Winners and losers among the minority groups in former Yugoslavia
Forgotten peoples of the Balkans
by Jean-Arnault Dérens
August 2003

Who has lost and who won in the Balkan wars of the past 12 years? The biggest losers have been those ’minorities’ who were never directly part of the main conflicts of identity, but were often forced to choose sides.

ALAIN Finkielkraut asked more than 10 years ago if it was possible to be a Croat (1). But the real question is whether it is possible still to be a Goranac, a Torbes, a Vlach, a Ruthenian or a Roma. A decade of Balkan conflict, from the Croatian war to Macedonia, has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives and created millions of refugees and displaced persons. Always the smaller peoples of the region are the forgotten victims, crushed between rival nationalisms of major ethnic groups.

The first Yugoslav war, in 1991, ended with a massacre in Croatian Slavonia. Croats who wanted independence fought the local Serbs, who had seceded from Croatia when it began to move towards independence. The Serbs won with the support of the Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA), which was enlisted in the service of Serbian nationalism. But not all the victims of the confrontation were Serbs or Croats.

Petrovci was a rich farming village 10km from the city of Vukovar. Before the war some 250 Serbs lived there in peace beside 250 Croats and about 1,000 Ruthenians and Ukrainians. The Ruthenians of Petrovci are western Ukrainians who came not from Russian-owned territories like Bukovina and Sub-Carpathian Ruthenia, but from areas formerly part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. They arrived in the Balkans in the 18th century, in the reign of the Austrian Empress Maria-Theresa, brought in as agricultural colonists to repopulate and farm lands liberated from Turkish rule. The Ruthenians are Uniates or "Greek Catholics", who recognise the authority of the Pope but observe the Greek Orthodox rite.

When the war reached Vukovar, some Petrovci Ruthenians enlisted in the Croatian army. Others helped get food into Vukovar, which was besieged by the Serbs. When the Serbs occupied the region, these pro-Croat Ruthenians went into exile along with the Croats. For some six years Petrovci was part of the self-styled "Serbian Republic of Eastern Slavonia, Srem and Baranja". Dozens of Petrovci’s young Ruthen ians did their compulsory military service in the Serbian forces. An additional agreement signed in Erdut in 1998 set the seal on the gradual restoration of Croatian sovereignty over the region (2): then it was the turn of the Ruthenians who had collaborated with the Serbian author ities to go into exile, most often to Serbian Vojvodina, where there were sizeable Ruthenian communities. The pro-Croat Ruthenians returned and are now triumphant in Petrovci. The Uniate priest watched helplessly as his community was torn apart by nationalist confrontations that were not really its concern.

Forgotten peoples of the Balkans - Map

All the wars of former Yugoslavia provide such tragic stories. They began when burgeoning nationalism demanded that small ethnic communities choose sides. The first to be pressurised were individuals who wanted no part of a conflict of nationalities, because of their family background or because of ideological opposition to nationalism. Bosnian citizens born of mixed marriages (with parents from different communities) were among the first victims. The territory controlled by the Sarajevo government was a little safer for them, since Bosnia was officially defended as "multi-ethnic". But even in Sarajevo pressure towards homogeneity from the ruling Muslim nationalist party (SDA), widely backed by a society traumatised by war, eventually ended any dream of multinational coexistence.

In Kosovo Albanian nationalists claimed the situation was a conflict between Serbian author ities and Albanian civil society. This ignored the presence of Serbian civilians, as well as many members of smaller communities. According to the 1981 census, Turks, Roma, Goranci, Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) and Croats formed 10% of the population of Kosovo (3). After the establishment of the international protectorate in 1999, all these communities suffered from Albanian nationalism. Roma and Kosovo Egyptians (4) were accused of complicity with the Serbian regime and "ethnically cleansed". Kosovo Turks are generally trilingual, speaking Turkish, Albanian and Serbian; but to remain, they had to renounce their separate identity and declare themselves Albanian. The Ashkali, an Albanian-speaking ethnic group related to the Roma, tried, like the Turks, to outdo the Albanians in national patriotism in the hope of being tolerated by Albanian society. It did not save them from violent attacks.


Bosniaks and Croats, both of whom speak Serbo-Croat, were assimilated by the Serbs for linguistic reasons, as were the Goranci, a small group of Muslim people who live in the mountains in the far south of Kosovo and speak a Slavonic language closely related to Macedonian. So far the international protectorate has failed to protect the linguistic, cultural and educational rights of these communities (5).

