Appraising Croatia As Nation In Transit From Communism

Referendums in Croatia

On its website, the US based “Freedom House” says about itself that it “is an independent watchdog organization dedicated to the expansion of freedom around the world”.

Whether Freedom House is an independent organisation is an issue that is best judged by individuals at large; while its research figures and scales upon which it measures progress in freedom can be considered reliable and valid, its commentary may not be. Individuals who may or may not be politically biased usually produce commentaries.

When it comes to transitioning from totalitarian communist regime to democracy, such as the case is in Croatia, nobody who is democratically-minded would argue against having as many watchdogs as possible. Keeping a sharp eye on the progress of democratic reform in both law and daily living is a must, especially given that no one loyal to or having been a part of the communist regime will admit to having done anything wrong within the spheres to freedom and human rights. That, at the end of the day, is a failing of human nature, but human nature nevertheless. Watchdogs, therefore, need partners on the ground that will, in case the government fails, act in the interests of achieving freedom and democracy for the people.

Freedom House has just released its 2014 Report: Nations in Transit 2014—the 18th edition of Freedom House’s comprehensive report on post-communist democratic governance—highlights recent setbacks to democracy across Eurasia and the Balkans, as well as in Central Europe.

The Key Findings in this report include:
• “The Balkans registered some positive developments during the year, including Croatia’s EU accession and a historic agreement between Kosovo and Serbia, but dysfunctional governments continued to drive down democracy scores in the region overall”.

Judging by this report, among the 29 countries rated Croatia rates among the bottom lot for democratic progress, with a decline in Electoral Process and Judicial Framework/Independence.

The scores pinned to Croatia in this Report suggest inadequate democratic progress in corruption fighting, in media independence, in local and state governance, in independence of judiciary and in electoral process while the category “Civil Society” has according to it just passed the mid-way point towards the positive mark.

It’s a given that Croatia needs many more “drastic” changes and positive moves in order to achieve a fuller, a meaningful democracy. There have been many barriers and obstacles in this path during the past two decades, particularly those that have seen the former communists’ reluctance to let go off the communist past and condemn its dark and freedom obstructing sides. There’s no doubt that the current Social Democrats led government as well as the communism loyal presidents since year 2000 have contributed alarmingly to a disturbing stale-mate in the democratisation of Croatia.

Civil Society is considered a positive facet of democracy; it reflects the aggregate of non-governmental organisations and institutions that manifest interests and will of citizens. Freedom House report acknowledges this as a positive progress in Croatian democracy and yet it characterises citizens’ initiatives for referendum as an effort of “a broader rise in activism by ultra-conservative groups within Croatian society, many of which are nationalist in orientation…”.

Hence, it would seem that while considering Civil Society as healthy democracy in its aforementioned Report Freedom House tends to label those elements of Civil Society that are fighting for democracy in Croatia against the communist leaning powers as “ultra-nationalistic”! It seems democracy-hungry Croats cannot win, whatever they do –  they are undeservedly often labelled with negative connotations (?).

What a shame for democracy! This appalling wind of labels blows from left-wing politics -which in this case are seen as pro-communist – given that it lacks criticism of high-handed, controlling government, when it comes to achieving progress with democracy.

No wonder, then, that Croatia has seen a strong rise in organised citizens’ groups seeking democratic changes and progress in respecting the will of the citizens. The current government and the president of Croatia seem to be “surprised” at the intensity some citizens’ organisations are attempting to have their views heard; one could hear from the Prime Minster Zoran Milanovic’s lips words such as “this referendum will never pass while I am the Prime Minister” – and that was in relation to the highly successful collection of signatures organised by the Headquarters for the Defence of Croatian Vukovar for a referendum on the Cyrillic script on public buildings in Vukovar. Although all conditions for a referendum have been met by the citizens (enough verified signatures on petition etc.) the government still doesn’t know what to do with this reality – i.e., its actively denying or heavy-handedly stalling the citizens in holding a referendum, implementing a constitutional right.

