Inter-ethnic marriages signal change in the Balkans

08/04/2013

The number of mixed marriages in the region slowly rises as people prioritise raising a family over ethnic identity.

By Aleksander Pavlevski for Southeast European Times in Skopje -- 08/04/13

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A bride rides to the church in Galicnic during a traditional Macedonian wedding ceremony. [AFP]

Zlatko Trajkovski describes his life in Berovo, Macedonia, as humble and happy. He and his wife have "a wonderful marriage" with two children and a farm.

Trajkovski is Macedonian, while his wife is from Albania. They met through a marriage mediator who matches Macedonian men with Albanian women.

And they are part of a growing trend.

It is estimated that there are about 3,000 such inter-ethnic marriages in Macedonia -- a number that was unthinkable a few years ago, when there were only a few dozen inter-ethnic couples.

Across the Balkans, there are additional signs that ethnic barriers are not insurmountable, and sociologists say mixed relationships and marriages are rewarding, not only for the people involved, but on a wider scale.

The recent photo of a Croat girl kissing a Serb boy -- each draped in their country's flag -- became a viral sensation on the internet, raising public awareness and support of mixed relationships. A survey by the Friedrich Ehbert Foundation found that 41 percent of citizens in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) support mixed marriages and another 10 percent are undecided.

The increasing number of inter-ethnic marriages between Macedonians and Albanians is considered a positive sign for two peoples with a history of tensions. And it may hold a greater significance for Macedonia's rural villages, where populations have significantly declined.

"Intermarriage is an example of cohabitation and rapprochement of the nations. Macedonia is a good example of this, although the wars in the former Yugoslavia prevented this practice from being accepted even earlier," said Milka Olevska, a sociologist from Skopje.

Olevska added that intermarriage will help to revive villages with new families.

"Macedonian villages are dying. There are many bachelors who are having difficulties finding wives who want to live in the countryside and be farmers. For the girls from rural Albania this is not a problem, so they decide to come to Macedonia, get married and live in a village," Olevska said.

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Citizens of the Macedonian village of Ratevo celebrate the initiation of a middleman, who will seek to match a local man with a bride from Albania. [Aleksandar Pavlevski/SETimes]

Ilija Acevski, a Skopje-based sociologist, said inter-ethnic marriages are the last of a series of barriers between ethnicities.

"Such marriages, by definition, are the most realistic and strongest indicator of ethnic co-existence," Acevski said.

The number of inter-ethnic marriages in BiH is unknown, as the country has not had a census since 1990. Admir Lasica, a Bosniak, his wife Nives, a Croat, and their daughter Renata live in Prijedor. The couple has been married for six years.

"We operate as two normal young people, and not as a Bosniak and a Croat," Admir, 35, told SETimes. "We don't know too many examples of marriages from our area which are mixed. I think it's absurd to criticise someone over his marriage partner's nationality, but unfortunately there are a lot of people who think that way today in Bosnia."

BiH has 52 schools in which students are separated based on nationality. Ilija Markan, who teaches sociology at Gymnasium High School in Glamoc, West Bosnia, said it is difficult for children to overcome such divisions.

"Institutions need to do more when it comes to this issue, so that children can continue their further life when they finish school, because school is the most important place for building of a person's character," Markan told SETimes.

In Kosovo, conflict with Serbia turned inter-ethnic marriages into a taboo, leaving mixed-marriage families navigating an uneasy path between the ethnic Albanian and Serb communities.

Mentor H. and Nita I., a couple from Pristina, said they endured bitter experiences because Mentor's father is Albanian and his mother is Serb. They asked their last name not be used because of the conflict the issue caused in their family.

"I am the person I am, and I feel proud of my parents," he told SETimes. "When I was a child, the Albanians considered me a Serb and the Serbs considered me an Albanian. I have passed through all this now, and I don't care about how people look at me."

He added that he knows both languages and cultures and has friends on both sides.

"This makes me feel rich in my soul," he said. "I hope the future will be without these distinctions, which are completely out of place for me."

Nita said her family reacted badly when she told them one of Mentor's parents was a Serb.

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The photo of Uros Randjelovic (left) and Antonija Kolobaric (right) became a sensation on social media. [Reddit.com]

"I felt sad and ashamed because of that reaction," she said. "My family was completely ignoring the fact that I was married. The situation changed only when I got pregnant, and they started to accept [Mentor] only when our first child was born."

While the number of Macedonian-Albanian marriages is increasing, it accounts for only about 1 percent of marriages in Macedonia, according to the state's Bureau of Statistics. Albert Musliu, executive director of the Association for Democratic Initiatives, said religious differences may be a more important factor than ethnicity in the low number of mixed marriages.

"I think the growing presence of religious communities and religious customs creates separation," Musliu said. "I know many cases which can't cross that barrier and those relationships don't result in marriage because of the fear of stigmatization … how will they face the close relatives?"

Olevska said she expects more young people to marry "irrespective of religion." She added that strict traditions among Albanian Muslims will be tested by younger generations.

Fear of condemnation still exists, but Trajkovski said it is less of a concern than it was in the past.

"At first I was afraid of what relatives would say, but when I turned 38 years old I decided to start a family, and so with the middleman I met my wife in Albania," he said. Now we have two kids and a wonderful marriage and there is no problem that she is Albanian while I'm Macedonian. We live in the village, we have a farm, humble life, but full with happiness and pleasure."

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Stojan Kitanoski, a marriage mediator from Berovo, has brought together 20 couples in eastern Macedonia. He said there sometimes are difficulties resulting from religious differences, but there are few problems with Albanian Catholics marrying Orthodox Christians from Macedonia.

"Differences between people of different nationalities every day are more and more reduced," Kitanoski told SETimes. "I match guys from Macedonia with Albanian women seeking to establish marriage. We visit the family so they can get to know each other, and if they fall in love … there are no problems for anyone. The desire for a family overcomes the differences."

Correspondents Drazen Remikovic in Sarajevo and Linda Karadaku in Pristina contributed to this report.

How would your family react if you married someone of a different ethnicity, and how would you respond to your family? Share your thoughts below in our comments section.

This content was commissioned for SETimes.com.
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