Sunday, October 01, 2006

Viktor Ivezaj -- "Standards Before Referendum: The Content of Montenegro’s Future Status Will Depend From the Approach of Majority Towards Minorities"

Commentary by Viktor N. IVEZAJ

Department of Political Science
Wayne State University
Detroit, Michigan USA

29 March 2006

If history has taught us anything over the past fifteen years, we now know that if a state wants to hold its entire society together, the majority must acknowledge the right of minorities to be treated equally both as individuals and as communities. These lessons have demonstrated that effective representation of minorities on all levels of decision-making, the existence of strong self-governments with minority representatives or special minority self-governments, and even power-sharing within the institutional state structure, will improve the deficiencies of democratic, multiethnic states. Throughout Eastern Europe, the new wave of democratic transition is coming to mean the acceptance of the majority’s decisions by the minority, a now popular concept gaining momentum throughout the European Union and suddenly making its presence felt in the former communist states of Eastern Europe, including Montenegro.

Developments in Montenegro have triggered discussions as to whether the country is prepared to ride this wave of democracy and shed away its turbulent past. The focal point of these debates have largely centered on the fate of the Belgrade Agreement (which recently celebrated its third birthday) and whether it should be sustained or dissolved. Contrary to Serbia’s pro-union aspirations, Montenegro is campaigning heavily to break the bitter marriage and pursue independence as the only remedy for political and economic success, a unilateral move that has drawn criticism from EU officials, opposition parties in parliament, and multi-ethnic groups throughout this tiny republic. Although success will largely depend on Montenegro’s capacity to strengthen and manage its economic and governing institutions, including its community development, and local governance, it will also require observance to the growing demands of its multiethnic citizenry to be incorporated into its political, economic, social and civic processes. To declare that Montenegro has realized these objectives would be an exaggeration, to say the least. In fact, nowhere else has it failed more miserably in its sociopolitical reforms than its handling of minority rights, and without exception the Albanians in the southern region of Malësia e Madhe continue to be victims of neglect, disenfranchisement, and assimilation.

Without dedicating much thought into its dissipating inter-ethnic relations, and consequences that may arise thereof, Montenegro’s political elites have decided to ignore the warning signs from the agitated opposition and rush for a referendum while blindly assuming that all of its domestic tribulations will be swept under the rug. One of the most surprising moves has been the reluctance from Podgorica’s politicians to step back and assess its handling of Albanian affairs before it continues in what it falsely believes to be a pacified situation with its largest ethnic group. Although the outcome of the referendum will draw much dispute from the large Serbian and Bosniak communities, it is also worth noting that failure to also appease the demands of its multi-ethnic citizenry preludes a much-feared consequence that has the international community fearing the worst: a disputed outcome that may trigger a movement to split the country geographically along ethnic lines. The remedies to prevent this from happening were carefully outlined in Vienna, but the Solana and Lajcak proposal that suggests the country be allowed to secede from the federation if 55 percent of voters choose independence and 50 percent of the people entitled to vote take part in the vote is primarily designed to maintain the marriage between Montenegro and Serbia, given that it is nearly impossible for this divided country to muster enough votes away from the opposition. But the logistics of the referendum are only part of Montenegro’s growing pains. In addition to the politics being played out in Podgorica, a growing concern is developing south of the capital where a disenfranchised Albanian minority is seeking alternatives to the failed sociopolitical and economic policies that have for so long stagnated their development and continues to threaten their very existence.

In the Albanian community in and around Tuz, or Malësia e Madhe, a substantial level of political and administrative decentralization will be a decisive component in reassuring the nearly 13,000 Albanians that they have a place in Montenegro’s future, regardless if the referendum passes or fails. The lack of responsiveness to Albanian demands for an urban restructuring plan where Malësia would be recognized as a distinct municipality has drawn sharp criticism from Albanian political elites in Tuz where countless demands have been submitted calling for reforms in education, employment, healthcare, housing and criminal justice. Albanian elites and political representatives have warned Podgorica that their reluctance to address these demands will contribute to the growing discontent towards the majority and threaten to alienate them from the political process. With these appeals entering deaf ears, intellectuals have decided that under the decrees of international and domestic laws, the most feasible solution to the problems facing Albanians today is to empower local citizens to handle their own affairs, which means decentralizing Podgorica and creating a separate commune that would be better suited to handle the most salient issues pertaining to Albanians. Montenegro’s proposal of last year’s Capital City Bill, which suggested that Tuz remain a sub-unit of Podgorica, was largely considered a failed scheme that was designed to temporarily “hush” local Albanians until the referendum was passed. The adverse effect of this move have caused Albanians to become skeptical of Podgorica’s motives, and as a result has discouraged Albanians from involvement in the political decision-making processes, which could be detrimental for the majority party in the days leading to the referendum.