The latest “Civil Society” moves in Croatia include steps taken for a referendum on matters of the electoral process, which is, by the way, given a relatively low score for democratic progress by Freedom House. Also, moves by Trade Unions for a referendum against the government announced privatisation or outsourcing of government ancillary services (cleaning etc.) and one can almost feel a new issue surfacing for a referendum: against retirement age of 67…

All in all, the citizens are “on the streets” in Croatia because the democratic and consultative process on major issues affecting its citizens is at standstill, leaning backwards! And backwards is towards communist-like oppression.

And so, let the Freedom House label Croatian citizens’ initiatives for democratic change as “ultra-nationalistic” as much as it likes, I will, for one, heed the suggestion of the Croatian Cultural Council’s journalist contributor Ivan Miklenic: “In line of this, all the citizens’ initiatives should be greeted, supported and joined”.

Ina Vukic, Prof. (Zgb); B.A., M.A.Ps. (Syd)

Croatia: About Cyrillic In Vukovar

Collecting signatures for referendum on Vukovar  Photo: FaH/ Damir SENCAR /ds

Collecting signatures for referendum on Vukovar
Photo: FaH/ Damir SENCAR /ds

When a group of EU parliamentarians get together to sign an open letter or statement against an issue hotly circling among the people in one of the EU member states then we start feeling uneasy about democratic freedom and political pressure and machinations evidently designed to spread certain fear or uneasiness.

The Committee for the Defence of Croatian Vukovar has collected 680,000 signatures initiating a referendum process in Croatia regarding bilingualism. The issue of Cyrillic script signage on public buildings has been at the forefront of current affairs and restlessness in Croatia for almost a year. I have written articles on this previously.
The question for the referendum is formulated as follows: “Do you agree that Article 12, clause 1, of the Constitutional Law on rights of national minorities be changed so that it reads: Equal official use of the language and script used by members of national minorities is realised in the area of local government, state government and judiciary when members of individual national minority make up at least one half of the population of that area.”
On 20th December 73 MEPs (Mainly Greens, Social Democrats and Liberals) and the European Language Equality Network (ELEN is the new European level NGO working for the promotion and protection of lesser-used languages and linguistic rights) have sent in open letters to the Croatian media voicing their concerns over the proposed referendum about Cyrillic script in Vukovar, which, if successful, would according to them undermine national minority rights, for example, raising the threshold for bilingual provision in a municipality from 33% to 50%. ELEN group say the referendum would adversely affect Serbs, Czechs, Slovaks, Italians, Hungarians, Jews, Germans, Austrians, Ukrainians, Rusins, Bosniaks, Slovenians, Montenegrins, Macedonians, Russians, Bulgarians, Polaks, Roma, Romanians, Turks, Vlachs and Albanian national minorities and contravene the Treaties that Croatia ratified in order to join the EU.
Croatian news agency HINA reports that Tomislav Josic, a leading activist in the campaign against Cyrillic signs on public institutions in the eastern Croatian town of Vukovar, has said that the issue of dual-alphabet signs is a matter for Croatia and not for the European Union.
If only our deputies were fighting for more funds from EU and for the benefit of Croatia. However, they are fighting for some other things. The Europeans are being asked to give their opinion on minorities in Croatia, while we know that in France there are no minorities at all,” Josic said.
As for 73 signatories of that letter, Josic interpreted it as only a 10% of possible signatures in the European Parliament, while the group whose leader he is collected “60%” of signatures for a petition for a referendum in Croatia on how to regulate the right of minorities to use their language and alphabet.
Josic said that it seemed to him that the activists “will be forced to collect signatures also in the European Parliament“.

