Coalition of Albanian minority parties in Serbia: A significant step towards integration?

Beograd - Pristina; Photo: EPA / Valdrin Xhemaj

BELGRADE – At the beginning of the 2020 the Serbian political scene was marked by important changes in electoral legislation, which lowered the electoral threshold from 5% to 3%, and by which the parties of national minorities received 35% on top of their received number of votes, meaning on top of the quotient obtained by applying the D’Hondt method.

All of these changes came before the elections were announced and then postponed for an unknown period due to declaration of the state of emergency caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, national minority parties, especially the ones politically “unified” and well-organised, have thus gotten an easier way to getting their representatives in the National Assembly.

Well on their way to achieving significantly better election results were also the representatives of the Albanian national minority, who reached an agreement about an electoral coalition a few days before the proposal to amend the electoral legislation was officially submitted in the National Assembly, with the mediation and support of the acting Minister for Foreign Affairs of Albania, Gent Cakaj.

What is so far known is that the electoral coalition will be named “Albanian Democratic Alternative – United Valley” and will be made up of the five leading parties of the Albanian national minority in Serbia.

The coalition agreement was signed in mid-January in Tirana by the Party for Democratic Action (PDD), Alternative for Change (AZP), Reform Movement of the Democratic Party of Albanians (RP DPA) and Movement for Democratic Progress (PDP), while the Democratic Party (DP) joined later on.

For the time being, it is also known that the first name on the electoral list will be Shaip Kamberi, the current mayor of the municipality of Bujanovac, while the second place will be taken by the candidate from the Alternative for Change, whose party president is Shqiprim Arifi, mayor of the municipality of Preševo, and the third place on the list will be taken by Nagip Arifi from the Democratic Party.

As the representatives of the coalition announced, their goal is to win 3 parliamentary seats and thus contribute to the improvement of the conditions of the Albanian national minority.

However, given that the political actions of the Albanian representatives is observed mostly through the lens of the entirety of Albanian-Serbian relations, which currently find their most important expression in the frozen Belgrade-Pristina dialogue, there is a question about whether the gathering of Albanian political parties only serves to strengthen negotiating positions before the final round of the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue, or whether it also signifies a better position in the institutional struggle for achieving minority rights and resolving the most pressing socio-economic problems.

The policy of Serbia towards minorities is summed up in reciprocity

The problems are numerous, according to the statements of officials from the south of Serbia, who often note that the state’s treatment of Albanians confines them to the status of second- or third-class citizens.

Among the mentioned problems are the shortages of textbooks for primary and secondary school students in their national language, the impossibility of validation of university degrees obtained at universities in Kosovo, the question of population figures in the municipalities where Albanians live (mostly Preševo and Bujanovac, but also Medveđa), the inadequate representation in public and state institutions, the withdrawal of state institutions from certain municipalities, as well as perhaps the problem most visible in the media – the use of the national flag and symbols.

As Dušan Janjić, the president of the Executive Board of the Forum for Ethnic Relations states, the current problems of the Albanian national minorities are directly related to the legacy of Milošević’s policies towards Albanians in the nineties and ethno-nationalist politics on the both sides, the economic backwardness of the south of Serbia and the perceptions that Albanians and Serbs maintain of one another.

”The perception is two-sided, the Serbs consider Albanians as non-existent or see them as a potential problem and think about them in terms of stereotypes, but the reverse is also the case”, Janjić said, explaining that concerning the position of Albanians from the south in the context of Albanian-Serbian relations, that they are put in the context of the events during the nineties.

”Additionally, from the end of the 1980s there has been a special coordination of activities among the Albanians in Yugoslavia and the level of nationalism has been rising, including Albanians from the south of Serbia, where moderate politicians, such as Riza Halimi, found it difficult to operate”, Janjić pointed out.

However, as Janjić explains, another problem of the Albanian minority in Serbia is the consequence of the current government’s minority policies in general.

”To this day, Belgrade is carrying on the ethno-nationalist policies, and does not understand the problem of the minorities, because it reduces it to the policy of reciprocity. This means that there is trading with the leaders of national minorities, as is the case with the Bosniaks and Hungarians, and the relations with the minorities depends also on the relations with their countries”, Janjić concluded, adding that there is no political will for the integration of citizens of Albanian ethnicity.

An example of the official policy of Serbia which does not contribute to the improvement of the position of Albanians is seen in the consequences of the last Albanian census boycott in 2011, when there were only slightly more than 1000 citizens of Albanian ethnicity documented as living in the south of Serbia.

”According to this census, the government decided that there were as many Albanians as were documented and consequently abolished certain state structures, like the Basic Court in Preševo, and despite the subsequent estimates of the population, this decision has not been revoked”, Janjić said, adding that if there is a potential crisis area somewhere, it is not prudent that institutions should be closed down too and thus contribute to the alienation of citizens from their state.

The Coordinating Body for Preševo, Bujanovac and Medveđa – A picture of unwillingness to improve the status quo

After the end of the 2000-2001 conflict in the south of Serbia, the Coordinating Body for Preševo, Bujanovac and Medveđa was formed, which was supposed to assist the socio-economic development of these municipalities, their political integration, as well as serve as a channel of communication, which is to say a mediator between the municipalities with a majority Albanian population and the Government of Serbia.

