Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Vojvodina's ethnic homogenization as a 21st century paradigm

Over at Balkan Insight, Tim Judah's article "Vojvodina’s Ageing Minorities Stare Extinction in The Face" provided an interesting examination about how the fourth stage of the demographic transition is leading to the disappearance of some relatively well-established ethnolinguistic minorities.

Puffing, panting and yelping in Romanian, six men are expertly dancing around three ping-pong tables. Watching intently are several more men, most of them greying and balding. There is not a woman is in sight. Perhaps they are preparing the feast to follow at which large quantities of alcohol are to be consumed. It has been a happy day for the Romanian community in Serbia, one of Vojvodina’s rapidly dying ethnic minorities.

Vojvodina is Serbia’s northern province. “Until now, we were proud to say that we had 28 nationalities here,” says Branislav Djurdjev, a demographer at Novi Sad university, “but demographic developments will destroy that.”

In the grand sweep of history Vojvodina is no stranger to population shifts. But today, as the Balkan wars of the 1990s fade into memory, few realise the dramatic nature of the demographic changes that have taken place in Vojvodina in the last two decades – and which are continuing.

Nicu Ciobanu, director of Libertatea, Serbia’s Romanian language newspaper, is proud that this is the 52nd annual ping-pong contest that his paper is sponsoring. But how many more will the newspaper be able to stage in years to come? This year’s contest is being held in the gym of the school in the village of Alibunar. Between the two world wars, about 75 per cent of the some 3,500 people who lived in Alibunar were ethnic Romanians. Now, of a population of around 3,400, only 28 per cent are Romanians. The rest are mostly Serbs.

A few steps from the school stand two white churches. Unusually for the Balkans, or indeed anywhere else, they stand side by side and are built in the same classic Vojvodina style. One is the Serbian Orthodox church while the other belongs to the Romanian Orthodox. Inside the Romanian church, chandeliers have been lowered and plastic sheeting placed over precious objects, while the church is alive to the sound of “pftt, pftt” as elderly ladies spray cleaning fluid on everything that needs polishing. The church is being prepared for an important saint’s day.

Overseeing the work is the priest, Fr Ionel Malaimare. Over the road, in the little community hall, tables have been laid for the meal that will follow the saint’s day service. On the walls are pictures dating back decades, recording generations of Romanian choirs of Alibunar. According to the census of 2002, there were 30,419 Romanians in Vojvodina, but back in 1910 there were 75,233. Numbers have been falling ever since. Ominously, for the first time, there is not a single child this year in the first year Romanian-language class in Alibunar’s school.

The most important thing to keep in mind in regards to the self-governing Serbian province of Vojvodina, located in the north of Serbia and bordering on Croatia, Hungary, and Romania, is tgat it has become increasingly Serb by population. Wikipedia's summary of the demographic history of Vojvodina is as accurate as anybody's. Over the period from 1880 to 2002, the region's population grew from 1.1 million to a bit over two million, but the region's Serb population has grown from four hundred thousand (35.5%) to 1.3 million (65%).

How did this shift happen? Ethnic cleansing certainly helped, but so did economics.

Before the Second World War, [. . .] only half of Vrsac’s population was Serbian while the rest were mainly Germans and Hungarians. Today barely 100 Germans remain. The 1931 census recorded 343,000 Germans in Vojvodina. After the end of the Second World War and the Communist takeover, they were driven out, fled, or died in camps. The new authorities colonised the province with almost a quarter-of-a-million Serbs, mainly from Bosnia, and others from other parts of Yugoslavia. In this way they greatly increased the proportion of Serbs in Vojvodina whilst also creating new minority communities, such as Macedonians and Montenegrins.

These Macedonian and Montenegrin immigrants, it's worth noting, are ethnically similar to the Serbs.

Additionally, while the initial resettlement of formerly German lands in Vojvodina may have been planned colonization, the province was also prosperous enough to attract economic migrants. Throughout the Communist era, Vojvodina's GDP per capita was not much lower than Croatia's and perhaps a fifth higher than that of Serbia proper, placing the province clearly in the rich "north" of the country. GDP per capita crashed over the 1990s, relative to Vojvodina's non-warring neighbours and absolutely thanks to sanctions and economic collapse, relative to Slovenia, never mind absolute GDP per capita, crashed over the 1990s, but Vojvodina still retained its income advantage over the rest of Serbia. This, along with Vojvodina's proximity to Croatia and Bosnia, encouraged the influx of ethnically Serb refugees that help boost Serb numbers even as non-Serb numbers fell.

The wars of the 1990s further accentuated the Serbian presence in Vojvodina. According to Tomislav Zigmanov, director of the Vojvodina Croatian Cultural Institute who lives in Subotica, 35,000 to 40,000 ethnic Croats left or were driven out of Vojvodina in the 1990s. The exact number is hard to pin down because some Vojvodina Croats have in the past declared themselves as Yugoslavs in censuses or as Bunjevci, another minority, close to the Croats.

The 2002 census recorded only 56,546 Croats in Vojvodina, well down on the figure a decade earlier, and that number will certainly be less in the next census in 2011. These people “feel abandoned”, says Zigmanov. Too small and cowed to exert any political influence in Serbia, he says they are looked at askance in Croatia. “It feels like we are punished for living in Serbia,” he says.

Geocurrents noted in a January 2010 blog post that ethnic Serbs now form a solid majority over most of the province, the only real exception apart from some scattered rural enclaves being a pocket of Hugnarians in the north-central region, next to Vojvodina. I suspect that rural enclaves populated by ethnic minorities integrated into a majority-dominated society won't resist assimilation for very long, not that emigration from a region that's now one of the poorest in th Balkans mightn't be attractive for ethnic minorities with options elsewhere.