Vesna Skare-Ozbolt Photo:

Vesna Skare-Ozbolt

Vesna Skare-Ozbolt (a Lawyer with post-graduate studies in Criminal law. She served as legal advisor to the late President Franjo Tudjman for ten years. She led the process of Peaceful reintegration of Eastern Slavonia in the late 1990’s. She was Minister of Justice of the Republic of Croatia (2003-2006) and author and initiator of many legislative proposals in Croatia. She served as elected member of Croatian Parliament over three mandates from year 2000. She is also President of Democratic Centre party. Honorary citizen of Vukovar, Ilok and Brela. 1998 Woman of the Year. Decorated with the Order of Croatian Interlace, Order of Croatian Trefoil and Order of Katarina Zrinski and Vukovar Medal.  Source:
recently wrote an article “Cyrillic and the triumph of Prime Minister Milanovic’s Will”, which was published in portal and translated into English by Sonja Valcic.

After months of the status of “neither war nor peace” between the Croatian government and the Committee for the Defence of the City of Vukovar, due to the introduction of bilingualism, it has become clear that the issue cannot be solved by implementing the law ”by force.”  The citizens of Vukovar wanted that their city be granted a status of Memorial City of Victims of Serbian Aggression and as such to be exempted from the introduction of Cyrillic alphabet.

Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic had no understanding for this proposal nor did he bother to examine legal options for the realization of this proposal. Instead of listening to the politically wise President Dr. Ivo Josipovic who advocated the dialogue with the Vukovar citizens, Milanovic gave green light for setting bilingual sign plates at the crack of dawn. From that moment on, all hell broke loose: the normalization process painstakingly built for years was compromised; bilingual sign plates were flying from the Vukovar façades and from those in other cities, and the blood was shed. This was the result of placing bilingual sign plates in Vukovar which Prime Minister Milanovic called ”the triumph of the Croatian will and the state” whereas in reality that was only a triumph of his own will.

After the Croatian Parliament had refused to put the issue of Cyrillic on the agenda, the Committee had no other option but to launch an initiative for a referendum. But, since the introduction of Cyrillic alphabet in Vukovar is a complex issue, both from the legal and human perspective it is of no surprise that  the referendum question is ill-conceived: while it could not have been asked for an explicit ban on the use of the Cyrillic as this would be discriminatory, it remains unclear why the ban on the use of minority languages extends to state administration and judiciary.  Moreover, the raising of threshold for obtaining minority rights from the current 33% to 50% represents de facto a step backward in the protection of minority rights.
What is important to underline is that a deadline for the introduction of bilingual sign plates in Vukovar is an internal matter of the Republic of Croatia. The official position of the European Commission is that the issue of ”bilingual signs is within the competence of the Member States”, thus, it is utterly inappropriate for the Croatian government to „pull up the sleeve „ of the EC, begging support for the introduction of Cyrillic! The European Union does not insist on bilingualism at all costs as there are many EU member countries which have not yet resolved this issue in the best way:  i.e., Slovakia has rather restrictive laws on the use of the Hungarian minority language; Estonia also has not resolved the situation with the Russian minority, etc.
Judging by over 580,000 signatures collected for the referendum on Cyrillic across the country, the conditions for introducing Cyrillic in Vukovar are not met: the citizens of Vukovar are still waiting that war criminals who, due to the lack of evidence at the moment of the promulgation of the Amnesty Law escaped from justice, are waiting for the citizens of Serbian nationality to help them find their missing citizens which can be done in a way that would not put local Serbs at risk. It is time that the Serbs from Vukovar take an active role in building of co-existence; just asking for their rights but not wanting to reveal information about the missing and killed is not a good way towards building a good relationship with the Croats in Vukovar.
In such circumstances the only politically correct option would be to leave the representatives of both Serb national minority and those of Croatian citizens to agree when the time for introducing of Cyrillic is ripe. Until this moment, there are no legal obstacles for granting a special status to the city including the postponement of the introduction of Cyrillic by law, without bidding deadlines from both sides. There are some who say that such status would ”freeze” the development of the city, but it makes no sense: only happy people who have jobs and the youth who sees the prospect for their future make one city alive. It could be assumed that some do not like to see Vukovar being portrayed as a victim and they would prefer that all signs be eliminated suggesting Croatia was a victim of Serbian aggression.
For the time being the speculation that for the Croatian Serbs Cyrillic is important only as a step toward restoring the status of a state-building nation and for a potential autonomy in the future, needs to be put aside. The only thing which is now important is to let the people of Vukovar decide on Cyrillic themselves…
Even if the referendum does not take place – as the Constitutional Court of the Republic of Croatia will probably be called to establish whether the issue of the referendum is constitutional or not – all the effort of the Committee for the Defence of the City of Vukovar was not in vain: a huge number of signatures in favour of referendum collected across Croatia is the message to the Government that this issue cannot be resolved from the office of the St. Mark’s Square but only through a dialogue with the representatives of both nationalities living in the City of Vukovar.
This is also a message to Milorad Pupovac, the representative of the Croatian Serb minority and the president of SDSS (Independent Democratic Serb Party) to refrain from providing inappropriate statements regarding the referendum initiative, such as ”…Milosevic did the same thing in Serbia…” as such statements aggravate not only the position of the Serbs in Vukovar but also in the entire Croatia. Moreover these signatures are also a message to all the politicians to stop their political trading across the back of the citizens of Vukovar.

