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Stepping Forward with the Weight of the Past

April 1, 2013 - Natalia Zielińska - Bez kategorii

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This article is a special addition to New Eastern Europe Issue 2 (VII) / 2013: Painful Past, Fragile Future. To read another article related to this topic, please download the whole issue from our mobile application.

For several months, Croatia has been straddling the past and the future. On the threshold of European Union, this country is facing problems which directly associate with its Yugoslav past. Ethnic tension resulting from the introduction of bilingualism or Cyrillic and Serbian nomenclature in official use in the city of Vukovar, have developed into hate speech among politicians and led to cases of ethnic violence.

The implementation of a legal act on the protection of human, and specifically minorities, rights protection was one of the preconditions for Croatia’s international recognition in 1991. Furthermore, along with the accession, Croatia has implemented various reforms on national legislation relating to minority rights. However, the level of ethnic tension in Croatia is still being felt, which raises questions about the quality of the reforms, and therefore, the real degree of socio-political transition forced by EU integration, and the quality of transition in general.

A country in transition

With regard to the shape of the transition, Croatia has been at the centre of international attention since the beginning of the 1990s, and as the difficulties of some ethnic minority groups in Croatia were of major concern to several European institutions, they pressed the Croatian government to comply with domestic and international human rights standards.

The normative regulation and practical realisation of the freedoms and rights of people belonging to national minorities has, therefore, become an important test and measure of the degree of democratisation of society for the Republic of Croatia since maintaining its recognition, and one of the essential conditions for economic and political integration with Europe.

However, the real turn about occurred with the parliamentary election in 2000, preceded by the death of the right-wing leader, Franjo Tuđman in 1999. Only since the change in the ruling party, which occurred in 2000, has the real political transition begun. The spectacular victory of the centre-left coalition over the rightist ruling party changed the paradigm of Croatian politics according to which European integration became the priority.

The relationship between the EU and Croatia in the field of protection of minority rights is reciprocal in nature. Wars in the former Yugoslavia and the EU's inefficient response to this conflict led to the deeper involvement of EU institutions in this area in the early 1990s, regarding the possible future enlargement on these countries.

This, in turn, resulted in the incorporation of minority rights protection as one of the accession criteria throughout the Copenhagen criteria, according to which all applicant states must achieve “stability of institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights and respect for and protection of minorities”. Therefore, the involvement of the EU into the minority protection policy formulation began with granting Croatia potential candidature for EU membership status in 2000, and signing the Stabilization and Association Agreement one year after.

In April 2004, the Commission published an Opinion on Croatia’s Application for Membership of the European Union according to which, “Croatia is a functioning democracy, with stable institutions guaranteeing the rule of law. There are no major problems regarding the respect of fundamental rights.” Screening on chapter 23, which deals with fundamental rights and includes minority protection issues, has generally aligned with the acquis, and finished relatively quickly in 2006. It would seem that the issue has been resolved and the process of transformation has been successfully finished.

Nevertheless, the first signals of the growing ethnic tensions occurred in 2012 with the publication of the Comprehensive Monitoring Report on Croatia's state of preparedness for EU membership, in which several issues were pointed out such as the low level of employment among the representatives of national minorities, and the general need for the strengthening of tolerance towards minorities, in particular Croatian Serbs, as well as the need to take measures to protect those who may still be subjected to acts of threats or discrimination, hostility or violence. The Report was published in October 2012, slightly ahead of the upcoming events.

Cyrillic vs. Latin script

After more than 20 years since the end of war in former Yugoslavia, the city of Vukovar is once again the flash point of conflict. Fifteen years after peaceful reintegration of this city, the introduction of the Cyrillic script and the Serbian language has cast a new shadow not only over Croat-Serb relations in this particular region, but on the position of Serbs in Croatia in general. This public controversy, which appeared at the end of 2012, is a result of a government announcement that it was planning to introduce the official use of the Serbian language and Cyrillic script into about 20 Croatian municipalities where Serbs make up more than one-third of the population.

Ironically, this decision derives from the constitutional provision of the Law on Rights of Ethnic Minorities, the result of EU accession pressure, and, according to which, there is an obligation to introduce two languages for official use in areas where ethnic minorities make up more than one-third of the population. Therefore, it is applicable to Vukovar where, according to the 2011 census, 34.87 per cent of the population is ethnic Serbs. Moreover, the Vukovar case is not the only example of this right implementation. Croatia already has bilingual signs, in Croatian and Italian, in the northern Adriatic Istrian peninsula. Nevertheless, the issue of the Serb language and script is much more sensitive in this particular city, which became a symbol of Croatian resistance after it was devastated during the wartime siege in 1991.

