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News 24 Nov 17

Macedonia Parks Language Law to Focus on EU Priorities

Macedonia is postponing adoption of the new language law that aims to extend the use of Albanian, after Brussels advised it to concentrate on speedier adoption of EU-backed reforms.

Sinisa Jakov Marusic
BIRN
Skopje
Macedonia's EU Integration Councill. Photo: MIA

Macedonia has delayed adoption of a new language law, sought by the ethnic Albanian community, but it will be back on parliament's agenda before the New Year holidays, said Artan Grubi, the chair of the parliamentary committee in charge of the law, after postponing a session of the committee, set for this week.

“This week is important for other reform issues, and I gave prefernece to them in order to prevent the public from losing focus on what is most important and urgent at this moment,” said Grubi, a member of the ethnic Albanian junior ruling party in the Social Democrat-led coalition, the Democratic Union for Integration, DUI.

The government bill, which has angered the main opposition VMRO DPMNE party, had been moving towards adoption. Parliament last week gave it a green light in the first reading, despite opposition from VMRO DPMNE.

Had the procedure continued as planned, the bill would have returned to a plenary session for its final reading, where it would have met more than 80 proposed amendments from the opposition.

The number of amendments would arguably have delayed a vote, detracting parliament from work on a tight EU-led agenda, mostly focused on the rule of law and judiciary reforms.

Macedonia is rushing to adopt a set of EU-sought reforms in order to get a positive recommendation from the European Commission in February and, hopefully – if it can reach a deal with Grece over its disputed name meanwhile – a start to long overdue EU accession talks.

The shift in parliament's agenda happened after Monday’s visit of the EU Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn to Skopje.

During the visit, Hahn said the language law was not among the priorities that the EU would look at when considering a positive recommendation on membership talks.

Hahn said Macedonia should focus on much more urgent bills that would improve conditions in the judiciary and the rule of law.

On Sunday, parliament starts a session for the election of a new Public Prosecutor. It is also set to adopt changes on the Judicial Council. It will also soon discuss changes in the Witness Protection Law that should allow the Special Prosecution, SJO, to act independently when protecting key witnesses in high-profile crime cases.

All of these changes should address EU concerns about undue political influence over the Macedonian judiciary.

Another bill in the pipeline is the new law on communications that should increase controls over the work of the secret police, so that its work cannot be misused for the purpose of illegal wiretapping, as happened in the past.

What makes the timescale even shorter for parliament is its responsibility also to adopt next year’s budget. Parliament will start a debate on the budget on Monday.

Although not priority for the EU, the adoption of the new language law was one of the main conditions that Albanian parties set to Prime Minister Zaev during the formation of the new government in May.

The current law defines Albanian as an official language, but it only has official status in areas where Albanians make up over 20 per cent of the population.

In the north and west of the country, where Albanians are the majority in many areas, this is not a burning issue. However, in many other parts of the country, the number of Albanians is often far lower than 20 per cent. Ethnic Albanians make up about a quarter of the population.

The opposition VMRO DPMNE and some rightist ethnic Macedonian movements have expressed concern over this, accusing Zaev of excess leniency towards the Albanians. They have claimed that the move will lead to the de-facto federalization of the country and its division, which Zaev has dismissed.

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