However, the fact that its structure and function has not been changed for almost 20 years tells Janjić that the Government has no intention of making any significant improvements.

”The Coordinating Body is an instrument of crisis resolution, which has turned into a permanent institution and its existence makes no sense at all today”, he said and added that it has become dysfunctional the moment when the “Liberation Army of Preševo, Bujanovac and Medveđa” disarmed itself and normal life was re-established through a multi-ethnic police force and assistance mechanisms of the United States and European Union.

The reorganisation of the institution was planned as early as 2004, with plans to gradually defer authority to the municipalities, but no meaningful reform has been carried out.

”This body has also made some very strange decisions, one example being the area of education, where a department of the Economic Faculty of Subotica was formed in Bujanovac, instead of borrowing the experience of the multi-lingual University of Tetovo in North Macedonia”, Janjić explained and added that there have also been demands from Albanians to be included in the management of the Coordinating Body, which would be, as he said, a reasonable move.

The future direction of the coalition’s actions depends on Tirana, Pristina and the dialogue

Given the modified electoral threshold for the national minorities and the agreed electoral alliance of the Albanian parties, Bojan Klačar, the Executive Director of the Center for Free Elections and Democracy (CESID), concludes that the chances of the Albanian parties winning their intended 3 seats are certainly greater, although it is early to say whether these expectations are realistic.

”The election campaign which started at the beginning of March will look completely different after the end of the state of emergency. The goal of three parliamentary seats is achievable, and the Albanian parties have taken the necessary step, such as forming an alliance, while the realisation of their goal will depend on the general voter turnout at the parliamentary elections, as well as the turnout in the communities where Albanians make up a majority, that is on their motivation and readiness to go out and vote”, said Klačar.

He added that, since the natural threshold is unknown in advance, that is to say we cannot know how much a seat is “worth” because it’s worth will be known only after the elections, when the D’Hondt formula is applied to the election results, it is impossible to predict today how many votes it will take to win those three seats.

„What is certain and of what there can be no doubt is that the fact that the change in the allocation of seats is directly beneficial for all minority participants and is an additional stimulus for their electoral participation“, Klačar concluded.

For both of our interlocutors, the creation of the coalition of Albanian parties is closely linked to the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue, and the future direction of activities will be coordinated with Tirana and Priština, although that does not mean that they will not also be aimed at improving the position of Albanians in Serbia.

„The Albanians in Serbia will coordinate their moves with the Kosovo delegation“, Janjić said and explained that the 7-point Plan of the Albanian representatives from 2013 is actually a demand that Albanians in Serbia get what the Serbs in Kosovo got according to the Brussels agreements, that is to say the demands represents a particular counterweight.

For Klačar, given that the alliance of the Albanian parties was agreed upon in close coordination with Pristina and Tirana, it means that their future election agenda will depend on them.

„Bearing all of this in mind, it seems that it is their estimate that through an alliance they can acquire a stronger influence on decision-making on the national level through a stronger representation in the National Assembly, especially on the topics which are important to them and which have been present for years. By cooperating with Pristina and Tirana they can agree on important political questions and their stance towards them, most importantly the question of resolving the Kosovo problem“, Klačar concluded.

Janjić also points out that it is very good that the Albanians are participating in the elections, because with a modified threshold they can even manage to form a Parliamentary Group in the National Assembly.

„Participation in elections for the National Assembly leads to the ending of the political boycott, i.e. end of not recognising the state of Serbia and serves as a mechanism by which the Government can be controlled”, Janjić said and added that among the Albanians, an educated elite has emerged, which leads the parties and the National Council of Albanian National Minority and which could successfully represent the Albanians and improve their conditions in the communities where they live in large numbers, but also those Albanians which make up an invisible minority that lives outside of Preševo, Medveđa and Bujanovac, in the large cities.

Both of the interlocutors do not rule out the possibility of the representatives of the Albanians appearing in the ruling coalition, but such a development would be, for them, determined by the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue and the consent of the political structures of Kosovo and Albania.

„I can imagine Albanian MPs in the parliamentary majority, but not while the dialogue is underway“, Janjić said and explained that in the eyes of the current Government of Serbia such a thing would bolster the position of Albanians and Kosovo in the Belgrade – Pristina dialogue.

“It would be a serious move which would require a completely different policy than this government represents”, Janjić concluded.

For Klačar, such a scenario is possible, only if it is acceptable for Pristina and Tirana, i.e. in case of strategic calculation or as part of the international context in relation to the Belgrade – Priština dialogue.

“In principle, without such an element it is more probable that the Albanian parties will be, like so far, outside the ruling coalition, but a fair and constructive actor in parliament.”, Klačar concluded.

For Serbia and its citizens of Albanian ethnicity, the better representation of Albanians in the National Assembly which the alliance of the Albanian parties brings is useful.  It opens the way for communication with less interference, institutional channelling of political disagreements and the “nationalisation” of the Albanian problems in Serbia, surpassing the boundaries of the municipalities.

Perhaps the general population census scheduled for 2021, will be good indicator whether there have been a positive change in relations between the Government and the Albanian national minority and what we can expect in the future.

This article was originally written in Serbian