Use of Serbian Cyrillic remains sensitive in Croatia


Analysts say the official use of Cyrillic language will help to smooth relations between Croatia and its Serbian minority.

By Ivana Jovanovic and Kruno Kartus for Southeast European Times in Belgrade and Osijek -- 07/09/13


A street sign in Novi Sad displays both Latin and Cyrillic languages. [Nada Bozic/SETimes]

The introduction of Cyrillic in Croatia is not without controversy, but experts say that a commitment to accepting the use of minority languages in the public sphere is an important step toward peaceful co-existence.

The issue is particularly sensitive to many Croats, who view Cyrillic as a painful reminder of the 1990s conflicts between Serbia and Croatia.

"I believe that bilingualism introduction will contribute to normalising relations between Croatia and Serbia and progress, but also will be a positive example in the EU," Vesna Skare-Ozbolt, a former Croatian minister of justice, told SETimes.

Skare-Ozbolt announced that about 20 municipalities in Croatia have accomplished formal pre-conditions for official use of Cyrillic and it should be started in the near future.

She added that Croatia and other EU countries have been installing bilingualism in areas where national minorities are least one-third of the population, and she said the roles of local authorities and the state are crucial in successful implementation.

"Croatia, as a new EU member, keeps this standard, although war consequences are still big, which can be seen in Vukovar, where some resistance still exists," Skare-Ozbolt said.

Vukovar, a city of about 26,000 in eastern Croatia, remains a symbol of the Croatia-Serbia conflict. Just outside the city, Ovcara was the site of one of the most significant war crimes that occurred during the breakup of Yugoslavia, as 264 people were killed by the Serbian military.

Serbs comprise about 35 percent of Vukovar's population, giving them the right for official use of Cyrillic language according to Croatia's constitution. But Croats have objected, staging protests this week and destroying bilingual signs that had been placed on state buildings.

Signs in Cyrillic have been installed in the central Croatian city of Udbina, where about 52 percent of the city's 2,000 residents are Serbs.

Nemanja Relic, a political analyst at the Serbian Democratic Forum (SDF), a non-governmental organisation that promotes the rights of national minorities, said the reaction in Udbina was positive compared to Vukovar.

"In some areas there is simply no problem, while in others problems occur constantly. The most problematic is Vukovar, because the government acts irresponsibly to the problem, while right-wing groups have organised to prevent law enforcement. Bilingualism is not only a minority issue, but social and political. People are poor, so it is easier to manipulate national and linguistic problems. The solution is constant work in the field and educating people about minority rights," Relic told SETimes.

He added that overcoming such problems and introducing bilingualism could contribute to resolving the outstanding issues between Croatia and Serbia.

"Along with these issues, work is needed on resolving the issues of refugees and war crimes," Relic said.

Miroslav Kevezdi, associate of the Centre for Development of Civil Society from Zrenjanin, Vojvodina, and founder of the Institution for the Culture of Vojvodina Ruthenians, said one of the steps toward resolving minority issues is to form a regional commission for establishing the facts about crimes and a joint realisation of the transitional justice processes.

"Respect of the right for official use of language and script should relax relations among national communities, including relations among their parent states, which should mean that the response for respect is respect, by the logic of reciprocity," Kavezdi told SETimes.

Led by the Serbian Progressive Party, new authorities in Vojvodina's largest city, Novi Sad, last year changed the titles of some cultural institutions and on public buses from Latin to Cyrillic. Authorities said the purpose of the change was to protect tradition in Novi Sad, which is home to people of more than 20 nationalities and where Serbian, Hungarian, Slovakian and Ruthenian are used officially, along with Latin script.

"In this sense, we had different reciprocity. Cancelation of Latin in Novi Sad has resulted in rejection of Cyrillic in Vukovar. National radicalised elements are using every opportunity to reduce the rights of others, and this condition is extremely difficult to repair or restore," Kavezdi added.

For some Croatian citizens, Cyrillic remains a painful reminder of past conflicts, and even the positive example of Udbina cannot be separated from the memories of what occurred in Vukovar.

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"Udbina has one of the lowest unemployment rates, Vukovar not. Apart from geography, this is the most important difference. Because how [to] introduce one more alphabet and language in the society that for 20 years learned to hate that specific language and alphabet?" Danilo Lovric from Medinci, a village in the Slavonia region, told SETimes.

Nikola Knezevic, a Croat-Serb from Novi Sad and founder of the Centre for the Study of Religion, Politics and Society, said a majority of people support dialogue and co-operation, while opponents resort to violence.

"Multilingualism in this case is a litmus test which shows maturity of a civil society and its willingness to outstrip conflictive past and give a hand of reconciliation to yesterday's enemies," Knezevic told SETimes.

What steps should local and state governments take to make sure that minority language rights are upheld? Share your thoughts in the comments section.

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