Croatia and Serbia at impasse on minority rights


Belgrade sent a protest note to the Serbian Embassy in Zagreb, reproaching Croatia "for increasingly frequent incidents targeting the Republic of Serbia and Serbs in Croatia."

By Igor Jovanovic and Selena Petrovic for Southeast European Times in Belgrade and Zagreb -- 31/12/13


Croatian protestors tear down signs in Serb Cyrillic script that were put up in September in Vukovar. [AFP]

Serbia is urging Croatia to address minority rights issues after a number of incidents in the new EU member country.

Last month, Serbia sent a non-paper to countries where it has diplomatic representation consisting of a registry of incidents targeting Serbs in Croatia.

Complaints on the 14-point list include the removal of official bilingual inscriptions in Vukovar and other instances of ethnic intolerance, such as a damaged plaque and windows at the Serbian Consulate building in Rijeka and a "Serbian Family Tree" sticker in downtown Zagreb showing bodies hanging from the tree.

In addition, on December 16th a group called The Headquarters for Defense of Croatian Vukovar, comprised of Croatian war veteran association members, submitted more than 450,000 signatures to parliament, enough to initiate a procedure that could lead to a referendum related to minority language rights.

Currently, minorities in Croatia have the right to officially use their language in areas where they make up at least 30 percent of the population. The war veteran association group would like to see that number increased to 50 percent.

After the incidents, Belgrade sent a protest note to the Serbian Embassy in Zagreb, reproaching Croatia "for increasingly frequent incidents targeting the Republic of Serbia and Serbs in Croatia." The note was delivered to Croatian Assistant Foreign Minister Zeljko Kupresak.

Miodrag Linta, president of the Coalition of Associations of Refugees from Croatia and a member of the Serbian parliament, said that the incidents continued after Belgrade's protest note, as Serb National Council in Croatia President Milorad Pupovac received death threats in early December.

"The Croatian government must quickly find the makers of those threats, or it will send a message that there is no real political will to protect Serbs' human rights," Linta said in a statement to SETimes.

Croatia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that the recent anti-Serb incidents are not common.

In a statement to SETimes, the ministry said "all Croatian state institutions have promptly reacted to these isolated incidents," and added that the best way to prevent such ethnic-based incidents is the continuous implementation of the Constitutional Law on National Minority Protection.

As part of the law, the ministry said, the government has shown unwavering effort to keep the Cyrillic inscriptions on official buildings in Vukovar and other towns.

"Destroying the consulate's plaque cannot be justified. This was a cowardly act committed at night. It is a shameful way of expressing opinions and views. I am sure that this is an act by individuals, which does not in any way represent the views by the majority of Rijeka citizens. Unfortunately, despite the high level of tolerance in the city, not even Rijeka is immune to vandalism," Rijeka Mayor Vojko Obersnel told the media in November.

Serbian Foreign Ministry representatives told SETimes that Belgrade wants good relations with Croatia.

"Serbia wants to develop good relations with Croatia and expects it, as a neighbouring country and EU member, to prevent the intensification of the anti-Serb campaign and to ensure that the Serbs living there have all the rights they are entitled to according to European standards and Croatian legislation," the ministry said.

The international community has weighed in as well.

"Respect for linguistic and cultural diversity is one of the cornerstones of the European Union, enshrined in Article 3 of the Treaty on European Union," Dennis Abbott, European Commission spokesperson for Education, Culture, Multilingualism and Youth, told SETimes.

He also said that national language policies are not regulated by EU law and remain within the jurisdiction of each member state.

Meanwhile, Croatia Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic has repeatedly said he will not tolerate any tempering with the rights of minority communities.

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At a recent party meeting in Sisak, he said that for him "being a Croat is not a question of blood, but the question of choice. While I am the president of the government and of the party [Social-Democrats] ... we will not play with [issues regarding] minorities."

Predrag Simic, a Belgrade Faculty of Political Sciences professor, said that the latest incidents, as well as the upcoming hearing on the mutual genocide lawsuits of Serbia and Croatia before the Hague-based International Court of Justice was "bad news for both states."

Simic told SETimes that this would "inevitably lead to the cooling of relations" between the countries.

What steps can Croatia take to improve the rights for minorities? Tell us what you think.

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