15 December 2008 – Taking its cue from the Ahtisaari plan, Kosovo adopts laws that safeguard Serbs while leaving other ethnic communities out in the cold.

It’s been like a mantra for U.S. and European Union politicians and international scholars since Kosovo declared its independence in February:  Thanks to the status settlement proposal developed by UN envoy Martti Ahtisaari, the new state’s constitution and legislation fulfill the highest international standards for protection and promotion of minorities.

The latest iteration of this chorus came from EU foreign ministers at their latest meeting on 8-9 December, when they praised the progress made in Kosovo, “particularly with the adoption of a number of important laws.”

All these politicians and scholars seem to be of the opinion that only Albanians and Serbs live in Kosovo. For them, minority protection and promotion is synonymous with granting privileges to Kosovo Serbs, thus maintaining the chimera of a multiethnic Kosovo.

They forget that other minority groups live in Kosovo too – Roma, Ashkali, Egyptians, Bosniaks, Gorani, Croats, Circassians – and collectively they outnumber the Serbs. Neither the constitution nor the new statutes properly protect and promote these groups’ needs and concerns, and in some cases have served to worsen their legal situation.

The roots of the problem go directly to the Ahtisaari proposal, which constitutes the bible for the Kosovo government and institutions such as the International Civilian Office (ICO), which oversees implementation of the plan. Whatever its merits as a tool for securing Kosovo’s independence and smoothing coexistence between Albanians and Serbs, Ahtisaari’s blueprint ignored the larger mandate of guaranteeing equal protection under the law for all Kosovars.

Rights … on paper

In February 2008, the Kosovo Assembly adopted a new law on local self-government which pledges to pay “due regard particularly to the specific needs and concerns of the non-majority communities.” One could add: “on paper.”

The new law omitted several issues relevant to ethnic communities that had been present in the previous version – for example, requirements that municipalities establish a “community office” and ensure proportional representation in civil services and offices.

The deletion of these stipulations may have considerable consequences, especially in conjunction with a new law on local elections that does not
contain any provisions on guaranteed political participation for ethnic communities.

Then there is the local government finance law, which introduces a system for the allocation of grants municipalities receive from the state budget. Under the law, these grants shall “provide an adequate allocation of resources for the non-majority communities in the respective municipalities.”

But the law’s fine print seems designed to deny or depress such allocation. Appendix 1, which provides data on the minority population of each municipality, asserts there is not a single resident belonging to an ethnic minority in South Mitrovica, which is in fact home to more than 800 Roma and Ashkali as well as a few hundred Turks and Bosniaks. The same is said of Mamusha, where Roma not only live but are represented in the municipal assembly.

In many other municipalities with sizable non-Serb minority communities, the number of ethnic minorities is considerably undercounted. Such  omission or reduction of minority numbers will make it difficult to facilitate an adequate allocation of resources for those communities.

The citizenship law and an envisaged census are further areas of concern, as they do not take into account the specific situation of the Roma, Ashkali, and Egyptians living as rejected asylum seekers in Western Europe or as nonregistered internally displaced persons in Serbia. Under the citizenship law Roma forcibly repatriated from Western Europe could end up stateless upon their return to Kosovo.

How is it possible that the Kosovo Assembly approves laws seemingly tailored to minimize minority protection, and that the ICO and the embassies of the United States and the European Union members do not object to them?

The answer is simple: The laws do not contradict the Ahtisaari plan, and do not endanger the privileges it provides to Kosovo Serbs.

The fact that Serbs do not live in either South Mitrovica or Mamusha might explain why the assembly determined that there are no minorities in these municipalities, and why the international institutions raised no fuss.

The overwhelming majority of Kosovo Serbs will live in “municipalities with enhanced competences” which they fully control; they don’t need additional affirmative measures. Roma, Ashkali, and Egyptians, on the other hand, do not have any guaranteed right to participate in decision-making processes at the local level, and lost the guarantee of a community office to which they could address their concerns.

Unsettling amendments

Another newly-revised law also implicitly mandates different treatment of non-Serb minority groups, specifically with regard to the “informal settlements” that are home to many of the more than 100,000 Roma, Ashkali, and Egyptian refugees and internally displaced persons in Kosovo. The language of the amended spatial-planning law adopted last month makes no reference to regularizing informal settlements or integrating them into surrounding communities. This despite the fact that:

● in 2005 Kosovo signed the Vienna Declaration on Informal Settlements in South Eastern Europe, the first objective of which is “to commonly agree
on actions that will regularise (legalise) and improve informal settlements
in a sustainable way”‘

● under the outgoing UN administration of Kosovo, the guidelines of the Ministry of Environment and Spatial Planning listed the goal of integrating informal settlements;

● the pre-independence government adopted the European Partnership
Action Plan regulating cooperation between Kosovo and the EU, which called for local authorities to include informal settlements in urban plans and the central administration to design and implement a Kosovo-wide strategy for regularizing them.

In addition, the law’s newly introduced definition of informal settlements contradicts internationally accepted definitions, in a way that opens avenues to ignoring the needs and rights of Roma, Ashkali, and Egyptian communities.

The Vienna declaration, for example, defines informal settlements as
“human settlements, which for a variety of reasons do not meet requirements for legal recognition (and have been constructed without respecting formal procedures of legal ownership, transfer of ownership, as well as construction and urban planning regulations) … mainly characterised by informal or insecure land tenure, inadequate access to basic services, both social and physical infrastructure and housing finance.”

There are neighborhoods all over Kosovo that were built outside the bounds of “construction and urban planning regulations” and “without
respecting formal procedures of legal ownership,” and thus would meet the
Vienna definition. The new Kosovo law adds an economic component,
characterizing an informal settlement as a place “which does not enable the inhabitants to enjoy the appropriate living standard, respectively appropriate accommodation.”

The law thus limits the definition to poor settlements – that is, to Roma, Ashkali, and Egyptian settlements – and contains no stated mandate to
regularize them. This would certainly make it easier to get rid of such
settlements in pursuit of other development options, and circumvent Roma, Ashkali, and Egyptians’ right of return to the homes from which they were driven by Kosovo Albanians in 1999.

This legal right of return does exist for these groups – again, on paper. However, with regard to Roma and Ashkali from the Roma Mahala section
of Mitrovica – also partly an informal settlement – authorities have strictly applied the regulation that returnees obtain documents from cadastral records to prove ownership of property. Without those records, they cannot rebuild their houses. For other communities, it has been common practice in recent years to accept other evidence of ownership, such as witness statements or electricity bills.

The consequence for Mahala returnees: Only a few scattered houses have
been rebuilt, and the re-establishment of a lively, sustainable neighborhood has been prevented.

Local autonomy, access to state grants, action on informal settlements, right of return: all issues in which Kosovo government practice and even law enshrine unequal treatment of Roma, Ashkali, Egyptians and other communities. One can speculate on the possible reasons for both local action and international inaction: racism, lack of awareness, fear that affairs in Kosovo will become even more complicated if something other the needs and concerns of Albanians and Serbs is considered.

Author: Stephan Mueller

Source: Transitions online