By Suzana Bozinovic in Zajecar and Sasa Trifunovic in Bor
A dispute over whether Vlachs, the largest minority in eastern Serbia, are an ethnic group or the same as Romanians is dividing the small community at a time when the government is hoping to boost minorities' confidence through the establishment of ethnic National Councils.
A debate on the subject caused a furore at the Vlach National Council's founding assembly last year in the eastern town of Bor.
The discussion soon left the realm of linguistic disagreements and revealed that the two groups stand poles apart. "I will never accept that I am a Romanian. I am a Vlach, end of story," said Sinisa Davidovic, from Neresnica.
Ljubisa Ilic from Petrovac na Mlavi agreed. He accused opponents of trying to "Romanian-ise" Vlachs in eastern Serbia, force the Latin alphabet onto Serbs who use the Cyrillic script and claimed plans were afoot to build a radio and TV transmitter inside Romania that would broadcast into eastern Serbia.
Vlachs are a small community in Serbia, compared to ethnic Hungarians, Muslim Bosniaks, Roma and Albanians. In the last census only 40,054 people declared that they were Vlachs.
But the issue of Vlach identity has taken on a new importance since the fall of the Milosevic regime in 2001, when the Romanian media began claiming that Serbia's Vlachs were ethnic Romanians who had been deprived of their democratic and national and human rights.
"The Belgrade politicians have changed only in appearance, which is why the Romanian minority feels betrayed by the same people they helped to topple the Milosevic regime," Romania's Evenimentul Zilei newspaper claimed.
For economic and political reasons, links between Vlachs in eastern Serbia and neighbouring Romania were given little weight in either state before the fall of Romanian dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu.
But after Romania opened up to the world, Serbian Vlach youths began enrolling across the border in Romanian schools and a number of non-government organizations and parties were established, advocating closer links with Romania.
The issue of the equality of those people who regard themselves as Romanians rather than Vlachs began to rear its head alongside demands for Vlach/Romanian-language church services and radio programmes.
Petar Ladjevic, then Secretary of the National Minorities Council with the government of Serbia, sought to alleviate tensions by assuring that there was no danger of the "Romanian-isation" of Serbian Vlachs and emphasizing the cordial relations between the two countries.
He explained that the National Council had been established to protect the national and cultural identity of Vlachs and not to aid their assimilation either by Romanians or Serbs.
"They could have chosen to declare themselves as Romanians but this is not what they did. I do not think there is an attempt to 'Romanian-ise' local Vlachs and I do not think that anybody is aiming for their 'Serbian-isation', either," Ladjevic said.
Zivoslav Lazic, chairman of the National Council, urged the opposing factions to refrain from sharp words because "it is well known what the consequences of nationalism in the Balkans can lead to".
But such well-meant pleas have had no effect and the mutual accusations have continued. The leading candidate on the list of Vlach community in Petrovac na Mlavi, Sinisa Maksimovic, says the opposing group is "pro-Romanian" and their ultimate goal is the "assimilation of the local population". He added:
"I am leading a list of ordinary people from Petrovac na Mlavi who are standing up to defend the identity of Vlachs."
On the other side of the fence, voices insist equally strongly that the Vlachs of the Timok region have been deprived of their rights and subjected to "unprecedented assimilation and Serbian-isation".
Slavoljub Gacovic, founder of the Romanian non-government organization Ariadnae Filum is adamant that there is no such thing as a Vlach nation. "We are all Romanians and the census from 2002 was forged as there are about 350,000 of us," Gacovic said.
Dimitrije Kracunovic, a retired Yugoslav People's Army officer and president of the Democratic Movement of Romanians in Serbia, claims there are up to 740,000 ethnic Romanians in southeast Serbia and also says there is no such thing as a Vlach people; people declare themselves as Vlachs only because of indoctrination.
Some have tried to find a compromise position. Dragomir Dragic, author of a book on Vlachs, the "White Book On Vlachs", said: "Nobody has yet explained what the terms Romanian-isation and pro-Romanian exactly mean. This fact is being exploited for political purposes".
An expert in ethnology from Zajecar, Dejan Krstic, meanwhile, claims small but significant differences exist between Vlachs and Romanians. "Vlachs and Romanians share the same ancestors, speak the same language and live in the same area but they do not have the same sense of ethnic identity," he said.
He described the language spoken by Vlachs is a vernacular, archaic form of Romanian with many Serbian loanwords.
The dispute between the two groups has also assumed a religious angle, with some Romanians in southeast Serbia rejecting the local authority of the Serbian Orthodox Church.
"We are not subordinate to the Serbian Church and we do not recognize its archbishop," Slavoljub Gacovic said. "In Malajnica, near Negotin, we have built our own church where the services are in Romanian and two more churches are under construction."
The dispute over the church services began in earnest in 2002 when the Romanian ambassador to Belgrade, Stefan Glavan, together with other embassy employees - and without prior warning - attended a church service to mark the tenth anniversary of the establishment of the Democratic Movement of Romanians of Serbia in the village of Slatina near Bor.
To the consternation of the Serbian Church, the service at the village hall in Slatina was presided over by a Romanian Orthodox bishop from the Serbian border town of Vrsac, Danilo Stoenescu, speaking in Romanian.
On 4 December 2004, the same bishop consecrated the church in Malajnica, built on the private land of the Aleksandrovic family. The Serbian Orthodox Church was furious and has even called for the church to be pulled down.
The question of whether Vlachs are Vlachs - or Romanians - looks unlikely to go away. Some say there is a financial angle to this. "Romanian organizations are competing for the money of the Romanian government," one pro-Vlach lobbyist maintained. The same source accused Kracunovic's movement of extremism.
"They try to prove that various historical figures from this area were Vlachs or Romanians. They even claimed [former Yugoslav strongman) Tito was of Romanian origin." he said.
Suzana Bozinovic is the Zajecar-based correspondent of Serbia's Blic daily. Sasa Trifunovic is the Bor-based correspondent of Beta news agency. Balkan Insight is BIRN`s online publication.
This article was published with the support of the British embassy in Belgrade and National Endowment for Democracy - NED, as part of BIRN's Minority Media Training and Reporting Project.