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Albanians in Tetovo Stunned by OSCE Official’s Call for Minority Language Obligations, but Government Fails to Capitalize

June 14, 2007


( Research Service)- It was completely ignored in the local and international press. But the visit and speech of a top-ranking OSCE official to Macedonia on May 10 was a major divergence from the “international community’s” stance on minority rights and responsibilities in this small Balkan country, one necessitated by a realization that European Union countries are starting to suffer from the very same ills that have been notable in Macedonia for years, and which in fact led to a brief war in 2001.

Nevertheless, the government failed to take advantage of this support for Macedonia and the tacit acknowledgment that it is being treated as an equal with the Western countries- displaying yet again the hazards of a chronic head-in-the-sand policy of ignoring outside views on the country.

Ultra-liberal European views on minority rights have predominated for years in the Balkans, where allegedly altruistic interventionists have carried out social engineering experiments that would have been shot down in their home countries, usually to add luster to their careers, pad their resumes and make themselves feel like “players” on the international diplomacy scene.

Some extreme examples of philosophies adopted by such people include the “consociationalism” project of Dutch professor Arend Lijphart, guaranteeing minorities veto power over majority-introduced legislation, and the Badinter Principle of rule, a convoluted but influential scheme by which the approval of the majority of the minority is needed to pass legislation.

In fact, the precise applicability of the latter is the issue that has been disingenuously manipulated by an ethnic Albanian party in Macedonia, the DUI, which found itself frozen out of power and has only recently returned to Parliament. Contrary to Macedonia’s constitution and the Ohrid Agreement that ended the 2001 war (and which included heavy doses of minority protections), the DUI has sought, unsuccessfully, to make the Principle apply to the formation of government. If it had its way, the Principle would be applied universally and that merely as a stepping-stone to ethnic federalization.

If such a federalization project (itself perhaps merely the precursor to a “Greater Albania’ taking chunks of several neighboring countries as well as Kosovo) comes to pass, it will be partially the fault of the bumbling bureaucrats from without and their grand visions for multi-ethnic society. This has involved a fair amount of schizophrenia. In the case of Bosnia, the West is making concerted efforts to force the tripartite federation to devolve into a single state that would ruled by Muslims- a likely recipe for another war. In the case of Macedonia, however, European officials are apparently trying to keep federalization at bay, to preclude such a conflict.

Western officials have thus grown concerned by the Albanian approach to minority ‘rights’, which often seems to be code for federalization. The attitude can be seen in the previous bellicose threats of the DUI to order “their’ municipalities (meaning multi-ethnic municipalities where a DUI candidate won the mayoral seat) to boycott cooperation with the state. In one such municipality, Skopje’s Cair, visitors can see this sentiment newly spray-painted as graffiti on a wall near the Mavrovska shopping mall: “Cair is not Macedonia,” it reads in English.

Such separatist sentiments, and the increasing trend of Albanians to not learn the Macedonian language, concern foreign officials. Within 15 years basic communication between the two groups will be minimal. However, more broadly, the reason why officials are taking a different tack now is a result of the more severe tests vocal and aggressive minorities, most acutely Muslim immigrants, are making of the very liberal rights laws in numerous Western countries, especially Britain and the Scandinavian states. Conservative websites such as the Brussels Journal carry frequent reports on this hot topic, one which is increasingly fracturing the right and left in Europe in ways that may foment future violence on the Continent in ways yet unseen.

Now, with cherished old concepts of “Frenchness’ or what it means to be a Briton now being challenged, and whole swathes of Muslim-populated urban territory refusing the assimilate, powerful European states are finally starting to realize what Balkan countries such as Macedonia have known for years- that giving minorities unlimited rights without at the same time requiring certain responsibilities is a recipe for disaster.

One crucial and fundamental responsibility of minorities is language acquisition. At least this is so according to the very senior OSCE official who visited Macedonia last month and shocked an audience that had expected a much different lecture. In a speech called, “The Role of Education in Building a Pluralist and Genuinely Democratic Society,” OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities Rolf Ekéus made a succinct but powerful case for why minorities must learn the majority language of the country they inhabit.

Speaking in front of a crowd of professors, students and local politicians, Ekéus gave a speech that caught the mostly Albanian audience by surprise. After a decade of being coddled when demanding — and getting — unending privileges while contributing little to the state’s welfare, and indeed causing a ruinous war in the process, it was not hard to understand why the Albanians might be surprised. The change in policy was evinced in pointed language that spoke directly to the source of the problem.

This, however, was preceded by the usual arguments for minority rights- which perhaps contributed to the way in which the primarily Albanian audience was caught off-guard. The high commissioner first underscored that the right to an education is a fundamental human right which “should be guaranteed without discrimination of any kind,” and that states “are obliged to promote mutual respect and understanding, and co-operation among all persons living on their territory, irrespective of those persons’ ethnic, cultural, linguistic or religious identity, in particular in the fields of education, culture and the media.”

The turning point in the speech began with the link to the pan-European problem of ethnic separatism. “While a pluralist and genuinely democratic society should enable the preservation of minority rights, separation along ethnic lines should be avoided at all costs,” affirmed Commissioner Ekéus, “since it reinforces ethnic divisions within communities and serves as a fertile breeding ground for negative stereotypes and prejudices among different ethnic groups.”

