bulgaria, though in this case the ethnic issue is crucial; the present repression appears to have been triggered by Government concern at, among other things, the rising Turkish birthrate. This is also a case where, from the Government’s point of view, repression may have backfired, since the resulting exodus of Turks to Turkey has deprived Bulgaria of vital agricultural and industrial skills.

Romania’s independent economic status appears to make it less vulnerable than Bulgaria to international pressure to curb human rights abuses. In general the prognosis for treatment of minorities is very unclear. It appears rather extraordinary to report policies of forced assimilation, cultural genocide and mass migration of populations in Europe in the late twentieth century. Such policies operate in a region in which they are potentially quite destabilizing. However, the more “benign” model of minority integration represented (in general) by Yugoslavia is undergoing great stress. The result of the Yugoslavian experiment holds great significance for all minorities in the region. But its long-term success is by no means assured.

Greeks of Albania

Hungarians of Czechoslovakia

Hungarians of Romania

Macedonians of Bulgaria

Macedonians of Greece

Pomaks of Bulgaria

Roma in Eastern Europe

Slovaks of Czechoslovakia

Sorbs of East Germany

Turks of Bulgaria

Turks of Western Thrace