by Vladimir Kljajić

When it comes to minorities in the Western Balkans, we must first bring our attention to the context of the region. Most countries of the Western Balkans – Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Kosovo were recently involved in nation-building processes and all of them, except Albania, have a legacy of recent conflicts. The region is not only characterized by its violent history over the past few decades, but also its economic hardship and high unemployment rate, which has had a profound impact on youth as well.

At the turn of the century, the EU took a key role in ensuring that the needs and priorities of minority groups are both identified and addressed as an important component in longer-term democratic stabilization of the region. All of the abovementioned countries have aspirations to become member states of the EU. The EU accession process varies from country to country, with Croatia currently the only member. The necessary reforms and harmonization with the EU is challenging for the local political elites in the Western Balkans given the European Commission President’s declaration that “no further enlargement will take place over the next five years” (Juncker 2014).

Minority protection means full implementation of anti-discriminatory policies, which include improving the capacities of the Human Rights Ombudsman, as well as focusing on Roma issues. One of the largest minorities in the Balkans are the Roma people, who are most vulnerable in all countries, as well as the rest of Europe. Discrimination towards Roma people is not only a problem at a state level, but also on a local one. It should be stressed that the EU supports the improvement of minority protection predominantly through the Instrument for Pre-Accession Assistance (IPA II). There are also other donors that are active in this field. Aid is used for improving the legal infrastructure but also in developing anti-discrimination measures. Most of the countries have strategical documents when it comes to improving minority rights. However, the majority of them are also lacking implementation.

Several years ago, it was stated at a conference that there is, “One country with two entities, three constituent peoples, four religious traditions and hundreds of problems”. It is a reference to Bosnia and Herzegovina, a country divided on ethnic lines following a bloody civil war which produced no winners. Constitutional changes recognising the equality of all citizens in Bosnia is a necessity. Currently, the Constitution reserves positions within the Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the House of Peoples only for ethnic Bosniaks, Bosnian Serbs and Bosnian Croats, or the “constituent peoples”, as they are referred to. Such a policy discriminates the other minorities in the country, including Roma, Albanians, Montenegrins and others, who form over 4% of the total population. In addition to structural discrimination, the Progress Report of the European Commission states that the Ombudsman’s office lacks adequate human and financial resources to perform its functions as a national human rights institution. This is a common issue in many countries of the Western Balkans, where human and minority rights take a back seat in the face of economic hardship and dwindling development. Ironically, Bosnia and Herzegovina boasts three ombudsmens, one from each “constituent peoples”, thus making it impossible for individuals from minority groups to ever take up these positions.

In neighbouring Croatia, Serbs constitute the largest national minority. They are officially recognized as an autochthonous national minority, and as such, they elect three representatives to the Croatian Parliament. However, discrimination against Serbs, as well as the Roma peoples is widespread. According to a 2016/2017 report by Amnesty International, the number of ethnic minorities employed in public services in Croatia is below national targets. Serbs face significant barriers to employment in both the public and private labour market. The right to use minority languages and script continues to be politicized and unimplemented in some towns. “The Council of Europe notes with regret that on August 17, 2015, the City Council of Vukovar (Croatia), where Serbs constitute a significant proportion of the population, decided to amend the city statute in such a way as not to provide bilingual signs in Latin and Cyrillic scripts at official town buildings, institutions, squares and streets”, it said in a statement. Serbs face discrimination in other areas as well. Croatian Serbs refugees are still struggling to regain their homes after leaving them during the war of the 1990s. The UN refugee body, UNHCR, estimates that over 200.000 fled parts of Croatia within 24 hours of the start of the Croatian military “Operation Storm”, which had the aim of reintegrating a self-proclaimed Serbian republic within Croatia. Most went to Serbia while the rest went to Serb-run parts of Bosnia. The UN believes that more than 70.000 of these people have since lost tenancy rights in Croatia. A vast number of this property has been illegally seized according to various local and international NGOs.

Serbia is one of the most ethnically diverse countries in Southeast Europe, with notable populations of Hungarians, Roma and Bosniaks, followed by smaller groups such as Croats, Slovaks and Albanians. Following democratic changes in 2000, Serbia started addressing its discriminatory practices and adopted several laws for the protection of its minorities. The Alliance of Vojvodina Hungarians, an ethnic Hungarian political party in Serbia, works closely with the state government in Serbia. Its leader is the President of the Assembly of the Province of Vojvodina, which has the largest Hungarian minority population in the country. The party has held the post since 2008 and boasts mayors in several cities with a larger Hungarian population. Its members also hold posts within the central government in Belgrade. The integration of the Hungarian population in Serbia is a good example of a solution to the issues faced by other minorities both in Serbia and across the Western Balkans. Apart from political integration, the Hungarian minority is also provided with both state-sponsored primary and secondary education in their mother tongue. In addition, the Vojvodina public broadcaster is bilingual in both Serbian and Hungarian. A number of state programs, aimed at stimulating local businesses run by members of the Hungarian minority have been launched. Hungarian President, Viktor Orbán, known for his tough talk, recently commended Serbia for “always taking care of Hungarians who live in the country”. Nonetheless, the Progress Report of the European Commission stated that there is scope for further improvements, such tackling regional differences, particularly in education, the use of languages, access to media and religious services in minority languages.

The Bosniak minority communities of Sandzak in southwestern Serbia are among the most disadvantaged and underprivileged groups in the country. Therefore, an evaluation of their situation offers a good benchmark by which minority rights progress can be measured in Serbia. Concurrently, the Bosniaks are increasingly asserting their unique societal identity. The preservation of their cultural heritage and Bosnian language related issues among other things play a central role in this ethnocultural revival. Nevertheless, two of the three most influential parties in that region, the Party of Democratic Action of SandĹľak and The Bosniak Democratic Union of SandĹľak, supported current president Aleksandar Vucic during his election. President Vucic also called for internal dialog when it comes to the Kosovo status but that remains an open question.

The European Progress Report stressed that the legal framework of Kosovo broadly guarantees the protection of human and fundamental rights in line with European standards. However, the limited progress on the effective guarantee of property rights and the return and reintegration of displaced persons remain a concern, as is the protection of cultural heritage. Bosniaks and Serbs are the largest minority in Kosovo making up 3% of the population. Implementation of human rights continues to be hindered by a lack of resources and political commitment, also at a local level.

When we think about a comprehensive solution concerning minorities in the Western Balkans, we need to keep in mind that the passing of new legislation is very easy, given that all political elites are united in their desire to bring their countries to the doors of the EU. However, the implementation of laws requires a new political culture in local government, which is so crucial to the implementation of such policies. The process of democratic stabilization is far from complete. Support from abroad is still required, especially assistance from the EU. Ongoing issues and processes have to be completed, such as reconciliation and the return of refugees, as well as the promotion of closer relations and regional cooperation among Western Balkan countries. Each solution requires comprehensive co-operation between the states, minority groups, CSOs, the EU and the media, which usually contributes in perpetuating negative stereotypes of marginalized groups.

07 October 2017
This text was published in Bullseye issue 69