The government’s decision has not only created tremendous opposition of the local population, but has also motivated citizens to actively oppose the execution of the law by organising various protests. The most significant is the declaration by the Croatian Veterans who have declared their intention to remove the signs by force once the authorities put them up. As has been noticed by international media, there is no place for rational discussion of the project, everything is based on emotions and fresh memories of war. Moreover, what increases the scope of the conflict is the prospect of the coming local elections.

However, the government's position on this is clear and stable, and despite opposition from various war veterans associations and right-wing parties, the Croatian government has been repeatedly told that the state will hold off implementation of the Constitutional Law on National Minorities, which allows the use of two languages in Vukovar.

Ethnic tension

The ethnic tension in Vukovar spread to the whole nation, highlighting the dichotomy of the political elite in this country. A few weeks later, in March 2013, Croatian Television (HRT) aired a controversial declaration of Ruža Tomašić, a member of parliament and head of the far-right Croatian Party of Rights dr. Ante Starčević, who has stirred up the Croatian political scene.

During Saturday's edition of the Dnevnik 3 programme, referring to the Croatian Serbs, she said that “all who spit on Croatia should leave the country”. On the same show, Tomašić attacked the president of Independent Democratic Serbian Party, suggesting that he was responsible for war crimes carried out by Serbian Chetniks (a Serbian military organisation). Tomašić’s declaration caused a strong reaction of the ruling, central left party SDP.

The next day, Prime Minister Zoran Milanović sharply criticised HRT saying that the television station “gave an opportunity to someone who did more than hate speech – not interrupting her while she was committing a criminal offence”. Furthermore, Tomašić plans to compete in the upcoming elections to the European Parliament, where she would represent Croatian society.

The conflict at the local level and the hate speech of national political representatives has rapidly escalated into an example of ethnically motivated violence. Later that same month, several younger Croats attacked eight Serbian orthodox theology students on their way to Krka Monastery. Six were injured, one critically. On of the victims claimed that as Croatian Serbs they are used to verbal violence, but they wouldn’t expect physical assault.

Moreover, just after the incident, one of the local representatives of the area in which the monastery is located, declared that all this happened because Krka Monastery is a nest of Chetniks in Croatia, trying to justify the act. In this case prime minister accused the opposition, right-wing Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) party of spreading the ethnic hatred.

Sadly, this has not been the only example of hate speech among Croatian officials during the last month. Also in March, the director of Croatian football club Dinamo Zagreb, Zdravko Mamić, referring to the country’s minister of sport, Željko Jovanović, officially said that being a Serb, Jovanović is generally unable to lead the sport in Croatia, and accused the minister and his country of hating everything Croatian. Sport, especially football, has long been the realm of ethnic clashes between these two countries.

Croatia's democratic legitimacy

During the last decade, particular emphasis has been placed on institutional reforms which would bring Croatia back to the Europe. On the final bend of the winding path, fulfilling European commitments exposes still fresh war memories, as well as the presence of ethic tensions and the fragility of the reforms. The sharp reactions of the national authorities along with official condemnation of every example of ethnic violence, doesn’t change the fact that one incident could cause such a wide response.

European integration has significantly contributed to the peace building process in the countries of the Western Balkan by formulating the political and institutional frameworks and defining the direction of further reforms. What remains questionable is the level of absorption of these changes and transformations at the society level, of which the spirit of tolerance is the key issue. The dilemma over whether to erect bilingual signs in the iconic border town of Vukovar in the face of hostile demonstrations poses a test for Croatia’s democratic legitimacy.

According to the most recent European Commission’s Monitoring Report, Croatia is ready to join the EU on July 1st. Moreover, the Enlargement Commissioner, Štefan Füle, praised Croatia's example for the rest of the region as proof that the EU enlargement process is working. Hopefully, last month's events in Croatia won't necessarily be shared among the other countries of the region. History has already seen similar cases.

Natalia Zielińska is a graduate student of European Studies at the University of Wrocław, a part time student at the University of Zagreb, and was an intern at the Croatian Ministry of Regional Development. She specialises in matters relating to EU regional policy, regionalisation and current policies in the countries of the former Yugoslavia, especially in terms of EU integration.

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