The new law is not the final word on the language issue

Robert Nesimi

1. Last week, the Parliament approved a new law addressing the official use of languages in Macedonia. Essentially, it is the next step in a series of previous laws that regulate this issue, regularly passed after parliamentary elections since 2008. As before, and as with any law that touches upon ethnic issues in the country, public reactions to the law follow the same script. On the Macedonian side of public opinion we again see the same outbursts of anger, accusations of treason and fearmongering that the law puts an end to Macedonia as we know it. On the Albanian side we see the usual euphoria for some kind of crown achievement, self-congratulating and chest-beating by politicians, who thus try to prove the collective good they are doing for their voters. Unfortunately, common to both ends of the spectrum is the feeling that this law solves the language issue once and for all. All three are wrong. First, Macedonians have nothing to fear and panic; second, Albanians have not achieved God knows what; and third, this law does not close the language issue as a political theme. On the contrary the whole show seems like a setup for new misunderstandings now and in the future, as has happened so often in the past.

2. Macedonian public opinion unfortunately cannot give up the habit of looking at anything Albanian as a threat. Any advancement of Albanian collective rights, issues that should have been settled twenty or something years ago, continue to be seen as automatic defeats for Macedonians. It was the same with Tetovo State University, it is the same now. Thus, as usual, these situations present perfect opportunities for the opposition to gain a few points with accusations of treason by the government, a thing made easier now that the opposition is the “patriotic” VMRO. Again, as usual, the Macedonian part of government hides behind precedents from the past, when today’s opposition was in power. Thus even the so-called “progressives” of SDSM, who should have been proud of the inclusiveness of the new law, are taking a defensive line and justifying themselves by claiming that VMRO did the same things when in power, as if it was a crime they were committing. The worst part of the story, however, is that both SDSM and VMRO seem convinced that for good or bad this law defines the issue of Albanian language once and for all. They thus draw red lines on what positions Albanians may or may not take in the future. To be fair Albanian parties, especially DUI, have an equal share in promoting this view.

3. Albanian politicians, on the other hand, cannot stop abusing even these small improvements for political gain. There is an open verbal warfare on all sides, with everyone trying to claim sole merit for this “victory”, including Edi Rama and his socialist party. Public opinion is relentlessly being bombarded with an unnecessary sense of euphoria and triumphalism, even though what has been achieve is far less than what was envisioned when the Framework Agreement was being signed or than what can be done within the Constitution. And with this chest-beating the political process of further advancement in the future is being irreparably damaged, since it creates an atmosphere as if the goal has already been reached. What is worse, DUI is now claiming this publicly, with declarations that the law finally rounds up the framework agreement and language issue. Thus together with SDSM and VMRO it is claiming the right to draw red lines on what political positions may or may not be taken in the future.

4. Key to current and future misunderstandings, with both sides to blame, is the ignoring of the simple fact that Albanians will never accept this law as the final word on the language issue. I will leave the description of the shortcomings and limits it sets upon the official use of the Albanian language to the lawyers; for comparison I would just mention the far more advanced position of Serbian language in Kosovo. Legal shortcomings aside, Albanians will never accept that their language remain forever unnamed, to being treated as black magic that may never be spoken. To put it simply, they will never accept to christen their language once and for all as “language spoken by at least 20% of the population”, rather than simply and clearly “Albanian language”. And having in mind the name issue, they reasonably expect to be easily understood by their Macedonian fellow citizens. As victims of unreasonable blackmail for their name, they more than anyone should understand the Albanians when they are denied by law to call their language with its own name.
So even though the new law is a step forward for the official use of languages, it is not a final solution to the problem, as politicians try to portray it. Legal barriers, such as changing the constitution, are secondary and irrelevant before the simple fact that Albanians will never reconcile to the thought of their language remaining nameless. Some politicians, specifically the whole Macedonian political block together with DUI, have claimed the right to proclaim a final solution to this issue. Intentionally or not, they thus try to define in advance what positions may or may not be taken in the future, as if the world begins and ends with them. This law, however, remains what it is: a political agreement between politicians, on a certain subject at a certain time. As such it cannot oblige anyone to accept it at something sacred and final that can never be changed. That’s why the language question remains an open one whether someone likes it or not, and regardless of the “nationalist” label that no doubt will be stuck to whoever reopens it as a legitimate political issue in the future.