Protesters wielding hammers have torn down bilingual signs in Serbian Cyrillic that were installed on official buildings in the Croat city of Vukovar, in a spate of tension recalling the 1990s Yugoslav war.
Dozens of angry war veterans have taken to the streets of Vukovar for two days to protest the signs aimed at boosting minority rights in the 28th EU member state. Vukovar was heavily damaged by the Serb-led army during the Yugoslav war.
According to reports in the Croatian media, the government ordered the installation of signs in Serbian Cyrillic during the night, prompting anger from war veterans in Croatia, who see the bilingual signs as reminiscent of the Yugoslav bloodshed of the nineties.
The protests reached boiling point yesterday morning (3 September) when around 500 people arrived in Vukovar from other Croatian towns to give their support for the protestors.
The situation appeared to have calmed down in the afternoon, as signs were no longer being torn down. War veterans will hold a meeting on Thursday morning to decide on a course of action for the coming days.
During the nineties, Vukovar came under siege from the Serb-led Yugoslav national army, leading to the killing of thousands of civilians. Ethnic tensions between Catholic Croats and Orthodox Serbs have remained high ever since.
Nowadays, Croatia's constitution gives special rights to the protection of ethnic minorities, which were adopted as part of the country's EU accession process. In regions where they constitute more than a third of the population, minorities are entitled to an official use of their language and alphabet. This the case with the Italian minority in Croatia's Istria region and other regions with a strong Serb presence.
Croatian and Serbian languages are very similar and both groups can understand each other without problem. The only difference is their alphabet. Catholics use the Latin alphabet while the Orthodox use the Cyrillic one.
Dennis Abbott, the European Commission spokesperson on education, culture and multilingualism said yesterday 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”.
Croatia joined the European Union on 1 July.