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The Unfinished Business of Albanian Rights in Montenegro

On May 21, 2006, some 480,000 voters in Montenegro will decide whether to separate from Serbia in a national referendum. Montenegro, one of the eight juridical units that made up the former Yugoslavia, has seen its progress crippled by the European Union’s decision in 2003 to force it into an artificial state called “ Serbia and Montenegro.” Montenegrin Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic reluctantly agreed to the state union, which has been moribund from the start, on the condition that a referendum on independence could be held three years later.

The outcome of the referendum cannot be predicted with certainty. EU mediators set a high threshold, stipulating a minimum turnout of 50 percent and a vote of 55 percent for statehood to be honored. As a result, officials in Serbia and Montenegro have been taking extraordinary measures to turn the tide in their favor, including covering the transportation costs of members of the diaspora who want to cast their ballots on Sunday. What can be predicted with certainty is that a vote for independence will not change the lives of Albanians. That will not happen until Albanians make their case to Brussels and Washington and demand an end to their second-class status in Montenegro.

This is not to suggest that Albanians should boycott the referendum. The European Union, EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana in particular, created Serbia and Montenegro in an effort to stave off decision-making about the final status of Kosova, if not to block Kosova’s path to independence altogether. EU actions have been governed out of misplaced nostalgia for Tito’s Yugoslavia and a misguided belief that Kosova’s independence will lead to the creation of a “Greater Albania,” when the only imperialist drive in the Balkans for more than twenty years has been the quest for a “Greater Serbia.” Because all Albanians support the independence of Kosova, and because completing the dissolution of the former Yugoslavia is the only way to bring lasting peace and stability to Southeast Europe, I believe that Albanians must support the independence of Montenegro.

Having said that, I do not think that Albanians should vote for Montenegro’s independence without also insisting that the unfinished business of Montenegro is not separation from Serbia but granting equal rights to Albanians, who make up 8 percent of the country’s population and who live on land that they have inhabited for thousands of years—land that was annexed by Montenegro with the assent of the socalled Great Powers in the nineteenth century. Albanians in Montenegro, while voting for separation from Serbia, should also be demanding equality. It is time to tell the truth about Montenegro in the press and in parliaments around the world.

Albanians too often fail to recognize that most officials in the European Union and the United States know very little about Montenegro, because it has not been a “hot spot”

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since the dissolution of the former Yugoslavia began in 1991. Until recently, the West’s concerns about Montenegro have focused on keeping Serbia and Montenegro together at all costs and preventing the spillover of organized crime and human trafficking from the former East bloc into Western Europe. In addition, because Milo Djukanovic broke with former Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic in 1997 and did the West’s bidding during the NATO war of 1999, the United States and Europe have been quick to proclaim Montenegro a democracy, even though this is more illusion than reality.

Most Western officials do not know that the Albanian population in Montenegro is only half of what it was at the end of World War II because of a concerted effort to drive Albanians off their land and repopulate it with Montenegrin Slavs, the dominant ethnic group in this country of 650,000. Initially this took the form of ethnic cleansing and expulsion, especially at the end of the Balkan wars of 1912-1913. Later, this took the form of demographic engineering. Without firing a shot, Montenegro has forced Albanians to flee by withholding basic services such as running water, electricity, and phone lines; grossly limiting access to education, meaningful employment, and political participation; confiscating thousands of hectares of Albanian-owned land; providing illegal documents to encourage immigration; persecuting and imprisoning dissenters, and conferring benefits on Albanians willing to renounce their language and history. Montenegro has paid Western lobbyists and experts on Southeast Europe to disguise this reality and over many years has instituted an elaborate system of secret agents in the Balkans and in the diaspora to enforce its anti-Albanian policies.

The plight of Albanians would have remained off the West’s foreign policy screen altogether if it were not for the trips that Congressmen Tom Lantos and Dana Rohrabacher took with the Albanian American Civic League to Ulqin, Ana e Malit, Kraja, Tuzi, and Plave-Gusije in the summers of 2003 and 2005, respectively, and the Congressional Human Rights Caucus hearing that they held on “The Future of Albanians in Montenegro” in October 2003. Even still, the Montenegrin government, with the help of its American surrogates in Washington and Albanian collaborators, has fought at every step of the way the AACL effort to disclose the truth about Albanian life in Montenegro and to call for reform. Last fall the Djukanovic government passed the Capital City bill, which placed the Albanian-majority area of Tuzi within and under the complete control of Montenegro’s capital, Podgorica, in spite of Congressman Lantos’s vigorous opposition to the bill’s passage and appeal for the reinstatement of Tuzi’s municipal status. Regrettably, Ferhat Dinosha, leader of the Democratic Union of Albanians in Montenegro and one of only two Albanian representatives in the Montenegrin parliament, cast the deciding vote that prevented Albanians in Tuzi from enjoying the same rights of self-government enjoyed by the other 21 existing municipalities in Montenegro.

The passage of the Capital City bill in advance of the referendum was painfully ironic, because the Albanian vote is viewed by most observers as critical to the success of the pro-independence campaign. Clearly Prime Minister Djukanovic, who has relied on the Albanian vote to hold onto power for seventeen years, knows this. Working through

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Albanian travel agents, and using lists created with the help of their Albanian and Slavic agents in the States, the Djukanovic government is paying well over a thousand Albanian Americans still qualified as Montenegrin citizens to return to Montenegro to vote, even while it refuses to recognize the civil and human rights of the Albanians who live there. (It should be emphasized here that if Djukanovic wants the referendum to succeed, he is taking an enormous risk by alienating Albanians, instead of energizing all of them to vote for independence.)

For Albanians, there is considerable advantage in gaining independence from Serbia, in that Montenegro will be placed under the scrutiny of the European Union and will be expected to abide by its rules. This will open up previously inaccessible avenues for reinstating Tuzi’s communal status and addressing the full range of human rights violations against Albanians in Montenegro. However, gaining access to EU instruments will require shining international light on the apartheid-like reality in which so many Albanians live in Montenegro. The invisibility of Albanian suffering in Montenegro has been underscored in recent weeks by the almost complete absence of Albanian voices in Western press reports about the struggle between pro-and anti-independence forces in Montenegro leading up to this weekend’s referendum. Whether or not the referendum succeeds, the future of Montenegro hinges on whether or not Albanian voices are finally heard.

Shirley Cloyes DioGuardi is Balkan Affairs Adviser to the Albanian American Civic League.

Ossining, New York May 17, 2006

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