One way that Montenegro can successfully deal with such diversities in its society is by lessening control from the center (Podgorica) and assigning more institutional and political control at the local level (Malësia). A constitutional structure where Albanians have a veto in policies that affect them most would alleviate some of the problems between majorities and minorities. The significance of decentralization has gained so much attention lately that even the negotiations on the future status of Kosova will depend on empowering local communities to participate more in all bodies of the government, especially the legislative branch and police.” Kosova’s Minister of Local Government, Lutfi Haziri, announced recently that local government is an important feature of a state’s political structure, and rightfully asserts, “it will be a serious offer [local-government control]…to the Serb ethnic community, so they can integrate and become part of the process and lead on the local administration level. This means they would govern on the local level and handle the organization of life and services.” In Macedonia, the conflict that almost thrust the country into all out civil war was diverted under conditions that the Albanian minority have increased power in areas they occupied as a majority, thus much of Macedonia’s municipalities were geographically restructured to compliment its ethnic makeup. These regional measures clearly demonstrate the direction the international community is embarking upon in efforts to maintain peaceful transitions of government, which renders the situation in Malësia perplexing when considering the developments taking place in regions that were once marred by ethnic war.

In Montenegro, the politics of municipalities have been made out to be so complex that even realignment specialists are confused as to how to depict them. Most of the municipalities in Montenegro are considerably large and disproportionate when compared to other European nations, where inhabitants range from 2,947 in the municipality of Savnik to 169,132 in Podgorica. According to the 2003 census the ethnic composition of Albanians in Montenegro was 47,682 (7.09%), and in the Podgorica municipality it was 12,951, nearly all living in the Malësia region. Albanians do not see the question of decentralization as being purely in the interest of Albanians, but of crucial importance for all ethnic communities, for overall democratization of Montenegro and for efficient institutional minority protection.
Throughout their appeals for a municipality, Albanians have maintained they do not imagine themselves as an "independent entity" but want to be part of a Montenegro where representation of all groups at all levels of public administration and government are at the core of any power-sharing arrangement, which is an essential aspect of their guaranteed rights as a minority. Exercising freedom through participation in public affairs is extremely important, because it gives people a personal interest in thinking about others in society. Local self-government forces the people to act together and feel their dependence on one another. These demands fall under the sphere of European laws specifically designed to protect ethnic minorities. The European Charter of Local-Self Government, which Montenegro is a signatory, clearly defines the laws regulating conditions and procedures for the foundation, abolition and integration of municipalities. When assessing these requirements, it is clearly obvious that Malësia meets all the necessary requirements for classification into a separate commune.

The starting point is historical development and tradition, which can be done after a local community [in this case Malësia] has declared its interest to do so. According to Montenegro’s Constitution and European laws attributed to local self-government, “a municipality represents a geographically and economically integrated entity for the local people, which is reflected in the integration of urban areas, the number of inhabitants, the organization of the services of immediate interests for local people, gravitation towards the center, the development and ecological conditions of the area and other questions important for the citizens of a certain area and for the realization of the mutual interests and needs.” By looking at it from this context, it is an enigma why Malësia has remained without a municipality for so long. However, most urban analysts, and including myself, would argue that local government institutions would help solve only some of the problems facing Albanians in Malësia, and that a broader analysis reveals deeper complexities that exist in society that are beyond the scope of a commune.

Albanians need not be deceived into thinking that a commune will solve all their problems. In the municipality of Ulqin, where Albanians make up 85% of the population, the head of police and head of the municipal court has never been held by an Albanian. As such, a commune should be welcomed as a means to overcoming the various difficulties facing them at the local level, and not as the ultimate end to their problems. The danger presents itself as a double-edge sword: First, it is under the nature of negotiations that Podgorica may bring forth. Montenegro’s political elites should refrain from using the granting of a commune as an “end all” bargaining chip, but instead think of the Albanian problem as a Montenegrin problem. Isolating Malësia will only contribute to the growing disparities in economic, political and social development. Second, the bigger troubles that face Albanians go beyond anything a commune can solve, and they lie within the enclaves of the community.

