Flags at half-mast, candles lit in protest: discontent over the introduction of Cyrillic script and the Serbian language have cast a new shadow over Croat-Serb relations in Vukovar.
“They did not fight for a Vukovar in which Cyrillic would be dominant, and it would have been had we lost the war,” says one of the four middle-aged men wrapping black cloth around a monument to Croatian victims of a Serb wartime massacre at Ovcara, ten kilometres east of the city of Vukovar.
|Vukovar's main street I Photo by Wikicommons|
It is a sunny yet chilly Saturday morning in early March, and the Headquarters for the Defence of Croatian Vukovar, a campaign group of war veterans fiercely opposed to the introduction of the Cyrillic script and Serbian as a second official language in Vukovar, are starting their protest action.
They are resisting the implementation of a constitutional law on the rights of ethnic minorities, with which Croatia, in line with European democratic standards, obliged itself to introduce two languages for official use in areas where ethnic minorities make up more than a third of the population.
According to the 2011 census, Vukovar’s population is 34.87 per cent Serb, and it’s Croatia’s duty to put up Cyrillic signs next to the usual Latin-script ones on state institutions.
But the Headquarters is against it, vowing that it will remove the signs by force if the authorities put them up. It considers Cyrillic an insult to all those killed during the wartime siege by the Yugoslav Army and Serb fighters which left the city devastated.
Along with the monument at Ovcara - erected to honour over 200 of the city’s defenders and wounded civilians who were executed by Serb paramilitaries after the fall of Vukovar on November 18, 1991 - they also wrapped in black the bust of one of the commanders of the defence of Vukovar, Blago Zadro, and the bust of the first Croatian President, Franjo Tudjman, in the city’s main square.
|Banners protesting against Cyrillic I Photo by Beta|
In several downtown locations, Headquarters activists were handing out leaflets to locals. There are always a lot of people around the market, especially on Saturdays, which makes it the best spot, the Headquarters decided, to acquaint citizens with the reasons why they oppose the introduction of Cyrillic.
But there is no discussion, just like there is no logical explanation. Everything is based on emotions, memories, the painful wartime past.
On the way to the market, where there are several busy cafes, citizens take the leaflets handed out to them by activists of the Headquarters. Some immediately read what’s written on them, others just fold the paper and put it in their pocket.
“What would change if the name of the town was written in Cyrillic at the entrance to Vukovar as well?” I ask the woman who is handing out the leaflets.
“We would admit that [Serbian President] Tomislav Nikolic was right. He said Vukovar is a Serb town.”
“But Vukovar is in Croatia,” I say.
“Let the inscriptions be in Croatian then too,” she replies, moving away several steps in order to let me know that the discussion is over.
I read the messages on the leaflets: “Do we need jobs or Cyrillic?”, “I am selling my house. Inquire at the Croatian Government”, “Don’t have a job, don’t know Cyrillic”.
“How long will we live in the past?” comments a young man who says his name is Predrag. “I don’t care, let the signs be written in Turkish, just let me have a job and earn a living. Instead of fighting against unemployment, we are going to war against Cyrillic.”
A man selling candles and Chinese lanterns at the market has been having a busy day.
“It’s going well,” he says. “If only it were like that every day. People are buying candles today because they will light them up in the evening and put them in their windows. They are following the recommendation from the Headquarters to protest against Cyrillic that way.”
In a nearby cafe, I listen to a lively conversation about Cyrillic.
“We were on guard duty for several days beside signs at the entrance to the town. Had they tried to put [dual Latin-Cyrillic ones] up, we would have attacked them,” says a man in a camouflage uniform to the one next to him.
“That’s why they did not try,” says the other, evidently pleased. “They know the police would be on our side.”
They seem to like this game of nerves. Croatia’s minister of public administration Arsen Bauk announced a month ago that the government would implement the law “in due course” and that the last preparations were underway for putting up dual-script signs in Vukovar.
|Anti-Cyrillic protest in Vukovar I Photo by Beta|
When asked what “in due course” actually meant, he replied: “For some, the due date is thousand years, as we’ve heard. For the government, it is a lot less,” he said, alluding to requests from the Headquarters that a 50-year moratorium be put on the introduction of Cyrillic in Vukovar.
But the government is aware that it is a hot issue. Local elections are close and an incident between police and protesters over the introduction of new signs is not what the Social Democrat-led government wants.
Its ratings in the second year of its mandate are pretty bad, and public dissatisfaction has never been greater. There is no economic recovery, the number of unemployed people has not been reduced, and since the beginning of March, people working in state services have had their salaries reduced by three per cent.
“The signs in two languages have already arrived in Vukovar,” I am told by a state official who asked to remain anonymous. “They are here, in one of our rooms, but we still did not get the order to put them up.”
The government is obviously stalling and feeling its way around, waiting for the tensions to calm down. But the Headquarters insists it will not end its campaign until the government gives up on the idea to introduce Cyrillic script.
Meanwhile the Independent Democratic Serb Party in Vukovar says that the dispute is helping nobody.
“This does not contribute to the quality of life in Vukovar, let alone coexistence and the improvement of inter-ethnic relations. All that resistance, all those protests, they are taking us a step back. Both Croats and Serbs,” says Srdjan Milakovic, the party’s president.
Night slowly descends on Vukovar. The streets are empty, there are no passers-by, no protesters. There is a candle burning in the window of every third or fourth house on the 204th Vukovar Brigade Street. On some buildings at the western entrance to the town, Croatian flags are flying at half-mast. This was another idea suggested by the Headquarters as another sign of resistance to Cyrillic.
While I am buying petrol on Kudeljarska Street, I ask a man who has just paid his bill and is going back to his car, “Why are the flags in Vukovar at half-mast?”
“Because Croats’ and Serbs’ coexistence has died over Cyrillic,” he replies.