Feature 12 Aug 14

Croatia’s Language Dispute Leaves Minorities Nervous

Croatia’s constitutional court will soon decide if there will be a referendum on reducing ethnic minorities’ language rights – a move which could encourage nationalist extremism, experts warn.

Boris Pavelic

War veterans smashing bilingual signs in Vukovar

in September 2013. Photo: Beta

In the second half of August, the country’s highest court is to rule on whether it is constitutional to call a referendum on minority rights, which are currently protected by Croatian laws and international agreements, but could be scaled back if nationalist campaigners get what they want.

A petition to hold the referendum, organised by Croatian war veterans, gathered 630,000 signatures last year after a campaign which saw mass protests and street violence.

The veterans launched their campaign in a bid to stop the introduction of bilingualism in the wartime flashpoint city of Vukovar, which would have meant that Serbs’ Cyrillic script would be used for official purposes alongside Croats’ preferred Latin.

Analyst Zarko Puhovski believes that the constitutional court will reject the referendum. But if it does rule in favour, he warned, “the basic principles of minority protection will be violated” and Croatia will risk a “real nationalistic explosion”.

Croatian legislation allows the official use of a minority’s language and script if it makes up more than a third of the population in a particular area, such as Vukovar, which was almost completely destroyed by Serb forces during the war in 1991, and only peacefully reintegrated into Croatia seven years later.

But today, more than 33 per cent of Vukovar’s population is Serb, so the Croatian government started to implement the minorities legislation at the beginning of 2013 by installing bilingual Latin and Cyrillic signs on state buildings in the city.

This infuriated the veterans. Led by a group called the Headquarters for the Defence of Croatian Vukovar, they hit back by staging demonstrations, smashing the bilingual signs and then organising the petition for the referendum to raise the threshold for minority rights from a third of the population to a half.

After the initial protests, Croatian Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic stood firm, saying that “the [minority rights] law must be implemented”.

Representatives of Croatia’s ethnic minorities meanwhile warned that changing the law would effectively ban the official use of all minority languages across the entire country.

Serbs also recalled that Cyrillic was only ever banned in Croatia during World War II, when the Nazi-affiliated Ustasa regime was in power.

The veterans responded by saying that the government’s determination to implement minority laws in Vukovar would only worsen relations between Croats and Serbs in the city, which they said should be given special status because of how badly it suffered during the 1991-95 war.

Croatian President Ivo Josipovic meanwhile sided with the government, repeating that the legislation must be upheld, but adding that “if we want not to obey the minority law, we have to change it”.

As the only way of changing the law is through a referendum, the Headquarters for the Defence of Croatian Vukovar began collecting signatures for a public vote, and within a month surpassed the necessary threshold of 400,000 and delivered its petition to parliament in December last year.

Despite this, the ruling centre-left coalition led by premier Milanovic said it would not call the referendum, arguing that it would violate minorities’ human rights and breach the international conventions that Croatia has signed.

“If Croatia calls such a referendum, it would have to leave the EU,” Foreign Minister Vesna Pusic claimed.

Even the biggest opposition party, the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), which initially backed the veterans, has since toned down its support by ceasing to openly advocate the referendum.

After several months of political quarrels, parliament passed the referendum question to the constitutional court on July 15, asking it to decide whether such a vote would be in line with the constitution.

Political analyst Davor Gjenero said he believed that the constitutional court will shatter the veterans’ hopes.

“The constitutional court wouldn’t allow a referendum on diminishing the rights of a social group,” he insisted.

A referendum could be useful as a tool to assert the public will over the political elite, he said, but it was “not suitable for deciding about minority protection”.

His fellow analyst Puhovski agreed: “The constitutional court will for certain decide that such a referendum is illicit,” he said.

Nevertheless, he suggested, the dispute about Cyrillic has already “increased intolerance in society and continued the policy of switching public attention away from really important political and social problems”.

An opinion poll conducted last month by Croatia’s Ivo Pilar Institute for Social Science indicated that even if it is called, the referendum could fail.

It suggested that 34 per cent of the population oppose the idea of changing the minority law, and only 19 per cent of people support it.

Gjenero said he found those figures encouraging, indicating that Croatians are more tolerant than politicians think they are.

“It seems that the citizens’ level of political culture is higher than that of the political class,” he said.

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