Alternative names: Aromani, Cincari, Karakachani, Koutsovlachs
Location: Greece, Yugoslavia, Albania and Bulgaria
Population: Not possible to estimate reliably
Religion: Eastern Orthodox Christian
The Vlachs are a latin-speaking people — they speak a distinctive form of Romanian — living south of Danube in Albania, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia (predominantly in Serbia and Vardar Macedonia) and primarily in Greece. They are an historically old people who ante-date the more modern arrivals to the Balkan Peninsula like the Slavs and Turks. Perhaps because of this they, unlike other minorities, do not appear to live in particularly concentrated areas, with the exception of the “Vlach capital” Aminciu (Metsovon) in the Pindus mountains at the headlands of the five rivers of the Pindus range in Greece.
Assessing their numbers is difficult and compounded by a lack of separatist current among Vlachs which has resulted in their apparent peaceful assimilation into majority ethnic groups. In this the shared religious faith of Eastern Orthodoxy has been an important factor. The Vlachs in Yugoslavia live in Serbia and especially Macedonia and around Bitola, Resen and Krusevo. There are Vlach societies in Bitola and Skopje and these societies have pointed to the lack of language rights for Vlachs in schools and in religious matters — e.g. the appeal in February 1988 by the Pitu Guli Cultural Association in Skopje to the Foreign Ministers of Yugoslavia, Albania, Bulgaria, Greece, Romania and Turkey who were meeting in Belgrade — but with little apparent effect. Successive censuses has shown a gradual decline in their numbers.
In Bulgaria the Vlachs have been subjected to the same “Bulgarization” process as the country’s other minorities (excepting the small number of Jews and Armenians) and it appears that the assimilatory pressures are such that the language will soon die out. There is very little information available on the situation of Vlachs in Albania.
In Greece where the largest community lives, the censuses of 1935 and 1951 recorded 19,703 and 39,855 Vlachs respectively although the classification as Greek of all those who use Greek as “language of daily use” has tended to greatly underestimate the number of minorities like the Vlachs who tend to be hellenophile and are almost entirely Orthodox Christian by religion (hence Greek Orthodox). The number of Vlachs in subsequent censuses has not been recorded. Some emigré Vlach sources claim an exaggerated figure of 600,000 in Greece.
Vlachs tend to live in mountainous regions especially in the Pindus mountains. The area north-west of Polikastrion has a population of Meglen Vlachs who speak a Slav language as their mother-tongue. The Vlachs are similar to the Sarakatsani — Greek-speaking transhumant shepherds — but less mobile and are seasonally nomadic as shepherds in the mountains while pursuing other fields of employment like medicine, law, taxi-driving etc.
Traditionally the Vlachs have held an important position in inland Greece and under Ottoman domination they, due to their traditional occupations of shepherding and transport of goods by caravan, tended to control overland trade in the Greek provinces of the Ottoman empire while the Greeks controlled the sea trade. Many Vlachs identified themselves with Greeks, due to having received Greek education in Greek schools, and took a leading role in the struggle for Greek independence. However some, influenced by the Romanian national movement and the close similarities between their languages, attempted to have church services and schooling in their vernacular — a move which was strongly resisted by the Greek Orthodox hierarchy. This latter strand of Vlach distinctness from Greeks was soon patronized by the new Romanian state leading to the creation of Romanian churches and schools in Macedonia, which was then still part of the Ottoman empire, funded by the Romanian state. In these schools children were taught Aromanian in the lower grades and then later Romanian, as it was a recognized literary language. By 1912 the Romanian state was subsidizing over 30 such schools in Macedonia. The savage internecine warfare in Macedonia from the 1890s to 1914 by rival armed bands of Serbs, Bulgarians and Greeks as the new national states competed for the decaying Ottoman empire was especially hard on the Vlachs who for the most part could not defend themselves well and there were massacres of Vlachs with churches and villages burnt by Greek nationalists. This bleak period finished after the settlement of the Balkan Wars and even in 1913 the Greek Prime Minister Venizelos signed an agreement with the Romanians to officially allow Romanian schools for Vlachs in the Greek state. The Vlach nationalist movement continued under Romanian tutelage but never recovered from the violence late in the nineteenth century.
The rise of fascism in Italy and Romania led to attempts, especially during the Italian occupation of parts of Greece during the Second World War, to harness the Vlachs to the fascist cause and an autonomous “Principality of the Pindus” was even declared by an extremist named Alcibiades Diamandi of Samarina consisting of Epirus, Macedonia and all of Thessaly with Diamandi as Prince and a compatriot as head of the “Roman Legion” — an army of Vlach fascists. After the end of World War II the new Romanian state chose not to carry on financing the schools and churches in Greece.
The majority of Vlachs who saw themselves as distinct from Greeks tended to emigrate with the result that separatist feeling is much stronger in the diaspora than in the homeland. There is no apparent nationalist or separatist feeling among the Vlachs of Greece despite the occasional hostility towards them from the more nationalistic sections of Greek society usually manifested in objecting to the use of the Vlach language — it is frequently used in public places in Metsovon and elsewhere. Such pressure has in the past tended to intimidate Vlachs living in the cities in mixed communities from speaking their own language and under the dictatorship of the Colonels from 1967 to 1974 Vlachs were even threatened with imprisonment for speaking Aromanian. However since the 1980s the situation has improved as the Greek government apparently recognizes that the Vlachs, unlike the Turks or Macedonians constitute no threat, real or potential, to the Greek state and many “Vlach Cultural Societies” have come into existence and since 1984 there has been a huge annual festival for all Vlach villages of Greece. Despite this improvement the Greeks are still very wary of acknowledging any minorities and hold to the position that the Vlachs are Greeks who speak an unusual dialect. When Vlach activists in Germany contacted the European Community’s Bureau of Lesser Known Languages which resulted in the European Community enquiring of Greece the position of the Vlachs there was a strong reaction within Greece, involving leading Vlachs like Evangelos Averoff, against this outside intervention and a corresponding criticism of the burgeoning local cultural efforts. This has led to a severe limitation of activities along previous lines by Vlachs in Greece.
Among the large numbers of Vlachs who emigrated during the course of the century there is some pro-Romanian feeling (due to linguistic and cultural similarities) and conversely some anti-Greek or anti-Yugoslav feeling. These emigres have formed Vlach associations in a number of places, France, USA, West Germany etc, and have held two international Vlach congresses in West Germany in September 1985 in Mannheim, and in August 1988 in Freiburg. A central question at these conferences has been the lack of a defined Vlach language (there is however a Vlach-Romanian dictionary) and Vlachs from Greece pressed for the use of the Greek alphabet so as not to antagonize the Greek authorities. However the other participants preferred the more obvious choice of the Latin alphabet — the antagonism between “Panhellenes” and “Superromani”, often becoming a struggle between Vlachs in Greece and those in the diaspora, is a constant factor in Vlach issues.