By Igor Jovanovic and Paul Ciocoiu
EU ministers gave preliminary approval to Serbia’s Union candidacy on Tuesday (February 28th), but the bid was nearly derailed by Romania’s complaint about the treatment of a group of ethnic Romanians.
The move came as a surprise to all the delegations in Brussels. Romanian Foreign Minister Cristian Diaconescu told reporters that Bucharest posed some conditions to Belgrade before giving Serbia the final go-ahead on Friday, when the vote is scheduled to take place among the EU head of states and governments.
Serbia’s candidacy must be approved by all 27 EU nations. The candidacy status would set Serbia on a formal path to EU accession, which could take several years.
Romania’s newly-raised concern centres on the alleged mistreatment of the Vlach minority of ethnic Romanians, which has settled in communities in eastern Serbia near the border.
In Timocka Krajina, a region in Serbia with the largest Vlach community, more than 40,000 people declared themselves as Vlachs, while 4,500 of them declared themselves as Romanians in the 2002 census. The results of last year’s census are still not known.
Serbia also recognises the Romanian national minority, which mainly lives in Vojvodina, in an area known as Banat.
Diaconescu is asking Serbia to agree to a protocol concerning “the non-involvement of the state in the Romanians’ rights to define their own identity.” Other stipulations envisage standard minority rights, such as ethnic, religious freedom, the right to use the maternal language, state support for local institutions, such as schools and churches, Diaconescu said.
Romania did not raise the Vlach issue in previous discussions of EU’s candidacy. When Serbia’s bid was rejected in December, the concern was Serbia’s poor relations with Kosovo, raised by Germany.
Radisa Dragojevic, president of the Vlach National Council in Serbia, told the Serbian media that Romania should not apply pressure on Serbia because of the Vlach community.
“Firstly, we do not feel threatened in Serbia, and secondly, we don’t feel like Romanians, but like Vlachs,” said Dragojevic, who is also the president of the municipality of Petrovac na Mlavi, where he was elected as a Socialist Party of Serbia candidate.
Pedrag Balasevic, president of the Vlach Democratic Party of Serbia, says that the Vlachs are an autonomous people in the Balkans who speak two dialects of the Romanian language.
“However, the central question is not whether Vlachs are Romanians or not, but rather which rights we have in Serbia,” Balasevic told SETimes.
He says that the Vlachs do not have education in their mother tongue, or the right to religion in their language.
“Those responsible for this are the people from the Vlach National Council who believe Vlachs are Serbs and that they should write in Cyrillic. They are mostly under the influence of the ruling parties in Serbia. Nowhere else do people of Romanian origin write in Cyrillic,” Balasevic said.
Dusan Janjic, the director of the NGO Forum for Ethnic Relations, said that the Vlach problem also existed in the former Yugoslavia.
“Both Serbia and Romania are trying to put pressure on the Vlach community. Bucharest is trying to enlarge its diaspora and influence in the region, and the Serbian ruling parties are trying to widen their voting base,” Janjic told SETimes.
According to him, the Serbian authorities are responsible because they did not previously address the Vlach issue. “Romania will not block EU candidate status for Serbia. However, I think that this is a serious warning that Bucharest will not approve the start of EU accession talks with Serbia until the issue is resolved,” Janjic said.
Attila Korodi, head of the foreign affairs committee of the chamber of deputies, the parliament’s lower house, said that Serbia “wrongly interpreted Romania’s insistence and European encouragement at the same time,” Korodi told SETimes.
“The Balkans are and will be in continuous evolution, with significant structural harmonisation. The problem that concerns minority protection is part of this process and will end when all the rights to keeping the national identity will be guaranteed by these countries, including Romania,” he said.
The Serbian community in Romania was caught by surprise by the decision.
“We know this a complex problem, with discussions on this topic going on for a while and with each of the two sides bringing in their own arguments,” Slavomir Gvozdenovici, leader of the Serbs Union in Romania, told SETimes.
“Romania and Serbia have always had good and friendly relations of vicinity and the communities on both sides of the border should keep promoting these links. Both the Serb and Romanian communities have a place and a role within the two societies. But when it comes to minorities and their rights we should be more moderate and cautious when launching polemics on this topic,” he said.
“But in the end, we cannot force anyone, either in Romania or Serbia, to declare himself or herself what we want them to be. We have to act with the same measure on both sides of the border,” Gvozdenovici said.