By Flora Ferati Sachsenmaier, PhD –
In the last four years alone, Serbian authorities have purged more than 4,000 Albanians from the Civil Registry in the municipality of Medvegja in southern Serbia. Planned by the highest political circles and executed by the Serbian Ministry of Interior (MUP), the removal of Albanians from the Civil Registry is precipitating a major humanitarian and political crisis in the Presevo Valley, a predominantly Albanian region along the border with Kosovo.
This removal is systematic, politically motivated, and accomplished by abusing the Law on the Residence of Citizens, which Serbia adopted in 2011. Known also as the “passivization of residential addresses,” this discriminatory measure is disproportionally applied against the Albanian minority in Serbia, particularly in the three municipalities where Albanians vastly outnumber ethnic Serbs.
All the data and facts on the ground suggest that this discriminatory measure is motivated by a Serbian political desire to establish ethnic homogeneity within their borders. By claiming to “check” the validity of the permanent residences of Albanian citizens, Serbian state authorities are effectively deactivating their permanent addresses. In so doing, they strip them of their basic civic rights of citizenship and turn them into stateless people. This is an unheard form of discrimination in Europe today.
When an Albanian’s permanent residential address is “passivized” and removed from the Civil Registry in Serbia, that person has de facto ceased to exist. They cannot renew an expired ID card or passport, register a car, access medical services or social assistance, buy or sell property, or vote in local or general elections.
These are the personal stories of the more than 4,000 Albanians from Medvegja and the 1,000 Albanians from Bujanoc whose lives have been paralyzed through the practice of “passivization of addresses.”
But why would Serbia “passivize” residential addresses of the Albanians in the Presevo Valley en masse in recent years? And why have Tirana and Pristina yet to officially condemn Serbia’s campaign directed against Albanians in the Presevo Valley?
The Case of Medvegja: The Visions of Ethnically Pure Territories Still Popular in Serbia
Located only 65 kilometers northeast of Pristina, the capital city of Kosovo, Medvegja is not a municipality that often comes up in the context of Albanian-Serbian relations. Before the idea of a ‘land swap’ and the announcement of ‘painful compromises,’ which the incumbent president of Kosovo made in 2018, the situation of Albanians in Serbia had been strikingly below the radar of the Western Balkan politics over the past 20 years. However, in order to understand how little Belgrade’s policies have changed towards Albanians – that is, how little Vucic’s Serbia of the 1990s differs from Vucic’s Serbia in 2020 – policymakers and human rights activists only have to look at the municipality of Medvegja.
At the end of the war in Kosovo, there were still over 100,000 Albanians that remained in Serbia (outside Kosovo). As one of the largest autochthonous minorities in Serbia, the Albanians of Medvegja, Bujanoc, and Presheva had endured years of discrimination and political persecution at the hands of the Government of Serbia and Yugoslavia. With the cessation of the armed hostilities in Kosovo, however, the violence and systemic discrimination against ethnic Albanians soared at an unprecedented rate. In 1999, anger over the loss of Kosovo was pronounced in Serbia, and Albanian citizens living in the Presevo Valley were frequently targeted for revenge. Several human rights organizations in Serbia have shown that most of these Albanian citizens were never able to testify about the grave human rights violations and political repression directed against them. Courts at all levels in Serbia often closed these cases before reviewing them, and Serbian politicians and media outlets openly perpetuated anti-Albanian sentiments.
While the position of Albanians of Medvegja has always been difficult, life has become almost impossible in recent years. The reason is the discriminatory practice called “passivization of residential addresses.”
How is Serbia Depopulating Albanians in Medvegja?
In November 2011, Serbia adopted the Law on Residence of the Citizens. Serbian political circles as well as international diplomats in Belgrade welcomed the passage of this law, stressing that, among other things, the law would help to clean up the voter lists. They enthusiastically insisted that the law would prevent vote rigging and Serbian democracy would be strengthened. Little did these international diplomats know that this very law would be turned into a mechanism to remove the Albanians from the Presevo Valley.
According to the Law on Residence of the Citizens in Serbia, Article 18 gives legal grounds to the Serbian Ministry of Interior to perform checks on whether a citizen lives at an officially given address as a permanent residence. The law is somewhat vague about the justification for performing checks on permanent residence, but it is absolutely clear about the consequences if the citizen fails to prove that he or she lives at the registered address. The police officers’ visits to verify the residential addresses are typically unannounced, and if they conclude upon such visits that the citizen no longer lives there, they automatically “passivize” that address.
As an Albanian citizen, you can be undergoing treatment at a hospital somewhere in Serbia, or studying at a university in Kosovo, or you may simply happen to be picking up your child from school— all these facts do not carry weight for the Serbian Ministry of Interior. If the citizen is not “encountered” at the address (which is the official term and counts as a fact), the decision is reached that the Albanian citizen no longer lives at the given permanent address.
Once the permanent address is “passivized,” this information is then transmitted to the Civil Registry which marks “passivized” Albanian citizens as no longer living in Serbia. The Civil Registry then passes on this information to the Electoral Commission of the Republic of Serbia, an institution that is responsible for generating electoral lists, which finally purges all “passivized Albanians” from the electoral lists. With this step, the process of turning native Albanian citizens into de facto foreign citizens in their own hometowns is completed. Serbian state authorities disenfranchised over 4,000 Albanians in Medvegja between 2015 and 2019 using this method, even though these Albanians were in possession of valid personal IDs and could prove that they were living in Medvegja.