First, the bigger crisis facing Albanians in Malësia is not the reluctance of Podgorica to grant them more control of their sociopolitical affairs via a commune; instead their dire situation is linked with the sharp cleavages that exist inside Albanian communities. When assessing the treatment of Albanians in communities throughout the Balkans, Albanians in Malësia have been the least discriminated against, and as a result they never considered it a burning issue to challenge the status quo. With the absence of an Albanian national awakening in Montenegro, the cleavages have continued to create sharp divisions between those Albanians, on the one hand, insisting that the status quo not be disrupted and those, on the other, realizing that the status quo is a pre-determined strategy to completely wipe out an entire people by forced assimilation and emigration. Whether these claims are correct or not, what it is true, however is that some of the most talented Albanian minds from Malësia have opted to focus their intellectual strengths for the Montenegrin cause, where they have been on record to support policies that have obstructed development in the very places they were nurtured. Podgorica has consistently rewarded these sympathizers by appointing them to high-ranking positions, a practice that sounds all too familiar when thinking back to the days of Ottomans rule. Those intellectuals that have refused to be recruited inside the corruptive circles have decided to either initiate change from within or emigrate abroad and consequently never return. The question that is often taken for granted nowadays is one that needs to be revisited: “What does it mean to be Albanian?” But seeking the answer to this question may produce disturbing affects because when the Albanian consciousness finally awakens, it will be startled to realize that what it means to be Albanian in Malësia has suddenly taken Slavic nuances.

Second, Albanians must recognize that false convictions attached to the popular thought that an independent Montenegro will improve their socio-economic and political status are misguiding. With or without Serbia, the Albanian situation will not improve unless the Montenegrin parliament takes the initiative to seriously draft proposals outlining projects designed to specifically expand Albanians’ role in society. Gjukanovic’s primary goal is to secure his position of power, and it is within his best interest to maintain the status quo in a way that will not threaten his party’s hold of the republic. Keep in mind that the question of the referendum did not materialize as a will of the people, but the will of Montenegrin political leaders led by Gjukanovic, who thus wants to extend his unlimited power with the alleged will of the people. His campaign for independence centers on the hope that the international community will accept Montenegro into the family of western democracies once it has done away with Serbia and her treacherous past. This is the same rhetoric he is using to lobby Albanians for their votes in the coming referendum, including promises similar to those he made during his re-election bid for president in 1997 where Albanians were decisive in his slim 5,000 vote victory over Bulatovic. Nevertheless, Albanians continued to be underrepresented in all spheres of public employment, where, according to the Helsinki Committee For Human Rights in Serbia, “only 0.03%--0.05% of Albanians are employed in state bodies and public services in Montenegro.” What the international community needs to realize is that no civic programs have been initiated to alleviate the disproportionate representation of Albanians in the public sector, “despite the fact that the Constitution of the Republic of Montenegro clearly specifies that members of minorities should be employed in civil services in proportion with their share in the total population.”

Third, existing institutions must be modernized to operate within the framework of the federal republic and under European guidelines. One of the most noticeable disparities in Montenegrin institutions is the lack of minority representation in the police, judiciary, bureaucracy, media and academia. One of the key anecdotes that Montenegro must implement is how to resolve the dismal social conditions and ethnic relations that are always in danger of spinning out of control. Programs in civic leadership and law enforcement need to be introduced in the Albanian community so that citizens at the local level can participate in the criminal justice system and not be a victim of it. Albanian media outlets should be extended outside the Albanian viewing areas in an effort to illustrate the cultural diversity to those unfamiliar with the uniqueness of Albanian culture and tradition, a project that could perhaps replace the majority public’s negative perceptions that are usually associated with ignorance and lack of contact. Academic programs at the university level where Albanian cultural studies are offered as a course credit would strongly contribute towards familiarizing tomorrow’s leaders with the history and distinctiveness of the largest minority group in society. The reality is, Albanians are not going anywhere, and their continued presence and contribution in all spheres of society deserves recognition.

