Ethnic dynamics in Bulgaria and on the Balkan Peninsula
Updated: May 20, 2021
Welcome to the Balkan peninsula. This corner of Europe is where East meets West, and North meets South; where Europe meets Asia and Africa; where Catholicism, Orthodoxy, Islam, and Judaism are all widespread and majority religions. It is an extremely diverse melting pot of different cultures, spanning from Greeks, Slavs, Thracians, Romans, Central and East Asians, to North and Central Africans, Turkic people, Semitic people, and Roma-Indians.
The peninsula also has an incredibly rich history, as the notion of the European civilization was conceived in Greece, and the oldest city in Europe is also located there (Plovdiv, Bulgaria). In addition, two of the worlds’ alphabets were created there – the Cyrillic alphabet in Bulgaria, and the Greek one, from which stems the Latin alphabet.
Despite its incredibly rich and diverse history, diverse population, and magnificent nature, there are a lot of problems plaguing the Balkan peninsula. More specifically, different ethnicities, languages and religions are treated differently in different countries. There are some, where there are almost no issues with that. However, in some places the problems are frighteningly severe, causing debilitation, suffering, war, and even genocide.
In this article, I am going to introduce you to the ethnic dynamics and issues in the Balkan peninsula. I am also going to cover gender, LGBT, and religious issues. The main dispute which I am going to be looking at is: Are the Balkans progressive, especially when it comes to ethnic and religious minorities?
Bulgaria is the largest country located entirely on the Balkans by land area. As such, this makes it encompass many regions with different ethnic groups and religions. Most of the population is Orthodox Christian, however there are some Catholic and Protestant communities. Its second largest religion is Islam, whereas around 10-15% of the population of the entire country is Muslim, which makes it the country with the highest percentage of Muslims in the EU. Religious differences have never been an issue in Bulgaria, since it regained its independence form the Ottoman empire in 1878. Since then, the secular and egalitarian values have been upheld for most of the country’s existence.
On the map below, there is a general overview of what the majority religions are in different municipalities. In reality, religious communities are much more intermixed, than what's shown on the map. A fun fact - there is only one majority catholic municipality in Bulgaria, and there are no majority Jewish or Protestant ones (although there are minorities of all of the aforementioned religions, living in pretty much every region).
Despite almost all minorities in Bulgaria enjoying the same rights and opportunities, there is still one minority that is largely left out of general society. This minority, comprising around 10% of Bulgaria’s population, is the Romani or Gypsies. There have been made many attempts in the past to integrate them into Bulgarian society, however they have failed due to improper execution. Roma people suffer from extremely high unemployment rate, incarceration rate, and poverty rate. Only 0.3% of that ethnic group has acquired a university degree, and only 6,9% have secondary education. Their language(s) has also not been standardized, officially, recognized, or taught. There are almost no non-Romani ghettos, and the majority of Bulgaria’s poor and impoverished are of that ethnicity. The problem is extremely severe, as a large percent of Bulgaria’s labor force is lost, and millions of Euros are spent on mending the issue, rather than on fixing it. The problem has been addressed; however, institutions are not doing nearly enough to help alleviate Roma people out of poverty and provide them with education and large-scale job opportunities. There are even some people in power that allegedly try to keep Romani’s uneducated, to easily coerce them into voting for them at every election cycle.
The picture bellow was taken from a very intriguing Roma website, all about empowerment, free speech, and building a better and more integrated community. There might be future collaborations between them and our organization, as we fully support their cause. Here is a link, if you would like to check it out: https://romastandingconference.org/about-us/
Some solutions to the problem are offering more easily accessible education, standardizing the Roma language and teaching it to them alongside with Bulgarian and a foreign language, and incentivizing them to take a proactive part in their surrounding community. Better housing and infrastructure needs to be provided, and more job opportunities are a must.
If Bulgaria wants to prosper, its Roma citizens must be fully integrated, educated, and accepted into society. This is integral part of the country’s survival.
The term “Western Balkans” is used to refer to all Balkan countries, except Greece and Bulgaria, and excluding partially Balkan countries, such as Romania, Italy, Turkey, and Slovenia.
