In the Balkans, everyone is a minority somewhere or other. Croats are a majority in Croatia, but a large minority in Bosnia and Herzegovina and a tiny minority in Serbia, where they still live in fear of their lives. Serbs may dominate Serbia, but in Croatia they would have a rough time these days--if nearly all of them hadn't already been chased out. Bosnian Muslims dominate in Bosnia, but only in 51 percent of it; the rest is practically deeded to Serb control under the Dayton peace accords. And Macedonia, the last to fall victim to ethnic strife, is a bewildering mixture of Muslim Slavs, Greeks, Turks, Egyptians, Romas, Macedonian Slavs, Serbs and Bulgarians. So many, in fact, that the word for a mixed-fruit salad in many European languages is "Macedonian."
All these myriad groups want their own ethnically defined nations, for self-protection as well as pride. All have vivid memories of oppression and glorious martyrdom. All have even greater reason to believe now, after a decade of violence, that safety lies only with their own kind--and in numbers.
The reductio ad absurdum of all this is the historic struggle for self-determination and international recognition of the Vlachs. The Vlachs? A people linguistically related to Romanians rather than to Slavs, Vlachs are scattered throughout the Balkans, with a home turf along the south bank of the Danube. Before anyone rushes out to order flags, though, the Vlachs themselves are divided, between mountain Vlachs and alluvial Vlachs. How many are they? Who knows. Census-taking in the Balkans is a deeply controversial process; calling for one is enough to provoke threats of war by those groups who happen to be on the wrong side of a suspected demographic shift. Some countries in the region have gone so long without a census that no one really knows how much of what is where any longer.
This might all be funny if it weren't so dangerous. The problem with rising ethnic aspirations is, of course, that no borders are redrawn peacefully. Irredentism is inevitably a violent process--and one that cripples the argument that peoples can and should live together with their differences. As everyone in the Balkans knows by now, that makes us all losers.