25. March. 2019. | 9:49

The role of language in preserving identity in the context of language rights among minority communities in Kosovo

In the aftermath of conflict, Kosovo adapted institutional mechanisms for the integration of its minority population through the creation a wholly new system of governance.  The principle of citizenship is accentuated by the Ahtisaari plan, without the prominence of any one ethnic group. This new social framework is presented as a symbolic assemblage of various ethnic communities who at the same time maintain and nurture their uniqueness.   At the center of an endeavor on the part certain ethnic groups to maintain their identity is the institutional protection of language(s) that their members speak.  The constitution of Kosovo and the Law on the Use of Languages (2006) offer robust safeguards for this right.  Kosovo is defined as a political system under which both the Albanian and the Serbian languages enjoy equal status as official languages (Article I.)  Likewise, minority communities who make up at least 5% of the total population in a given area are granted the right for their language to be in official usage at the municipal level, with the exception of the Turkish language in Prizren that enjoys that prominence regardless of the actual size of Turkish population (Article 2.)  Languages of communities that make up more than 3% of the population of a municipality are granted the right to official use and parity with official languages (Article 2.)

There are a number of reasons that such sensitivity was demonstrated towards minority languages.  Firstly, it was a product of the intentions on the part international actors to normatively constitute the most inclusive system possible for minorities.  Its contentious status at the time of the constitution’s design created an additional obligation for Kosovo authorities to neutralize Albanian domination in the social sphere and to emphasize the state’s multiethnic character in line with the Ahtisaari plan.  Likewise, affirmative action mechanisms for all ethnicities was an attempt to make a clean break from a recent history of discrimination against the Albanian community. In the end, for the remaining Serbs in Kosovo as well as for a large number of non-Albanian displaced persons, this was a message that the newly –founded governing system was ready to safeguard their rights.

Although the Language Commission was formed as early as 2008, actual monitoring of the implementation of the Law on the Use of Languages only began in 2012 with the issuing of a government regulation on the establishment of the Language Commissioner. The mandate of the Office of the Language Commissioner (OLC) is to observe the extent to which the law is respected, to mediate the resolution of complaints made by legal entities and individuals, to give recommendations, and to advise or offer support in the goal of achieving consistent application of the right to language use.  The Commissioner has the right to conduct investigations into reported violations, and, in the absence of a consensual resolution, to impose penalties for non-compliance with the Law on the Use of Languages (Mandate, OLC.)  In carrying out its mandate, the OLC offers support to the Language Policy Board that is made up of twenty (20) members of institutions and the Language Policy Network that is comprised of contact points and interpreters.  According its last available report, the OLC’s activities were geared towards the unification of driving licenses, the resolution of disputes with the Central Electoral Commission that stem from the fact that information exclusively in the Albanian language, and the creation of mechanisms for monitoring the work of municipalities (OLC, Report 2017.)  The report points to the disinterest of institutions in the implementation of the Law on the Use of Languages and the continued repetition of similar incidences of violations despite the fact that those mistakes had been repeatedly noted in the past (2017:22.)  The OLC also worked on the continued observation of the process of adopting drafts of normative acts, which is of particular importance given that according to the Law on the Use of Languages, the Albanian and the Serbian versions of any legislation are equally authoritative when it comes to their interpretation (Articles 2 and 5.)  Considering that every correction to translations have to go through procedures to alter and amend existing laws, poor translations of legal code(s) can directly influence citizens and their institutional rights.  An analysis of nine (9) laws conducted by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) identified 49 errors that can lead to varying or completely opposing interpretations of a single law in its two different translations, something that renders court proceedings especially difficult (OSCE, Bilingual Legislation, 2018: 12.)

Research conducted by Demaj and Vandenbroucke in and around Pristina found that in Kosovo’s capital city, multilingualism exists only on the signs of official institutions.  Although there exist inscriptions that are only in Albanian or in English, not a single marking was identified exclusively in the Serbian language.  Moreover, despite the supposed equality of the Serbian and Albanian languages and the parity in the use of their respective scripts (Cyrillic is defined as the official alphabet of the Serbian language), the only Cyrillic inscription to be found was on the building of the Constitutional Court (Demaj and Vandenrboucke, 2015:814.)

In an OSCE report on the use of languages at the municipal level it was established that in the majority of local administrations, signs are not posted in both languages.  Members of minority communities face difficulties in exercising their linguistic rights, something that manifests itself in the hardships they encounter in attempting to communicate with local authorities in their mother tongue. The number of state employees who have knowledge of a non-majority language is limited and even for those that do, it is questionnable whether or not their linguistic competence allows for them to produce official translations of documents, whether they be records of meetings or municipal legal acts and proclamations (OSCE, 2014: 24.)

