Croatia’s Constitutional Court on Tuesday 12 August finally ruled on the Committee for the Defence of Croatian Vukovar initiative seeking referendum aiming at removing Serbian Cyrillic script signs from public office building – the Committee had gathered more than 650,000 signatures in their effort to seek a referendum and presented those signatures to the Croatian parliament back in December. They proposed to amend the country’s Law on National Minority Rights so bilingual rights in local government and public offices only applied in areas where the minority makes up at least 50% (and not 30% as is current). The Constitutional Court ruled that there will be no referendum on the matter and that the proposed referendum question was unconstitutional as the proposed change would undermine minority rights. In the same ruling, however, the Constitutional court said that no ban existed in principle on raising the necessary percentage of a minority in a given administrative unit (local area) for the provisions of the minority law to apply.
In other words, the court said that the people have the right to change their own legal framework with which they will operate in a local government area. It added, though, that changes “must be reasonably justified for reasons that spring from a democratic society based on the rule of law and protection of human rights”.
“The referendum question is not in line with the constitution and the referendum will not be held. However, the city authorities in Vukovar have one year to regulate where the bilingual signs can be put,” Judge Miroslav Separovic said, adding words to the effect that there should be no forced erection of bilingual signs in a local area where such erections cause unrest. Hence, opening the possibility of tighter rules regarding bilingual signage in Vukovar.
While the proposed and now denied referendum would have applied across Croatia, the Committee for the Defence of Croatian Vukovar has specifically opposed the Social Democrat-led government’s efforts to put up such signs in Vukovar, seeking that Vukovar be declared a place of special piety where there would be no Cyrillic alphabet signs on public buildings. Such demands are based on the claimed rights of victims of brutal Serb aggression in early 1990’s.
Vesna Skare-Ozbolt, member of Croatian Parliament and president of Democratic Centre party (a former justice minister in Croatia) is of the opinion that the court decision against the holding of the referendum on Cyrillic is a good foundation for a lasting solution regarding the introduction on Cyrillic in Vukovar.
“The Constitutional court, which with its decision binds Vukovar City Council to regulate within its Statutes the introduction of bilingualism within one year of the gazetting of courts decision, has in essence opened up the space of an only politically reasonable and acceptable solution of the introduction od bilingualism and that is that the government of Croatia passes a law regarding the special status of the city, which would regulate the question of postponement of introduction of Cyrillic,” said Skare-Ozbolt.
“Regardless of the referendum question I had thought that a referendum was unnecessary because the use of bilingual signs on public institutions has not been a problem anywhere in Croatia except in Vukovar,” Skare-Ozbolt added, citing recent public survey results that point to such facts.
“The Constitutional court had referred to Article 8 of the Constitutional Law of the rights of national minorities, twice and, hence, emphasised its relevance in the context of the question of the process of trust renewal and (co)habitation which, due to its complexity, requires not only a literal reading of legislative paragraphs but also the examination of the wider picture, that is, understanding of the ‘spirit of the law’. Every law … has a goal of a positive result and benefit for the society or wider community, and not destruction. Sadly, the lack of current government’s understanding – purposeful or not – of the whole problem around the introduction of bilingualism and its selective reading of the law has led to destruction and consequently to the significant erosion of the achievements made to date in the peaceful re-integration of Podunavlje area,” Skare-Ozbolt concluded.
Indeed, the largest parliamentary opposition party, Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), with its president Tomislav Karamarko had at all times during the Vukovar protests against the government’s introduction of bilingual signage in Vukovar attempted to draw the attention that the government was applying the law on minority rights without any regard to its Article 8. Without any regard to the fact that even according to the relevant law bilingual signs cannot in essence be erected if such actions cause unrest among people. HDZ’s pursuits, albeit falling on the government’s stubbornly deaf ears at the time, are now largely ‘vindicated’ within this Constitutional court decision on the referendum.
Vlado Iljkic from the Committee for the Defence of Croatian Vukovar said that the Committee was relatively satisfied with the Constitution court decision, which shows that the erection of bilingual signage in Vukovar was illegal. “The ball is now in the Vukovar City Council’s court,” he said and continued, “as to the level that applies to whole of Croatia we are dissatisfied and see that the Constitutional court is more a political than a body for justice. It’s obvious that the court had delivered its decision under various political pressures, which we had witnessed on a daily basis. For that part we will also appeal to the court in Strasbourg”.
And wouldn’t you know it: Pedja Grbin, president of the parliamentary committee for the constitution – member of the governing Social Democrats party – has announced that he will set in motion changes to the Law on referendums in Croatia! His vision would be that organisers of signature collections for a referendum would not be able to collect signatures on the streets for such petitions but for signature collection places to be designated office spaces etc.! While he tries to convince the Croatian public that collection of signatures on the streets can end up in ‘pressured’ solicitation of signatures he conveniently forgets that setting-up signature collection places within some official premises does actually open up the doors to dire corruption and political intimidation of anyone walking into such premises with signing the petition in mind! The latter being a preferred way of communist regimes and Grbin is apparently not the one who has turned his back to communism.
The developed world of democracy is used to and applauds collection of signatures for petitions on the streets as such practices support freedom of expression in a more effective way that what having to enter designated premises, which may evoke uneasy sentiments for many, do. So, one can only conclude that Social Democrats in Croatia want to control the freedom of expression of citizens by imposing rules as to where they can register their signatures for a petition to the parliament! Referendums affect citizens’ daily lives and as such collection of signatures to hold them in essence needs to occur on their streets, within their daily lives without the need to make “special trips to special places”.
Croatian presidential elections candidate Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic commented that the Constitutional court had in this case also indicated to the need for dialogue, tolerance and trust and that the government had acted wrongly by imposing bilingual signs.
“You know, if someone had murdered my children, I do not know if I would succeed in forgiving them. They have forgiven, but not forgotten so let’s not touch the old wounds,” she said and called upon talks with the people of Vukovar about their real problems, starting with the raped women, men and children, to reconstruction and creation of new jobs.
It’s clear to me that everyone bar the “Red” government and its supporters seems to know why Vukovar cannot have Cyrillic signage on public buildings for the foreseeable future. That fits into human rights of the victims of Serb aggression – they have a right to live free from fear and distress that Cyrillic signage causes them. The reality of today is that there are still a large number of unprocessed war criminals and rapists walking the streets of Vukovar; that the Croatian government is still ‘walking on eggshells’ over the horrible events of the war, thus giving excuses to the Serbs not to divulge where the Croat dead and the missing are. The fact is that Serbian Cyrillic signage is used in many villages and towns around Vukovar and Croats have no difficulties in recognising the rights of minorities but when it comes to Vukovar the right to bilingualism is far outweighed by the right of the victims to justice and for war crimes perpetrators to be held responsible for their crimes in every conceivable way including denial of their Cyrillic script on public buildings. Ina Vukic, Prof. (Zgb); B.A., M.A.Ps. (Syd)