The countries we are going to be taking a look at in this section are primarily the ex-Yugoslav countries of Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, and Kosovo. These are the countries, whose rising nationalist and religious tensions made the prosperous country of Yugoslavia completely break apart. And this is where one of the bloodiest and most horrific genocides in recent history took place.
The region is extremely ethnically diverse, with Serbia being almost entirely Orthodox, Croatia being almost entirely Catholic, Kosovo being almost entirely Muslim, and Bosnia having a Muslim plurality, and large Orthodox and Catholic communities. Here is an ethnic map of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which illustrates the situation.
During the Yugoslav wars, all different ethnicities fought each other, despite living peacefully together for decades. Muslims, however, were predominately targeted. In Bosnia, there were a series of massacres, perpetrated by Serbians, Croatians, and Bosnian Serbs. Some of these “ethnic cleansing” were the massacres of Srebrenica, Žepa, Višegrad, Paklenik, Ahatovići, Snagovo, Tuzla, Zenica, Stupni Do, Varivode, Saborsko, and more. Thousands were indiscriminately killed, primarily because of their faith. Thousands of Serbians and Croatians also lost their lives during the conflict. Although the majority of the culprits have been tried as war criminals, and have subsequently been incarcerated in the Hague, the wounds are yet to heal. There are landmarks that remind people constantly of the brutality of the conflict – besides the mass graveyards and monuments, there are tens of thousands unearthed land mines scattered throughout the region.
Similar is the case with the conflict in Kosovo – the predominately Albanian and Muslim inhabited country wanted independence from Serbia, on the basis of discrimination. Both went to war with each other, and subsequently thousands of innocent civilians were killed. To this day, Albanians and Serbians resent each other, which further hinders progress on the peninsula.
The Yugoslav wars have had horrendous consequences, not only because of the loss of human lives and the misery they caused in their immediate aftermaths, but also, they destroyed a prosperous economy. They set progress backwards for many countries and have significantly lowered their GDPs and quality of life.
The interesting cases of Montenegro, Northern Macedonia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina
Many of the countries on the Balkans have a common history and culture, but in addition to that they also have similar genetics. It is strange to see a country such as Bosnia and Herzegovina to be split and engulfed in a war, based on ethnicity, as arguably Bosnians, Serbians, and Croatians are the same ethnicity. This showcases the Balkan nationalistic chauvinism, whereas people were willing to murder their neighbors, just for practicing a different faith.
Montenegro is also an interesting case, as its population has virtually always self-identified as Serbian and have spoken standard Serbian. Due to political and historic reasons, they have decided to secede, further complicating the relations in the region.
But the most interesting case of them all would definitely be the Republic of Northern Macedonia. Its name originates from the Ancient Greek Macedonian empire, and from the geographical region its located in. The region of Macedonia encompasses the whole country of North Macedonia, as well as 3 Greek regions, 2 Bulgarian provinces, parts of Serbia, Kosovo, and Albania. The language, spoken in the country is dialect of Bulgarian, which was highly influenced by Serbian. It’s Slavic is of primarily Bulgarian descent, with some degree of Serbian intermixture. There are very large Albanian communities, as well as Roma, Turkish and Aromanian ones. The identity, name, integrity, nationality, language, and history of the country is highly contested and disputed between all of its neighbors, which also contributes a lot to Balkan instability.
Outside the Slavic world
This section is primarily about Greece, Romania, and Albania; therefore, I am not going to cover Slovenia, Turkey, and Italy, as only small parts of them are located on the Balkan peninsula, and they are too culturally distinct.
Albania has a large non-Albanian population, constituting of a large number of Greeks, Bulgarians, Aromanians, and Roma, as well as Montenegrins, Serbians, Bosnians, Armenians, Gorani, Jews, and Balkan-Egyptians. Albania is generally accepting when it comes to its minorities, but there have been some questions raised about its treatment of its Roma and Greek populations. There is also a small degree of preferential treatment towards Muslims – if you practice Islam, you would be more welcomed by Albanian society, it would be easier for you to find a job, and you would earn slightly more than average. However, this generally has not been a significant issue.
