Challenges of Minority Rights in the Western Balkans

Last November, the Council of Europe marked the fifteenth anniversary of the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities (FCNM) – still the only legally binding document on minority protection in the contemporary international community, and still a document that is persistently ignored by eight (of the 47) member states of the Council of Europe. This past anniversary provided an opportunity for some reflections on the FCNM, its achievements, and challenges that remain in the area of minority protection in Europe.
At least three key issues pose a significant obstacle to minority protection in ‘Western Balkans’ (some of them also elsewhere):
First, context matters. In the Western Balkans, this context is characterised by the legacy of recent conflicts and wars as a result of nation-building and state-formation processes. The history of violent conflicts has fuelled perceptions about minority rights as illegitimate benefits for the former aggressors. Croatia’s implementation of bilingualism in places like Vukovar, and the nationalists’ responses to the presence of Cyrillic script in Croatia’s ‘national wound’, are a prime example of the difficulties faced by the central and local authorities to overcome the collectivisation of the recent past, and replace it with equal opportunities for identity preservation of different identity groups. The fresh memories and personal experiences with the war make this process particularly difficult.

What is also often overlooked, is the discrepancy between the central and the local authorities. The central government is speaking ‘the right language,’ which is in line with the international standards on minority rights, but is fighting typical, nationalist, local political leaders. These leaders instrumentally object to any minority rights in order to earn public approval, and to gain political support for the next elections. Disagreements also occur within communities where liberal voices are frequently dismissed rather than promoted. These voices are windows of opportunity for the individualisation of minority issues in contexts where the collectivisation still appears to be prevalent. Conflicts also occur between the independent judiciary and the authorities, with the judiciary way too frequently falling into the trap of nationalism rather than pushing the boundaries further away from it. Multi-level governance of minority protection, therefore, needs to be strengthened in order to address these conflicting issues among the various stakeholders in different levels of governance.
Second, the region is not only characterised by its recent violent history, but also by its economic hardship and high unemployment rate, that is particularly harsh for the youth. Many young individuals fled during the wars and have never returned. At present, the region is characterised by a lack of virtually any opportunity for the often well-educated youth. It is well known that unemployed youth can be a breeding ground for nationalism and conservativism. In Croatia, the recent referendum on gay marriage has unveiled the full extent of conservativism amongst the younger generation. As reported by Jutarnji list in early 2014, a recent poll in Croatia showed that a third of high school teenagers believe that the Bible determines the content of human rights. Any minority rights, starting with or including bilingualism and the use of two alphabets, would therefore be fundamentally dependent on the promotion and embracement of tolerance, human rights, non-discrimination. Therefore, in addressing the challenges of minority protection, I suggest that a bottom-up approach may more effective, than the top-down approach currently used by international institutions such as the Council of Europe or the European Union (EU) in putting pressure on central authorities. It is obvious that economic hardship and unemployment are a breeding ground for intolerance and hatred, which makes any reconciliation or post-conflict reconstruction impossible. They also further opportunities for the development of racism, anti-Semitism, xenophobia and homophobia – all of these things are, worryingly, also found in sports (such as football, as frequent incidents at stadiums and public displays of nationalism, by players themselves, have demonstrated). What are urgently needed are incentives, and long-term grass-root programmes for individuals and communities. In general, political elites know how well they need to behave, but it is the general public that needs to be convinced.
Third, the ongoing – ambiguous and uncertain – process of EU enlargement matters. Many researchers have shown that the monitoring by the European Commission of the so-called (Copenhagen) political criteria, including minority protection, has been very problematic. It is a goal-oriented process that is used to prove the worthiness of newcomers to become member-states of the EU. Monitoring this, however, included few checks on the actual behaviour of political elites. On the contrary, the would-be member-states need to prove that they have met the general criteria by changing their legal framework. As we can observe, the passing of new legislation is very easy, given that all political elites are united in their desire to bring their country to the EU as full members. Therefore, the result of these joint national projects are new, or significantly improved, laws on various aspects of minority protection, but hardly any improvement to the political culture in local government, which is so crucial for the implementation of these laws. The dilemma here is the following: how can such change in attitudes and behaviour be brought about? Also, who should promote and supervise the deep(er) socialisation once the most influential monitoring powers of the European Commission end (as the country joins the EU) and when the endeavours of the FCNM Advisory Committee are frequently subjected to bilateralisation in the Committee of Ministers? The ‘how’ part of this question would require a separate analysis; therefore I will briefly focus on the latter part of the question.
The issue of monitoring, and the effectiveness of the stick when the carrot of EU membership is still present, applies only to some countries in the ‘Western Balkans’. However, the three eastward EU enlargements offer some food for thought. First, the incomplete socialisation, and the focus on formal rules and norms, may suggest that priority should be given to monitoring the actual behaviour of the candidate countries. This too, however, may be problematic. The perception of double-standards, for candidates and for member states, would not wither away. Eight Council of Europe member states have yet to become state parties to the FCNM, they include four EU member states (Belgium, France, Greece and Luxembourg). Moreover, too many examples of intolerance, and flagrant violations of basic minority rights, can be observed across the EU, for the EU to provide an adequate example of how minorities should be treated by candidates, can be deemed ‘European’, and worthy of the invitation to join the EU.
Secondly, a strict focus on the need to formally change problematic rules also seems misleading. Bosnia-Herzegovina cannot agree on how to implement the equality principle for the ‘Others’ – at the state level and at the level of the entities. Equality and non-discrimination are two fundamental building blocks of any approach to minority protection. However, in Bosnia’s case, this would imply the changing of an international agreement that ended the war, and by doing so, also established and unequal standing between the three constitutive nations and the ‘others’. It also paved the way for an extensive bureaucratic apparatus that has no interest whatsoever in simply abolishing some institutions, including those whose very essence is based on this ethno-national inequality. Since the above-mentioned bottom-up approach is, for the majority of the current political elite, like cutting the very branch on which many comfortably sit, a top-down, more tangible, support system for the existing proposals to resolve inequality will work much better. Since some Bosnian politicians, and the civil society, have done their homework and prepared a set of solutions for this problem, there must be enough political willingness in the EU itself to help Bosnia implement these solutions and thus help it on its way to the EU.

Petra Roter

Petra Roter received her Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge, and is now an Associate Professor of International Relations at the University of Ljubljana, Faculty of Social Sciences. Additionally, she is a member of the Slovenian representation for the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities’ Advisory Committee.

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Greek Minority Values

Does the treatment of Greece''s ethnic Macedonian minority represent EU values?

Let's not talk of "double standards". Instead let's talk of the "rule of law". Is EU membership qualification subject to the rule of law or political expediency?

Discuss how widely this issue has been discussed in the "minority/human rights" media community and in the political circles of Brussels.

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