Oct 21, 2011

Greek Minority in Albania: Lack of Minority Protection Stalls EU Accession

The current census in Albania will penalize minority groups for recognizing their nationality.  Deputies of both the European Parliament and the United States Congress have stated their concern that this caveat in Albania’s census law delegitimizes the long-awaited census and have called for the penalties to be lifted.  The minority community has stated that unless amended, they will not participate.

Below is an article published by New Europe:

Not only has this past week been busy for the European Commission's enlargement policy, witnessing the granting of EU candidacy status to Serbia and opening the accession negotiations with Montenegro, this year [2011] has also seen progress made in this area. Croatia has successfully closed accession negotiation talks and negotiations and Iceland's accession procedure has made headway. Although it has also been reported that progress has been made in the Western Balkans, including Albania, issues of human rights seem to be a major issue that stands in the way of progressing with the accession procedure.

The disconnect between the political reality of Albania and the true will of becoming a member of the EU recently came to the surface with the population census that commenced on 1 October 2011. In a country where officially, only 2.8% of the population is made up of ethnic minorities, originating from Greece, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonian, and Serbia, the Albanian legislature recently amended Law 10442 to include those declaring a nationality different to that entered in the Albanian state registers will face fines up to €1000. The law also allows for imprisonment of Albanians who refuse to declare an ethnicity or response to the census. Related to this, in May 2011, Albania changed the format of its civil status certificates; these no longer include the notion of "nationality" or ethnicity of individuals, but only their citizenship. This has created a backlash in the international arena because according to international human rights standards, ethnic minorities have the right to select the ethnic identity of their choice without fear of retribution or punishment when a country conducts a population consensus.

In a letter sent to Albanian President Bamir Topi , U.S. Congressman James McGovern, also Co-Chairman of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, urged to “ensure that ethnic minorities will be able to freely communicate their ethnicity based on their own individual determination and that they not be penalized for doing so” for the census. He delicately pointed out that many “many minorities today possess birth certificates that inaccurately indicate Albanian ethnicity” due to the long Communist regime “attempting to eradicate religious and cultural diversity.” In relation to the law relating to nationality change allowing thousands of citizens to recover the nationality which the authorities had forced them to relinquish under the Hoxha dictatorship, the Albanian Constitutional Court recently ruled it unconstitutional. However, the Albanian government responded in amending Law 10422 to include penalties indirectly aimed at ethnic minorities. Following the amendment to the law, minority organizations in Albania announced that they will refuse to take part in the census. In a joint-statement released by Greek, Serb, and FYROM organization representatives, “the questionnaire does not guarantee the ability to identify the officially recognized minority in the country and is not issued in the native languages of minorities.”  Greek MEPs Marietta Giannakou (PPE) and Ioannis Tsoukalas (PPE) submitted a formal question for written answer to the Commission asking it what view it has and what measures it is willing to take to in protecting the minorities, since the census is also receiving EU funding. They state that the amended law penalizing minorities for exercising their right “effectively undermines any freedom of expression regarding ethnic origin and hence the validity of the population census in Albania, which has been awaited for decades.”

If Albania is serious about becoming a fully-fledged member of the EU, steps have to be taken in the protection of minorities, and this census is not a positive step forward. The Albanian Minister of Foreign Affairs Besnik Mustafaj boldly stated in an interview given to newspaper Panorama, that if Albanian proceeds with this census, “it will paint a dark picture of itself on an international scale. It will create the total opposite effect that the government wants to have in relation to international relations with this census. All of the diplomacy work that has been made for the benefit of the country's international image will be lost.” In other words, proceeding with the census, Albania will completely undermine the right to self-determination of its citizens, which will in effect, undermine the efforts put forth for EU membership.