„Intolerance towards a minority and the symbols of its cultural identity limits the freedoms, rights and safety of Croatian citizens, including the members of the majority group, by persuading them that these ‘Others’ pose a constant and nefarious threat.“ This warning was issued yet again on the Human Rights Day, December 10, during a round table entitled „European Wealth of Multilingualism: Quo vadis, Croatia?“, held in the Croatian Parliament by the civic campaign “ALL OF US – for a Croatia for us all”.
While some in Croatia dream of having the Cyrillic script banned – a goal that conceals something else altogether – human rights activists have attempted once more, this time with the aid of diplomatic representatives from multiple European countries, to stress that bilingualism and multilingualism constitute a widespread practice in Europe and that interculturalism is a fundamental feature of European identity. In fact, although the position of national minorities is provided for differently in various countries, the extent of the protection of minorities is a widely accepted measure of a state’s commitment to democracy, while tolerance towards minorities is an indicator of citizens’ democratic values.
However, in order to attain these goals, it is imperative that civic and intercultural education be finally introduced into school curricula. The media, public in particular, should start treating minorities as subjects instead of as objects, ensuring that minority issues are allotted prime-time coverage instead of being secluded into specialized minority programs, which only fosters seggregation and stigmatization.
“In the City of Vukovar today, it is hard to be a Serb, as well as a Croat”, warned Eugen Jakovčić, an activist of the “ALL OF US” civic campaign, pointing out that the city on the Danube has become a hotbed of worrysome developments. He went on to invite the entire Croatian public and the Catholic Church in particular, to turn towards the future, tolerance and coexistence.
Someone will always make sure that old wounds remain open…
„Whether written in Latin or in Cyrillic script, Vukovar is the same city“, stated Furio Radin, parliamentary representative of the Italian minority and president of the Parliamentary Committee on Human Rights and National Minorities, in his opening speech. Referring to his personal experience of being born and raised in a bilingual environment – one experiencing conflict but able to overcome it – he added: „Someone will always make sure that old wounds remain open, since there is never a lack of salt to be rubbed in them, but a city and community that hold their identity dear will find ways of settling their differences“.
“Europe cultivates linguistic diversity and Treaties of the EU explicitely mention multilingualism as a value. Early learning of several languages is encouraged and so is the availability of official EU information in multiple languages. In addition, the Council of Europe’s Charter for Regional or Minority Languages requires minority and regional languages to be legally protected and officially used”, reminded Dražen Hoffmann from GONG Research Centre in his presentation. As an example of good practice, he pointed to the revitalization of the Welsh language: “In the second half of the 20th century, the usage of Welsh in education has been strengthened, and the younger generations encouraged to become bilingual by acquiring their minority language. Today, Welsh has has several hundred thousand active speakers; this figure increases further when passive understanding is taken into account and the level of bilingualism in public and official usage is high”.
Cultural diversity as a source of wealth, not divisions
The Ambassadors of seven EU member states then reported on the particular situations in their respective countries. Italian Ambassador Emanuela D’Alessandro stressed the importance of respect for differences for achieving equality among citizens. She referred to the example of Molise Croats, protected under the auspices of the constitutional category of “language minorities”, since national minorities are not recognized in the Italian Constitution. A bilateral treaty regulating the protection of both countries’ minorities was signed by Italy and Croatia in 1996. Thereby the Italian State recognized the indigenous Croatian minority in the Molise Region as an official language minority and ensured their right to the usage of their minority language.
Mr. Gábor Iván, Ambassador of Hungary sent the message that cultural diversity should not be a source of divisions. As of 2012, Hungary’s new Constitution no longer enumerates national minorities in its Preamble, yet legal protection is ensured through the Nationalities Act. According to the Act on Election of Representatives to the Parliament, national minorities have the right to a “privileged representative mandate“ and the usage of Croatian language within municipalities and local self-governance is guaranteed by the Constitution and laws.
There is no democracy without protection of minorities
Czech ambassador Martin Košatka stressed that the Constitution of the Czech Republic mentioned explicitly the protection of all national minorities residing in the Czech Republic; there is also a Decree on support to all national minorities in their attempts to preserve their cultural identity and to develop informational activities and publishing. In addition, The Act on the Rights of Members of National Minorities regulates their rights and the obligations of administrative and local bodies in relations to minority populations.
Nancy Rossignol, Ambassador of Belgium, made a joke about Belgium being “infamous for being a difficult country, where even languages have borders so everyone thinks the system is more complicated than it really is”. The Belgian Constitution, considered to be among the most liberal in Europe, guarantees citizens numerous rights and it is the obligation of the State to protect these rights. This concept ensures that citizens are treated equally, minorities are not singled out or discriminated against and the three national languages are used on equal terms, with no reference to minority status.
Unless human rights – including the right to language – are protected and promoted, there is neither democracy nor rule of law, warned Stella Ronner – Grubačić, Ambassador of the Netherlands. She reminded the table that, alongside Dutch, the Netherlands recognized the Frisian language as official. In addition, Yiddish and the Romani language are recognized as non-territorial languages, and Low Saxon and Limburgish partially as regional languages.
Polish Ambassador Maciej Szymanski also spoke of the context in which minorities’ freedom to preserve and develop their languages, customs, tradition and own culture is imperative. Of course, examples from Scandinavian countries are always instructive and interesting and Swedish Ambassador Lars Schmidt also stressed the importance of multilingualism. In the Finnish region of Lapland, the indigenous Sami language (present also in parts of Norway, Sweden and Russia) is officially recognized in a number of municipalities. Also, the Swedish minority in Finland, making up some six per cent of the population, has its own political party, schools and other institutions.
When the “defenders of tradition” take up arms against it
Milorad Pupovac, parliamentary representative of the Serbian minority and president of the Serbian National Council, warned of the lack of tolerance towards linguistic differences and criticized their non-recognition, as well as their politicization. Once dialects had become socially acceptable, ethnolects were the next to be discriminated against, prompting Pupovac to warn that “Serbs, Bosnians and Montenegrins who speak their native languages in Croatia risk discrimination, which is the result of a totalitarian language policy, overall lack of tolerance and worsening economic situation”.
He went on to condemn the demonization of Cyrillic script and advocated communication as opposed to segregation: “Equating the Cyrillic script with the tanks that lay siege to Vukovar during the war has the intention of reducing an entire area of civilization, not only a system of writing, to wartime devastation twenty years after the war finished. Such demonization of a script was never present in Croatia, not even when the Gothic script was vilified after World War II”.
Parliamentary representative Goran Beus Richembergh of the Croatian People’s Party pointed to the paradox at play in Croatia over the last several months – even though it is contrary to the Croatian tradition, the stigmatization of language is being carried out and its strongest proponents are “the very social groups, ‘headquarters’ and political parties who refer to Croatian tradition most vocally”. He then named the whole series of events as “a charade, an irrational attempt to do away with a portion of the identity of an entire national minority”. He also noted: “the entire Upper Town of Zagreb is covered with bilingual street name signs in Croatian and German. I sincerely hope no one gets the idea of smashing them with a hammer”.