Cause and Effect in European Politics and Law

Record Political Heat in Croatia

Adelina Marini, August 25, 2015

This summer was unusually hot with temperature records being set. July was announced to be the hottest in record. There was serious heat on the political scene as well. The inherited problems from former Yugoslavia put serious tension on Croatia’s relations with Slovenia and Serbia, especially with the latter. Right at the peak of the July heat the relations between Zagreb and Ljubljana got seriously tense. The reason being the findings that a Slovenian judge of the Arbitration Tribunal, set up to resolve the border dispute between the two countries over the Gulf of Piran, had an unauthorised relationship with an employee from the Slovenian foreign ministry. This unleashed a wave of mutual accusations from both sides of the border. The Slovenian government asked for the work of the Tribunal to continue but Croatia expressly refused.

The unity, with which Croatia marked the Tribunal as “compromised”, was remarkable. One can rarely see such consensus between political opponents and media in the country. On the Croatian government’s proposal the parliament of the country voted unanimously on July 29th for Croatia’s exit from the Arbitration Tribunal. Slovenia objected to the unilateral decision with criticism also coming from the European Commission, who is a side in the dispute as the Tribunal was set up with its mediation. The reasons can easily be found in Croatia’s pre-accession process, when Slovenia used every possibility to veto Croatia’s progress until a bilateral dispute got solved. 

The situation has a strong resonance on domestic politics in Croatia as well. The firm position of social-democrat Zoran Milanović gave him the much anticipated boost in polls. Thanks to the scandal he managed to level the position of the Social-Democratic Party with the one of its biggest rival – the right-wing Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), which in recent years managed to brush up its image of the most-corrupt party in the country by betting on the nationalistic card and far-right rhetoric. The future of the border dispute over the Gulf of Piran is uncertain, but it is highly unlikely that Croatia will step back and return to the Arbitration Tribunal after the truly unique political and popular unity on the subject of pulling out. Moreover, Croatia is now a full member of the EU and exercising any pressure on it would be difficult, although there were voices in Slovenia for Ljubljana vetoing the accession of Croatia to Schengen, which is expected to happen within the next year and a half. 

Bad, worse, relations with Serbia

Although bilateral in its nature the dispute between Croatia and Slovenia is now entirely European, while relations between Croatia and Serbia have a quite more serious and large-scale repercussion. There are opinions heard in Croatia that relations between Zagreb and Belgrade have never been worse since the disintegration of Yugoslavia. Media shootouts have been almost daily occurrences for weeks now. Starting with the celebrations for the twentieth anniversary of operation “Storm” with which Croatia restored its territorial integrity and ended its separation from former Yugoslavia, passing through a water polo game, and finishing with the newly ignited drama of placing Cyrillic street signs in Vukovar. 

As euinside wrote, the commemoration of Storm led to a tensing in relations and exchange of not quite diplomatic lines through the border. This is the most serious challenge to the EU itself in its quest for European integration of the region, as this is about diametrically opposite interpretations of historic events, of which the Union itself was eyewitness and even an intermediary. Croatia commemorated the anniversary this year with a military parade a day before the traditional celebrations in Knin. Owing to the decision of the government to hold a military parade in Zagreb, the anniversary was honoured for the first time by the diplomatic corps as well. This to a large extent marginalised and radicalised the anniversary celebration in Knin, where Fascist hails and shouts of “Kill the Serb” were heard, remaining uncondemned by the right-wing political elite of the country. 

At the same time Serbia named August 5 (the day of “Storm) a day of mourning in memory of all the Serbs who lost their lives during the operation. After a series of provocative speeches on the anniversary Serbian PM Aleksandar Vučić remembered that he had set his target on turning Serbia into a regional stability factor. He proposed that former Yugoslav republics commemorate together and on the same date all victims of the wars in the region. An idea rejected by his Croatian colleague Zoran Milanović. 

In the peak of summer heat the European water polo championship in Kazan was held, where Serbia beat Croatia by a large margin in the final and became champions. This would not have been much of a problem had the Croatian national television not cut the live broadcast of the game short of the awards ceremony. This spurred sharp and unanimous criticism in Croatian media who all found it insulting that just for the reason of not playing the national anthem of Serbia Croatian citizens were denied the possibility of enjoying the awarding of Croatian water polo players and hearing their own anthem. 