Although the legal framework allows for very broad usage of the languages of all minority communities “society remains divided along linguistic lines, creating a rift between multi-lingual laws and a mono-lingual population” (Demaj and Vendenbroucke, 2015: 809.)    The modest steps taken in the implementation of language rights are the consequences of three crucial factors:  The first is a general lack of funds, infrastructure and qualified personnel for the achievement of an overriding goal to accommodate linguistic differences.  The second relates to a lack of political will on the part of government representatives that result from confrontational relations with Serbia regarding Kosovo’s final status, to not only grant the Serbian language full official status and equal representation but also to ensure its correct usage.  An example that illustrates this is a meeting of the Parliamentary Commission for Legislation that was held in 2015 during which representative Albulena Haxhija, claiming that Serbian representatives had the intention to destroy the Kosovo state under orders from Belgrade, refused to consider Srpska Lista’s recommendation because the Assembly logo was written in Cyrillic (ECMI, Kosovo, Communities Issues Monitor, 2015.)  Ultimately, and despite protective legislation, the fact that after the conflict North Mitrovica remains the one urban area in Kosovo with a significant Serb populace has had direct consequences for the prevalence of the Serbian language in the public sphere.

The right to language use is not merely a question of identity. After the conflict, its political contextualization has had two manifestations: a) The “other’s” identity presents itself as a danger to the state-building process b) the identity of the “other” can, over time, be re-defined or assimilated.  Due to the existence of two wholly separate Serbian (that operates according to the Serbian Education Ministry’s curriculum and program) and Kosovo educational systems, a situation has developed in which minorities have aligned themselves with one or the other structure according to the language they speak. Goranis, Croats, Bosniaks (for higher education) and Serbian-speaking Roma enroll their students in Serbian-language schools, while Ashkali, Egyptians, Bosniaks (for primary and secondary education) in schools operating in their mother tongue but under the auspices of the Kosovo Education Ministry (Božić, 2016:284.)  It is notable that, despite the fact that authorities in Pristina developed educational programs in Croatian, Bosnian and Serbian, their communities have yet to accept full integration into the Kosovo educational system.

A particularly sensitive question is the preservation of the identity of the Gorani population, the majority of whom attend school in Serbian because they (the schools) do not deny their distinctiveness, even though their ‘unofficial’ našinski language is heavily influenced by Serbian, Macedonian and Bulgarian.  The Bosniak community views Gorani as being part of their national ‘body’ who have yet to achieve national self-consciousness and seeks to instigate a process of homogenization and integration into their community through Bosnian-language programs and influence on local government authorities (Božić, 2016:277.)

Combative relations prevent citizens of any ethnic group in Kosovo from confronting issues that dominate societal culture.  The new demographic reality indicates a discrepancy between the normative protection and the actual representation of languages at the national and the local level.  Although Albanian is only one of two languages that enjoys official status, it is nonetheless the dominant means of communication in Kosovo.  Due to both political reasons and questions of identity, a large majority of members of minority communities have not, up until now, demonstrated a readiness to learn and use the Albanian language. Despite inclusive legislation that grants the Serbian language official status, it remains, alongside other minority languages, confined to enclaves while the Albanian language has become the foundation for post-conflict societal (multi) culture.

This situation is heavily influenced by an educational system in which, for the past 30 years, neither Albanian nor Serbian students have studied both languages.  A society with two official languages still necessitates an inter-cultural understanding that is grounded in bilingual learning, despite the existence of separate educational systems.  As the result of decades of segregation, the population of a majority of communities in Kosovo has lost the multi-lingual characteristics for which it was once known (Demaj & Vandenbroucke, 2015: 810.) Feride Lohaj sees an innovative solution in the employment of the English language, which will be in official usage in Kosovo as long as the UN Mandate lasts.  According to her, English has shifted from having a function of prestige and reflective of a desire for employment abroad to becoming the principle means of communication among the younger generations of various ethnic groups (Lohaj, 2018:1675.)  Similarly, Demaj and Vandenbroucke note that in Pristina’s urban core, English has overtaken Serbian’s position as a second official language (2015:815.)  However, despite its political neutrality, it is an open question as to whether or not the widespread use of English would serve to foment intercultural understanding and to assuage a widespread feeling that the identity of minority communities is endangered.

Stefan Surlić


The content of this publication is the responsibility of NGO AKTIV and in no way reflects the position of the Embassy of the Kingdom of Norway.