Greece doesn’t have a good track record with its ethnic and religious minorities; however, it has turned more progressive in recent years. In the past, Muslims have been severely discriminated against, with Turks being evicted from their homes and deported to Turkey, although this is not their worst offence. Greece has committed genocides against their Albanian population in 1944, and an even worse and more large-scale genocide of Bulgarians, living in Southern Thrace and Greek Macedonia in 1913. This has caused severe tensions, contributing to the instability on the peninsula.
Romania’s biggest issue when it comes to discrimination is its Roma population, just like in Bulgaria. The case is very similar to the case in Bulgaria. This ethnicity is highly discriminated against, and even though the government has tried to integrate and fund it, this has yielded little to no results. There are also tensions between Romanians and their sizeable Hungarian minority, but animosity between the two has gradually decreased throughout the years.
When it comes to women’s rights, Bulgaria is number one on the peninsula. According to a press release by The World Bank on the 1st of March 2019, “Bulgaria, an EU member-state with a population of 7.1 million, is among the highest performing economies in women's legal rights affecting work, according to a new index presented by the World Bank today.” This, however, does not mean that there are no issues whatsoever, as Bulgaria’s score is still 8.6 points lower than the EU’s average score.
In other Balkan countries, the situation is significantly worse than in Bulgaria. Greece is at the very bottom of the internal EU rankings, and Romania isn’t better off. Croatia is somewhere in between Romania and Bulgaria. And when it comes to the Balkan countries, which are outside of the EU, the problems are even more severe and ingrained.
We have to note, however, that we are talking about Western and European standards. Women’s rights even in the lowest performing European countries are still better than women’s rights anywhere outside of the Western world.
When it comes to LGBT rights, the region is not at all very progressive. Even though homosexuality is not illegal in any of the countries on the Balkan peninsula, including Turkey, gay marriage is not legal in any of the countries, including Italy. In all Balkan countries, LGBT people can serve openly in the military, and in almost all there are laws, protecting gender identity and expression.
However, LGBT people do not feel safe to be public with their real identity, as in many cases they are going to be frowned upon, or they might even become victims of violent attacks. Opinions of the general population about people from the LGBT community are dismal, and many people go as far as to state that gay, lesbian, and bisexual people should not have the same rights are heterosexual people.
Although there has been a lot of legislature passed in recent years, especially in Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, and Croatia, it is still not even close to being enough, as well as it has not been implemented properly yet in many cases. Pride parades have been held in many Balkan countries for many years now, and some nations on the peninsula have recently been added to the list of countries with Pride parades.
One very interesting case is the singer Vasil Boyanov, far better known as Azis. He is a Bulgarian singer and performer, who is both gay and of Roma ethnicity. Born in a female prison in the city of Sliven, Vasil has fought against prejudices throughout his whole life, while being shunned for his skin color and sexuality. During communist rule in Bulgaria, being homosexual was much more of a taboo compared to how it is perceived now. Since Bulgaria became more liberal and freer, he and many others have had the chance to flourish. Even people, such as I, who are not proponents of the type of music he produces, still have a great deal of respect for his craft. His most popular music video in YouTube has amassed 110 million views (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BplsGX5eLLo), and in 2020 he released his first single in English (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hy-C4YvECMk).
Although bigger cities, such as Sofia, Athens, Thessaloniki, Plovdiv, Burgas, Belgrade, Zagreb, Bucharest, and Varna are generally safer and more accepting, the more rural parts of Balkan countries are much less tolerant. To quote a Croatian writer and journalist from the LGBT community, Srđan Sandić: “We want the same right to life, the right to be ourselves.”
An intersectional approach
We have established, that life is difficult for minorities of all kinds, to different degrees in different countries. Of course, it goes without saying, that the more minority groups you are a part of, the more difficult it would be for you. This is not the case only for Balkan countries – it is the case everywhere. Here is a quote from the aforementioned singer Azis about this topic: “Being black and gay is hard, not only in Bulgaria, but everywhere. We're not welcome anywhere…”
My personal take on the issue
The Balkan region of Southern Europe has not had a good track record when it comes to discrimination of ethnic, religious, and other minority communities. Some countries are worse offenders than others, but none has been a paragon for human rights. All the nations, contained in the peninsula, have to go to great lengths to ensure their future progress and development. Protecting, subsidizing, and integrating minorities would both help them economically, and ensure more cooperation and less tension on the peninsula.