IMPLEMENTATION OF THE LAW ON THE USE OF LANGUAGES: A PRECIOS STONE OF COHESION

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Leaving aside the manipulations and prejudices, this law will also become as common as any other law regulating the rights and obligations in this specific area of human rights, and as the same as the “problem” with the advancement of higher education has been forgotten, and the extent of the use of the Albanian language at all levels will be an issue that will less and less pierce the eyes.

Author: Daut Dauti

Since the Law on the Use of Languages, came into force, there have been no controversial approaches to it, which had begun long before it was adopted. Those who have voted in Parliament see it as an extraordinary and useful advancement for society, since the level of use of languages, especially of languages spoken by at least 20 percent of the population, has increased since the Ohrid’s Framework Agreement is a constitutional category  both at central and local level. The disputes come from two levels and highly opposed motives. The first contention comes from the VMRO-DPMNE party and the media as well as intellectual circles close to it, which consider the expansion of the use of languages, in the concrete case, the Albanian language, “beyond the constitution” as unnecessary and impractical. The next level is that of Albanian political and intellectual circles, which ignore the rule of law (which foresees a significant expansion of the use of law), clinging to the part of “20- percent”, to argue that Albanian is not equal to Macedonian, bypassing the fact how it was before this law, when even Parliament sessions could not be conducted in the language of “20 percent”. These arguments continue to be a leitmotif for political use. However, the law is what it is, and it remains “inspiring” for endless debates. Some aspects of the treatment would, however, be in the context of eliminating any kind of ambiguity or (mis) interpretation, but also eliminating them in practice.

It has to be said that the implementation of the law seems to go through the same route of controversy as before its adoption. Because it was negotiated among the contenders for the new Government after the 2016 parliamentary elections, when a balance of forces was established between the Macedonian VMRO DPMNE and SDSM, which desperately needed the support of Albanian parties to form Governments. In such a situation, the issue of promoting the use of the Albanian language was an emphasis for both of these parties, as one of the main conditions, and the direct negotiator was the Democratic Union for Integration, as the winning party in the Albanian bloc. To be more precise, it was also the request of all parties that had signed the Tirana Declaration (2017) (DUI, Alliance for Albanians, Besa Movement …), which will then also be one of the contested benchmarks by VMRO-DPMNE, making and calling this document the Platform of Tirana, to add prejudice to the law on the use of languages that was on the table. The history of adopting this law has its background beyond manipulating the public: often DUI leaders have pointed out for a similar law with that approved later, they had agreed with VMRO-DPMNE during the talks for governance and this was confirmed by Renata Deskovska, Minister of Justice, who stated that the law was in fact “written by VMRO-DPMNE itself”. Whether the version has been the same or not, remains to be speculated, but it is a fact that even VMRO-DPMNE was willing at the government negotiation stage to significantly improve the use of the Albanian language, a mood that has changed for the political needs after the failed government talks and after SDSM formed the Government with almost all Albanian parties. On the way to implementation, the law had to come into force after the “third reading”, as it was not signed by President Gjorge Ivanov who was at the end of his second term. Despite constitutional law professors such as Svetmir Shkaric and Strasbourg Court judge Mirjana Lazarova Trajkova calling his move “constitutionally impermissible”, he remained firm, even at the price of repercussions for violations of constitutional obligations, which never arose. To overcome this situation, in order to enter into force, the Speaker of the Parliament, Talat Xhaferi, who signed the Decree dated March 14, 2018, which was published in the Official newspaper. Warnings from VMRO-DPMNE that the law will be contested through the Constitutional Court have so far not resulted in any concrete action. Thus, in less than two decades, in North Macedonia the legal regulation with an aim to advance the use of the Albanian language has been changed three times. The first two times (in 2008 and 2011 ) emphasized the promotion of local government and the right to use it in parliamentary debates (without the right to lead parliamentary sessions), personal documents, to some extent in the judiciary, and with the last law, from the local level, the Albanian language is also used at the central level, in Government and in all public institutions as a second language spoken by 20 percent of the population (according to the last registration in 2004, languages spoken above 25 percent ). Of course, the issue that the law does not explicitly mention “Albanian language” continues to be the subject of debate, due to the licensing of certain districts with a percentage of Albanians. Those nationalist-oriented circles have vociferously stated that Albanians are below 20 percent, hoping that the recent migratory movements have left an effect, but Albanian circles also point out the same thing, saying that the number of Macedonians has fallen, too, taking into account the number of pupils in schools.

Given that the population census set for 2020 will be postponed once again due to early elections (scheduled for April 12, 2020, but likely to be postponed due to ratification of the agreement on NATO accession from some countries), then the issues remain pending for some time, fueling hopes that the law will “claw” at exactly the “20 percent”.

In this way, the critical voices of the law that it should mention the Albanian language, not the percentage, have an increasing significance for a future time when this issue should be touched upon both the law and the Constitution.

