News 24 Sep 14

Croatia Veterans Give Govt Cyrillic Ultimatum

Veterans said all bilingual signs in Croatian and Serb Cyrillic must be removed from Vukovar or government politicians will be not be welcome at the annual commemoration of the town’s wartime fall.

Josip Ivanovic
Officers guard a bilingual sign outside Vukovar police station.

The Headquarters for the Defence of Croatian Vukovar, a group led by veterans which has staged a campaign against the installation of bilingual signs on official buildings in the wartime flashpoint town, said on Tuesday that former fighters had sent a warning letter to the country’s leaders telling them to act before the upcoming annual commemoration.

The letter warned President Ivo Josipovic, Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic and speaker of parliament Josip Leki that they “will not be welcome” at the upcoming commemoration of the 23rd anniversary of Vukovar’s capture by the Serb-led Yugoslav People’s Army on November 18 if they do not remove the bilingual signs.

The move came after six anti-Cyrillic campaigners were arrested for smashing the controversial signs on Tuesday in the latest outbreak of unrest over the issue in Vukovar, although the Headquarters denied any involvement.

The mayor of Vukovar, Ivan Penava, a member of the main opposition Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) party, also criticised the government for the problems caused by the installation of the bilingual signs.

“It is obvious that the move that was made with those signs was very bad. I believe it is bad for the Republic of Croatia and I am 100 per cent sure that it is bad for Vukovar,” said Penava.

Croatia’s minorities law says that ethnic minorities are entitled to the official use of their language and script in areas where they make up more than a third of the population – as Serbs do in Vukovar.

Parliamentary speaker Leko, a member of the ruling Social Democratic Party, criticised the latest attempts to remove the signs, saying such actions flouted democratic standards.

“We have to fight for those standards, and to keep up social dialogue and the respect for laws,” said Leko.

Headquarters activists have been intermittently taking down the bilingual signs since they were first put up last year, arguing that it is too sensitive to introduce Cyrillic in Vukovar, which was besieged and destroyed by Belgrade’s forces during the war.

After staging a series of street protests, the Headquarters launched a campaign in November 2013 for a referendum on reducing minority rights, which would effectively stop the introduction of Cyrillic in Vukovar.

Within two weeks, it had collected over 650,000 signatures, sufficient to trigger a referendum. But in August this year, Croatia’s constitutional court ruled the referendum question unconstitutional, scuppering the Headquarters’ initiative.

However the Headquarters has since announced it will take its case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

Tuesday's letter to the authorities, which was sent after a joint meeting of the Headquarters and the Coordinating Operational Team, an organisation supported by 382 veterans and victims organisation, also urged that the government intervenes to secure the release of a veteran called Veljko Maric, who is in jail in Serbia.

Maric was sentenced to 12 years imprisonment in September 2011 in Belgrade for wartime crimes against Serb civilians in 1991 in the village of Rastovac in central Croatia.

The letter urged the country’s political leaders to “take all political, legal and diplomatic steps” to secure Maric’s release, arguing that “Serbian application of universal jurisprudence over Croatian citizens is absurd”.

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