2013 in Review 26 Dec 13

Croatia: Serbian Language Dispute Creates Discord

Croatia joined the European Union in 2013, but the country was dogged by its wartime past throughout the year as angry protests erupted over language rights for the Serb minority.

Boris Pavelic, Josip Ivanovic
Anti-Cyrillic protest in Zagreb. Photo: Beta

The year started with a government announcement that would cast a shadow over the rest of 2013: the authorities said that they intended to introduce the official use of the Serbian language and Cyrillic script into areas where Serbs made up more than a third of the population, in line with the country’s minority rights legislation.

One of those places was the town of Vukovar, a symbol of resistance during what Croats call the ‘homeland war’, after it was besieged and destroyed by Serb forces in 1991.

War veterans who fought to defend the town were furious about the plan to put up bilingual signs in Croatian Latin and Serbian Cyrillic script on administration buildings in the town.

Protests against the initiative began in February, when around 20,000 people joined a rally in Vukovar, where veterans said they would take direct action and even use force to stop the initiative.

“Prime minister, don’t provoke the defenders of Vukovar,” one of their leaders warned.

A second anti-Cyrillic rally in Zagreb’s main square in April again attracted around 20,000 demonstrators led by veterans in their military uniforms. But the authorities insisted that they would still enforce the minority rights legislation because Croatia’s future was as a tolerant European country.

Vukovar’s mayor Zeljko Sabo, himself a Croatian war veteran who spent nine months imprisoned in Serbia in 1992, called for reconciliation after he was re-elected in June.

“The citizens of Vukovar decided by a majority that they want city of peace and tolerance, not a city of divisions,” said Sabo after the local polls.

But the Headquarters for the Defence of Croatian Vukovar, the war veterans’ group which has led opposition to the official introduction of bilingualism, refused to end its campaign.

Smashing the signs

When the authorities finally began to install bilingual signs on public administration buildings in Vukovar in September, tensions boiled over.

Hundreds of angry veterans and survivors of the wartime siege took to the streets, crowding around the buildings and smashing the newly-installed signs with hammers.

The authorities deployed police in riot gear after scuffles with officers led to several arrests, but the protests continued for several days. In the months that followed, as soon as renewed attempts were made to install the bilingual signs, they were vandalised again.

“Cyrillic once came to Vukovar on tanks, and now it is coming [protected by] powerful police forces,” veterans’ leader Tomislav Josic complained.

The right-wing opposition Croatian Democratic Union, HDZ, criticised the government’s actions even though it voted for bilingualism in 2010, while the centre-left government accused the HDZ of stirring up ethnic unrest for political gain.

“There’s no way of giving up the introduction of bilingualism to Vukovar,” Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic insisted, calling on protesters to “understand that the war is over”.

Serbia’s ruling party meanwhile demanded that the Croatian authorities “urgently take every measure to secure peace, safety and respect for the human rights of all Serbs”. Belgrade would go on to warn its international allies that the Serb minority in Croatia was being “endangered”.

Milanovic met representatives of the Headquarters for the Defence of Croatian Vukovar in October in an attempt to calm the dispute, but despite this, veterans continued to tear down the bilingual signs whenever they were reinstalled.

In November, the Headquarters launched a campaign to gather enough signatures to force a referendum on the issue, demanding that minority language rights should apply only in places where at least half of the population was from an ethnic minority, instead of a third, as under the current legislation – effectively banishing Cyrillic altogether.

By the middle of December, the campaigners managed to gather more than 680,000 signatures, theoretically enough to trigger a vote, and marched from Zagreb’s main square to parliament to deliver the hefty petition, singing and chanting: “God save Croatia!”

The government continued to insist that it would not give in, with foreign minister Vesna Pusic even suggesting: “We should leave the EU if we want to reduce minority rights.”

But the veterans vowed to keep up their anti-Cyrillic campaign even if the constitutional court ruled that a vote could not be held.

“We won’t surrender. We will fight by any democratic means to reach our goal,” said one of the campaign leaders, Josip Cosic – setting the stage for a continuation of the dispute in 2014.

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