feature 30 Sep 16

Serbs Allege School Language Bias in Montenegro

Serb organisations in Montenegro are urging the authorities to end what they claim is officially-sanctioned discrimination against the Serbian language and the Cyrillic script in schools.

Dusica Tomovic BIRN Podgorica
Education minister Predrag Boskovic greeted pupils on the first day of school on September 1. Photo: Montenegrin Education Ministry.

“I don’t know what it means after 70 years for the education ministry to force people to only use the Latin alphabet and expel Cyrillic from schools. It will only bring new strife among citizens,” said Gordana K, a 45-year-old clerk from Podgorica, after her two children this year brought home their annual school diplomas written in Latin script rather than Cyrillic for the first time.

“We did not know that had changed. Later the teacher told us that they did not as well,” she told BIRN.

Starting from this month, all official correspondence in state schools in Montenegro, including diplomas, must be written in the Latin script - a decision that has annoyed some parents.

“When we asked for the diplomas in Cyrillic, the teachers have told us that they do not have those forms and we have to file a special request to get them. After that, I got a ‘friendly suggestion’ not to make too much fuss as it could hurt my children in school,” said Jovan M, a 37-year-old professional driver from Podgorica.

“I see no problem in using both alphabets, but I certainly see a problem when we are forced to use only one,” he said.

The dispute over the status of the Serbian language in independent Montenegro goes back to 2007, a year after the country split from Serbia, when it adopted a new constitution that named the official language as Montenegrin, much to the annoyance of the Serb community.

Pro-Serb parties and Serb associations insisted that this discriminated against their community and against the majority of Montenegrin citizens who claimed Serbian as their native language.

The dispute has continued ever since, and a new row erupted in June, when for the first time since World War II, students in primary and secondary schools received their ‘Luca’ diplomas - named after a poem by the 19th century Montenegrin ruler and poet Njegos - printed in the Latin alphabet.

Diplomas in the Cyrillic script could only be obtained with the approval of the school administration.

Opposition parties demanded education minister Predrag Boskovic’s resignation because of what they called discrimination against the Cyrillic script in schools.

The row continued at the beginning of the new school year, which started on September 1, when teachers were informed that student records should also be written in the Latin script too.

Budimir Aleksic, a professor of Serbian language and linguistics, told BIRN that the education ministry’s decision was a violation of the constitution and the country’s laws, which say that both scripts, Cyrillic and Latin, have equal status.

Aleksic, who is also a senior official with the main pro-Serbian opposition party NOVA, pointed out that official figures show that the majority of ethnic Montenegrins and Serbs in the country speak the Serbian language.

He claimed that there have been various incidents which he believes show the government’s intention to “purge the Cyrillic alphabet from schools”.

“The first is the finalisation of the ideological project of creating a ‘new Montenegrin’ through a radical departure from cultural heritage, tradition and history, in which there is no place for [religious] Orthodoxy and relations with Russia and Serbia,” he said.

He argued that the government has been trying to do this since 2004, two years before the country split from Serbia, when the state education system renamed language lessons in schools as “mother tongue language and literature” classes instead of “Serbian language and literature” classes.

“All this is reminiscent of Croatia in the early nineties, which totally banned Cyrillic,” Aleksic said.

Aleksic argued that the most worrying aspect of the government’s move was the pressure on teachers to obey the decision.

“Asking them to use exclusively Latin script, as all official documents, school evidence, diaries and diplomas are printed in this alphabet, is outrageous because they are forcing teachers to violate the constitution and laws,” he said.

Several Serb associations in the country have also been calling for education minister Boskovic’s resignation over the last two weeks, accusing him of personally ‘persecuting’ Cyrillic in primary and secondary schools.

In an open letter to Boskovic last week, a teacher from the Yugoslavia school in the town of Bar, Milena Zoranovic, said that if given a choice between her job or Cyrillic, she would choose Cyrillic.

“Please, do not insult me with the story that under the constitution, both alphabets are equal. I don’t have an alternative. You gave an order. You left me no choice,” Zoranovic wrote in the letter.

But the education ministry has rejected opposition politicians’ claims that it was attempting to oust Cyrillic from the education system, accusing them of trying to politicise the issue.

The ministry said that its new regulation, adopted in April, says that all official school records and diplomas can be in two alphabets, Latin and Cyrillic, and two languages, Montenegrin and Albanian.

Despite this however, diplomas are issued in Latin script unless parents specifically ask for Cyrillic ones.

Debates over language have always had the potential to raise hackles in the small multi-ethnic state, even though Serbian and Montenegrin are distinctly similar tongues.

The highly influential Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro has also fuelled the dispute several times in recent years, saying the Montenegrin language is a ‘made-up’ language and denouncing those who said they spoke it.

The row also has troubled historical precedents.

In the history of Montenegrin education, Cyrillic has been banned and removed from administrative and school records twice - the first time after the Austro-Hungarian empire occupied Montenegro in 1916, and for a second time in World War II in 1941, when Italian troops temporarily occupied the country.

Radovan Ognjenovic, from the centre-left opposition Montenegrin Democratic Union, suggested that the latest row reflected wider political divisions in society. People who use Cyrillic were being painted as anti-Montenegrin, pro-Serbian and pro-Russian.

“If you use a script [Cyrillic] in which almost the entire culture of the Montenegrin nation was created - at least until the nineties - you could be understood as a person coloured by one ideological nuance that does not always carry positive associations,” Ognjenovic said.

Although the Cyrillic and Latin alphabets are now equal under the constitution, and both the Montenegrin and Serbian languages are in official use, the state administration communicates only in the Latin alphabet, and across Montenegro, the Cyrillic script can rarely be seen and is rarely used.

Ognjenovic argued however that the fact that Montenegro has two alphabets should be considered “a source of national pride”.

Former Montenegrin foreign minister Miodrag Vlahovic said meanwhile that Cyrillic must not be allowed to vanish.

“Both scripts must be official and equal. In the electronic age, that would not use up more paper. But it could make a small but important step towards the political compromise needed in Montenegrin politics,” Vlahovic said.

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