Cause and Effect in European Politics and Law

Vukovar - the Wounded City

Adelina Marini, October 11, 2013

When in the beginning of July I went with colleagues to Vukovar, the city was boiling with construction works. Streets and public buildings were being renovated, the heat was saturated with dust and a feeling of renewal. The scars of the war, however, were striking hard. A part of the houses are still with the bullet holes, while others are like taken from a real estate catalogue. As the owner of a brand new small hotel in the city centre told me, which even managed to get a European green award, the houses with bullets belong to Serbs, while the new ones belong to the Croats. However, this is not quite precise. Everyone who owned property before the war got assistance from the Croatian state to restore their homes after the almost complete devastation of the city by the Yugoslav army in the beginning of the 1990s.

Regretfully, Drago, a Serb, was not that lucky and his house lives on with its scars. Those, however, are the visible wounds. About the invisible ones told me his daughter - a wonderful Vukovarian girl who is soon to graduate from high school and who dreams to study stomatology in Novi Sad. It is close to her not only geographically. She told me that in Vukovar children in kindergartens and schools are divided - the Serbs study in a separate shift from the Croats. May be the most famous, outside Vukovar, mark of post-war hostility in the city are the two renowned cafés in the city centre. One is owned by a Serb and the other by a Croat. The two are side by side. And this is how they are visited - the Serb one is visited by Serbs, the other one by Croats. Drago tells me that into the years it was becoming a less of a problem a Serb to drink coffee in the Croat café if there were no free seats in the Serb one, but this is rather in the day. In the evenings, he says, alcohol is consumed and it is possible that a spark could flare up out of nothing. Then it becomes unpleasant.

Although, indeed, with the years and the fresh membership of Croatia in the EU some kind of an ostensible balance is achieved, tensions can be felt. The lid of the pot lifts every time one starts asking about their problems. Often people I talked to refused to be photographed or to tell their names because they fear that, after all, they will remain to live with their fellow-citizens - good or bad - and there must be peace and calm. Representatives of the party of the Serb minority in Vukovar are also suspicious to journalists who want to find whom they can talk to about the lives of Serbs and Croats after the end of the war and, most of all, with the change that happened after Croatia's accession in the EU - some of the small border crossing points, for instance, were closed due to the lack of agreements between Serbia and Croatia.

This fact causes some inconvenience, though for a very small group of ethnic Serbs who own farm lands across the Danube river. Now they have to walk around in order to reach their lands, but this did not seem to be their biggest concern, while I talked with them. Everything went somewhat normally (after Vukovar's standards) until the moment when the introduction of double language inscriptions on public buildings started - in Latin alphabet and in Cyrillic. The need for these stems from the results of the latest census in Croatia in 2011, the first data from which were published in the end of 2012. They showed unequivocally that more than a third of the Vukovar population are Serbs. According to the Constitutional Law, this requires the minority in question to get an opportunity to use their language both in personal and public lives.

In the beginning of the year, the issue of introduction of Cyrillic alphabet in Vukovar caused serious tensions and was in the headlines of Croatian media for months, as this website wrote. Until the situation escalated in the end of August when members of the Staff of Vukovar defenders began organising protests and public destruction of the signboards. To such an extent that the police were forced to protect the signboards at least on the police headquarters in the city.

A 14-day ultimatum

On October 9th, the Staff has sent an ultimatum to the cabinet to suspend the introduction of the double-language boards because, otherwise, they will cause serious troubles by, for instance, organising defenders from all over Croatia to gather in Vukovar and destroy the inscriptions with all the consequences this might have. The situation started to spill over in other places where for years there have been double-language boards in Cyrillic and Latin, but since recently sporadic destruction has begun. Deputy Chairman of the Independent Democratic Serb Party Milorad Pupovac warned against playing with fire and called on all leaders in the country, including opposition leader Tomislav Karamarko, to be cautious. Karamarko is one of the people who most actively and publicly lobbies Vukovar to be pronounced a place of special worship and the provisions of the Constitutional law, affecting the introduction of Cyrillic inscriptions, not to be applied.

Analysts and journalists in Croatia believe that the topic is highly politicised and that Mr Karamarko is taking advantage of the tensions to shake the government because he wants to cause early elections. In the beginning of the new political season he announced he was ready to become a prime minister no matter his continuously falling personal rating as well as the rating of the party he leads - the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ). He denies all accusations and states that the only thing he wants is to ensure the peace and calm in Vukovar, which cannot happen by sticking to the law.

