VUKOVAR, Croatia – Can Vukovar also be Bykobap?
Whether the name of the war-scarred town on the Danube is written in the Latin or Cyrillic alphabet is a sensitive question. Croatia's upcoming entry into the European Union is forcing residents of the Balkan country to answer it.
More than twenty years after it was reduced to rubble in a brutal Serb-led army siege, Vukovar is testing if Croatians are ready to respect the EU's standards on minority rights when their country joins as the 28th member on July 1.
The Croatian government is trying to introduce Serbian Cyrillic writing into areas with sizeable ethnic Serb communities, a move that has infuriated Croatia's war veterans and nationalists. Thousands of flag-waving protesters, some wearing military uniforms, joined a demonstration against the change on Saturday in downtown Vukovar.
Unlike ethnic Croats, the minority Serbs use the Cyrillic alphabet influenced by Orthodox Christianity and also used by Russians. Though Vukovar, for instance, sounds the same in both alphabets, in Cyrillic it is written Bykobap.
Saturday's protest is organized by veteran groups, Vukovar wartime defenders and hardline political parties. Opponents of Serbian script have been active on Facebook, where one of the postings reads: "The final strike on Vukovar — Cyrillic!"
Once a picturesque baroque tow, Vukovar has become a symbol of the senseless destruction during the war that followed the breakup of the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s — leaving more than 100,000 people dead and millions homeless in Europe's worst carnage since World War II.
Even decades later, many Croats and Serbs in Vukovar and elsewhere continue to live parallel lives, with children attending separate schools and each ethnic community visiting its own cafes or shops.
The EU maintains that Croatia must protect its minorities, particularly ethnic Serbs, from discrimination and violence. But Zarko Puhovski, a liberal Croatian analyst, pointed out that "a rebellion against Cyrillic is something that was to be expected in Croatia" in the aftermath of the war with Serbia.
"Many people are against it, and that tells you that the situation may not be ready," Puhovski said. "But, if we were to wait until it is ready, it would never happen."
The fighting in Croatia started when it declared independence from the former federation in 1991, triggering a rebellion by the minority Serbs and an onslaught by the Serb-led Yugoslav army. Vukovar, located on the boundary with Serbia, took the first blow. Once Croatia joins the EU, the still-tense town and the Danube will become the bloc's eastern border.
In three months of siege, Yugoslav army bombardment all but obliterated the town before it fell in November 1991. The army troops and Serb paramilitaries overran Vukovar, killing and expelling its residents, and leaving a ghost town of shattered buildings, pockmarked by grenades and tank fire. More than 200 prisoners were executed and buried in a mass grave at a nearby pig farm.
The war ended in 1995, in a U.N.-brokered peace agreement that envisaged the region's gradual return to Croatian rule.
Although the U.N. war crimes tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands, has sentenced several Serbian officers and politicians in connection with destruction of Vukovar and the killings, many in Croatia have felt it was not enough.
They say the introduction of Cyrillic is a slap in the face.
"It would be as if a sign in Arabic was put up next to Ground Zero in New York," nationalist Croatian politician Zoran Vinkovic claimed.
Today, nearly 35 percent of Serbs live in Vukovar, according to the results of a postwar census published in 2011 — enough for the introduction of the Serbian script at road signs, in schools, and on documents.