These peoples rightly feel they have been manipulated by all parties. During the Rambouillet negotiations in 1999, Slobodan Milosevic cleverly included several representatives from them in the Yugoslav delegation, discrediting them in the eyes of the Albanians and the international community. The prevailing logic in Kosovo was mirrored in Macedonia, where the ethnic, religious and linguistic mosaic is particularly complex. From the first clashes between Macedonian forces and Albanian guerrillas in 2001, the international community sought only to achieve a political dialogue between the Macedonians and the Albanians, ignoring the Turks, Roma, Serbs, Vlachs and Torbesi (Macedonian-speaking Muslim Slavs) (6).

During the conflict the complex social pattern was reduced to a confrontation between two major nationalities, and small ethnic groups were forced to affiliate. The Serbs and Vlachs, both Orthodox, naturally identified with the Macedonians, but the Torbesi were in a more complicated situation. As Macedonian speakers they were rejected by Albanian nationalists, but Macedonian nationalism violently opposed any Islamic group. Mosques mainly frequented by Turks and Torbesi were destroyed by demonstrators in Prilep in 2001. The official Muslim organisations in Macedonia, which are dominated by Albanians, have been trying to assimilate non-Albanian Muslim communities for many years, especially the Turks and Torbesi (4% and 3% of the population respectively) (8). If the political situation gets any worse, smaller communities will not only be forced to choose sides. They will have to give up much of their separate identities.

Political divisions and wars that have ravaged the Balkans have all increased the drive towards national homogeneity. To use an image often applied to central Europe after the first world war, a complex mosaic, in which a thousand tints mingled, has become a fresco with only large splashes of a few colours. Must the Yugoslav wars end in the emergence of monoethnic nation states in which only a few minorities manage to survive, with their rights guaranteed and monitored by international organisations?

The terminology is full of pitfalls. What do we mean by peoples, nations, minorities, and nation states? For the ordinary Western European, seeing images of "inter-ethnic" conflict, ethnic groups are inferior to nations: they represent an earlier stage in a supposedly linear development. In 1992 President Mitterrand spoke at a colloquium on "Europe and the tribes", language suggesting the Balkans as a region of primitive savagery that could never be truly European.

The Yugoslav system distinguished between "constituent peoples" of the Federation and one or more of the federated republics - Serbs, Croats, Slovenes, Macedonians, Montenegrins and, from the end of the 1960s, Muslims (in the national sense of the Muslim Slavs of Bosnia and Sanjak Novi Pazar) - and the "national minor ities", meaning ethnic groups lacking a national homeland in a federated republic. All peoples, however numerous, defined by their connection with states outside Yugoslavia (the Italians of Istria, Hungarians of Vojvodina, and the Albanians) were also classified as national minorities.

So the word "minority" was a legal term having nothing to do with numbers. In any town or region, a minority could be a numerical majority without that affecting its legal position. Albanians in Kosovo resented their minority status, since they were a clear majority in the province of Kosovo, although they were a minority in the Republic of Serbia as whole, of which Kosovo was part. Since the establishment of the international protectorate, the Serbs have refused to be considered a minority in it. Albanians want Kosovo to be the unit of reference and Serbs demand that it be Serbia or Yugoslavia. This is not just a legal squabble. The term minority has unpleasant implications in the Balkans, despite the promises of international guarantees.

In the Balkan tradition, minority rights mean rights conceded by the majority. As such, they can always be withdrawn. This view follows directly from the millet status of protected communities under the Ottoman empire [millets were intermediary organisational groups to which non-Turks owed primary loyalties: the head of a millet then owed his loyalty to the Ottoman state]. Minorities also lack the legitimacy of aspiration to statehood, and the aim of all Balkan nationalism is to create or defend a state defined in terms of nationality or ethnicity, whose legitimacy rests on a popular feeling of belonging to a geographical, political and cultural entity.

