Wednesday

7th Dec 2016

Opinion

Census in Montenegro - Théâtre de l'Absurde

In a small European country, aspiring to become a full member of the EU, conducting a census, due in April, should neither provoke a political earthquake nor trigger significant changes in policies related to identity issues.

At best, such a statistical tool would ideally provide useful information about the living conditions of a particular population and serve as an impetus for a government to devise better projects for its citizens - as the British Office for National Statistics suggests, a census is "used to help plan and fund services for your community - services like transport, education and health." In Montenegro, a country that is increasingly acquiring characteristics of a tragicomic puppet theatre of socio-political drama similar to that of Signor Berlusconi's Italy, the process of gathering demographic data is not what it is said to be.

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The Parliament of Montenegro adopted the law on census in July 2010 and following a great polemic about whether the term "ethnicity" meant the same as "nationality", amendments were made to include both words in December 2010.

The MPs in Podgorica, in their role as self-proclaimed experts, did not spare any energy in engaging in an etymological debate, thus heating up the pre-census atmosphere well in advance. However, these same people's representatives were silent in the face of the flagrant unconstitutionality of this law requiring citizens and residents of Montenegro to provide full and accurate answers to all questions in order to avoid a fine of twenty minimum wages!

Some of these questions are based on ethnic, religious and linguistic affiliations - highly sensitive matters in Montenegro and its wider neighborhood, and often the subject of political abuse and manipulation. Violation of human rights is a logical consequence of this parody, so let's clarify the story and put it in the larger global context.

Articles 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 10 of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights and 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights clearly stipulate that everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, implying additionally that these beliefs may alter over time. It follows logically that if people are free to express their different beliefs, they are also entitled not express them. In Montenegro, however, this rule does not seem to hold.

The Constitution of Montenegro states in its Article 1 that Montenegro is a "civic state" or "state of its citizens". It further emphasises in Article 2 that "the bearer of its sovereignty is the citizen". Most importantly, Article 46 unequivocally indicates that: "Nobody is obliged to declare his or her religious and other beliefs."

While the NGO "Human Rights Action" appealed to the country's Constitutional Court to investigate the constitutionality of this law, the representatives of MONSTAT, the national statistics agency of Montenegro, first issued a public statement in which they suggested that answers to cultural questions are not compulsory. Soon afterwards, a denial ensued stating that everyone is required by law to give accurate answers to all questions!

To continue with the absurdity, the agency made yet another correction to its previous statements and this time clarified that every individual's response, including remarks such as "I wish not to disclose such information", would be respected and entered into the questionnaire.

If the pressure on Montenegrin citizens continues, either directly through the imposition of this unconstitutional law, or indirectly through the political parties' intensive campaigns, the upcoming census will embody an outrageous attack on the freedom of individuals and their right to refuse the disclosure of such sensitive information.

Apart from a seemingly idealistic perspective, there is a very practical consequence of this story: information about ethnic, religious and linguistic affiliations is known to have been instrumentalised in the past and misused for political purposes. If the census is a purely statistical measure, as the political elites claim, then why is the information about the aforementioned issues relevant? The collection of such data and the subsequent pressure on individuals, represent a poisonous material whose toxins may erode the weak pillars of Montenegro's democracy.

On the one hand, the EU must not shy away from constructively criticising the authorities in Podgorica about the shortcomings of its fledgling institutions and rarely implemented laws. On the other hand, the officials in Montenegro, whether government representatives, civil servants or opposition members, should know that Brussels is much more presbyopic than they think.

Therefore, while waiting for the Commission's report and the Council's decision on the date of opening the accession negotiations, Montenegro must show to the world that statehood means nothing unless it is accompanied by high democratic standards. The EU must urge Montenegro to rigorously pursue the path of a liberal democracy, thereby ensuring protection of human rights, the rule of law, and transparent and accountable governance.

The writer is MPhil Student of European Politics and Society at the University of Oxford

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