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Frustration unites members of the minority across the region – but hopes of EU entry may have eased tensions in Montenegro.
Tuzi feels like a suburb without a city. Just north of the Albanian border, this small town is struggling to escape the shadow of the Montenegrin capital, another ten minutes’ drive to the north.
Tuzi’s 3,000 inhabitants want to run their own affairs. Instead, their town is administered as an outlying district of the capital, Podgorica. They speak the Albanian language, but they must follow the laws of Montenegro.
“Nobody cares about us,” says Agron Dushaj, an unemployed man in his twenties. Variations of his complaint are replayed in countless cafes across the town, where jobless men trade hard-luck stories and take too long over their coffee.
Greater autonomy for Tuzi was meant to have been the solution to its many woes – securing employment for the young, and investment in the crumbling infrastructure. Instead, the denial of municipality status has been added to its list of grievances.
MONTENEGRO’S OCTOBER 2012 ELECTIONS
The European Montenegro alliance, comprising the Democratic Party of Socialists and the Social Democratic Party, won 39 of 81 seats in the parliament.
The opposition coalition, the Democratic Front won 20 seats, while the Socialist People’s Party and Positive Montenegro wn nine and seven seats respectively.
In order to stay in power, the European Montenegro alliance has had to form coalitions with minority parties that have six seats between them. Of these, two seats belong to the two main ethnic Albanian coalitions.
Although ethnic Albanian politicians had been included in the previous government, they were not elected as MPs. The new alliance gives them greater clout. They have already presented a list of demands, including more investment in their districts, and more jobs in the administration for their community.
Ethnic Albanians make up the majority in Tuzi and much of south-western Montenegro. However, they are a minority in the country as a whole, as well as in two other ex-Yugoslav republics, Macedonia and Serbia.
The relative size of these minorities differs. They make up a quarter of Macedonia’s total population, and a much smaller percent of Serbia’s, concentrated mostly in the south. They have in common a strained relationship with states that are traditionally dominated by majority ethnic groups.
That relationship could affect the future of each and every citizen of Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia. The three countries have applied to join the EU. The progress of their bids will depend heavily on their treatment of minorities, including the ethnic Albanians.
Of the three, Montenegro is regarded as the strongest candidate. It could be admitted into the bloc within the next few years. While Serbia and Macedonia have both applied to join, their entry is neither imminent, nor certain.
This story compares discontent among ethnic Albanians in Montenegro with the mood among members of the minority in Macedonia and Serbia.
It reveals that exclusion from the public sector job market is a common complaint across the region. But the likelihood of discontent spilling over into civic unrest seems lowest in Montenegro – the country closest to joining the EU.
According to Genci Nimanbegu, an ethnic Albanian politician, the tough criteria for entering the bloc are pushing Montenegro to improve the way its minorities are treated. Nimanbegu’s Forca party is set to join the country’s governing coalition following October’s elections.
“Our experience shows that all good things that happened to Albanians arose from external influences,” he told the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN). “This will probably continue during the negotiations with Brussels.”
‘Jobs for their own’
An ethnic Albanian insurgency brought Macedonia to the brink of civil war in 2001. Calm was restored by an internationally brokered peace deal. Recent violence, accompanied by nationalist rhetoric from both sides, has made that peace look increasingly fraught.
Serbia’s tiny ethnic Albanian population also briefly rose up against the state in 2000, before a settlement brought the gunmen into local government. The conflict in Presevo was intertwined with that in neighbouring Kosovo, where an ethnic Albanian rebellion – backed by NATO air-strikes – had culminated with Pristina declaring independence from Serbia.
Montenegro has always been different. Its ethnic Albanians never waged war against the state. Quite the opposite, in fact – the minority is credited with the creation of the independent republic. In 2006, their votes helped deliver a razor-thin victory in the referendum that prised Montenegro out of its union with Serbia.
MONTENEGRIN MINORITIES IN PUBLIC SECTOR JOBS
Montenegrins comprise 45 per cent of the country’s citizens – and have 79 per cent of the jobs in the administration, according to a government study from 2011.