Fourth, the most dangerous feature of Montenegro’s government is the corruption of individual office holders and government agencies. Let us not forget that many of the conflicts Yugoslavia endured in her history were identity-based and manipulated by cynical politicians wishing to reach their own ends. Thus the bloody struggles that raged in Bosnia and then again in Kosova were kindled by politicians like Milosevic who sought to increase their personal power. Today, those memories are difficult to erase because the ideologies of the old regime are still alive and functioning under the guise of Gjukanovic’s so-called “democratic” transition, a misguided ideology that has thus far fooled the international community into thinking that the status quo does not threaten peace and security in the region. It is for this reason that minorities are cautious to accept any change that does not include them as active participants in the political system. By suppressing minority participation in spheres of government activity, the risk of social and political upheaval is eminent.

On the other end of this political cauldron exists a much more puzzling aspect of corruption that is even harder to comprehend by western democratic standards. Much of the grievances by Albanians have gone unnoticed by their own elected political representatives, most notorious being the head of the Albanian Political Party, Ferhat Dinosha. From a democratic standpoint, the fact that Dinosha was popularly elected into office demonstrates that he deservingly represents his constituency, a reality that cannot be denied. If he deviates from the will of the electorate and legislates in a way that undermines his constituents’ consent, the most logical remedy provided by democratic theory is to remove him from office via the next electoral cycle. To argue anything contrary to this is useless because it defies popular belief that an elected politician can legislate against the wishes of the very same people that put him in office. The problem that also arises is where to find competent candidates that would (legitimately) win the consent of the people and generate enough votes to pull ahead of the Dinosha and Gjukanovic charade. Now that Dinosha has revealed his vulnerability to Albanians and Montenegrins alike, his continued stay will only strangle any attempt for Malësia to move forward since his legitimacy has forever been tainted. If the coming elections fail to upend this controversial figure, then Malësia seems to have been depleted of candidates capable enough to successfully represent the will of the people. Regardless of one’s profession, it is absurd to believe that legislating as an Albanian in a Slav-dominant parliament is anything but easy, but that should not be a deterring factor given that even one vote in parliament can be so vital that it can determine “who gets what, when, and how;” otherwise Gjukanovic would not lobby Dinosha for his vote each time legislation is introduced that might cause an adverse reaction in Malësia. In this context, it is important for Gjukanovic to secure the “Malësia vote” so that he can defend any controversial legislation as an agreed upon policy accepted by Malësia’s duly elected representative. As long as Dinosha continues to wear the glove that keeps him “warm,” the hand will always move in the direction the glove wants it to.

Finally, international law does not favor the current condition of Albanians in Montenegro. Unless for the improbable chance of genocide, ethnic cleansing or massive repressive tactics from the state, international and European law will be slow to hear challenges that it believes should be handled at the local level. The Council of Europe in its 1995 Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities, in compliance with the OSCE standards, became a requirement for a country to “join the West,” and in particular to join the European Union. However, there has been far less agreement about what exactly these standards should be. There is no debate of how to resolve claims relating to territory and self-government or how to allocate official language status. Montenegro has claimed that it fully respects these standards, but yet continues to centralize power in such a way that all decisions are made in forums controlled by the dominant national group. What is more disturbing is that Montenegro has also prearranged higher education, professional accreditation, and political offices so that members of minority groups must linguistically assimilate in order to attain professional success and political influence. Hence, these legal norms do not address the clash between minority self-government claims and centralizing state policies that generated the destabilizing ethnic conflicts in the first place. For these reasons the prospects for change are more likely to achieve an effect by either (1) utilizing local political channels where grievances are received and resolved in a manner that does not discriminate on the basis of an ethnic and/or religious group, or (2) collectively organizing the community to publicize the grievances by way of protests, rallies, meetings, and so on. Because Albanian culture has now shown signs of being embedded in structural change, the social conditions in Malësia appear ripe for collective action. The demonstrations that took place in Tuz last October and again on 21 March should have caught no one by surprise, and should have signaled a warning to Podgorica that the Albanian question needs immediate inquiry. In the same vein, the Albanian Diaspora organized its own demonstrations at a much grandeur style in Detroit and Washington, DC. The Albanian-American Association in Detroit, the largest and most assertive organization in the United States dealing specifically with Albanian rights issues in Montenegro, was conceived with a purpose of highlighting the disparities and troublesome human rights policies that continue to be practiced by Montenegro’s political elites. Their success has earned the attention of numerous Washington officials and non-governmental organizations, which are beginning to realize that an independent Montenegro does not necessarily spell a democratic Montenegro. With the referendum fast approaching, Albanians in Malësia are expressing a desire once again to petition the government en-masse in an effort to elevate their grievances beyond the local level.