How is Serbia Getting Away with Depopulating Albanians from the Presevo Valley?
The cardinal problem with the “passivization of permanent addresses” is that no written decision is issued to prove that an Albanian’s address has been deactivated. In most cases, especially in the past four years, this information is only given orally to the Albanian citizens in Medvegja, Bujanoc, and increasingly in Presheva. According to the citizens’ accounts, they are no longer able to appeal against the decision, nor are they being issued personal IDs or passports. When they approach the Serbian Ministry of Interior for answers, the reply is often “we do not feel obliged to give you any information” and “these are orders from above.”
According to some Albanian citizens, in several cases the Serbian Ministry of Interior did not even perform checks to verify the validity of their permanent addresses. In other words, the authorities “passivized” their permanent addresses without due process of law and by fabricating facts. The results of a recent survey conducted with Albanians from the municipality of Medvegja confirm this. Many of them stated that they learned that they were “passivized” without warning, usually when they went to the doctor, when they went to renew their expired personal ID or passport, or when they went to pay property taxes.
The non-issuance of written decisions documenting the “passivization” of permanent addresses is not a coincidence. It intends to prevent Albanians from initiating legal proceedings against Serbia for gross violations of their rights and systematic discrimination against them on ethnic grounds. It is well known that the courts in Serbia have a consistent record in cases where minority communities sue the Serbian state: they almost always favor Serbian official state policy, and the most common reason they give for ruling against minority groups is a lack of sufficient evidence. This desperate situation has pushed Albanians in the Presevo Valley to take up temporary residence in Belgrade or Novi Sad just to be able to register their car or get a new passport. Unlike the municipalities where they were born, in Novi Sad and Belgrade they receive new personal and travel documents without any problems. This all indicates that “passivization” of permanent addresses is widespread and limited to the three municipalities where Albanians constitute an overwhelming majority population.
One standard answer that Serbian state authorities like to give is that “passivization” of Albanians is justified as most of them no longer live in Medvegja. They have moved to Kosovo, they conveniently maintain, without providing further details. However, this is hardly an argument and details are everything. First, Albanians in Medvegja have to spend part of their time in Kosovo because they can only obtain primary and secondary education in Albanian language in their home municipality. If they have to choose between studying in Belgrade or Pristina, many of them will naturally gravitate towards Pristina. This is a matter of language as much as a need to study in a safe environment. Are they being punished for the right to pursue higher education in Kosovo?
Second, Serbian state authorities like to maintain that some Albanians moved to work abroad and their addresses have been therefore “passivized.” But aren’t the Serbs of Medvegja also working on a temporary basis across Europe? Why aren’t their permanent addresses being deactivated? The voter list clearly reveals this double standard: Serbs from Medvegja studying elsewhere in Serbia or working abroad do not get their permanent addresses “passivized,” nor are they being deleted from the voter lists – but Albanians are, en masse.
Political Consequences of the Depopulation of Albanians from Presevo Valley?
Discrimination through the “passivization” of permanent residential addresses has been fatal for the Albanian community in Medvegja and is causing a deep humanitarian and political crisis. More and more “passivized” people with health conditions such as cancer are being denied treatment at health facilities even though they have valid IDs and health insurance. Furthermore, citizens whose ID cards or passports expire are no longer able to renew them. The sense of personal insecurity is felt in all realms of life.
Since September 2019, Albanians in Medvegja are no longer part of the local government due to the “passivization” of their permanent residential addresses. In the last local elections, they won only three seats in the municipal assembly as the direct result of “passiviation” policies. In terms of political representation, the vision to establish an ethnically pure Serbian municipality in Medvegje materialized in September 2019. Even in the previous municipal elections four years earlier, some prominent Serbian politicians spoke about such visions without reservation. For instance, following the 2015 election results, Nebojsa Stefanovic, Serbia’s Minister of Interior and the deputy leader of Aleksandar Vucic’s party (The Serbian Progressive Party), declared triumphantly: “This election result proves that Medvegja is a Serbian municipality” and “efforts to bring Albanians with buses and without valid documents from Kosovo to vote in Medvegja were stopped.” The truth was that Albanian citizens had valid documents but their right to vote was taken away through the “passivization” of their permanent addresses.
Despite this systematic discrimination of Albanians in Medvegja and the Presevo Valley, neither Pristina nor Tirana have issued official statements about the ongoing discrimination directed against Albanians in the region.
Under the condition of anonymity, some well-informed international diplomats have stated that this may be part of the plan for a “land swap” between Kosovo and Serbia, where parts of the Presevo Valley join Kosovo and parts of northern Kosovo join Serbia. They maintain that Medvegja was never part of the secret plan for “land swap” even though the incumbent President of Kosovo and his political allies in Albania have been championing the idea in general. Though they have been trying to convince the public that the entire Presevo Valley would join Kosovo, the facts on the ground show just the opposite. In any case, the incumbent President of Kosovo and the Prime Minister of Albania have been silent about the removal of Albanians from the region through the practice of “passivization.”
However, they may not be silent for much longer. The coming months and years will prove that the depopulation of the Albanians in the Presevo Valley has been a mechanism to undermine the statehood of Kosovo. All of this will become clear when Belgrade and Pristina sit down to talk about property issues in the framework of Chapter 35, the most important chapter in the negotiation for Serbian membership in the EU, and which deals with the normalization of relations between Kosovo and Serbia. In the meantime, the Albanians and Serbs of Medvegja who traditionally had rather harmonious relations, partly because they depended on each other for economic survival, are living in an apartheid-like reality.