Thursday, 7 February 2013

Signposts that offend people!

As I've read here on Al Jazeera Balkans, 22 Croatian war veterans' associations have declared their intention to remove Serbian Cyrillic signposts and placques in Vukovar, and they're prepared to break the law to do so!

They don't get why their country's prime minister "has given up on the interests of the majority Croatian people, has given up on the truth of [their] recent history, and is selling [their] pride and sacrifice for just ten thousand votes from Vukovar Serbs!"

They also claim that the "policy of bilingualism and Cyrillics in Vukovar will give extra motivation for further the nationalist-chauvinistic plans and activities" of young local Serbs in the region of Vukovar, who allegedly go to military and para-military camps in Serbia for training. According to the undersigned, it is an "open secret" that this happens.

If you are reading this and wondering what on earth all the fuss is about, let me clear this up for you. The whole opposition Vukovar Croat veterans and supporters are raising to the enforcement of the law in favour of the local Serb minority (i.e. their rights as a demographically significant minority, amounting to over a third of the population of the wartorn city, to use their language and alphabet officially and in public) is down to the wounds of the war. Their hometown was devastated in the recent war by the JNA in 1991, and thousands of Croats (military and civilian) were killed. Although a couple of convictions have been achieved regarding at least one war crime near Vukovar (specifically Ovčara), most of the culprits of all the other war crimes are still unpunished and are probably walking freely in neighbouring Serbia.

Along with the grievances regarding the atrocities during that war, many local Croats see their ethnic Serb neighbours as collectively guilty for their suffering. In my humble opinion, I think collectivising guilt is a big problem here, so much so that any sign of Serbian culture and language is seen as an offense. As far as they're concerned, Cyrillics is the alphabet of the enemy and they don't want to see it in their beloved town, even though their Serb neighbours have the right to use it in public and see signs with it put up around town.

Some Croats, who are opposed to bilingualism being introduced in Vukovar and nearby, feel that it's too soon for it; the wounds are still fresh, but maybe in the distant future. Some are calling for a moratorium of ten to twenty years, while others are more resolute and don't think Cyrillics should ever be seen in Vukovar.

I find some of the arguments expressed by some of the estimated 20,000 protestors from an earlier protest shown in the clips of this report rather unconvincing and even disturbing. Supposedly, by introducing bilingualism, this will create deeper divisions between Croats and the Serb minority in the city; placing Cyrillics on an even level with the Roman alphabet will bring about inter-ethnic intolerance and threaten peace in Vukovar. One man among the demonstrators stated, "If they (Croatian government) give them (Serbs) Cyrillics, they'll give them everything they will ask for", the well-known "give them an inch, and they'll take a mile" line. While one veteran openly denounced and "exclusively" blamed the government in advance if any violence should occur in the city and surroundings, should they "blindly" approve of the enforcement of this law in the city of Vukovar.

(Notice how on one of banners held by those protestors, this fused Serbo-Croat flag was deliberately crossed out. I guess that's a sure sign of how much they value inter-ethnic relations, and perhaps what they think of equality between Croats and Serbs.)

I am also baffled by the assertion above that bilingualism, of all things, could have anything to do with nationalism and chauvinism! As for the allegation about young east Slavonian Serbs receiving military and para-military training in nearby Serbia, I have absolutely no idea if that's true or not, so I won't comment on it. But seriously, how is treating Serbian Cyrillics as equal to the Croatian Roman alphabet supposed to "motivate" such young men; assuming the accusation is true, surely there would be other things that would motivate such men much more than bilingual signposts?!

Personally, I'm supportive of the presence of bilingual signs etc. anywhere around the world; I'm a citizen of the world and I like languages and dialects thereof. In Wales, you have bilingual signs in Welsh and English, while in England you can find welcome signs at the entrances of schools and other institutions with greetings in other languages around the English greeting. However, not everyone considers themselves one as well, especially people from wartorn regions, where distrust and suspicion expectably abound.

I also believe in the rule of law, and minority rights are guaranteed in the Croatian constitution. However, if there is no desire to respect the constitutional law of the country, then maybe the consitution itself must be changed, as suggested by president Ivo Josipović himself. Nevertheless, the deputy leader of the largest ethnic Serb party in the country, Milorad Pupovac, explained that the constitutional law regarding the rights of national minorities is a component of Croatia's international obligations, which it accepted at the time of international recognition and accession into international institutions. He goes on to say, "One law cannot be accepted internationally but denied domestically, thus creating an image of Croatia for the outside world, where the rights of national minorities are respected, while trampling over them here".

Pupovac is of the opinion that, "…someone has obviously decided, for political reasons, to block it (the constitutional law) and turn it into a political question, which is harming inter-ethnic relations, inter-ethnic and political tolerance and is renewing wartime rhetoric and atmosphere". He also pointed out that after the protest attended by 20,000 people earlier this month, a 21 y.o. Serb from nearby Borovo got beaten up.

For me, this issue is very reminiscent of a smaller protest in Kistanje in 2010, when the local Croatian veterans' association dictated to local Serbs and their representatives which famous people should have street names in their honour and which shouldn't. Basically, such associations can come along to your hometown, lay down the law as they see fit, dictate to you how things should be according to their standards, and expect all politicians to bow down to their demands. How intimidating that must be for those on the receiving end!

Do I deny that they are voicing serious grievances that many Croats hold? Absolutely not. I condemn the crimes of Hague convicts Milan Martić and the late Milan Babić, and I believe that we, decent and honest Serbs, should be ashamed of what was done in the name of Serbdom during the '90s and condemn it all unequivocally! And I also agree that it's wrong that most Serb war crimes suspects have yet to be apprehended; it should not stay like that any longer. However, it's one thing to seek justice for serious offences that were committed in wartime, and a completely different thing to deny every sign of another culture and language in peace time, just because some dispicable members of that community did something horrible to you or a loved one. Those members have a name, and they should not assume that the wrong they did is of no consequence!

I honestly think this has everything to do with collectivising guilt; all Croatian Serbs, as far as such patriotic Croats are concerned, are suspected Chetniks, and as such, we offend them by simply making our presence known. On a bad day, they will accuse you of Greater-Serbian nationalism, while on a good day, they will expect not to have to see or hear from you. So how is an ethnic Serb living in Croatia supposed to feel? Condemned at worst, ignored at best.

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