Zoran Milanovic's government, however, is on the contrary position. Prime Minister Milanovic opened yesterday's cabinet session addressing the matter, saying that Croatia is a rule of law country no matter which part of its territory is concerned. He announced his readiness to talk to representatives of the Staff of defenders, but underscored that there was nothing to do because the law should be enforced. We have no choice, he said. "Not regretfully, not fortunately. Simply this is how things should function", the premier added and pointed out that he expected representatives of the Staff on Friday to come for a meeting. I want us to talk decently, but hardly anything will change, Milanovic added.

On the agenda of the government session on October 10th, under point 4a was included a demand by a third of Croatian members of Parliament because of the tensions in Vukovar the cabinet to undertake all possible legislative measures to postpone the application of Article 7 of the Constitutional law on the rights of national minorities, which envisages when there is a third representatives of a minority they to be provided with inscriptions on public buildings in their language. The minister of administration, Arsen Bauk, however recalled that Croatia was a party to a number of international conventions and bilateral agreements, which is why it is impossible that it does not stick to its commitments. Not less impossible is Croatia to ignore its own Constitutional law, adopted in 2002, as well as its post-war Declaration in which it committed to secure the rights of all its minorities.

Mr Bauk also quoted the last monitoring report of the European Commission before Croatia's accession in which are welcomed the government's efforts to ensure the implementation of the constitutional provisions for the use of Cyrillic alphabet in Vukovar, where Croats of Serb ethnic origin represent 38.5% of the population. The rights of the minorities were discussed during the accession negotiations of Croatia, especially in the context of the key Chapter 23 "Judiciary and Fundamental Rights". During the entire period of negotiations the Commission was encouraging the country to continue to enhance the protection of minorities, including by effectively applying the Croatian constitutional provisions related to national minorities. At this stage the Commission has no intention to interfere because it believes Croatia had made enough commitments it sticks to for now.

A melting city

And if the threats of the defenders cause fear of serious troubles, for many Vukovarians the serious problems are purely economic. In the beginning of July I spoke to the deputy mayor of Vukovar, Srdjan Milakovic. A young and very energetic Serb who with sadness told me that, in fact, the main problem of the Vukovar citizens were bad economic conditions. That sounded a bit odd against the background of the indeed intensive construction works. That is correct, he says, now the second phase of the city restoration is taking place. First, money was invested in restoring the houses and now the public infrastructure is being renovated. Until these processes end, however, Vukovar will remain without people, he says.

According to the report about the economic situation of the Vukovar-Srjem Zupanja (administrative region), to which Vukovar is the main city, the population has shrank almost double since 1991. Then its citizens were 46 543, in 2001 they dropped to 31 670 and in 2011 were counted 28 016 Vukovarians. For many years the gross domestic product has been on the decline, too, the industrial production, the fiscal gap is constantly growing, unemployment and indebtedness as well. By the end of August this year the number of unemployed in the city was 24.6% or 4 886 people. The city has the second lowest gross domestic product per capita in Croatia. If the country average is 10 111 euros, in Vukovar-Srjem zupanja the GDP per capita is almost twofold less - 5 974 euros.

Vukovarians are doomed to leave the city either because of the lack of a job and perspective or due to the impossibility to live together. Local people told me that the cases of open or not as open discrimination against Serbs in the city are not rare. There are cases of physical attacks, too, although sporadic. Vukovar is an open wound and it is a wound not only for Vukovarians or even Croatia. On the way it will be treated depends how the entire region of former Yugoslavia will heal its wounds from the bloodiest war in Europe after World War II. This will be very important in view of the upcoming historical, it can freely be said, summit between the president of Serbia Tomislav Nikolic and his Croatian counterpart Ivo Josipovic on October 15th in Belgrade. One, indeed, highly anticipated summit during which, as Nikolic said in an interview with the Croatian daily Jutarnji list, all unresolved issues will be on the table.

And Nikolic is responsible for the non-healing of the wound Vukovar when he called the city "a Serb city" during his election campaign last year. Prime Minster Milanovic made it perfectly clear what it meant healing a wound: "I can personally say that as a Croat in Croatia I stand behind the rights of minorities and the minorities themselves just the way I, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, as a Croat, fight and in a civilised way stand for those who are a few. They might not officially be a minority, but are a few. We have the same criteria at home and abroad". That is how it has to be. Otherwise, the war is not over yet.

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