Asked in an interview for TV Klan Macedonia (October 2019), VMRO-DPMNE leader Hristijan Micskovski treated the issue as “not right”, but added that it is a result of political compromises. Indeed, it must be said that the Law on the Use of Languages is what the SDSM leader had said earlier that it would go “beyond the Ohrid Agreement”, a flexibility which in the atmosphere of political divisions resulted with the mentioned law, but not with constitutional changes, which were impossible without a two-thirds vote. The real beginning of the implementation of the Law on the Use of Languages may be the establishment of the Agency for the Implementation of Languages Spoken by the 20 percent of Citizens (under Article 18), which made as an obligation to fulfill the purposes of the law, promote, protect and the equal application of the official language spoken by at least 20 percent of the citizens ”and its alphabet, through the support bodies of the institutions referred to in Article 1 indent 3. However, like any new body but also like any new regulation, implementation could be neither fast nor efficient in every respect. Indeed, the expectations of the “most concerned” part that everything would start with the establishment of the Agency (…) were not realistic even because they did not take into account the fact that this new body first had to deal with itself (organizational issues, budgeting, teaming), but also with time bounded assignments for at least one year. The first test of the Agency was the beginning of the implementation of the Prespa Agreement on the change of the name of the state, which in consultation with language experts set about translating the new name as North Macedonia, a name that for some professors (dr .Haki Imeri …) remark that, even though an adequate translation, it is not practical what the “North Macedonia” variant would be. Meanwhile, in its 114th meeting, the Parliament of the Republic of North Macedonia adopted another law: the Law on the Inspectorate of the Use of Languages, which was adopted without opposition deputies (VMRO-DPMNE) . This law came in the wave of reactions from the Venice Commission’s (unofficial) advisory opinion, according to which some of the solutions in the Law on the Use of Languages are beyond European norms for the use of minority languages and regional languages “by imposing unrealistic legal obligations on public institutions” . The position of this committee is still taken as unofficial, but for many Albanian media and intellectual circles, the Government’s initiative to this commission was understood as a tactical action against the opposition (to relativize its pressure because of the law) as a secret goal of SDSM for revising some “excessive” solutions. Does the position of the Ministry of Justice reinforce the suspicion that the suggestions of this commission will be taken into consideration? However, few think there can be a turning back. Especially not now when the early elections for spring are announced, where SDSM will need the votes of Albanians.

In North Macedonia, for reasons of manipulation and / or persuasion, clichéd assessments of the “these rights are nowhere in the world” style are given, in this context, also to the use of languages. Nevertheless, a comparative overview clearly proves that they do not stand, for there are many examples in the world with similar and perhaps even more advanced experiences. In North Macedonia, official bilingualism is unchanged, in the sense that Macedonian is written first, while Albanian is second in all settlements where bilingualism is practiced. This differs markedly from some European countries where there is a long tradition of bilingualism or official multilingualism. For example, in Finland where two official languages (or “national languages” as they are called) are known at central Government level, when it comes to municipalities where the majority are Swedish-speaking citizens, in those municipalities, signs are initially written in Swedish then Finnish. This is practiced by the local Government even in the municipalities in North Macedonia where the majority are Albanians, however, unlike Finland, such action is not foreseen by law but is imposed by practice. Whereas when it comes to municipal official documents, Albanian-majority municipalities generally act the other way around: first, they write in Macedonian and then in Albanian (as opposed to signs and tabloids that, as we said: once Albanian, then Macedonian). This inconsistency is an indication that Albanian-majority municipalities are wondering whether their action is legal in those signs and tabloids, which are initially written in Albanian and then Macedonian, although this is not foreseen in the Law. The answer can be given by a country with 50 years of official bilingual tradition: Canada. In Canada, the Official Languages Act has been in force since 1969, which regulates the official use of English and French by the federal Government. The Act does not specify the order of languages but in practice, the French language has priority in Quebec Province. So, federal courts, military bases, regional units of federal ministries and agencies, state firms, and so on, located in Quebec province, where the signs are originally French then English, although at the Canadian level the most widely spoken language is English.

The aforementioned Canadian practice is indicative of the possibility that in North Macedonia the signs and tabloids of the central Government organs found in the Albanian majority municipalities will be written first in Albanian then Macedonian, despite the fact that this is not foreseen by the Law on Use of Languages. As far as municipal bodies of Albanian majority municipalities are concerned, this is no longer in question.

When it comes to personal documents like IDs and passports, Macedonian is always the first, while Albanian is the second. This is not uncommon because in this way act other states with bilingual or official multilingualism, so no matter which community the holder belongs to, the order of languages in personal documents always stays the same. But if Albanians are reminded to request that in personal documents the Albanian language to be written before Macedonian, this would not be unprecedented because in Belgium where the official languages are Dutch, French, and German (spoken by only about 1% of the population) the order of languages on the ID card and passport depends on which linguistic community the holder of the document belongs to. Another issue of Albanian identity cards and passports is the transcription of the name and surname in English. Namely, in the English graph the name of the holder of the document is not directly derived from the Albanian version (which is more logical because both Albanian and English are written in Latin alphabet) but is transcribed from the Macedonian version. How does this look in practice? For example if a citizen has the name “Rilind”. In Macedonian, this name is spelled “Риљинд”, while in the ID and passport in English version it is written “Riljind”!

Although Macedonian subjects do not like the comparison with Kosovo, because it is not yet accepted by the UN, the use of the Serbian language is completely equal to Albanian throughout the territory and is the best example when there is a good will, issues can be resolved without prejudice.

Implementation of the Law on the Use of Languages is still in the beginning. Many institutions have begun to fulfill the legal obligation, and the Government has given the best example here, but there are many institutions that wait or tact, often depending on which ethnicity is the leader. In other instances, of course, there are obstacles in the qualitative implementation due to the lack of a relevant language framework. While it is still early to start implementing punishment measures for those entities that deliberately, obstruct the law.

Taking into consideration all the circumstances, it must be said that the Law on the Use of Languages has solved one of the problems that has accompanied the Macedonia’s transition  since 1991, which often created a serious crisis, when constitutional solutions were rigid against the rights that Albanians demanded, because the level of rights had dropped even compared to the 1974 constitution.

Leaving aside the manipulations and prejudices, this law will also become as common as any other law regulating the rights and obligations in this specific area of human rights, and as the same as the “problem” with the advancement of higher education has been forgotten, and the extent of the use of the Albanian language at all levels will be an issue that will less and less pierce the eyes. After all, if internal cohesion is a permanent need to build an equal society, then this law is a valuable contribution in that regard.

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