Croatia: No Referendum But Vukovar Gets A Chance To Regulate Against Serbian Cyrillic

Remembering Vukovar Croatia

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)

Related posts:
Navigating via clicking on “Cyrillic” tag on the left side-bar of this blog will lead you to several articles regarding the topic of Cyrillic in Vukovar

Croatia: No-Serbian Cyrillic On Public Buildings Gains Meritorious Momentum

Tomislav Josic,  Committee for the defence of Croatian Vukovar Photo: Patrik Macek/Pixsell

Tomislav Josic,
Committee for the defence of Croatian Vukovar
Photo: Patrik Macek/Pixsell

The Croatian parliament had July 15 decided to hand the sensitive matter of whether or not to hold a referendum against the use of the Serbian Cyrillic alphabet on state offices in the city of Vukovar to the Constitutional Court.

Referendum supporters say that Cyrillic symbolically represents the utter terror and the horror inflicted upon innocent Croats in Vukovar as they went about seceding from communist Yugoslavia, seeking through democratic peaceful processes their freedom and democracy. The government (whose political predecessors, although a minority, did not want to secede from communist Yugoslavia) evidently has little or no empathy with the suffering of the Croatian people at the hands of Serb aggressor has after months of the parliamentary committee’s dragging out signature verifications objected to the referendum, calling it uncivilized and in violation of the country’s international obligations. It will now be up to the Constitutional Court to decide.

Vukovar, as the world already knows, is a city devastated to the ground through Serb aggression, ethnic cleansing of non-Serbs, mass murders and mass rapes during the war for Croatian independence in 1991. In November/December 2013 the group of Croatian citizens consisting mainly of war veterans “Committee for the defence of Croatian Vukovar” after a series of protests against bilingual signs on public buildings in Vukovar, which included the tearing down of these and consequent unrests and arrest as well as violent attacks against the protesters by members of the police, collected over 600,000 signatures for a referendum aiming to raise to 50% (compared with 33% under the current law), the minimum level for minority groups living in a city or a municipality to enjoy the right to bilingualism on public buildings, institutions. The “Committee for the defence of Croatian Vukovar” group and its many supporters want the city that suffered the most in the war (Vukovar) to be declared a place of special piety.

The Committee’s member and legal adviser, Vlado Iljkic, said last week “with the referendum question we are returning to the standards that were in the Constitutional law regarding minority rights when its application did not create opposition and problems, i.e. it was not detrimental”. He added that minorities realised their rights then based on the Constitutional law based on discretionary powers of local government such as was the case for Czechs in the town of Daruvar and based on international agreements such as for the Italians in Istria.

Expressing fear that pressure had been mounting on the Constitutional Court to declare the referendum question unconstitutional, the Committee for the Defence of Croatian Vukovar leader Tomislav Josic said this week that the referendum question was in line with the constitution and did not encroach on the rights which local Serbs had so far exercised.

If the Constitutional Court finds the referendum question on bilingualism in local communities contrary to the Croatian Constitution, activists who launched the referendum initiative will address the European Court for Human Rights in Strasbourg, leaders of the “Committee for the Defence of the Croatian Vukovar”, said at a news conference in Vukovar on Thursday 24 July.

The Committee’s leader, Tomislav Josic, explained that in Croatia, ethnic minorities could exercise their rights in compliance with three sets of rules: the constitutional law on minority rights, local government statutes and international treaties.

I expect the Constitutional Court to allow the referendum question, and then let the people of Croatia decide on the matter at the referendum,” Josic said.

Although the Vukovar Committee holds that the survey question was incorrectly formulated, the recent survey (March – May 2014) conducted by the Ivo Pilar Institute shows that a majority of the Croatians would vote against raising the threshold from the current one third requirement to over 50% for enabling minorities to use their language and scrip at public places.
However, when it comes to Vukovar, a marked majority of the respondents, or nearly two thirds (64.4%), are against Cyrillic signs on public institutions in Vukovar.
Also, 38.3% of those polled believe that Vukovar should be permanently exempt from dual-alphabet signs, and 26.1% hold that more time is needed before such a move.

The above Ivo Pilar Institute research clearly demonstrates that people of Croatia are overwhelmingly aware of the need to address Vukovar as the city that is the victim and symbol to be remembered of brutal Serb aggression. It’s a pity that the government doesn’t recognise, or rather – accept, the pulse of the nation it governs. There is absolutely nothing uncivilised about the plights for justice for the victims and the memory humanity owes them regardless of the fact that the Croatian bizarrely out of touch government would like to argue differently. Any international obligations a country “owes” to a civilised world is to uphold the will of the majority of its people while upholding rights of minorities to a degree that does not threaten sovereignty, its sovereign rights and duties to abide by the will of its people and to respect the memory that shapes its nation. Once those aspects are in place everything else can follow, including reconciliation of the past. I trust that the Croatian Constitutional court will reiterate such rights and obligations towards Croatian people and rule the referendum question valid. Indeed, if one digs into the arrangements for ethnic minority rights within leading EU Western European member states one can easily come to the conclusion that newer member states from Eastern and South Eastern Europe are “forced” to adhere to standards regarding minorities the “old” member states do not meet, nor are – to my knowledge – contemplating on meeting. The Ivo Pilar Institute survey on referendum regarding Serbian Cyrillic script in Vukovar has given unquestionable merit to the pursuits for Vukovar’s victims’ justice led by the Committee for the Defence of Croatian Vukovar. It is no longer a matter of the Committee and its supporters but a matter considered worthy across Croatia and this is a most timely message for the Constitutional Court that was founded on the blood of Victims of Vukovar – of Croatia! Ina Vukic, Prof. (Zgb); B.A., M.A.Ps. (Syd)

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