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Minorities in Southeast Europe: Inclusion and Exclusion

1 January 1998

Ethnic conflict in South-East Europe has led to recent wars in this region and the associated tragedies of ‘ethnic cleansing’ and mass migration. This report examines the key issues influencing minority/majority relations and provides an historical framework for understanding the roles of ethnicity and religion in the formation of political systems. The Report discusses issues of self-determination and territorial autonomy, and provides a valuable insight into the major factors that provoke inter-group conflict.


Mehmet Emin Aga is one of the leaders of Greece”s 90,000 strong Muslim community. He lives in Xanthi where the local Muslim population used to be Bulgarian-speaking by majority but is rapidly becoming Turcophone and self-identifying as ethnic Turks. Türkiye is Greece”s traditional enemy and this, combined with Greece”s continuing refusal to officially recognize the existence of ethnic minorities within its borders, has resulted in official distrust of community leaders like Mehmet Aga who openly identify themselves as Turks. At the end of the 1980s even elected MPs who ran on an explicitly Turkish platform were prosecuted and sentenced to terms of imprisonment, later commuted to large fines.

Mehmet Aga was nominated to office by the Muslim community of Xanthi on 17 August 1990 and served as official mufti until he was ousted and a government appointee put in his place following a new law no. 1920 of 24 December 1990, which replaced existing legislation dating from 1920 on the appointment of muftis. He carried on as unofficial mufti and has suffered a number of prosecutions for usurping the title. At the latest, held at the Lamia city court near Athens (some 600 km from Xanthi) on 28 May 1998, he was sentenced to a further six months imprisonment making a total to that point of 79 months, of which he has served six and paid fines to commute others. Mehmet Aga appealed to the courts against his dismissal immediately he was ousted but that case has yet to be heard. The case of Mehmet Aga well illustrates the central problem of the exclusion of many minorities by the states of southeastern Europe. Greece is a European Union (EU) member but one which continues to view ethnic or religious minorities with distrust and displays hostility to any activity which it sees as threatening the unity of the Greek “nation-state”. However, there has been a noticeable shift within the international community towards the greater acceptance of cultural diversity within the “modern state”. Assimilation and homogenization are no longer seen as ideal goals. Furthermore, the EU increasingly emphasizes the positive aspects of cultural diversity and encourages states to actively support minority cultures. While the states in southeastern Europe display tendencies which essentially support the continuance of the outdated homogenized “nation-state” ideal, all look towards membership of the European Union as the primary goal within the near future. Thus the international community should do its utmost to encourage the states within the region to adopt policies which are in line with the new emphasis on the positive aspects of diversity, and to censure policies and actions which are not.

All the states of southeastern Europe have emerged since the beginning of the nineteenth century. As a whole the region is famed for the complexity of its minority situation. One factor in the attitude of Greece and other states of the region is the legacy of the Ottoman millet system – whereby the population was classified by religious affiliation rather than ethnicity or language. This has had a profound and long-lasting effect on those states which were ruled by the Ottomans and is reflected in the continuing tendency to confuse religion with ethnicity and ultimately citizenship. It has also been a key factor in the assimilation (and inclusion) of groups who share the religion of the majority and the exclusion of those – especially Muslims in the successor states to the Ottoman Empire (not including Albania) – who do not. It has aided the assimilation of small Muslim groups into the respective dominant Muslim group in some areas as well.

Another key factor is the refusal of recognition by certain states of certain minorities. The Bulgarian and Greek authorities continue to refuse recognition of a Macedonian minority within their countries, and both continue to persecute those who attempt to exercise their right to self-identification. Such actions are clear violations of basic rights. The situation regarding the recognition of Muslim Slavs is more complicated and varies throughout the region. War and suffering – often a crucial factor in the genesis or strengthening of national identity – have helped the consolidation of the largest such group, the Bosniaks, while in the Rhodope region straddling Bulgaria and Greece, the Muslim Slavs are developing along different lines due to the different political situation there. Tensions are also evident within these communities, with different sections opting for different identities.

Transnational minorities live throughout the region. Their situation varies greatly. Jews have had a mixed history ranging from the horrors of genocide to at times successful integration into mainstream society. However, both they and the Armenians have in recent times a “mother state”, which, while outside the region, has still been a factor, and many have migrated from the region for this reason. The Vlachs in particular have been successful in integrating into their wider respective communities. The Roma, however, continue to be virtually a separate stratum of society, subject to extreme discrimination and prejudice from virtually all other groups, and their current economic situation is often dire in the extreme (although the Roma should not be seen as constituting a monolithic whole). There is no doubt that the situation of the Roma constitutes one of the most important social questions throughout the region, and one that requires committed action by all the states to combat and overcome deep-seated prejudices among the general population, prejudices shared by local members of the executive, if not central state organs.

