Analysis 02 Sep 15

Serb Minority Rights Scripted Out in Croatia

The muted response to the Croatian town of Vukovar’s decision to scrap controversial bilingual signs in Latin and Serb Cyrillic script suggests the EU has lost focus on minority rights, analysts claimed.

Sven Milekic, Sasa Dragojlo BIRN Zagreb, Belgrade

War veterans smashing bilingual signs in September 2013. Photo: Beta.

After major street demonstrations, repeated incidents of organised vandalism and a protest petition that attracted 650,000 signatures, the latest development in the long-running dispute over the Cyrillic script in the wartime flashpoint town of Vukovar was far less dramatic.

A decision by Vukovar town council last month that signs in Cyrillic, the script of the Serb minority in Croatia, will no longer be displayed on municipal institutions and official buildings in the town only met with limited international condemnation.

The Council of Europe reacted four days later by saying that it “strongly regrets” the decision, adding that it is not in accordance with the principles and charters of the EU.

“The Council of Europe notes with regret that on August 17, 2015, the City Council of Vukovar /Вуковар (Croatia), where Serbs constitute a significant proportion of the population, decided to amend the city statute in such a way as not to provide bilingual signs in Latin and Cyrillic scripts at official town buildings, institutions, squares and streets,” it said in a statement.

The government in Zagreb had backed the official introduction of Cyrillic in the town which has become a symbol of Croatia’s wartime resistance to Belgrade’s forces, despite furious reactions from some war veterans and the opposition Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) party. Croatian state administration minister Arsen Bauk said on August 19 that said he hoped that the municipal ruling could be bypassed.

But regional experts suggested that the low-key reactions showed that concern for minorities and human rights in general is no longer on the EU’s priority list and has been supplanted by economic issues and the escalating refugee and migrant crisis in Europe.

Letters and the law

Rights legislation in Croatia entitles any minority that numbers over a third of the local population to official use of their language and script.

According to 2011 census, just over 34 per cent of the population of Vukovar declared themselves to be Serbs. The government announced at the start of 2013 that Cyrillic would be officially introduced.

Bilingual sign on a court building in Vukovar.
Photo: Beta

But war veterans in the town, which in 1991 was besieged and destroyed by the Yugoslav People’s Army and Serbian paramilitaries, staged angry protests against the introduction of Cyrillic, clashing with police and repeatedly smashing the new signs.

The campaign was led by a veterans’ group called the Headquarters for the Defence of Croatian Vukovar, which launched a petition that collected 650,000 signatures in a bid to trigger a referendum on changing the constitutional law to effectively stop the implementation of Cyrillic in the town. But Croatia’s constitutional court ruled against it, saying it would violate minority rights.

Mario Reljanovic, an expert on European legislation, said that the protection of minority languages is one of the obligations of EU member states.

“Articles 10 and 11 of the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities establishes as a clear obligation of state parties that the language of minorities be included as official in communicating with state authorities, as well as on signs, street names and other appropriate occasions… when a minority represents a significant share of the population or is a traditional (historical) minority which has been present in this area for a long time,” Reljanovic told BIRN.

The legal obligation to protect minority languages also stems from the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights, he added.

But Ivan Novosel from the Zagreb-based NGO Youth Initiative for Human Rights said that even if it was clear that Article 10 and 11 of the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities have been breached, the EU has no direct jurisdiction when it comes to human rights in member states.

Novosel told BIRN that it was up to Croatian state administration ministry to reverse Vukovar’s statute banishing the Cyrillic signs.

“Considering that this decision is problematic and not in compliance with the Constitutional Act on the Rights of National Minorities and the Law on the Usage of the Language and Script of National Minorities, they have the right to abolish the statute,” he said.

Minority rights losing importance?

Dejan Jovic, a political analyst and professor at Zagreb University, suggested that the EU was no longer as focused on rights issues in Croatia and the Balkans in general because of more pressing problems like economic recession and the rising numbers of refugees and migrants.

“I think it’s a far larger problem how big your [state’s] debt is than the state of democracy in your state,” Jovic said.

Djordje Pavicevic from the Faculty of Political Science in Belgrade, also suggested that the economic crisis has changed the EU’s priorities.

“The economic crisis has put money in the foreground and human rights are not so high on the priority list. The Greek crisis, but also issues with refugees or migrants, have shown that Europe is not so integrated when it comes to common values,” said Pavicevic.

“Simply, there is a series of other problems currently listed as topical and important at the moment,” he asserted.

The issue now rests with the Croatian state administration ministry; if it does not act, the constitutional court could step in to insist that the bilingual signs are restored. Whatever happens, the country’s 186,000 Serbs are likely to be paying close attention.

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