Prioritising rights over regions

Instead of renewing calls for the establishment of a “Presevo Valley region”, ethnic Albanian politicians should focus on establishing an Albanian National Council in order to effectively uphold their minority rights.

By Ian Bancroft

Ethnic Albanian politicians in the south of Serbia have again renewed calls for the establishment of a separate ‘Presevo Valley’ region. Shaip Kamberi, the mayor of Bujanovac, maintains that “even though the Serbian government disagrees, we consider that a region, which would recognise language, religious and other diversity, would be a mechanism for ethnic Albanians from Presevo to [gain] their legitimate rights”. These rights, however, are best upheld through the formation of an Albanian National Council, particularly following the Serbian parliament’s adoption of the new Law on National Minority Councils.

During the summer, ethnic Albanians in southern Serbia – a delegation of whom recently met Kosovo President, Fatmir Sejdiu, in Pristina to discuss various concerns, including Serbia’s continued refusal to recognize degrees issued by the University of Pristina – issued a declaration calling for the establishment of a separate “Presevo Valley region”. Milan Markovic, Serbia’s Minister of Public Administration and Local Self Government and president of the Co-ordination Body, described the request as being both “unrealistic” and “politically motivated”, adding that it “will not solve any problems” and that “regionalisation cannot and should not be based on ethnicity…since it would not be in accordance with European standards”. According to the Law on Regional Development, which is expected to be adopted by the Serbian parliament towards the end of the year, the municipalities of Presevo, Medvedja and Bujanovac will be incorporated into a new southern region.

What such arguments by ethnic Albanian politicians have consistently overlooked is the existence of various mechanisms designed to strengthen minority rights, especially in the form of national minority councils. Exercising this important legal right constitutes the most effective way of institutionalising, protecting and upholding the cultural autonomy, education and minority rights of the Albanian community in Serbia, particularly with respect to the official use of language. Unlike other minorities from throughout Serbia, however, the ethnic Albanian community has yet to establish such a body.

In adopting the new Law on National Minority Councils in early September, the Serbian parliament effectively removed one key obstacle to the establishment of an Albanian National Council. By regulating the authorities, competencies, finances and electoral processes of each national minority council, the law provides a clear legal and operational framework that will strengthen their legitimacy, role and standing as the principal representatives of minority communities throughout Serbia. Prominent members of the ethnic Albanian community in southern Serbia, including Kamberi, have previously stated that such legislation was a prerequisite for creating an Albanian National Council.

Hans Ola Urstad, the former head of the OSCE Mission to Serbia, welcomed “Serbia’s efforts to continue supporting and promoting the rights of national minorities” and emphasized how the “new legislation represents a significant contribution to strengthening the vibrant and thriving multi-ethnic society of Serbia”. The OSCE Mission to Serbia has pledged to assist implementation of the law in conjunction with the relevant ministries and national minority councils. The new legislation therefore lays the foundations for further reinforcing the protection of, and awareness about, minority rights throughout Serbia.

Having initiated steps to collect the necessary signatures required to proceed with the formation of an Albanian National Council, ethnic Albanian politicians must ensure that an effective body is established without any unnecessary delays. The new Law on National Minority Councils, if properly implemented, will certainly help in this regard. Steps must also be taken to ensure that citizens are aware of how their particular rights in the spheres of culture, education and language can be secured through the national council. Fulfilling each of these objectives, as opposed to repeated calls for a “Presevo Valley region”, ultimately provides the most effective means for strengthening the Albanian community’s voice, image and influence at all levels of society.

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