The Serbian minority makes up 28 per cent of the population, and has 8.6 per cent of the jobs on the state’s payroll.
Ethnic Albanians account for 5 per cent of the population, and hold 2.8 per cent of the public sector jobs.
Bosnians, Roma, Croats and Muslims make up smaller minorities – and have smaller shares of the administration’s jobs.
(Source: 2011 survey for the government of Montenegro)
The ethnic Albanians believe independence ought to have given them a bigger stake in a smaller state. But six years on, many still complain of being confined to the sidelines of political and economic life. They accuse the government – in power for more than a decade, and recently re-elected – of breaking its promises.
“When they depended on Albanian votes, they offered us everything,” says Linda Dushaj, a young woman from Tuzi who graduated in politics but can only find work as a fitness instructor. “In the end, we got nothing.”
While overall unemployment in Montenegro is around 13 per cent, the figure is closer to 20 per cent in areas such as Tuzi and Ulcinj, that are home to most of the country’s ethnic Albanians.
The minority accounts for five per cent of Montenegro’s overall population. However, it only has 2.8 per cent of the jobs on the state’s payroll, according to a government report on the state’s employment of minorities, published in June 2011.
As in most ex-Yugoslav countries, so in Montenegro, the public sector is bloated and inefficient. Nevertheless, its promise of a steady salary and benefits are a powerful lure for educated youth – especially in the absence of a strong private sector. Competition is fierce for jobs in the many ministries and offshoots of the administration.
But as elsewhere in the region, there is a widespread belief in Montenegro that the best opportunities go to those with the best connections. Employment in the public sector is seen as a means by which politicians reward – or ensure – loyalty.
Ethnic Albanian leaders who are close to the Montenegrin government have also been accused of allocating jobs to their supporters. Many members of their community accept that this form of corruption affects everyone – not just the minorities. Nevertheless, they believe discrimination has made matters worse for them.
Dijana Ivanaj, a jobless 26-year-old graduate in the capital, Podgorica, says it is “only natural that state officials wish to keep the jobs for their own”.
“But if they give me a passport, regard me as a Montenegrin citizen and claim that I have equal rights, then I should be allowed to do the work I have been trained for.”
Having spent two years hunting for a job, Ivanaj says she has lost track of the rejections. She has even failed to get work as a secretary, for which she would have been over-qualified. As a graduate in forensic science, she had originally hoped to join the police.
However, the police service has one of the lowest records for hiring ethnic Albanians – even though it is one of the largest single employers in the administration, with more than 4,000 staff on its payroll. Ethnic Albanians account for only 1.21 per cent of that figure. And they account for only 0.72 per cent of the staff of the customs service, another major employer.
The 2011 survey that provided these figures concluded that minorities in general were inadequately represented in Montenegro’s public sector.
Sabahudin Delic, a counsellor at the Ministry for Human Rights and Minorities, acknowledges that the figures pointed to a problem – but insists that the shortfall was not the result of discrimination.
“This is not because anyone is refusing to employ members of minorities,” he said. “Simply speaking, in certain areas, we cannot find enough quality candidates.”
Delic’s workplace seems to be one of the few exceptions to the rule. Ethnic Albanians make up 43 per cent of the staff at the Ministry for Human Rights and Minorities.
Ethnic Albanians in southern Serbia say their region lacks investment.
Unemployment also tops the list of grievances in Presevo and Bujanovac, an impoverished region of southern Serbia that is home to some 70,000 ethnic Albanians.
More than a decade ago, a local guerrilla force tried to secede from Serbia and unite the territory with neighbouring Kosovo. The brief rebellion was halted by a peace deal that guaranteed the minority more clout in local politics.
But having more leaders in positions of power has not helped the community’s economic fortunes. The legacy of the previous conflict – and the lingering fear of further unrest – have stymied private sector growth.
“The investors are not coming because money is easily scared away,” says Nexhat Behluli, a former guerrilla who now runs several businesses in the area. “There is no security. The situation could deteriorate at any moment.”
The public sector also offers little hope to local ethnic Albanian graduates. Many of them have chosen to complete their education in Kosovo, Macedonia or Albania, where university courses are taught in the Albanian language. However, Serbia has refused to recognise their qualifications, until this summer. Coming home to a sluggish economy, the graduates have been locked out of the only viable source of employment.
