Anti-Serbian language protests highlight Croatia tensions

VUKOVAR (Sept 6, 2013): The destruction of public signs in the Serbs' Cyrillic alphabet and street protests in Croatia's war-scarred Vukovar have thrown a stark light on persisting tensions between Croatians and the country's Serb minority.

This fresh row comes almost 20 years after the 1990s conflict.

The signs were put up this week on official buildings in the ethnically mixed eastern town, in line with a law aimed at improving minority rights in the country which became the newest EU member on July 1.

But in Vukovar the move was met with strong resistance and protests by its Croatian inhabitants and war veterans. The city suffered a three-month siege in 1991 by the then Yugoslav army backing the rebel Serbs opposed to the republic's independence.

"This is neither the time nor the place for Cyrillic... in Vukovar which is a martyr town," said Darko Solic, a 54-year-old war veteran who arrived from the coastal town of Split to join the protests.

A number of signs were torn down, others were smashed with hammers, while protesters clashed with the police, leaving four officers slightly injured.

The protesters want Vukovar to be exempted from the law stipulating that bilingual signs - Latin script for Croatian, Cyrillic for Serbian - are mandatory in areas where more than one third of residents belong to an ethnic minority.

Similar signs exist in the northern peninsula of Istra, which has a strong Italian minority.

Serbs are Croatia's largest minority, making up around four percent in a population of 4.2 million.

After the 1991 siege, Vukovar was virtually razed to the ground, its Croatian population expelled while rebel Serbs controlled it till the end of the war in 1995.

For Croatians like Mira Komunickej whose sister, aged 19 at the time, was killed by the Serbs, while her husband is still missing, Cyrillic "is the symbol of Serb aggression".

"We simply cannot watch this calmly, it is a pure provocation," 50-year-old Komunickej told AFP.

Dragutin Glasnovic, one of the protests' organisers, told AFP that demonstrators "do not mind Cyrillic as a script".

"But we do mind Cyrillic in Vukovar, a tormented town where wartime memories should not be brought back," he said.

Reconciliation between the two ethnic groups is still far away in Vukovar where Serbs now make up almost 35 percent of the population of 28,000.

"We have been divided since kindergarten, everyone lives in his own (ethnic) shell and with moves like this, (divisions) will only deepen," Glasnovic warned.

Analyst Drago Hedl said incidents like in Vukovar "can significantly affect relations between Croatians and Serbs".

"These incidents pour oil on the fire and we do not need that," Hedl told AFP.

Dragan Crnogorac, head of the non-governmental group protecting Serb interest and rights in the area, said bilingual signs should remain as they "are a confirmation of the equality... and guaranteed by the law".

Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic's centre-left government has condemned "chauvinist violence", saying it will not take down signs in Cyrillic in Vukovar as the "rule of law must prevail".

But even for those born after the war its legacy is still being felt.

"It's not yet the time for Cyrillic, wounds are still fresh," said 15-year-old Croatian boy Josip.

On the other hand, 20-year-old Serb student Nikolaj argued that failure to impose the law would be a sign that Serbs "are second-class citizens".

With an unemployment rate in Vukovar of 22 percent, economic issues strongly contribute to ethnic problems.

"It's tough to live here, not only because of the relations between Croatians and Serbs, but also because it is hard to make ends meet in such an economic environment," Crnogorac said. – AFP