On June 6th, sixteen national minorities in Serbia will hold direct elections for their respective Minority National Councils (MNCs), which function as the principle representatives of minority communities throughout Serbia.

Thanks to a new law on National Councils of Ethnic Minorities passed last year, MNCs will now enjoy a clearer legal and operational framework – particularly with respect to their authorities, competencies, finances and electoral processes – which it is hoped will contribute to strengthening their legitimacy, role and standing. As Elvira Kovacs, president of the Women's Forum of the Alliance of Vojvodina Hungarians, emphasizes, “the Minority National Councils, the so-called minority self-governments, will be able to independently decide on issues regarding the use of minority language, education, culture and public information of a national minority”. For instance, MNCs will be empowered to draft school programmes, review the curricula of specific subjects, such as history, literature, geography, art and music, and provide adequate textbooks.

After years of political wrangling, the approximately 60,000-strong Albanian community have finally followed other minorities in exercising their right to establish a MNC, having secured the requisite number of signatures late last year. Direct elections to the inaugural Council will be held after the voter registration threshold of some 24,550 was passed by the March 9th deadline; demonstrating widespread support amongst the ethnic Albanian community for a MNC. The Council's proponents – such as Riza Halimi, leader of the Party for Democratic Action (PVD) and the only ethnic Albanian member of the Serbian parliament – insist that it will guarantee cultural autonomy for the ethnic Albanian community and enhance their role in decision-making processes.

Not all Albanian politicians, however, support the establishment of an Albanian MNC. Some – such as Ragmi Mustafa, the mayor of Presevo and head of the Albanian Democratic Party (PDSH), and a vehement critic of Belgrade's policies toward the south – believe that such a body is unnecessary and will not provide any new rights for the ethnic Albanian community; instead, it “will limit our [ethnic Albanian's] scope for securing additional rights”. Others remain sceptical about the commitment of the particular ministries to devolve sufficient competencies to the councils.

Doubts also persist as to the capacity of the MNCs to contend with the problems facing minority communities. Agim Kamberi, a lawyer and head of the public services department in Presevo, for instance, insists that the Council should have a broader mandate, including responsibilities for economic development, welfare issues, and even security. The Presevo Valley faces massive unemployment – estimated at around 60% in Presevo and 42% in Bujanovac – and some of the worst levels of poverty in Serbia.

Other concerns relate to the possibility that the MNCs might be hijacked for political ends; though as Serbia's Minister of Human and Minority Rights, Svetozar Ciplic, argues, “without doubt certain [electoral] lists have ambitions of growing stronger politically within their national communities, but the competencies of the councils are not such to turn into political subjects”.

The predominantly ethnic Albanian south of Serbia – commonly referred to locally as 'the Presevo Valley' and by some as 'East Kosovo' – witnessed a small-scale, low-intensity insurgency from 1999 to 2001. Though the situation has been comparatively calm in recent years, the municipalities of Bujanovac, Medvedja and Presevo continue to remain in the shadow of Kosovo's disputed status. Towards the end of July, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) is expected to rule on the legality of Kosovo's unilateral declaration of independence, which Serbia continues to oppose and which five EU member states have refused to recognize.

The spectre of the south's unification with Kosovo continues to resurface. Following Serbia's fervent rejection of the International Civilian Office's (ICO) plans to re-integrate the north of Kosovo into Pristina's institutions, Jakup Krasniqi, the president of the Kosovo Assembly, warned that should Serbs in the north attempt to secede, then “ethnic Albanians in southern Serbia are ready to join Kosovo”. The ICJ's ruling, however, will do little to ease the lingering uncertainty. Such speculation about possible territory exchanges only risks bringing further stalemate to the region, deterring both the Serbian government and foreign investors alike from committing significant resources.

A spate of incidents last autumn – including a grenade attack near Bujanovac which injured two members of the Gendarmerie and an explosion in a mainly Serb-populated neighbourhood of the predominantly ethnic Albanian town of Presevo – led to renewed calls for a separate 'Presevo Valley region' and its complete demilitarization. Largely premised on the claim that only territorial autonomy can adequately protect the rights of the ethnic Albanians, the demands were quickly refuted by Serbia's minister for public administration and local self-government, Milan Markovic, as being politically motivated. Though a largely technical issue, debates over regionalization and decentralization in Serbia remain tainted by the Kosovo and Vojvodina status issues, respectively, and latent concerns about further fragmentation.

Minority National Council elections constitute an important moment for the institutionalization of minority rights protection in Serbia. The establishment of an Albanian MNC, in particular, will help further strengthen the ethnic Albanian community's voice and influence in Serbian political life. The extent to which the Council will help further integrate the Albanian community, however, will largely depend upon whether greater cultural autonomy will prompt or postpone demands for further territorial autonomy; a question that is further complicated by the south's endemic under-development and continued uncertainties over Kosovo's status.

Ian Bancroft, Serbia Local Correspondent, 3 June 2010.