“We are completely isolated. It feels as if we are second-rate citizens,” says Valon Arifi, who received a diploma in design in Kosovo and is struggling to find well-paid work.
Graffitti in Presevo demands recognition for qualifications from Albanian institutions.
Despite the disillusionment, there is little appetite for another conflict. The unemployed youth of Presevo say they would rather migrate to another country than take up arms against the state. Thousands have already done so – remittances support many households in the region.
An armed uprising in Macedonia, to Serbia’s south, was also halted by an agreement over ten years ago. The Ohrid accord – named after the lakeside resort where the rival leaders met – was heralded at the time as a blueprint for a more equitable society.
Over the last few years however, ethnic Albanians have been complaining that the reforms are being reversed. Tension remains high, and gangs of young men from both communities periodically confront each other in the capital, Skopje.
The country is effectively partitioned between the ethnic Albanians and Macedonian majority. Estimates suggest nearly a third of the young are unemployed – one of the highest records in the Balkans.
And while ethnic Albanian parties are part of the governing coalition, members of the minority hold only 17 per cent of the jobs on the state’s payroll. The Ohrid accord had promised them a quarter of all public sector posts – proportionate to their share of the population.
Xhabir Deralla, a political analyst, says radicals on both sides are playing up the possibility of fresh violence.
“The conflict of 2001 is regarded as a match that was interrupted by the international community,” he says. “On social networking sites, people are saying it is time for the second half.”
Xhabir Deralla says he is concerned about rising ethnic tensions.
However, an official from the governing VMRO-DPMNE party, Vlatko Gjorcev, insists the tensions have been exaggerated.
“Sometimes the media presents the situation as being more dramatic than it really is,” he said. “Macedonia is not Scandinavia – but even Scandinavia has problems.”
‘No magic wand’
Montenegro has no recent history of bloodshed involving ethnic Albanians. The country’s government even gained some approval from the minority group during the late 1990s, when it provided sanctuary to refugees from neighbouring Kosovo.
Today, the prospect of entering the EU may be restraining ethnic Albanian resentment. Mitja Drobnic, the head of the European Commission’s delegation in Podgorica, said the Montenegrin government’s treatment of the minority was being monitored closely.
“No country can join the EU before achieving all European standards,” he told BIRN.
However, precedents within the EU suggest few minorities are ever completely satisfied.
The Croat population of Austria enjoys far better status than many ethnic Albanian minorities in the Balkans. As citizens of an EU-member country that has pledged to honour their rights, they rarely complain of discrimination and face no barriers to employment.
Instead, Croatian rights activists speak of the perils of assimilation. They say that their language – perhaps the last relic of their culture – is dying a quiet death.
The Croats are a tiny minority, concentrated in Austria’s Burgenland province. The descendants of refugees from Ottoman conquests, they have been in the region for more than 500 years. In the past, they have faced pressure to adopt the culture and customs of the people around them.
Today, however, their local associations receive funding from the state. Since 1955, the Burgenland Croats have also had the right to teach their language in schools, and to erect bilingual road signs.
But interest in that language is waning among the young. They simply feel they have nothing to gain from learning it.
“The people want to blend in with the majority because they think they would be better off if they spoke German only,” says Gabriela Novak Karall, from the Croatian Centre in Vienna.
“They all declare themselves as Austrians. Many of them have ceased speaking Croatian, even at home.”
Back in Montenegro, ethnic Albanian politician Nimanbegu says his community is realistic about the EU. “Europe has no magic wand,” he says. “A lot will depend on us.”
Ivanaj, the jobless forensic-science graduate, says she is running out of patience. If her fortunes do not improve, she plans to join the many members of her community who have sought employment abroad.
“I have one life and I cannot spend it waiting for something to happen,” she says.
Samir Kajosevic is a Podgorica -based journalist. This article was edited by Neil Arun. It was produced as part of the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence, an initiative of the Robert Bosch Stiftung and ERSTE Foundation, in cooperation with the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network.
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