Like the young people from the other minorities who gravitate towards their “motherland”, young Croats in Vojvodina are also leaving for Croatia. Zigmanov cites several telling statistics. According to a recent poll, he says, 70 per cent of students at Belgrade University said they would not want a Croat as a roommate. It is hardly surprising, then, that an equal percentage of Croatian students from Vojvodina prefer to go to university in Croatia and don’t come back.

Until the end of the First World War, Vojvodina was part of the Kingdom of Hungary and Hungarians are still the province’s largest minority. But their numbers are falling fast also. In 1948 there were 428,932 Hungarians in Vojvodina.

In 1991 that number was down to 340,946 and by 2002 there were only 290,207. In Backa Topola, a depressed northern town with a majority Hungarian population, “anyone who has enough brains runs away”, says Janos Hadzsy, a local journalist. Amongst that number are his own two children who have gone to Hungary.

Fears by Serbian nationalists that Vojvodina will secede are certainly false, if not ridiculous. Vojvodina has never been more Serb by population than it is now, and there's every reason to think that it won't become increasingly Serb. Croats also speak Serbo-Croatian; Romanians, Macedonians, and Montenegrins are also Orthodox Christians; Slovaks and Ruthese are Slavs; Hungarians (and others) don't have to move very far if they want to live in substantially stabler and more prosperous countries. Couple the relative ease of assimilation and dsiproportionately heavy emigration among minorities with fertility rates substantially below replacement levels--Roma constitute the only significant exception, but they're a small minority as yet and marginal besides--and despite Vojvodina's political autonomy the province is going to be increasingly ethnically homogeneous.

I mention the example of Vojvodina partly because it's interesting in its own right--the homogenization of the Yugoslav republics and provinces that began in the post-war era and accelerated during the ethnic cleansings of the 1990s is still ongoing--and partly because it's an example that will become increasingly relevant in other areas in other countries advanced in the demographic transition with their own multicultural traditions. In the Volga-Urals region of Russia, for instance, where any number of Finnic and Turkic minorities co-exist alongside ethnic Russians, living alongside their co-citizens, most often speaking Russian in public life and migrating from their rural heartlands and intermarrying, will many of these ethnic minorities persist? In the main extra-European countries of mass immigration--in places like Argentina and Canada and Australia--will intermarriage and assimilation and migration continue to wear away ethnic diversity on the ground, other groups meeting the fates of the Welsh of Patagonia and the Ukrainians of Saskatchewan and the Germans of South Australia, perhaps more urban groups of newer vintage? Et cetera. There will certainly be new waves of immigrants to all these regions, but with the sorts of factors that operate in Vojvodina, could the fate of the new immigrant-borne cultures possibly be any different?

The world of the fourth demographic transition is likely to be a rather more ethnically and linguistically homogeneous one, methinks.


Anonymous said...

Good article but why talk of the Welsh in Patagonia - the same phenonemon has and is happening to Welsh in Wales! As well as with Breton, Basque and other lingistic minorities in Western Europe.

In this respect Eastern Europe is more enlightened than the west in that all linguistic groups (barring the Roma) have their own homeland where their language is safe. As you imply, Hungarians migrate to Hungary etc.

We Welsh, Bretons etc don't have this right and the Voyvodinan situation is happening in our very 'heartland'. Where can we migrate to? We have no choice.

We have to fight for any status and right to exist as a linguistic community and deal with huge migration of people speaking the more prestigious state and usually international language. For doing so, of course, we're usually called 'nationalists', 'separatists' or even 'racists' by the British/English, French and Spanish.

So much for the morality of Western Europe.


CB said...

Just a question, what are the first three demographic transitions?

Randy McDonald said...

@ Anonymous: I was referring to other immigrant communities in the world to draw a parallel with Vojvodina, itself a land of immigration in the 18th century and later.

I've the intention of making a couple of posts relating to language

@ Cicerone: My mistake, there are five stages including the final one of sustained population decline.

Anonymous said...

Randy - thanks, look forward to reading them.

The 'Welsh' experience is one which will effect an increasing number of linguistic communities during the 21st century.

The other big effect is that migrants from outside the state will always learn (and tend to identify culturally, politically as well as linguistically) with the dominant state language. This is understandable but it makes it even harder for smaller language communities to integrate. This leads to silly arguments then that the smaller weaker host language is 'anti-immigrant', 'racist' etc.

Even relatively strong 'minority languages' like Catalan have difficulty in integrating new migrants into their language community. This is also a cause for concern even for Latvians who have their own state and language as sole official state language.

I also believe this is part of the cause for the strong showing of right wing parties in Flanders where immigrants tend to come from French-speaking Maghreb countries.

Certainly demography, movement of people is causing great stress on many of the world's languages.


Anonymous said...

A few weeks ago, I was wondering how immigration is effecting the language situation in Switzerland.

It appears that each of the three or four main languages of the country has (at least to some extent) has certain areas where they predominant.

It seems that German was declining in Switzerland but now has stabilized and that Italian has shrunk.

The sizeable immigration from German, French, and (past?) Italian immigration would make the situation somewhat different than many areas, perhaps.

I also wonder about the effects of immigration on the language and ethnic composition of South Tyrol (non-Italian immigration might lead to an increase share of German speaking population) and whether immigration has any impact on the Cyprus dispute (it would seem to increase the share of the Greek population in the long term).