During the past couple of weeks there has been a significant number of criticisms about the formulation of the referendum question (as set out above). Many say it is not well formulated in the legal sense. Hence we are awaiting a decision from the Constitutional court in Croatia regarding the matter. There is a fair consensus among legal professionals (including the author of above article, Vesna Skare-Ozbolt) that it would have perhaps been much better had the referendum concentrated on declaring Vukovar as a special place of piety (perhaps it should have included other Croatian towns too).

One can expect that whatever the Constitutional court decide the referendum will go ahead; perhaps even a re-formulation of the question will be called for? However, it would seem to me that the desired status of a special place of piety would have formed a platform for a more positive move towards bringing closure to the still open questions of war in Croatia. This way there does not seem to be any word in association with the referendum on the still missing persons, there are no positive movements in holding the Serbs accountable for the horrors perpetrated against Croatia, there are multitudes of known or suspected Serb war criminals that have achieved amnesty for their crimes through deals made by former Croatian governments and president and this amnesty is a deep and open wound to Croats – and there are more and more accusations against Croatia regarding “the horrors” persons suffered as Serbs in Croatia in 1991!

It is to be emphasised that, regardless of media write-ups or claims to the contrary, Croats have never been against the rights of ethnic minorities and they have never even expressed anything against positive discrimination when it comes to minorities. Someone or some group with political agendas are obviously trying to turn the fight for victims’ rights in Vukovar into discrimination against minority rights!

It is to be remembered that during Croatia’s negotiations with the EU, for membership, Croatia was expected to behave in line of some political precedent towards its open enemy (Serbia). The pressure for this “task”, which no self-respecting nation would ever place upon itself and which often bore the hallmarks of humiliation, seemed to come from Britain and its political satellites in the EU (perhaps even the same players who hoodwinked Croatia into the unnatural Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes in 1918 – the Kingdom to be ruled by Serb king, who married into Queen Victoria’s family?). One could see that this pressure was never about creating rights for the Serb minority in Croatia but about creating chaos in Croatia, creating radical social situations and eventually stopping Croatia from becoming a member of the EU in order to achieve a new re-arrangement of political positions in the region. Along with this went the trumped-up charges against Croatian leadership for the so-called joint criminal enterprise during the Carla Del Ponte ICTY prosecution leadership. Aware of such positions the Croatian Serbs continued serving those interests, especially their leaders, openly positioned themselves as some kind of partners of the Republic of Croatia, without an inkling of a real intention to integrate into Croatia’s cultural, political, social and community values.

And so, the question of 50% rather than 33% of ethnic minority in a local government area of Croatia for achieving the right to bilingual usage does not seem to relate to ethnic minorities but rather to an authentic issue of national interests and the threshold of protest against humiliation.  And, indeed, Croatia simply cannot be a hostage to the real Greater Serbia and anti-Croatian politics. The 680,000 signatures for the referendum say that loud and clear! Ina Vukic, Prof. (Zgb); B.A., M.A.Ps. (Syd)


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