As they press their grievances over the new country's constitution, Montenegro's ethnic Albanians are showing they could become a permanent source of friction in this tiny Adriatic republic. Ethnic Albanians represent about 7 percent of Montenegro's 620,000 population.
The three Albanian political parties in the parliament are threatening they will not back adoption of the new constitution by the parliament unless the ruling coalition led by the Prime Minister Zeljko Sturanovic revises the draft to expand minority rights.
The proposed constitution must be approved by the parliament with a two-thirds majority or Montenegro will face a constitutional referendum later this year.
Ethnic Albanian deputies proposed a number of amendments, demanding regional devolution and use of Albanian as the official language in the areas where they are a majority.
Montenegrin Albanians also want a bicameral parliament, full guarantees of minority rights in accordance with international standards, and the detailed stipulation of these guarantees in all laws. But, the government has said it finds such demands unacceptable.
However, the draft constitution defines minority rights in a single article that stipulates that the state will respect and implement all international documents regulating the issue.
It appears that such a draft will be a major source of friction between ethnic Albanians and minority parties representing Montenegrins.
Ethnic Albanians' demands were dismissed as unrealistic by the ruling Democratic Party of Socialists, or DPS, loyal to former President Milo Djukanovic and the Social Democrats, or SDP, led by Ranko Krivokapic.Senior DPS official Miodrag Vukovic said his party would not accept demands for a bicameral parliament or for separate Albanian regions.
"Regionalism, federalism, or the redrawing of territories with ethnic boundaries would contravene the concept of a civic state and be fatal for such a small community as ours," Vukovic told Balkan Insight.
Three of the six Albanian parties in Montenegro are represented in parliament: The Democratic Alliance, the Democratic Union of Albanians and the Albanian Alternative. None are in the ruling coalition, which is supported by more than half of Albanian voters in Montenegro, according to polls.Most Montenegrin Albanians live near the eastern border with Albania and Kosovo, in the town of Tuzi and coastal resort of Ulcinj.
Apart from ethnic Albanians, other key minorities in Montenegro are Bosniac Muslims, who account for 15 percent of the population, and Serbs, who make up 32 percent.
Montenegrin minorities were a key factor in the 2006 referendum which paved the way for the country's secession from Serbia. Montenegro's pro-independence camp won a tiny majority over those who favored union with Serbia.
In return for minority votes, the DPS offered guaranteed seats in parliament.The pledges envisioned that ethnic minorities making up between one and five per cent of the population would receive one parliamentary seat, andminorities making up more than five per cent of the population would receive two seats. Parliament passed a law to implement these proposals shortly before the May referendum.
But in July 2006, the constitutional court declared theminority representation plan unconstitutional. Since then, there has been no sign of the government reviving the proposal, leaving minorities feeling short-changed.
The ethnic Albanians' and other minorities' demands for detailed stipulation of rights in the constitution were also backed by the Venice Commission, an expert legal body of the Council of Europe which helps states draft, revise and interpret their constitutions and other key legislative texts.After a two-month debate that ended on May 28, the country's 81-seat, unicameral parliament must now decide on a number of amendments. With their three seats, ethnic Albanians can influence the vote and effectively force a national referendum if the ruling coalition fails to forge an alliance with one of the major, mainly pro-Serbian opposition parties.
Mehmet Bardhi, leader of the ethnic Albanian Democratic Alliance party, says the government has reneged on its other promises, including establishment of a new Albanian-language faculty in the city of Ulcinj and the right to nominate a police chief in Tuzi, who would then be endorsed by the Interior Ministry. Albanians also want Tuzi to be upgraded to a municipality with an ethnic Albanian-dominated local government.
Bardi alone has submitted 35 amendments to the draft constitution, including demands about regional devolution. "Collective rights are related to specific territories," said Bardhi, who argues for ethnic Albanian-controlled areas. He said Montenegro's Albanians would seek backing for their minority demands from international bodies and influential pro-Albanian lobbyists from the United States.
The government "can adopt 10 constitutions for all we care," Bardhi said. "The issue of our rights will remain open as long as they keep ignoring us."
Another key ethnic Albanian politician, Fatos Dinosa, of the Democratic Union, says that a bicameral parliament with a "chamber of minorities" is the best solution for Montenegro's political scene and "for settling relations between the government and the minorities."
The other parties rallying Albanians have forwarded a joint proposal to parliament envisaging a special charter and a separate law on minorities to be incorporated into the constitution. The SDP's Vukovic said relations between Montenegro's diverse ethnic, religious and cultural communities are basically sound and a new constitution would only improve them.
The only concession the government was willing to make was over "a separate chapter of the constitution as a mechanism for protecting human and minority rights," he said.
"No party in Montenegro has a mandate to represent any ethnic minoritybecause not one of them rallies an entire ethnic community," Vukovic said. But Nazif Cungu, leader of the Ulcinj-based Forca, the biggest of the ethnicAlbanian parties that are not represented in the parliament, warned thegovernment was in danger of damaging relations with the Albanian community.
"If they .disregard the position of both the Venice Commission and theminorities who effectively built this country, it will be a major setback toour relations," Cungu told Balkan Insight.
Aleksandar Zekovic, a human rights expert and activist, said that although he understood the position of Montenegro's Albanians, some of their demands should not be made part of the new constitution."Montenegro's political elites have made no effort to improve the actual implementation of the [existing] law on minority rights and freedoms," he said.
"After the crucial chapters were scrapped [by the constitutional court], some of the Albanian parties have responded with unrealistic demands, fearing another fraud. What they really want is a safer future for themselves."
Samir Adrovic is a correspondent of the Podgorica daily Vijesti. BalkanInsight is BIRN`s online publication.