But what is a nation, or a people, in the Balkans? The commonly recognised objective criteria of language or religion come in varying combinations. Religion is the clearest divide between Orthodox Serbs and Catholic Croats, but the Albanians are a single people, although they are divided between Muslims, Orthodox and Catholics. This complicated situation is rooted in the Ottoman past; the Sublime Porte did not acknowledge the existence of national groups. It recognised only religious communities, which were protected by the Sultan and granted a degree of self-administration under the millet system. The modern Balkan nations developed on that foundation, which is why the Orthodox churches of the region have an ethnic character, although the identification of Orthodoxy with an ethnic group was condemned as a heresy, "ethnophyletism", by an ecclesiastical council in Constantinople in 1872 (9).

Can the millets be seen as proto-national structures? For centuries the peoples of the Balkans lived in composite societies in which an individual’s identity was defined by variable factors. Religion was an important criterion, as was membership of a social group or profession. People spoke several languages: besides a liturgical language (Arabic for Muslims, Greek or Church Slavonic for the Orthodox), they used the language of administration, Turkish, other languages (often Greek) for business, and their own mother tongue, which could vary between towns or micro-regions. This prevailing multilingualism was directly attacked by the modern nationalist movements, which codified and imposed the use of languages that had been given national status. The identity spectrum narrowed as modern nationalist movements emerged, with territorial claims aiming at the establishment of states.


The new states, whose elites were often educated in Paris, Vienna or Berlin, deliberately took Western nation states as their model, while adopting a narrowly ethnic definition of the nation based on community of religion and a single language. The new nations were enforced and possible identities were limited to the few parameters that defined national identity. Populations, often Muslim, resistant to this new model became national minorities.

The appearance of national minorities was a direct consequence of the drive to create nation states: where the political legitimacy of the state is not founded on ethnic/national criteria, the concept of national minority is meaningless. And areas within the new state frontiers could not possibly coincide exactly with the territories of the new nations, which were mostly ideological constructs. The inevitable result was the creation of transborder minorities. All the wars that have affected the Balkans, from the eastern crisis of 1878, the Balkan wars 1912-13, and the two world wars, to the Yugoslav wars 1991-2000, can be seen as attempts to make state frontiers coincide with idealised national territories. The clearest examples are the maximal claims for Greater Serbia, Greater Albania or Greater Bulgaria.

Nationalists always prefer territories defined this way to those delimited by natural frontiers. They speak of ethnic Albania rather than Greater Albania, forgetting that the Albanians have shared the territories in question with other communities for centuries. The Balkans have proved too small to accommodate all these territorial claims. In the resulting conflicts, identities resist ant to the new national model have been crushed.

Yet models other than territorial state nationalism were possible. Geographical dispersion prevented the Aromanians from harbouring territorial claims. According to Serbian statistics, there were 69,000 Aromanians living in Macedonia in 1889. Bulgarian statistics put the figure of 1990 at 80,700 Aromanians. But Greek statistics of 1904 reported only 25,100 (10). Clearly the Greeks had counted many Aromanians as Greeks, whereas the Serbs and Bulgars had an obvious strategic interest in minimising the Greek population of Macedonia. In the vast territory of Macedonia still under Ottoman rule, the various Christian peoples fought each other mercilessly to determine national identity. The school and the Orthodox priest, whether Serb, Greek or Bulgarian, often decided the still fluctuating identity of a local population, and governments in Belgrade, Athens and Sophia stopped at nothing to support them. The future partition of Macedonia, enshrined in the Treaty of Bucharest in 1913, was already taking shape.

The Ottoman model was imperial: the all-powerful central authority was the guarantor of social equilibrium. Nationalism, in contrast, was inextricably linked with political democracy. It can be said to be the father of democracy, since the first task of the national emancipation movements was to define a framework within which democracy would operate. Serbia’s emanci pation movement dates back to the 1804 uprising, and its autonomy was recognised as early as 1830, so it is no coincidence that it can boast one of the oldest parliamentary democracies in the region. In Serbia the two main features of polit ical modernity, the creation of a nation state (with reference to the French model) and the establishment of political democracy, went hand in hand.


Yugoslav federalism drew largely on the im perial tradition, combined with influences from Austrian-Marxist nationality theory, which dissociated the nationality of individuals from the territories in which they live (11). In the Titoist system, the regime secured the loyalty of all the communities in exchange for real guarantees of protection. For 10 years Slobodan Milo sevic managed to preserve internal equilibrium in Serbia by basing his legitimacy on this, while drumming up Serb nationalism beyond its borders. Paradoxically Serbia became one of the most multi-ethnic countries in the Balkans, with its Muslim Bosniak community in Sanjak Novi Pazar, its large Roma population spread throughout the country and, above all, the ethnic mosaic in Vojvodina.

