Croats In Serbia: The Most Discriminated Nation In Europe – Analysis
By Matija Šerić
At the end of April, the 2022 population census of the Republic of Serbia was published, which revealed that the number of Croats in that country has drastically decreased in the past decade.
According to the data of the Republic Institute of Statistics, 39,107 Croats lived in Serbia last year, while in 2011 there were 57,900 members of Croat minority. The number of Croats has decreased by a third, which are alarming figures and an indication of how the Croatian people are rapidly disappearing in Serbia, a country whose government swears in democracy, rule of human rights, protection of minorities and strives to join the European Union.
Drastic decrease in the number of Croats
There are the most Croats in Vojvodina, 32,684. However, a decrease in the number of Croats was also recorded in that province (decrease of 14,349) compared to 2011, when there were 47,033. In other areas of the Autonomous Province of Vojvodina, the number of Croats also decreased significantly. The stability of the decline is visible in all cities and municipalities. In Subotica from 14,151 to 10,431, in Sombor from 7,070 to 5,029, in Novi Sad from 5,335 to 3,877. In Apatin, the number of Croats decreased from 3,015 to 2,057, in Srijemska Mitrovica from 2,112 to 1,341, in Šid from 1,748 to 1,249, and in Ruma from 1,719 to 1,133. In the remaining towns and municipalities of Vojvodina, the number of members of the Croat community nowhere exceeded one thousand.
Regarding the capital city of Belgrade, the number of Croats decreased significantly – from 7,752 in 2011 to 4,554 last year. There were 3,115 Croats in Central Serbia in 2011, and only 1,869 in 2022. When taking into account the broader picture, a decrease in the number of other minority communities is also visible, so the number of Hungarians fell from 253,889 to 184,442, Slovaks from 52,750 to 41,730, Ruthenians from 14,246 to 11,483, and Bunjevacs from 16,706 to 11,104. The only national minorities whose numbers are growing are Bosniaks and Roma, who numbered 153,801 and 131,936 last year.
Concerns of Croatian representatives
The figures worry the leading Croatian political party in Serbia, the Democratic Union of Croats in Vojvodina (DSHV), from which they said that the figures were “the result of a long period full of challenges in the society in Serbia, which changes almost every day… The figure that the Institute communicated is objective fact and it will affect our position in Serbia, since certain legal solutions in the field of protection of minority rights are related to the number of certain minorities“.
DSHV added that there is no place for defeatism and that they will continue to fight politically for the rights of the Croatian people through Serbian institutions. This trend is evident in the fact that in October of last year, DSHV leader Tomislav Žigmanov became the Minister in the Government of the Republic of Serbia for Human and Minority Rights and Social Dialogue. Žigmanov is the first Croatian minister in a Serbian government. He explained the decline in the number of Croats by the fact that Croats are older than average compared to the general Serbian population (10 years above average) and the economic situation is uncertain in the areas where they live. “They are excluded from the decision-making process and influencing decisions, especially in local communities when it comes to policies and measures concerning the development of the environments in which Croats live”, concluded Žigmanov at the Grand Assembly of the Serbian National Council (SNV) in Zagreb on April 30.
Courteous messages of support for Croats
On that day, Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenković and Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabić sent optimistic messages about reconciliation and cooperation between two countries that are still, realistically speaking, enemies. There were big words about the protection of the Serbian minority in Croatia and the Croatian minority in Serbia, but it was similar 10-15 years ago, and again the Croats across the Danube did not profit. Serbia aspires to join the European Union, and joining that association is impossible without the consent of the Republic of Croatia.
Taking this fact into account and the letter and spirit of the European Union, it would be expected that the position of national minorities in Serbia would improve as the country accedes to the EU, but this is not happening to the required extent or almost not at all. In the case of the Croatian national minority, it could rather be said that its status is deteriorating from year to year. When all the circumstances are taken into account, it is not an exaggeration to state that Croats in Serbia are the most discriminated and disenfranchised minority national community in Europe.
Historical continuity of assimilation and destruction of the Croatian people
Today, the historical fact that in historical terms not so long ago, at the beginning of the 20th century, more Croats lived in Subotica than in Zagreb sounds almost unbelievable today. During the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Subotica was the largest Croatian city in that monarchy with about 100,000 inhabitants, the vast majority of whom were of Croatian nationality. Back in 1961, 196,409 Croats lived in Serbia, of which 145,341 lived in AP Vojvodina. In the course of 60 years, the number of Croats in Serbia and Vojvodina decreased by about 80%, which is a consequence of the long-term anti-Croat assimilation policy that existed during socialist Yugoslavia and continued after Milošević came to power in the late 1980s.
During the 1990s, during the wars in the area of Ex-Yugoslavia, there was active state terror against the Croats of Vojvodina, although there was no war in Vojvodina, and the Croats were loyal citizens of Serbia. The Serbian media falsely accused the Croats of being Ustashas, collective guilt for Ustasha crimes, secessionist aspirations, secret arming, involvement in the war in Croatia, etc. In addition to all that, during the 1990s, the authorities of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia did not recognize Croats as a people or a national minority, and they invented nationalities such as Bunjevci and Šokci. It started with dismissals, threats, beatings, murders, attacks on cultural and sacred objects, and continued with ethnic cleansing and persecution. About 40 thousand Croats left Vojvodina (especially eastern Srijem and southwestern Bačka) and the rest of Serbia in those years. In addition to the paramilitary formations of Šešelj, Arkan and similar warlords, the regular formations of the Yugoslav Army and the Serbian police participated in the crimes and ethnic cleansing of Croats.
