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Bilingual signs in Vukovar

In September 2013, bilingual signs in Serbian (in Cyrillic letters) were introduced in the municipality of Vukovar in Eastern Croatia, after census showed that more than 33% of the population belonged to a Serbian national minority. This triggered numerous protests by ethnic Croats throughout the country.
Source: wikimedia

Bilingual signs undermining post-war recovery

Lana Tomić | 2013. October 28. 13:46

It took almost 20 years to achieve a minimum progress in the intercultural dialogue between Serbians and Croatians in a town which was most destroyed by the Yugoslavian army in the Croatian war for independence. If some printed banners threaten this recovery, they need to be removed.

Before the Croatian War of Independence Vukovar was a prosperous, mixed community of Croats, Serbs and other ethnic groups. The 87-day long Siege of Vukovar, the longest and bloodiest one in the War, which took place from 25 August to 18 November 1991, changing the face of the multicultural baroque town forever. Numerous war crimes were committed, leading to more than a thousand civilian deaths, of whom several hundred are still missing. After the fall of the town, the United Nations decided to intervene.
Fortunately, in the last decade, there has been a climate of change. Serbian and Croatian populations started to function together again. Today, discovering whether someone's surname is Croatian or Serbian is not the most important thing anymore. However, the fragile political recovery of the community was shaken in June 2013.

*The artificial language issue

Let's start with the most obvious fact. The Croatian and Serbian languages are mutually intelligible; the majority of linguists consider them the same language. Yet, the Croatian language uses Latin script while Serbian is digraphic: the Republic of Serbia has got two official scripts, Latin and Cyrillic. Therefore, technically one of the official scripts of the Serbian minority is already being used. The official requirement is the followig: “Equal official use of language and script used by members of a national minority is to be implemented in local government units where the members of national minorities constitute at least third of the population.” However, it is nowhere stated that ‘every’ official script needs to be used.

*European requirements – national solutions

As a member of the European Union, and more precisely, signer of the Convention for the Protection of National Minorities and the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, Croatia is obviously obliged to implement European law. However, the current situation in Vukovar is a very special internal affair, which cannot be solved exclusively with a formula imposed upon Croatia by the EU. This seems to be understood in Brussels too. When asked about possible reaction to the demonstrations several weeks ago, Denis Abbott, spokesman of the European Commission for Education, Culture, Multilingualism and Youth, said that the “respect of cultural and linguistic diversity is a cornerstone of the EU and recognised in EU law”. However, he added that "national language policies, such as this one, are not regulated by EU law, and are within the jurisdiction of the Member States”. Abbott added that the Commission understood the sensitivity of such issues and that it called for tolerance. If the supranational governance understands the sensibility of the issue, why can't the national one do so?

*What veterans fought for

As the protests are mostly lead by war veterans, or their relatives, the government introduced another sanction: disrespecting of bilingual signs equals disrespecting Croatian law and the Constitution which, consequently, means downgrading everything those very same soldiers were fighting for. On the other side, former soldiers, or those who lost relatives in war, look at it like this: soldiers were certainly not fighting for a free country with these kind of laws! This may sound chauvinist – as parties in favour of the law called it – nevertheless, introducing a Cyrillic script in Vukovar at this point in time is a ridiculous idea. It openly disregards the feelings of those who created this country, and of those who are their direct descendants. If it was not for them, there would be no such thing as Croatian law – whether to be or not to be respected.

*Misreading the spirit of the law

Article 8 of the Constitutional Law on Rights of National Minorities states: “The provisions of this Constitutional Law and the provisions of special laws regulating the rights and freedoms of members of national minorities shall be interpreted and applied with the purpose of compliance with national minorities and of the Croatian people, the development of understanding, solidarity, tolerance and dialogue among them.” Since this law did exactly the opposite, its interpretation and applicability is clearly wrong, and therefore needs to be changed.


Respect of the law, respect of minorities

Toni Silić | 2013. October 28. 13:46

All of the conditions, including more than 33% of the population belonging to the national minority, have been met in the municipality of Vukovar. Since the local minority council requested them, not introducing the signs would represent the direct violation of the Croatian law and the Constitution.

The Croatian Constitution as well as the Constitutional law on Rights of National Minorities clearly states conditions under which bilingual signs are to be introduced. The Constitutional Law on national minorities is an “organic law”, meaning it was introduced by 2/3 parliamentary majority, more than 10 years ago. At the time, the law represented a consensus between both the ruling party and the opposition. Article 12 of the law defines usage of the official language and script: “In municipalities where members of certain national minority compose at least 1/3 of total population there is a right of equal usage of minority language and script”. It is important that local minority councils request introduction of bilingual signs on governmental buildings; that is exactly what happened in Vukovar in early 2013.

*Respecting a multicultural tradition

National minorities and their languages have a long tradition in Croatia and are embedded in society. For years, bilingual signs in Serbian, Italian, and Czech existed already in municipalities where national minorities represent significant proportions of the population (more than 33%). After the 2011 census eighteen more municipalities are expected to introduce bilingual signs in Serbian, one in Italian, one in Czech, one in Hungarian and 1 in Slovak. Not introducing bilingual signs in the municipality of Vukovar would directly discriminate local minority residents, since they wouldn’t be granted the same rights as other citizens in the country.

*Croatia: a responsible EU-member

Croatia is the member of the European Union and the Council of Europe, therefore a signatory of a number of agreements and conventions which support minority rights and their rights of language usage, such as the Convention for the Protection of National Minorities and the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. In order to protect and improve minority rights, Croatia signed bilateral agreements with Italy, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia. These agreements support the usage of minority languages as well as the introduction of bilingual signs. Therefore not introducing the bilingual signs would be against international obligations that Croatia signed.

*Illegitimate politicizing of the issue

The ethnic Croat majority protested against the introduction of bilingual signs bringing up the Serbian aggression in Vukovar that happened in 1991. Although war memories still remain fresh in many municipalities throughout Croatia, bilingual signs never represented such an important political question as they do now in Vukovar. Protesters and war-veterans are supported by the HDZ-Croatian Democratic Union, the biggest opposition party in Croatia. It should be noted that HDZ in 2001/2002 voted for the introduction of the Constitutional law on minorities which highly discredits their position. Political analysts agree that the issue on bilingualism remains an internal political problem rather than a legal issue.

*Violent demonstrations – intolerable in a democracy

All arguments support the introduction of bilingual signs in the Vukovar municipality. Protesters could exercise their democratic right and try to influence the legislative procedure if they wish to do so, but they should refrain from violent protests and destruction of bilingual signs.

By insisting on progressive minority laws and protecting the most vulnerable ones in the community, we enhance our society and democratic processes in our country.


This article convinced me.

This article deliberately presents only one of the many existing points of views of this contorversial subject. Its content is not necessarily representative of its author's personal opinion. Please have a look at Duel Amical's philosophy.

This article convinced me.

This article deliberately presents only one of the many existing points of views of this contorversial subject. Its content is not necessarily representative of its author's personal opinion. Please have a look at Duel Amical's philosophy.

The state of votes


Bilingual signs undermining post-war recovery

Lana Tomić

Respect of the law, respect of minorities

Toni Silić


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