Comment 07 Feb 13

Cyrillic Signs Threaten Vukovar’s Fragile Harmony

The dilemma over whether to erect bilingual signs in the iconic border town in the face of hostile demonstrations poses a test for Croatia’s democratic legitimacy.

By Drago Hedl

The hysteria against introducing the Cyrillic script into the eastern border town of Vukovar, which reached a peak with a rally in the town last Saturday at which over 20,000 people demanded a 50-year moratorium on introducing the script, has the Croatian authorities facing a serious challenge.

If they persists in their announced plans to introduce bilingualism into Vukovar in line with the Constitutional Law on the Rights of National Minorities, they risk a conflict with extreme nationalist groups that have said that – if bilingual signs go up – they will remove them.

If, on the other hand, the authorities give in to the demands of the protesters, they will not only admit their weakness in implementing the law but throw into question their credibility before the international community, at a delicate time.

In April, the European Commission will release the last monitoring report that some important EU member countries, such as Germany, are awaiting before beginning their ratification of Croatia’s accession treaty.

It is of the utmost importance for Croatia for this report to be positive. In the opposite case, its accession to the EU, announced for June 1, could be thrown into question. In the light of this, the problem with the Cyrillic alphabet in Vukovar is truly a serious test.

The Constitutional Law on the Rights of National Minorities was adopted back in 2002 and, when it was put up for a vote in the parliament, only five MPs voted against it. This was a rarely seen consensus on a delicate matter, but an inevitable one so that Croatia could apply for membership of the European Union the following year, in 2003.

Under this Law, where national minorities make up more than a third of the population in cities and municipalities, they are entitled to the official use of their language and script.

The results of the 2011 population census, released late last year, showed that 57.37 per cent of the population in Vukovar are Croats and 34.87 per cent Serbs. This means that the conditions have been met in the town for putting up bilingual signs on public institutions, and that their names should also be written in Cyrillic.

At the very first sign of resistance to the use of Cyrillic in Vukovar and the threats to remove bilingual signs by force, the Public Administration Minister, Arsen Bauk, who is responsible for the implementation of the Law on the Rights of National Minorities, said the state would ensure implementation of the law.

Bilingual signs in Vukovar would not be put up secretly or under the cover of night, he added, but done in the same manner with which the state generally implements its laws.

However, the big rally in Vukovar threw down a gauntlet to the Minister and although he repeated that the state would implement the law, he no longer sounded so determined. All he said now was that the dust raised over Cyrillic in Vukovar wasn’t about bilingualism but about hypocrisy.

He was alluding to the attitude of the strongest opposition party, the Croatian Democratic Union, HDZ, which supported the Vukovar rally, even though back in 2002 the HDZ voted in favour of this law. He suggested the party was doing this in a bid to homogenize the right-wing electorate ahead of the local elections on May 19.

The arguments used are identical to those that were heard at the rally: the war wounds in Vukovar are still hurting, those responsible for war crimes committed against Croats still haven’t been punished, the people of Vukovar are still searching for over 400 of those who went missing during the war, and the Serbs, who live there, are refusing to say where they were buried.

The emotions of those who took part in the rally against the Cyrillic alphabet can be understood, but their resistance to the script used by their Serb fellow-citizens remains irrational, as use of the Cyrillic script has nothing to do with missing people, or with war crimes, and even less so with the causes and consequences of the atrocities of the war in Croatia.

By manipulating emotion, an attempt is being made to present the Cyrillic script as a threat that could undermine the town’s Croatian identity and mock the sacrifices made by Croatian soldiers in defending Vukovar.  

Because of the implementation of one law passions are boiling again, and have seriously undermined the fragile coexistence that Croats and Serbs have been painstakingly rebuilding in this town.

This is a law that should give Croatia legitimacy as a democratic and civilised country in which human rights are respected, 15 years after the completion of the area’s peaceful reintegration into Croatia under the auspices of United Nations peacekeepers.

The tensions raised over the implementation of a law designed to give the Serb minority a feeling of equality proves how little the Croatian society, and politics in particular, have done in the field of ethnic reconciliation, establishing trust and normal coexistence.

Society has focused very little on these issues, or only sporadically, by paying lip service to it. Meanwhile, the political parties always present their own selfish interests, measured in terms of numbers of votes, as the true indicator of the wellbeing of all Croatian citizens.

Talk about it!

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