The politics of numbers and identity in Albania

Gezim Krasniqi
The politics of numbers and identity

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There has been new and often heated debate in Albania over issues of nationality (ethnic affiliation), sparked by both the use of the term in legal and civil registers, and by the October 2011 Census. Although official statistics have suggested that Albania is one of the most homogenous countries in the region (with an over 97 per cent Albanian majority) minority groups (such as Greeks, Macedonians, Montenegrins, Roma and Vlachs/Aromanians) have often questioned the official data, claiming a larger share in the country’s population. Albania recognises Greeks, Macedonians and Montenegrins as national minorities, whereas Roma and Vlachs/Aromanians are recognised as ethno-linguistic minorities. Both linguistic and national minorities are recognised under the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities (FCNM), which entered into force in Albania in 2000.

The 2011 Census was the first overall one in post-communist Albania, and has caused a lot of controversy. The questionnaire used for the October 2011 Census, which was carried out by the Albanian Institute of Statistics (INSTAT), for the first time included questions on linguistic and ethnic affiliation of respondents thus enabling everyone to declare (if they wished to do so) their religion and ethnicity. However, this did not satisfy everyone.

Although the inclusion of questions on ethnicity and language in the census questionnaire was a longstanding demand of Albania’s minorities, some of them opposed the census on the grounds that it would be biased and would not reflect their actual numbers. One of most problematic issues for some minority representatives, especially the Greek ones, was the amendment of the Law on Census (Law No. 10 442, date 7.7.2011) by the Albanian parliament in 2011. Article 8, paragraph 3 stipulates that data collected from the census will not be used for any voters’ register, updating of any civil status register or any other administrative register. In other words, the gathered data will be used only for the purposes of the census and will be treated with confidentiality according to the law. On the other hand, according to article 20, paragraph 1, any refusal to declare or false declaration would be fined (ca. €700). This raised fears among minority communities that in the registration process they would have to show proofs of their ethnic origin, something that infringes upon their right to freely declare (self-declaration principle) their ethnic and religious affiliation.

As a result, the main Greek organisation, OMONIA, and the Greek minority party, PBDNJ, has called for Greeks in Albania to boycott the census. But not all the Greek representatives are of the same opinion. Greek politicians who are members of the Albanian parliament and government have invited their co-ethnics to answer the call for registration; according to them, that is the only way they will improve their position within the state (read more here). Greek politicians in Albania became involved in these debates too. The Greek consul in Korça was reported to have called on Albanians and Vlachs/Aromanians in the city to register as Greeks in the upcoming national census, a call that was considered provocative by Albanian politicians (read more here).

On the other hand, many Albanian intellectuals, political parties and other organisations have expressed their concern about the political implications of the inclusion of ethnic and religious affiliation in the questionnaire. According to them, this might be exploited by Greece, which has been offering pensions and travel benefits to Albanian citizens who declare themselves Greeks. Increasing the size of the Greek minority would allow Greece to extend a territorial claim to the southern part of Albania

It is certainly true that Greece regards Greeks from Albania (which in Greece are referred to as Greeks from ‘Northern Epirus’) as homogeneis, meaning individuals of Greek origin and consciousness (read more here). Since 1991, they have been able to receive a ‘Special Identity Card of Homogeneis’ (Eidiko Deltio Tautotitas Omogenous), which also provides for preferential treatment by the Greek authorities compared to other Albanians. The advantages of this include permanent residential status in Greece, access to work permits and special benefits for social security, health and education. Since 1991, the Greek state has granted this status to some 200,000 Albanian citizens, including ethnic Greeks as well as Albanians (mainly those of orthodox religion) and Vlachs; many have already acquired Greek citizenship (read more here). This has resulted in an increased number of ethnic Albanians who demand their ‘nationality’ (i.e. ethnic affiliation) to be changed in the civil registers and other legal documents. In fact, the Albanian Law on Civil Status (Law Nr. 10129, date 11.5.2009) allows for a change of nationality by a court decision in those cases where ‘nationality was determined temporally or in case of material mistake’. Based on this clause, some 4,000 people have filed applications for change of nationality by a court decision (read more here).

The Albanian courts have not been slow to react. In March 2011 a number of District Courts in Albania decided to suspend all nationality change requests amid suspected violations in the process (read more here). Then, on 26 April 2011, the heads of three District Courts in Albania (Shkodër, Sarandë and Përmet) requested that the Constitutional Court of Albania should declare null and void articles 6 (para 1), 8, 42 (para 2, (e)) and 58 of the Law 10129 on Civil Status. The applicants claimed that inclusion of ‘nationality’ in the civil registers and birth certificate, as well as change of ‘nationality’ by court’s decision violate articles 16/1, 17, 19, 20 and 35 of the Albanian Constitution which stipulate that Albanian citizens can not be forced to declare their ‘nationality’. In December 2011, the Constitutional Court granted the request, by six votes to two. According to the Court’s decision, the presence of the category ‘nationality’ in civil registers and other legal documents violates article 20, paragraph 1 of the Constitution which states that persons belonging to national minorities ‘have the right to freely express, without prohibition or compulsion [my emphasis], their ethnic, cultural, religious and linguistic belonging’.

Although the census was carried out in October 2011, debates and controversies over the content of the questionnaire, its inclusiveness and efficacy, as well as eventual future political implications still persist. One might expect that current debates will only become more heated once the results are published (so far INSTAT has published only preliminary results). Notwithstanding the final results, the decision of the Constitutional Court to make the category ‘nationality’ unconstitutional in legal and civil registers has also fed these debates. In addition, it has united Albania’s minority representatives, who came together to sign a joint declaration saying that they do not recognise the results of the October census and to announce that they will pursue a lawsuit at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg following Albania's Constitutional Court ruling (read more here). Moreover, the Greek organisation OMONIA recently made public its plans to carry out its separate registration of the Greek minority (read more here).

These ongoing debates in Albania follow the ones in Macedonia where the census was stopped last October due to irregularities in the field, as well as disagreements between the Macedonian and Albanian members of the commission (read more here). Undoubtedly they attest to the highly volatile nature of politics of numbers and identity in the Balkans.