The term 20 percent has to go now

Robert Nesimi

The public in Macedonia is these days understandably obsessed with news of Gruevski’s escape to Hungary. At the same time it seems forgotten that the process of constitutional amendments is still going on in Parliament. Even during this process not much space was given to the legitimate and quite rational demands of the Albanian opposition, especially in Macedonian media. They were nonchalantly rejected, since they did not even find enough support among Albanian MPs from parties in power, which ostensibly are supposed to speak for the whole Albanian community although they do not even have half of their votes. And while this waving away of important issues goes to the detriment of Albanians now, it could become a problem for the whole country in the long run, since it leaves open a number of questions that ideally could have been solved now. Among them I would separate the wholly reasonable demand that in the Constitution the term “language spoken by at least 20% of the population” be replaced with its real name, “Albanian language”.

To understand the root of the problem of “20%” we must go back to its origins. It enters the political and legal dictionary of Macedonia with the constitutional amendments of 2002, which were necessitated by the Ohrid Framework Agreement. One of the chief demands of Albanians at that time was precisely the official use of the Albanian language. But since the amendments had to be voted in Parliament, wording was found to appease the MPs of that time, quite a few of whom could not accept that another language besides Macedonian be mentioned in the Constitution. Since “it was not the proper time” and “bigger processes were going on”, this was a wording that everybody would understand as meaning the Albanian language, without mentioning it directly by name. So it was a time of collective pretending and refusal to deal with reality, which then became a constant source of political troubles for the next 16 years.

The adoption of Albanian as official language should have ended by 2006, but again an “appropriate time” was never found. In meantime it was slowly forgotten what the famous “20%” formula means and why it was found in the first place. The whole issue was turned upside down. At first the term “20%” was just another word for “Albanian language”. But in time it was getting read and understood as a basic principle on its own, from which the right to use the Albanian language derived. Later still this way of seeing things got a legal footing, since law after law took “20%” as a basis to define where Albanian could be used officially. Some more extreme elements even now pretend that Albanians are not even 20% of the population, and demand that the right to use their language be revoked automatically. So from a consequence of legalizing Albanian, the term “20%” became its genesis.

Things could become even funnier and more complicated in the future, for example with the recent proposal that the census not be done on an ethnic basis, but rather just by noting the language spoken in each household. As a final conclusion of the census we might get something like “28% of the population speak the language that is spoken by at least 20% of the population”. On a local level, in places where Albanians are at the edge of being 20%, this reformulation could result with taking away the right to official use of Albanian, its regaining in the next census, and so on back and forth. It is beside the point whether this could really happen; the very fact that this exists as a real legal possibility speaks volumes of how far we are from the spirit of the Framework Agreement, when “20%” was just another temporary word for the Albanian language.

Even more important than the legal and practical aspects could be the fact that the definition as “language spoken by 20%” is quite offensive to the Albanians. It seems that politicians do not understand or underestimate the extraordinary importance that language has for Albanian national identity. Contrary to other nations in the region which are also defined by other elements such as religion, the Albanian language has been and still is the backbone of Albanian identity. It has been the starting point and main source of the national awakening and shaping of the Albanian nation, THE element around which all important national figures rallied around ever since the National Renaissance more than 150 years ago. Thus Albanians will never accept that their language remain nameless and defined by percentages, no matter the current mood of some Albanian MPs. This issue may sometimes lurk in the background and at other times come strongly to the forefront, but it will never disappear as long as the Albanian language is not named with its proper name. As long as the issue stays open it will continue to be a source of political misunderstandings; without its closure we will never have political peace in the country.

The process of the agreement with Greece and constitutional changes promises to once and for all end a number of issues that have kept the country captive for the past three decades. That is why this is the ideal moment to close the issue of the Albanian language as well, and for Macedonia to continue its Euro-Atlantic journey with no further misgivings and disagreements. Otherwise this issue will remain an open wound for Albanians, who will never stop until it is closed. This particular demand of the Albanian opposition is quite reasonable; what is missing is vision from other MPs to settle the issue once and for all.

Views expressed in this article are personal views of the author and do not represent the editorial policy of Nezavisen Vesnik