Despite a few cases of violence directly attributable to Serb extremist followers of Vojislav Seselj, inter-ethnic coexistence persisted in Vojvodina because the central authority did not want an outbreak of violence in an agricultural heartland crucial to Serbia’s economy. Vojvodina proves that inter-ethnic wars are not inevitable, and that a composite society is not necessarily more fragile than one that is ethnically homo geneous. When the scales tip in favour of war, it is always because of the relations which the central authority maintains with the communities.

In multiethnic societies political pluralism often leads to political division along ethnic lines. Bosnia is a classic example. In the multipartite elections of 1990 the three nationalist parties -the Party of Democratic Action (SDA- Muslim), the Serbian Democratic Party (SDS), and the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) - obtained results in line with the relative size of the groups they claimed to represent, even if a third of Bosnia’s citizens voted for non-national parties (12). Since then, no political movement transcending ethnic barriers has succeeded in establishing itself.

The Titoist model that protected the ethnic identity of Yugoslav citizens collapsed with the Yugoslav Federation. The successor states rested their claims to legitimacy entirely on their national character. This approach more or less succeeded in the case of Croatia, at the cost of the exodus of the greater part of its Serb population (13). In Macedonia, the attempt to found the legitimacy of the state on ethnicity brought the country to the verge of civil war. Serbia still remains one of the most multi-ethnic states in the region, and the democratic revolution of 2000 once again raised the issue of its constitution as a nation state.

The probable break-up of the Union of Serbia and Montenegro, the last vestige of the Yugoslav Federation, will make Serbia independent. Will it seek to define itself as a mononational state or a multi-ethnic society? And will the Balkan states finally rest their political legitimacy on any other basis than ethnicity (14)? It is crucially important to break away from an approach that presents the nation state as the only viable political framework, enshrined in a universal law of human development. Failing that, the Balkans will inevitably witness new territorial conflicts in which the minorities forgotten in the clash of nationalisms will again pay a heavy price.

Translated by Barry Smerin

* Jean-Arnault Dérens is a journalist in Belgrade and co-author, with Catherine Samary, of Conflits yougoslaves de A à Z (L’Atelier, Paris, 2000)

Maps by Philippe Rekacewicz

(1) Alain Finkielkraut, Dispatches from the Balkan War and other writings, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, Nebraska, 1999. Parts of this book were originally published as Comment peut-on être croate?, Gallimard, Paris, 1992.

(2) See Jean-Arnault Dérens and Catherine Samary, Les conflits yougoslaves de A-Z, L’Atelier, Paris, 2000.

(3) See Michel Roux, La guerre du Kosovo : dix clés pour comprendre, La Découverte, Paris, 1999.

(4) Kosovo Egyptians, recently listed as a separate ethnic group in the nationality statistics, do not consider themselves Roma but are considered Gypsies by most non-Romani Kosovars.

(5) See Stanislav Milojkovic, "De l’enseignement des langues au Kosovo", Courrier des Balkans,

(6) The Goranci of Kosovo and the Torbesi of Macedonia are closely related to the Pomaks of Greece and Bulgaria.

(7) The Vlachs, also known as Aromanians or Tsintsars, speak a Romance language very similar to Romanian.

(8) According to the 1994 census. The final figures from the 2002 census have not yet been published.

(9) The Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople acted in response to an imperial firman (edict) of 1870 recognising the Bulgarian Church as an ecclesiastically autonomous exarchate.

(10) See Georges Castellan, History of the Balkans: from Mohammed the Conqueror to Stalin, translated by Nicholas Bradley, Boulder: East European Monographs, 1992.

(11) See Otto Bauer, The question of nationalities and social democracy, translated by Joseph O’Donnell, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, London, 2000.

(12) See Xavier Bougarel, Anatomie d’une poudrière, La Découverte, Paris, 1996.

(13) See Diane Masson, L’utilisation de la guerre dans la construction des systémes politiques en Serbie et en Croatie: 1989-1995, Harmattan, Paris, 2002.

(14) See Jean-Francois Gossiaux, Pouvoirs ethniques dans les Balkans, PUF, Paris, 2002.