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Serbian Defense Minister Sparks Controversy By Using Pejorative For Albanians

Serbian Defense Minister Aleksandar Vulin (right) and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic

It's a term Ragmi Mustafa has heard his whole life. Now he's finally heard it one time too many.

The president of the National Council of the Albanian Minority in Serbia said he is considering whether to sue Defense Minister Aleksandar Vulin after the cabinet member openly used a pejorative for ethnic Albanians in a May 1 speech.

Ethnic Albanians frequently use the term Shqiptar, which basically means Albanian, among themselves.

However, some Serbs use the slightly tweaked "Shiptar" in a derogatory way when talking about Albanians, which has raised the ire of many across the Balkans.

Whatever his intentions, now you can count Vulin among its users, too.

"This term humiliates Albanians and is used to make them second-class citizens,” Mustafa told RFE/RL.

“It's an offensive language of the '90s," Mustafa, who hails from Bujanovac, an Albanian enclave in southern Serbia, said in reference to a decade of ethnically fueled Balkan conflict that killed tens of thousands of people and displaced millions more. "Albanians should not be labeled as such. Mr. Vulin's language tells us that we are not part of this society."

I am in favor of creating a border with Siptari as soon as possible.”
-- Serbian Defense Minister Aleksandar Vulin

Ethnic Albanians once lived throughout the former Yugoslavia as part of Josip Broz Tito’s concept of "brotherhood and unity" weaving the different parts of the country together.

But the mood has changed since Yugoslavia broke up, perhaps especially since Kosovo seceded and declared independence in 2008 almost a decade after a bloody civil war that killed thousands and saw some Serb officials convicted of war crimes against ethnic Albanians.

Meanwhile in Serbia, the position of ethnic Albanians has eroded amid resentment over the loss of Kosovo and how the Serb minority there has been treated.

About 50,000 ethnic Albanians are estimated to live in Serbia, mainly in the municipalities of Bujanovic and Presovo, where they are a majority.

Vulin used the offending term while speaking about demarcating a formal border with Kosovo, which Belgrade does not recognize as an independent country, to bring peace and security to Serbia.

“I am in favor of creating a border with Siptari as soon as possible,” Vulin said on May 1.

He was also quick to point out that this was his own opinion and not necessarily the view of the government, nor of President Aleksandar Vucic.

His usage of the word was not immediately condemned by other Serb officials.

“Skiftar, Siptar, or Shiptar was a derogatory term used by Yugoslavians to insult Albanians. It's basically the equivalent of calling an African the N-word,” said Albanian commentator Butrim Gjonbalaj.

"The Serbian and Croatian term for Albanian is 'Albanac,’ but in order to offend Albanians, Serbs would pronounce it in Albanian, with their Slavic accents, and with an offending tone."

Anita Mitic: "The slanderous calling of 'Siptars' was detrimental to the relations that we want to build in the future."
Anita Mitic: "The slanderous calling of 'Siptars' was detrimental to the relations that we want to build in the future."

Anita Mitic, a former activist of the Youth Initiative for Human Rights, knows how Mustafa feels.

She sued the Serbian tabloid Informer for hate speech after it used the offending word in a story in 2017.

In December, a Court of Appeals upheld the original verdict of the High Court in Belgrade that ruled the article violated the law and that the word could be considered hate speech.

“I considered this discrimination and that the slanderous calling of 'Siptars' was detrimental to the relations that we want to build in the future with Kosovo, with Albania, and with the Albanians who live here in Serbia," Mitic said, noting she has yet to receive the court-ordered 171,000 dinars ($1,620) in fines Informer’s editor in chief Dragan Vucicevic was ordered to pay.

"In this fragile relationship and the difficult political situation in which Serbia is today regarding Kosovo, every incident and every time Albanians are called Siptars is bad. But it’s even worse when high officials of Serbia, especially the minister of defense, contributes not only to the deterioration of relations with Kosovo, but also to the rise in hatred toward ethnic Albanians,” she added.