The break-up of former Yugoslavia has seen the emergence of successor states after military struggles with Serb-dominated forces opposing their creation (with the exception of Macedonia). Many Serbs, faced with the reality of being minorities in these new sovereign states, were open to manipulation and became party to extreme measures of forced exclusion – the ethnic cleansing measures which were copied by both Croats and Bosniaks. When the military balance changed, many Serbs opted to move, or were coerced into moving to areas which were and remain under Serb control rather than be minorities in their traditional homes. The Dayton agreement largely sanctioned this by recognizing the ethnic Serb part of Bosnia-Herzegovina as a separate unit – possibly a dangerous precedent. Still, the return of the refugees to their original homes remains an aim to which at least lip-service is paid by the international community. Those optimistic for a future reintegration of the Bosnian state argue that the international community was forced to accept the ethnic partition of Dayton to end the war, and to recognize the realities of the situation which included at that time unanimous agreement of all Serb parties for at least territorial autonomy and some form of separation. However, they may say, the door to future reintegration remains slightly open and depends on a change in Serb attitudes which appears to be under way with the decline in support for Radovan Karadzic. Pessimists on the other hand argue that as soon as the international peace-keepers leave, fighting will break out again. The future remains in the balance.

Following the break-up of Yugoslavia, the burning “Albanian question” concerning Kosovo and to a lesser extent western Macedonia remains. This raises the issue of “self-determination”, which remains dangerously undefined with different parties interpreting it in different ways. The international community, when it was extemporizing and improvising its policies over the break-up of former Yugoslavia, neglected to address the Kosovo issue adequately because the situation there remained peaceful due to the Kosovars” then non-violent strategy of achieving independence. This peaceful strategy failed, however, and more radical elements within the Kosovo Albanian camp deduced from the Bosnian experience that there would be no outside help without armed struggle, a struggle which became possible due to the availability of arms following anarchy in Albania itself. There remains a real possibility of the violence extending into Macedonia, especially if the violence in Kosovo continues for some time and radical elements continue to come to the fore within the Albanian camp – a process which unfortunately seems to be exacerbated by anti-Albanian nationalistic attitudes among the Macedonians.All the successor states had to lay down criteria for citizenship and a common feature – with the exception of Bosnia-Herzegovina – has been an emphasis on ethnicity as the main prerequisite for citizenship. For those who do not share the dominant ethnicity, restrictive criteria have been used to deny citizenship to many who have claims based on long periods of residence in their area. Such criteria are unacceptable given the multinational character of the polity to which all these successor states belonged, and should be immediately and retroactively loosened.

The Yugoslav wars produced large-scale population movements. The current tragedy of “ethnic cleansing” and mass migrations, while being of a larger scale than previously, are not unique. Rather, they have been a perennial feature of the Balkans and are directly related to the inclusion or exclusion of certain groups by different polities at different times. Throughout the region, “ethnic cleansing” has a long history, as has the practice of attempted ethnic restructuring by the central authorities through the settlement of large numbers of an ethnic group (usually the majority one) to change the ethnic structure of a region. In addition to this ethnic intolerance and attempted homogenization, there have been and continue to be massive movements of “economic migrants” within the region (for example into Greece the EU member), or who have left the region in search of a brighter economic future elsewhere. A key factor here has been the greater freedom of movement possible from the former Communist states and huge numbers of people have migrated – both minority peoples and majority peoples who have become new minorities. Outside the war-torn new Yugoslav states, there has also been an influx of Asian and African people, attracted by the proximity of the region to the EU – usually the final goal. These mass “economic” movements often have a strong ethnic component and it is hard to differentiate clearly between those who have left due to fear of or actual persecution, and those who have left for purely economic motives. The history of internecine struggle in the region has been detrimental to the economies of the Balkan countries and thus helped to fuel “economic migration”. This greater mobility and the corresponding ever-changing ethnic situations will surely continue and become, as has happened in the EU, a feature of the modern world. Thus the Balkans should not be characterized as a region historically governed by “primordial hatreds” between its diverse populations. Rather, it should be seen as one where mass population changes have been a recurring factor for a variety of reasons, including competition over territory, regime consolidation and economic migration. It is important to differentiate between “ethnic cleansing” and outright genocide, and economic migration, which is not always connected to ethnicity.

Please note that the terminology in the fields of minority rights and indigenous peoples’ rights has changed over time. MRG strives to reflect these changes as well as respect the right to self-identification on the part of minorities and indigenous peoples. At the same time, after over 50 years’ work, we know that our archive is of considerable interest to activists and researchers. Therefore, we make available as much of our back catalogue as possible, while being aware that the language used may not reflect current thinking on these issues.