With 64 out of 120 deputies voting in favor, Macedonia’s Parliament passed the Law on the Use of Languages last week (Wednesday, March 14), despite 35,000 unread amendments and strong objections from opposition parties. From now on, if the law is implemented, it will extend the use of Albanian throughout Macedonia by institutions like municipalities, hospitals and courts.
The passing of the law took place against the backdrop of political arguments inside and outside of the Parliament, and attempts by proponents on both sides to spin the situation in its favor — in a show of just how polarized the country’s media landscape is, it was this antagonism that tended to be the focus of coverage, rather than on the substance of the law.
In the meantime, critics note that citizens have received little substantive information to help them make up their minds on the merits of the law and everything that surrounds its adaptation.
Furkan Saliu, a journalist from TV21, claims it is this lack of meaningful debate that has been the worst point in the entire process of adopting this law. He points to protests by a group of citizens — several hundred according to media reports — who gathered in front of the parliament to oppose the passing of the law.
“The fact that there are citizens who are protesting this law because they believe that they will not be able to communicate with institutions in the Macedonian language, proves that the media failed to explain well enough what this change means,” Saliu told K2.0. “Let’s not forget, the Albanian language was already official and there was a law about it.”
Many existing minority rights in Macedonia stem from the August 2001 Ohrid Framework Agreement, which ended the conflict between Macedonians and Albanians. The accord was signed by the late president Boris Trajkovski, and by the four main political parties at that time. Amongst other things, it provided for the right to the wider use of the Albanian language, including it becoming an official language in areas where Albanian speakers make up over 20 percent of the population.
The new law makes Albanian an official language throughout the whole of Macedonia — a country in which Albanians make up around a quarter of the population — including in all public institutions. Additionally, it provides for the creation of a special agency that will have the task of monitoring the use of languages by institutions.
The new law has been viewed as a positive step in both Albania and Kosovo, with Kosovo’s President Hashim Thaci telling Klan Kosova TV that the passing of the law is good news for the entire region.
Making Albanian an official language in Macedonia was one of the standout promises of prime minister Zoran Zaev, when he established the government together with several Albanian parties in March 2017. The stance has been heavily criticized by VMRO-DPMNE, which accuses him of betraying Macedonia’s national interests.
With opinions polarized, in July last year Albanian party Alliance for Albanians threatened to withdraw its support for the government if the law was not introduced soon.
In January, the law passed in the Parliament, but it was subsequently vetoed by the president, Gjorge Ivanov, who insisted that it went against the Constitution. Ivanov, who is close to VMRO-DPMNE, has received support from a number of Macedonian academics, some diaspora organizations and right-wing politicians. Their argument is that the law, in its present form, jeopardizes the constitutional status of the Macedonian language by introducing bilingualism and a form of bi-national identity.
After the veto, the law went back to MPs, resulting in 35,000 opposition proposed amendments. All of the amendments were ignored in the process of passing the law, with the ruling Social Democratic Union party (SDSM) determined that the law should be adopted in its present form.
Since January, MPs from the opposition, have not participated in the work of the Assembly, and the law has only been discussed at coordination meetings between the speaker and political party coordinators.
Before voting took place on Wednesday, security had to intervene to separate former prime minister and former leader of the now opposition party VMRO-DPMNE Nikola Gruevski and speaker Talat Xhaferi; as tensions rose in the Parliament ahead of the vote, Gruevski had approached Xhaferi’s desk and attempted to interfere with the speaker’s electronic equipment, leading to a brief altercation between the two.
VMRO-DPMNE’s deputies ultimately refused to take part in the vote, claiming that the law is unconstitutional and that it does not contribute toward genuine improvement of the rights of the Albanian community.
Coverage of the entire process of the law’s adoption showed not only how deeply divided local media are, but it also highlighted the difficulties that journalists face in getting to the root of complex issues in such a polarized political environment.
A lot of fuss and little debate has characterized the adoption of the Law on the Use of Languages, according to Dušica Mrgja, journalist and editor at Television 24. She claims that reporting on the issue was difficult due to the widely different arguments of the government and the opposition.
“Arguments were manipulated from both sides. The government manipulated the procedure and interpretation of the procedure, as well as the persistent claim that the law was in line with the Constitution, although several eminent professors on Constitutional law contested it,” she told K2.0.
“They [the government] tried to spin the story into direction that everyone who opposed the different arguments of the law was against coexistence or against the rights of the Albanians… On the other hand, the opposition manipulated national feelings and nationalistic arguments, playing on interethnic relations.”
The view is echoed by Channel 5 Television’s Vesna Velkova, who says she attempted to get more information and clarification from members of the Parliament about the procedural processes, but with little success.
“I tried to ask questions so that the speaker would answer why he was not complying with the Rules of Procedure, which require amendments to be considered,” she told K2.0. “Instead of answering my question on this issue, he decided to tell something completely different, interpreting the rules in his own way. Such a response created the impression that the law was passed uncompleted.”
Velkova and Mrgja both believe that the whole procedure lacked transparency, and add that things should have improved with the current administration, which was supposed to change the practice of policy making in Macedonia.
Mefail Ismaili, a journalist from TV Shenja, points out that ambiguities in the Constitution and the Assembly’s Rules of Procedure allowed different interpretations by decision-makers, and this put the media to the test during the voting.
“It was very difficult. And the main reason is the big holes in the Rules of Procedure, but also in the Constitution,” he told K2.0. “Because of these shortcomings, political parties have the space to interpret it according to their political goals. My personal opinion is that none of the above institutions were transparent enough before and after the law was passed.”
Ismaili says that he believes that the Constitution was not violated, but that he could not recall such confusion in Parliamentary processes. “As a journalist who has been reporting on the work of the Assembly for seven years, I have not experienced something like this,” he said.
Meanwhile Saliu suggests that blame for the confusion lies with both politicians, for not being transparent, and the media, for not putting in enough effort to better understand before reporting. “We, journalists, know that all that is happening in Macedonia, this whole story about this law, is a well planned scenario for yet another theatrical performance,” he said.
While the law has now passed, the confusion looks set to continue. President Ivanov has no right to veto the same law a second time, and the only way to annul the bill, or some of its provisions, would be through an appeal to the Constitutional Court.
In the wake of all the controversy and confusion, in his first address after the adoption of the law Prime Minister Zaev stated that this law was good for everyone and will contribute to the coexistence between Macedonians and Albanians, with nobody losing from it. Whether this so called “bilingualism” will ultimately help bring people together or further divide the different ethnicities living in Macedonia is something that only time will tell.
Among all the the comments on social media in recent days, one particularly striking message says that people in Macedonia will now officially be able to say the same thing in two languages: “We are hungry” — „Гладни сме/ Ne jemi të uritur.“
But whether the country’s lawmakers and media will understand the message is unclear.K
Feature image: Besnik Bajrami / K2.0.