Proclamation designating both Albanian and Serbian with equality status of official languages in Kosovo sets a bar high for Kosovo’s institutions in regard to the protection of linguistic rights. In addition to repeatedly cited financial and personnel constraints, the difficulties in accomplishing bilingualism in Kosovo also derive from rarely admitted reluctance to its implementation, as well as from an inadequate understanding of its exact meaning.
Respecting the linguistic right of minority groups is one of the basic achievements which each society striving towards democratic standards ought to provide. The right to the use of minority language enables a certain ethnical community to safeguard its own identity, while concurrently facilitating the broad social and political inclusion for its members. However, the standards for the protection of minority languages do not by itself constitute a sufficient framework for defining the position of Serbian language in Kosovo. The Serbian language in Kosovo is not a minority language, but a lesser represented official language.
Unlike the protection of minority languages which is found as an international standard, official multilingualism is less frequently encountered in the comparative practice. Official or institutional multilingualism reflects the determination of a particular society to safeguard its historically grounded multilingual identity, as well as to provide stable relations between ethnical and linguistic communities of whom that given society is comprised of. Official multilingualism on the national level exists in Finland, Belgium, Ireland, Malta, Switzerland and Canada, while on the subnational level multilingualism can be found in specific regions of Spain and Italy.
It is exactly the role of institutional multilingualism in managing the complex interethnic relations that comes into play in the context of Kosovo. Official bilingualism in Kosovo is affirmed by the Law on the Use of Languages (2006), Ahtisaari Plan (2007) and by the Constitution (2008). Acknowledging equality status of the Serbian language with the Albanian language falls under the guarantee package which was offered to the Serbian side in connection to Kosovo’s declaration of independence. The purpose of those guarantees was to persuade the Serbian side to accept new circumstances in Kosovo in exchange for the “highest level of protection” that one minority, that is a non-majority community, could enjoy. As a matter of fact, even the choice of the adjective “non-majority” in lieu of “minority” represented a semantical gesture towards the Serbian community, to whom it was meant to reassure that it would never be considered as a “minority” in Kosovo.
The guarantees in regard to linguistic rights, which were given to the Serbian community on paper had as a goal to reassure it in its viable future in Kosovo. Hence the intricacy of this issue is reflected in the importance that it carries for the stability of ethnic relations. The main purpose of the bilingualism is to safeguard the rights of the Serbian community in Kosovo and to dispel any worries that it might be exposed to assimilation. As such, it largely depends on the respect of linguistic rights, to what extent the members of the Serbian community, as well as other non-majority communities whose language resembles with the Serbian language, will feel like an equal member of Kosovan society.
When a certain level of government acknowledges the official status of only one language, then members of minority communities are granted with the right to use their own language only in certain public affairs. In case that equal use of multiple official languages exists, the institutions are under the obligation to provide all public services in all official languages. This in practice implies that the institutions are under the obligation to ensure that all decisions related to the wide population, above all legal acts, are concurrently published in all official languages. However, examples of deviation from this practice in Kosovo are numerous. This can be corroborated by the recent conduct of the respective institutions during the pandemic crisis, considering that certain decisions and notifications related to the preventive measures for the protection of public health or restriction of the movement were published in the Albanian language, whereas the due translation in the Serbian language was either delayed or completely absent. As a direct consequence of such institutional conduct, Serbian speaking citizens were subjected to risk of being sanctioned for violating measures about which they could not be informed in a timely and precise fashion.
When considering communication between individuals and institutions, official bilingualism purports that institutions are under the obligation to serve citizens in the official language to their choice. The right to choose an official language, hence, is at the discretion of the citizens rather than institutions. Nevertheless, institutions in Kosovo often consider having fulfilled their duties with the rationale that they provided with the information in one of the official languages while placing the burden on the citizens to request the translation. For members of the Serbian community, it is especially inconvenient when courts behave in a similar fashion, with the decisions and judgments being rendered in the Albanian language. Due to short deadlines for submitting a notice of appeal, members of the Serbian community in those cases are compelled to choose between renouncing their linguistic rights or the rights to legal remedies.
The degree up to which bilingualism is officially realized will also determine the level of equality of citizens when interacting with the government institutions. Institutions should not favour any of the official languages, but are instead expected to undertake additional efforts to safeguard the use of a lesser represented official language. Taking into account that the translation of official documents is frequently unavailable in the Serbian language, or is of poor quality, members of Serbian and other non-majority communities often find themselves in a disadvantaged position. In the spirit of bilingualism, institutions are therefore obliged to put a greater effort into promoting the use of Serbian language as a lesser represented official language. Accordingly, the equality of citizens in realizing a series of rights such as access to public information or public services and justice concurrently will be secured.
In order to achieve the practical implementation of bilingualism, it is necessary that a given society fosters a conducive climate for its realization. Luckily, occasionally shortage of political will for its practical implementation is often compensated by the citizens’ own will. The main pillar of bilingualism in Kosovo is not constituted by translators’ personnel, nor budgetary allocations for translation or even software solutions. Instead, the achieved level of bilingualism in Kosovo primarily relies on civil servants in municipal, judicial and other institutions from Albanian community who fluently speak Serbian language and gladly use in order to help their fellow citizens from Serbian community in the realization of their rights.
Unfortunately, time does not work in favour of bilingualism in Kosovo. With emerging new generations, the number of people who fluently speak both official languages is gradually decreasing. The shortage of cadre of translators will be higher in the future, unless the solution is sought for with the involvement of the educational system. In order to achieve this, all communities in Kosovo should embrace the fact that multilingual character of Kosovo does not constitute an unpopular compromise but rather its asset, and that the promotion of linguistic rights and mutual learning of languages of are the enriching experience for all individuals and the society as a whole.
The author is manager of “Creating Bilingual Kosovo” project at NGO AKTIV.