By Marian Chiriac and Gordana Andric
Romania’s unexpected move to hold up an EU debate on Serbia’s EU candidacy over the rights of the country’s Vlach minority has reignited divisions in the community in Serbia.
Romania yesterday fended off criticism of its delaying tactics at the EU meeting in Brussels on Tuesday, saying Serbia must do more to protect the rights of its Vlach minority.
Bucharest held up an agreement on awarding Serbia EU candidate status for several hours in Brussels, drawing annoyed comments from other diplomats present.
“I hope that Serbia will sign an agreement on minorities as soon as possible,” Romanian Foreign Minister Cristian Diaconescu said on Wednesday, shortly after he returned from Brussels.
Bucharest queried the decision on Serbia made during the European Affairs Ministers’ meeting on February 28, saying it wanted to see fresh guarantees about Vlach rights.
Diaconescu later maintained that Romania did not try to veto Serbia’s candidacy, but merely wanted to “to stand in defence of minority rights in the Western Balkans.”
After hearing Romanian objections, the EU Foreign Ministers Council, recalling the European Commission’s opinion published in October 2011, urged Serbia to improve implementation of “the legal and institutional framework for respecting and protecting minorities”.
Romania’s opposition to Serbia becoming an EU candidate came as a surprise, as the two countries are generally considered allies. Romania is one of only five EU countries that have refused to recognise Kosovo’s independence.
One Romanian journalist said Bucharest’s motives had little to do with the position of the Vlachs in Serbia and more to do with Romania’s frustration about being excluded from the passport-free Schengen zone.
“The decision to block Serbia’s accession to the EU could be a tit-for-tat retaliation against The Netherlands for blocking its membership of the Schengen area,” journalist Elena Vijulie said.
She recalled that Romania had earlier threatened to stop Croatia’s accession to the EU if various countries did not reconsider their opposition to Romania joining the Schengen area.
Nevertheless, the issue of Vlach minorities is important in Romania. Many Vlachs speak a Romance language and are considered by Bucharest to be the same as ethnic Romanians.
Adding to the confusion, the Vlach community in Serbia is divided between those who consider themselves Serbian and those who declare themselves Romanian Vlachs.
The two groups are divided on the questions of their origin and language.
The President of the Vlach National Council in Serbia, Radisa Dragojevic, told Serbia’s Tanjug news agency that Romania had no right to demand anything from Serbia regarding Vlachs.
He maintains that the Romanian minority in Serbia is quite different from the Vlach community, and that Vlach minority rights are not being suppressed.
“We have no need to ask help from Romania, nor can Romania ask for anything on our behalf,” Dragojevic said.
However, Tihan Matasarevic, of the Vlach Democratic Party of Serbia, disagrees, saying Vlachs do not enjoy all their rights under the Serbian constitution.
“We do not have church services or schools in our language because about a year ago the [Vlach] National Council declared Serbian to be our mother tongue,” he complained.
“We just want to enjoy the same constitutional rights as most other minorities in Serbia and I hope that after the discussion in Brussels things will be better ,” Matasarevic said.
Most Vlachs in Serbia live in eastern Serbia, while the Romanian minority is concentrated in the north in Vojvodina. According to the 2002 census, about 40,000 Vlachs and about 35,000 Romanians live in the country.