Civil society organisations are working to smooth the relationship between Croatia and Serbia.
By Ivana Jovanovic and Selena Petrovic for Southeast European Times in Belgrade and Zagreb -- 09/01/14
Posting signs in both the Latin and Cyrillic alphabets is part of an effort at reconciliation between the countries in the region. [Nada Bozic/SETimes]
Croatian and Serbian civil society organisations have joined efforts to achieve normalcy in relations between the two countries in order to overcome animosities lingering from the recent conflicts in the region.
The public debate in Croatia focuses on posting bilingual signs on public institutions in Vukovar, which include the Serbian Cyrillic script.
"I believe that bilingualism introduction will contribute to normalising relations between Croatia and Serbia, but also will be a positive example in the EU," Vesna Skare-Ozbolt, a former Croatian minister of justice, told SETimes earlier this year.
Vukovar, a city of about 26,000 in eastern Croatia, remains a symbol of the Croatia-Serbia conflict. Just outside the city 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 in 1991.
Many of the Serbian Cyrillic signs were forcefully removed by protesters.
In order to spread the message of tolerance, human rights activists organised the Croatia for All of Us campaign, and symbolically placed Latin-Cyrillic inscriptions in the streets of Zagreb.
Although the street signs were removed, the point was made, and the campaign was covered in both Croatian and Serbian media.
"Our further actions will be concentrated on the general public, with a focus on eliminating the Cyrillic taboo and affirming multiculturalism as an essential benchmark for Croatia," Marina Škrabalo, a representative of the Croatian civil organisation GONG, a participant in the Croatia for All of Us initiative, told SETimes.
Other campaigns and initiatives are also joining the effort to heal the countries' rift.
Maja Micic, director at Belgrade-based Youth Initiative for Human Rights, said the main aim of her NGO is to establish new links between young people of Croatia and Serbia, as well as to foster their inclusion in social and political processes on the national and regional level.
"Youth initiatives in Croatia and Serbia are committed to the continuous inclusion of young people in the processes of facing the past, through education about the facts on wars in the former Yugoslavia, as well as by encouraging new generations to live and act based on those facts, in order to ensure that newer, post-conflict generations will not become bearers of crimes and grave human rights violations," Micic told SETimes.
She said the initiative is working to break down stereotypes and prejudices between young people from the former Yugoslavia countries, with the aim to establish healthy and stable relationships and build a platform for joint initiatives that will strengthen their ties.
"In 2012, we started a programme that gathered young people from Serbia, Croatia, Germany and France, who are learning and talking about war crimes and their consequences, and about lessons we could take from Germany and France's experiences after World War II," Micic told SETimes.
The Association of Croatian Youth in Serbia, which was formed in 2007, promotes the heritage and tradition of Croats in Zemun, Belgrade municipality, through various cultural and sporting events.
"Our members are coming to our theatres, football tournaments, religious ceremonies in our Catholic church, together with their friends of other nationalities, and this is the symbol of tolerance among people here," Miroslav Lecer, the president of the association, told SETimes.
He said the number of members is increasing, which shows the situation is improving.
"Because of the situation we had 20 years ago, numerous people were hiding their identity and nationality because they were scared of the consequences," Lecer said. "The basic idea behind the association was to show to the young people that time heals everything and that we are gradually moving toward democracy, where everyone has the right to say who they are."
Both Micic and Skrabalo said country officials and the media are the best tools to spread a message of tolerance between Serbs and Croats.
"The media has a significant responsibility for slowing normalisation of relations, since negative news from the neighbouring country is usually made to be sensational, while the positive examples remain unknown to the wider public," Micic said.
"We also hope for more political will and funds to encourage direct encounters and exchanges between citizens, the academic community, and civil society," Skrabalo said.
What other measures can organisations in Croatia and Serbia take to foster a better relationship? Add your opinion in the comments.