Veterans smash bilingual signs in September 2013. Photo: Beta.
After major street protests, repeated incidents of organized vandalism and a protest petition that drew 650,000 signatures, the latest development in the long-standing conflict over Cyrillic writing in the wartime town of Vukovar, was much less dramatic.
A decision by Vukovar City Council last month that signs in Cyrillic, the handwriting of the Serbian minority in Croatia, will no longer be displayed on municipal institutions and official city buildings has only met with condemnation international limited.
The Council of Europe reacted four days later by saying that it “deeply regretted” the decision, adding that it was not in line with EU principles and charters.
“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 modify the status of the city so as to not to provide bilingual signs in Latin and Cyrillic characters on official city buildings, institutions, squares and streets, ”he said in a statement.
The government in Zagreb had supported the official introduction of Cyrillic in the city, which has become a symbol of Croatia’s wartime resistance to Belgrade’s forces, despite furious reactions from some veterans and the opposition party. Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ). Croatian Minister of Public Administration Arsen Bauk said on August 19 that he hoped the municipal decision could be bypassed.
But regional experts suggested the low-key reactions showed concern for minorities and human rights in general was no longer on the EU’s priority list and had been supplanted by economic problems and escalation. of the refugee and migrant crisis in Europe.
Letters and the law
Croatian rights law allows any minority representing more than a third of the local population to officially use their language and script.
According to the 2011 census, just over 34% of the population of Vukovar identified themselves as Serbs. The government announced in early 2013 that Cyrillic would be officially introduced.
Bilingual poster on a court building in Vukovar.
But ex-combatants in the city, besieged and destroyed in 1991 by the Yugoslav People’s Army and Serbian paramilitaries, staged protests of anger over the introduction of Cyrillic, clashing with police and repeatedly smashing new signs.
The campaign was led by a group of veterans called the Croatian Vukovar Defense Headquarters, which launched a petition that collected 650,000 signatures in an attempt to trigger a referendum on amending the constitutional law to effectively stop the application of Cyrillic in the city. But the Croatian Constitutional Court ruled against it, saying it would violate minority rights.
Mario Reljanovic, 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 establish as a clear obligation of states parties that the language of minorities be included as an official language in communication with state authorities, as well as on signs, street names and other appropriate occasions. … When a minority represents a significant part of the population or is a traditional (historical) minority present in this region for a long time, ”Reljanovic told BIRN.
The legal obligation to protect minority languages also stems from the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, he added.
But Ivan Novosel of the Zagreb-based NGO Youth Initiative for Human Rights said that although it was clear that Articles 10 and 11 of the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities had been violated, the EU did not has no direct human rights competence in the member states.
Novosel told BIRN that it was up to the Croatian state administration ministry to overturn Vukovar’s law banning Cyrillic signs.
“Considering that this decision is problematic and not in conformity with the constitutional law on the rights of national minorities and the law on the use of language and writing of national minorities, they have the right to abolish the statute” , did he declare.
Are minority rights losing importance?
Dejan Jovic, political analyst and professor at the University of Zagreb, suggested that the EU is no longer as focused on rights issues in Croatia and the Balkans in general due to more pressing issues like the economic recession and the growing number of refugees and migrants.
“I think the size of your [state’s] debt is the state of democracy in your state, ”Jovic said.
Djordje Pavicevic from the Faculty of Political Sciences in Belgrade, also suggested that the economic crisis has changed the priorities of the EU.
“The economic crisis has put money first and human rights are not so high on the priority list. The Greek crisis, but also the problems with refugees or migrants, has shown that Europe is not so integrated when it comes to common values, ”Pavicevic said.
“Simply, there are a series of other issues currently listed as topical and important at the moment,” he said.
The matter is now the responsibility of the Croatian State Administration Ministry; if it does not act, the Constitutional Court could intervene to demand the reinstatement of bilingual signs. Whatever happens, the 186,000 Serbs in the country will probably pay close attention.