On the other hand, let us not be fooled, Montenegro is no Kosova – where the rallying cry was well-defined for the international community. Nonetheless, what is happening in Malësia today takes on similar connotations to what played out in the 1990s. The social, economic, political and civic repressions have reached a point in Malësia where citizens are forced to abandon their ancient homeland for a better life abroad. There should be no wonder then why there are more Albanians from Montenegro living in Detroit than there are in all of Montenegro. This form of “bureaucratic ethnic cleansing” has drastically changed the composition of Albanians, where once densely populated lands such as Koja and Trieshi are now virtually emptied. The long-term effects have taken its toll; the Malësia e Madhe that was once saturated with Albanians from the Gruda, Hoti, Trieshi, Koja and Luhari regions is now being contested by Montenegro as only consisting of Gruda and Hoti, a dangerous assertion that has many Albanians furious. Any attempt to divide these historic Albanian lands under any administrative or geographic circumstances threatens to undermine any reasonable negotiations between Podgorica and Malësia.

An additional element to this argument has been the trouble dealing with war refugees. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, there were 28,493 displaced persons in Montenegro as of August 2004. Out of this number, 4,400 are Roma; 6,483 Serbs; and 4,074 Muslims. The UNCHR also claims that nearly 50,000 are living throughout Serbia and Montenegro who have not been officially registered, and who would thus have to be added to the overall figure. A large number of these displaced persons have crossed over into Malësia and settled in the Konik and Vrella regions and are currently funded by the Montenegrin government. These majority Bosnian-Muslim settlements have significantly destabilized the ethnic composition of the region where the Albanian communities come in danger of falling below the majority threshold. Under these conditions, Albanian historic settlements are in jeopardy of falling under the ownership of members of a foreign group. Any deliberations on Malësia’s future must incorporate the question of how to deal with displaced persons.

Balkan history has clearly demonstrated that when minorities feel powerless and left out of the power-sharing arrangement of society, they will try to gain local autonomy and break away in an effort to change their minority status into a majority. As a consequence, the longer minorities feel excluded, the stronger those aspirations become. These are precisely the concerns that continue to cause havoc to international observers and scholars seeking to find solutions to how to deal with bastions of repressive governments. Montenegro is no exception. Many of the issues commented here have been subject to scholarly research and have begun to make their way to international conferences around the globe. Research on the Albanian situation in Montenegro was presented last summer at the First International Global Conference in Istanbul, Turkey, where a special session dealing with minorities in Eastern Europe included a paper entitled, “Political Integration of the Albanian Minority in Post-Communist Montenegro.” In a similar vein, some of the themes presented in this commentary have been prepared for the upcoming 20th World Congress in Fukuoka, Japan in a paper entitled, “Failing to Meet Europe’s Demands on Minority Rights: The Case of Montenegro’s Albanians.” The research examines Montenegro’s policies towards its Albanian minority and touches upon three key issues that will be vital in assessing its progress towards European integration: (1) the role of political elites, parties and institutions, (2) political infrastructure: decentralization and municipal government, and (3) the influence of nationalism and ethnicity on political representation.

But academic inquiry into such areas only help us begin to understand the vast problems that exist in societies, it does not provide a clear-cut solution. For Albanians and Montenegrins alike, the first step is to agree what the problems are that exist (where some have been briefly touched upon here), and then a decision has to be made on how to tackle them. Nonetheless, if Albanians do not consent that infringements such as the right to use their language in courts and local administration; the funding of minority schools, universities, medical clinics, and media; the extent of local or regional self-government; the guaranteeing of legitimate political representation; and the prevention on settlement policies intended to engulf minorities in their historic homelands with settlers from the majority group is not reason enough to stand up and demand protection, then this author can assert that assimilation has achieved its ultimate goal, and Malësia e Madhe north of the Albanian border has vanished. If Montenegro does not consider the consequences of this evolution detrimental to its future, then history has taught her nothing, and it will continue to repeat itself in the most profound and catastrophic ways.


Anonymous said...

Excellent analysis. You hit it right on!

Anonymous said...

Prob the best assessment of Montenegrin problems facing Albanians that I have read by far.

This was written in 2005, and here we are embarking on 2011 with the same issues.


Anonymous said...

pretty good just knock off the assimanation bullshit we live in america and go to america english speaking schools so please atleast in malesia they have albanian speaking classes lets see if you can get that here in any district in the detroit area oh yeah i forgot you would be laughed at ........