The commissioner went on to discuss the importance of language, which “can be a tool of integration.” The crucial statement followed thus:

“However, for this to function properly, both the majority and minority must be willing to accept compromise. Integration, therefore, involves responsibilities and rights on both sides. The minority should be prepared to learn and to use the language or languages used by the State, normally the language of the majority. At the same time, the majority must accept the linguist rights of persons belonging to national minorities.”

For Macedonians, who have bitterly complained that they have made all of the compromises and received nothing in return from their country’s only restive minority, this should have been music to their ears. However, there were apparently few ears to hear, and no one subsequently reported the groundbreaking statements, which represent a sharp change of direction in policy from a representative of one of the most powerful Western institutions.

Commissioner Ekéus went even further, however. Adding that a “lack of proficiency in the State language can further increase ethnic tension and segregation of communities along ethnic lines,” he hypothesized a long-term strategy for state survival in Macedonia, which would include “increasing State-language classes in the existing state curriculum and/or introducing bilingual educational programmes in schools,” a process which for minorities “benefits their integration into society and their access to public goods.” Such a scenario was decidedly not what Albanians wanted to hear, and in the question-and-answer period that followed they made this clear, according to one lecture attendee.

In fact, the depth of the disaffection felt by Albanians was reflected in the official blurb describing the event as published on the official SEE website. It emphasized the parts of the speech that called for protection of minority rights- but deviously made no mention at all of the commissioner’s call for minorities to take responsibility and learn the majority language.

A second vital topic in Commissioner Ekéus’ speech had more subtle but equally significant implications- the deleterious role of politics in higher education. While not naming the South-East European University per se, it was clear that the OSCE official was voicing the great disappointment with which European donors see the steady decline of the university owing to the intrusion of politics and poor educational standards. Citing the most frequent problems in such universities, the commissioner called for “depoliticizing the appointment of school directors,” increasing the participation of independent experts, and fighting “undemocratic school governance”

The commissioner began the speech, in fact, by recalling that six years ago, when the SEE opened, European officials had “hoped that establishing such a University would support interethnic understanding, which is a necessary step for a well-integrated, multilingual society.”

The SEE began like all noble but ill-conceived Balkan humanitarian projects. During the late 1990’s, the so-called “Tetovo University” was banned by the government, leading to altercations between the authorities and angry Albanians. All that was needed, it was thought, was a modern university which would appease the latter and help guide them away from clan-based tribalism and into the 21st century. And so the SEE came into being, a sort of European fire brigade meant to put out the flames of nationalism in the form of a university. Of course, it didn’t work, and soon after the SEE opened, war broke out. A few years later, the previously illegal Tetovo University was legalized too.

That the commissioner’s concerns have come to pass owes to the predictable politicization of appointments in an institution that was seen by the Albanian parties as simply another goodie bag to be distributed, as well as to the generous — but finite — outside funding program which initially attracted many foreign professors motivated less by dreams of inter-ethnic harmony than by a 3,000-euro-per-month salary.

However, now that the SEE has devolved to substantially lower state-level salaries, and the international donations have dried up, most such professors have fled, leaving the SEE as just another local university with mainly local staff, riven by factionalism, political control and cronyism- albeit with nicer equipment than at other state schools.

According to present and former international faculty at the university, educational standards are often abysmal and corruption is rife. Off the record, professors speak of how ill-qualified offspring of political apparatchiks are promoted to positions well beyond their abilities and how militant groups and even Islamic fundamentalists are using the university as a recruiting ground. “You had to think twice when grading the exams of the students,” confided one former international teacher, “as you never knew who their father might be.”

All things considered, one might think that the center-right Macedonian government might highlight the Western call for the national integrity of the country that Commissioner Ekéus’ visit and speech represented. However, they failed to take advantage of this unexpected gift, which by means of a not very challenging extrapolation put the country on equal footing with all of Europe on the issue of minority rights and responsibilities. Through the OSCE, Europe was speaking Macedonia’s language, and all that was needed was a response. None came.

Most scandalously, planned meetings of CommissionerEkéus with Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski and Macedonian Deputy Prime Minister Gabriela Konevska-Trajkovska were all cancelled, “with very little prior notice” according to one official. In the end, the highest official the distinguished guest met was Imer Aliu, the Deputy Prime Minister responsible for the sector involved in implementation of the Ohrid Framework Agreement and a nominee of the Albanian DPA party, the coalition partner of Gruevski’s VMRO-DPMNE. No offense to Mr Aliu, but it might have been more effective had an official of the commissioner’s stature been received by the prime minister or president.

This blunder of protocol appears infinitely more suicidal in light of the specific content of the OSCE high commissioner’s speech in Tetovo. Numerous media reports have increasingly mentioned that European officials are becoming more and more disenchanted with the government’s perceived disinterest in at least listening to their well-meaning advice.

When visiting officials are not even acknowledged when they take considerable risk to defend Macedonia’s national interest, as was the case with Commissioner Ekéus, it becomes hard not to sympathize with these concerns. And so under the current conditions, if the high commissioner, or another official of his stature, returns to Macedonia he or she will have every reason to weigh the options before taking a spirited stance in support of the country.

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