To the high temperatures of this summer added the recently ignited fire over the implementation of Cyrillic alphabet in Vukovar. Arguments around the introduction of street signs in both Latin and Cyrillic alphabets in public spaces have been going on for several years. The introduction of bilingual street signs was marked by mass civil unrest and clashes with police in Vukovar. After the local elections in the city earlier this year, when a mayor from the HDZ was voted in power, situation in the city changed drastically. On August 17th the city council voted to change the statute of the city, which technically removes bilingualism. 

Apart from being controversial, such a decision contains inaccuracies for in it the writing of the Serb minority is mentioned. The Cyrillic alphabet was created during the first Bulgarian kingdom and has turned into the alphabet for a number of Slavic and non-Slavic peoples. The day of the Cyrillic alphabet is an official holiday in Bulgaria and is duly noted every May 24th. With the accession of the country to the EU on January 1st 2007 the Cyrillic alphabet became the third official alphabet of the EU.

On May 24th 2007, the European Commissioner responsible for Multilingualism at the time, Romanian Leonard Orban, stated: "When Bulgaria joined the European Union at the beginning of this year, the Union received not just a new member but also a new alphabet. Being responsible for multilingualism, I am delighted and honoured to be here today to join in the celebrations of the Bulgarian language and the Cyrillic alphabet. Throughout the ages, Bulgaria has borne aloft the Cyrillic alphabet and culture in the Slavic world. The Old Bulgarian language gave birth to a universal literary Slavonic language. Today Bulgaria is taking another historic step: bringing Cyrillic into the EU family". 

Many of the arguments against the introduction of the Cyrillic in Vukovar deserve respect and thought but it is completely wrong to associate this alphabet only with Serbia and an obscurantist regime – that of Slobodan Milošević. According to the Croatian online publication Index columnist Goran Vojković, Croatian right-wing activists are working for the Great-Serbian idea with their attempts at hindering the introduction of bilingual signs. And the Serbian reaction was not long in the coming. Serbian Minister of Labour Aleksandar Vulin, who plays the part of official provocateur for the Serbian government, demanded a reaction from the EU. The European reaction will be much more important than that of Croatia, for if the EU can allow one of its members to ban the alphabet of a people then what are the European values, exclaimed the Serbian minister. 

The European Commission replied that the Charter of Fundamental Rights in the EU forbids discrimination based on belonging to a national minority but the EC cannot rule on minorities, recognition of their status, self-determination and autonomy, or their language. 

Hot, feels like the 90's

The feeling in Croatia is that the situation on the Balkans, because of the relations with Serbia, is very similar to the early 90’s, when the disintegration of former Yugoslavia began. It should be said though, the EU itself contributes to that feeling by refusing to react in many of the debated issues, especially when they involve member states. This is not only in total contradiction with the widely proclaimed European values but is just more grist to the mill of un-reformers in Serbia. A good example of this is the statement of First Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Ivica Dačić on the August 5th incident with torching the Croatian flag in front of the Croatian embassy in Belgrade by Vojislav Šešelj and his radicals. Dačić stated that he saw no legitimate reason for the government to submit Šešelj again to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia after Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović refuses to publicly denounce the Fascist and anti-Serb chants during the celebrations in Knin. There was also an exchange of diplomatic notes between the two states. 

Zlatko Crnčec writes in a commentary for the centre-left daily Novi List, that is published in Rijeka, that political reconciliation on the Balkans is unneeded, because it is already fact. Trade, investments, company buyouts, corruption, export, import – all of this is under the media radar but life goes on without any political initiatives for reconciliation. The only thing expected of politicians is to stay out of the way of this process, writes the columnist. And if this appeal concerns mainly politicians of the region, it should not be valid for the EU and its institutions that should allow no dangerous play with fire and with the European values. In that sense it is good news that bilateral relations in the Western Balkans will be one of the leading subjects on the agenda of the Balkan summit that is going to be held at the end of the week in Vienna. 

Croatia has so far presented itself as a constructive and active team player in the region. The political heat of this summer, however, and the turn towards the far-right of the largest opposition party in the country that is preparing to win the parliamentary elections at the end of the year, are a serious danger to Croatia’s good image, and that in a moment when the region needs attention, maturity, and visionariness.

Translated by Stanimir Stoev

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