Half-truths and double standards in Skopje’s language politics

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Ziadin Sela [L] congatulates President Stevo Pendarovski upon assuming his duties, 21 May 2019. [Website of the President of North Macedonia]

The President of North Macedonia has no right to state that the country “doesn’t need the EU”  if it has to fulfil Bulgaria’s conditionalities regarding the country’s language, because it is doing the same to its own ethnic Albanian citizens, writes Ziadin Sela.

Ziadin Sela is an MP and leader of the Alliance for the Albanians, a centre-right political party established in North Macedonia in 2015. He was previously the mayor of Struga.

“When I first read it, I went back to that wording two or three times. I couldn’t believe that in the 21st century, one could deny somebody their language as coded and practised for decades… If the price is to not be Macedonian and the language I speak to not be Macedonian, then we do not need the EU,” North Macedonia’s President Stevo Pendarovski said in a TV interview on 1 May, commenting on Bulgaria’s statement annexed to the EU Council conclusions of 26 March on starting EU accession talks with North Macedonia.

The Bulgarian statement to which President Pendarovski referred, and which was kept secret from the public for weeks, lists a number of conditionalities on North Macedonia for opening and successfully completing negotiations chapters.

The most controversial among them is the scrapping of any reference to the Macedonian language in EU official documents. Instead, Sofia requests that Macedonian is referred to as “the official language of the Republic of North Macedonia.”

These conditions reflect Sofia’s long-standing position presenting Macedonian as a dialect of Bulgarian, while questioning the existence of a Macedonian national identity as separate from the Bulgarian one. The debate they have caused in North Macedonia and in the EU is both problematic and partial, in several regards.

President Pendarovski’s emotional reaction to the Bulgarian conditionality on the Macedonian language is understandable from a political point of view. However, it is also highly irresponsible when it comes to our state interest and it is insincere towards North Macedonia’s citizens.

First, North Macedonia is a multi-ethnic state where the vast majority of citizens will never agree with President Pendarovski’s statement that North Macedonia should give up on EU integration.

There are many reasons for this, including their sacrifices and tireless efforts for the past three decades, the lack of alternative, but above all because Euro-Atlantic integrations are North Macedonia’s primary state interest. This process has just begun with our accession to NATO in March 2020 and it will be completed only when we become a full EU member state.

Second, President Pendarovski’s lack of sincerity towards his own citizens is manifest. The President appears flabbergasted that Bulgaria dares to negate Macedonians their language, while forgetting that he is presiding over a state that is denying this very same right to a third of its population in an even more brutal way, with a constitution reducing the Albanian language to a “language spoken by at least 20% of the population and that is different from Macedonian.”

To President Pendarovski, we say, yes Mr President, there are still such cases in the 21st century. To find one, you don’t need to look towards Sofia. It suffices to look in your own backyard, North Macedonia over which you preside.

In 2020, our Constitution still uses rhetoric drawn from the records of post-World War I, namely from the Paris Peace Conference, where under pressure from Western powers, the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes was forced to sign treaties on minorities’ protection, providing for the opening of schools in Albanian – on paper of course, because their ban lasted until 1941 – while carefully avoiding to mention the Albanian language.

Instead, they referred to “the language that is different from Serbian“, which has directly inspired the qualification of Albanian in North Macedonia’s constitution.

In 1920, Serbian motivations were crystal clear: denying and suppressing any trace of the Albanian nation’s existence on its own lands, including by refuting the existence of Albanians and their language in any official document.

But what justifies the denial of the Albanian language in North Macedonia today? I am afraid that it is the same old logic that motivates the continued refusal by Macedonian political parties for the Constitution of North Macedonia to refer to the Albanian language by its name, thus perpetuating shameful formulations from a totalitarian past.

So, while we share President Pendarovski’s concern and agree that he has every right to be outraged by Bulgarian conditionality over the Macedonian language, we would like to see him share the outrage of his Albanian citizens towards the anachronistic and anti-European constitution of the Republic of North Macedonia.

When it comes to the Bulgarian request to refer to “the official language of the Republic of North Macedonia“, it must be noted that this debate is inaccurate and ignores the fact that Albanian, currently defined as “the language spoken by at least 20% of the population and that is different from Macedonian”, is in fact an official language of the Republic next to Macedonian, both internally and its external relations.

It is high time that this is formally recognised by the EU and its member states.

Based on the maxim of reciprocity “don’t do unto others what you don’t want done unto you“, we call on President Pendarovski together with other open-minded Macedonian and Albanian politicians to initiate an internal debate on amending a retrograde constitution and live up to our European ideal.

Let us take this opportunity to abandon the logic of one of the darkest periods of humane history and set an example of Europeanisation in the region, also towards our Bulgarian neighbour.

As for relations with the Republic of Bulgaria, let us work together, Macedonians and Albanians, to find common ground with our neighbours in the framework of the joint commissions for the implementation of the friendship treaty between the two countries, which should be an impetus for North Macedonia’s EU membership, and not the opposite.

Multilingualism is one of the EU’s fundamental values. Languages should unite people and strengthen intercultural understanding, instead of creating unnecessary backward-looking blockades.

Confirming the status of the Macedonian language in the EU and that of Albanian in North Macedonia and in the EU is a perfect case for demonstrating the essential contribution that linguistic diversity brings to the European project, built on the motto ‘united in diversity’.

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