By Biljana Pekusic
Ethnic Albanians from the three municipalities in southern Serbia, Presevo, Bujanovac and Medvedja are holding a series of protests against what they say is continued discrimination, especially over the past six years. The next one is scheduled for November 28th.
Riza Haljimi, the only Albanian deputy in the Serbian parliament, says progress in achieving rights ended with the 2003 assassination of then Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic.
“It all stopped; so for a long time we’ve lived in a kind of ghetto,” Haljimi, chairman of the Party for Democratic Action, tells SETimes.
Two demonstrations were held within the past several weeks, one on September 13th and the other a week later. The September 20th rally drew about 1,500 people. Protestors demanded that pupils in elementary and secondary schools be provided textbooks in Albanian, as well as for Serbia to recognise diplomas issued by Pristina University.
Serbian textbooks are not translated into Albanian and the use of textbooks from Pristina is prohibited. As a result, around 12,000 students lack materials in their native language. The only approved spelling book is from Albania, with parts heavily edited.
“For example, the Albanian spelling-book had “beautiful city Pristina”, but this was changed to “beautiful city Nis” [accompanied by] the image of Skull Tower — for Serbs the symbol of crimes from the time of the Turkish Ottoman Empire,” Jonuz Musliu, president of the Assembly of Bujanovac tells SETimes.
Frustrated by the lack of progress, Musliu resigned two months ago as member of the Co-ordination Body for South Serbia.
Serbian Minister of Education and Science Zarko Obradovic tells SETimes he believes that in Bujanovac, Presevo and Medvedja, much has been accomplished to improve Albanians’ access to education.
“The problems in education are not the real reason for Albanian protests in southern Serbia and education should not be misused for political purposes,” Obradovic tells SETimes.
The nationalist opposition in Serbia is also suspicious.
“It’s the same strategy as the Albanians in Kosovo had in the 1980s, behind which are political intentions,” Serbian Radical Party Vice-President Dragan Todorovic tells SETimes.
However, the Serbian government’s Co-ordination Body for Presevo, Bujanovac and Medvedja believes that the protests are not without justification.
The head of the Co-ordination Body, Minister for State and Local Administration and Minority Rights Milan Markovic, says it has invested significant resources in the development of the three Albanian municipalities. However, he adds, there are serious issues remaining and it is time for the education ministry to address them.
“If we do not provide Albanians the rights that apply to other national minorities in Serbia, we will be in a position where 60,000 members of these communities are not integrated into the institutions,” Markovic told SETimes. “At some point this can become a huge problem.”
Young people in Serbia seem to know little about the problems of their peers in the south.
“I do not know what language their books are, but I think they should be in Serbian, as it is the official language of our country,” Belgrade high school student Vladimir Spasic tells SETimes.