The villages of Hrtkovci and Kukujevci suffered particularly badly. There are well-known cases of the liquidation of the Oskomić and Matijević families from Kukujevci, and the case of the Abjanović brothers from Morović, who were taken to the unknown in an official JNA vehicle accompanied by uniformed persons in 1991. Since then, all traces of them have been lost. Among the murdered members of the Matijević family is the minor child Franjo Matijević, whose body, together with that of his parents, was exhumed on April 30, 1998, from a mass grave in the village of Mohovo near Ilok, about 35 kilometers from Kukujevci. “Minor Franjo was found with his hands tied behind his back with a wire. During the identification, it was established that he was killed with a hunting rifle, and that at close range,” the statement of the Association of Expelled Croats from Srijem, Bačka and Banat regions. The association states that the victims of Vojvodina’s Croats in the 1990s were completely hushed up, and there are still no memorials for Croatian victims in Serbia. In 2021, on the 30th anniversary of the persecution of Croats, the association asked the Serbian and Croatian institutions to find and sanction the culprits, and find the missing. However, there were no concrete results.
Promotion of the Bunjevac language
The Croatian National minoity has been under attack for years, with the Serbian authorities and Serbian (quasi) intellectuals encouraging citizens with various privileges to declare themselves Bunjevci and not Croats. For example, in the spring of 2021, the Bunjevac language was introduced as official in Subotica, even though there was no legal basis for such a decision. After all, according to Croatian language experts, the Bunjevac language is not an independent language, but only one dialect of the Croatian language (Bunjevac ikavica). Apart from the condemnation of that decision, the Croatian National Council (HNV) demanded equal rights, i.e. that according to the principle of positive discrimination, the Croatian language be introduced as the official language in the municipalities of Sombor, Apatin and Bač, as well as for the entire AP Vojvodina area.
Of course, such proposals were rejected. It is particularly interesting how the decision to introduce the so-called of the Bunjevac language in Subotica was passed at the time of the premiere of the propaganda film “Dara from Jasenovac”. When Croatian officials publicly rebelled against the mutilation of their own people and language, they received death threats to both official and private addresses. The government of the Republic of Croatia also reacted with a note of protest, and the result was that one author of the threatening messages was arrested. However, that did not solve the essence of the problem and the desire to re-nationalize Croats and turn them into something they are not and cannot be.
Physical attacks and intimidation of Croats
There are also numerous physical attacks on resident Croats as well as on Croatian tourists in Serbia. Thus, in August 2021, early in the morning in Subotica, an attacker attacked passengers in a car with Zagreb license plates in which were three minors. At the same time, he threatened to personally slaughter all Ustashas and physically attacked a man of Croatian origin who has lived in Subotica for more than 50 years. In December 2022, two members of Zagreb’s Teatro &TD were attacked and injured in the early morning by a group of young men in the center of Novi Sad, and after receiving medical help, they soon returned to Croatia. The attackers, several young men, shouted “Ustashas, what have you come here for?” while savagely beating the artists.
This spring, Vojvodina’s Croats in the countryside (especially in northern Bačka) were exposed to frequent robberies and theft of property, so some of them organized themselves on their own initiative to protect their properties. The DSHV requested stronger involvement of the police, but it is questionable how much this will help to solve the problem. Unknown perpetratos have been stealing from Croatian farmers oil from their tractors and harvesters for months, as well as their equipment. Damages are measured in thousands of euros. Because of this, they are forced to introduce video surveillance of the property or organize village guards. It is obvious that the criminal group is well organized, and it is known that organized crime cannot exist without state support or at least “turning a blind eye”. “What is problematic in the state of Serbia in cases of ethnically motivated incidents against Croats is that there is no condemnation of such acts by representatives of the authorities, but the state bodies reinterpret them so that Croats are portrayed as incidental people. Almost always in practice, the media renames the victim as the culprit,” HNV president Jasna Vojnić pointed out.
Croats excluded from political life
In Serbia, important and less important political decisions are made without consultation with Croat representatives. As a rule, Croats, with some exceptions such as the Žigmans in the government, are not represented in the executive, legislative or judicial authorities at the national, regional and local levels.
Although in 2004, in an interstate agreement with the Republic of Croatia, Serbia undertook to give a guaranteed minimum number of mandates to the Croatian community in the National Assembly, this has not yet happened. Also according to the agreement, the Serbian government agreed to ensure the right to maintain and develop the Croatian education system and media, as well as the use of the Croatian flag and symbols in order to preserve the national, cultural, linguistic and religious identity of the Croatian people. In practice, little was realized.
However, there have been some developments in recent years. The Croatian house is being built in Subotica, the family house of Ban Josip Jelačić in Petrovaradin was returned to HNV, the grave of Josip Runjanin in Novi Sad was restored, and a monument to Bishop Ivan Antunović was erected. Also, the Šokačka house in Vajska was opened, the house of the Monoštorska župa and the Croatian home in Sombor are being renovated, and the kindergartens in Subotica and Tavankut are being renovated. In addition, the first crèches in the Croatian language were opened in Subotica, textbooks in the Croatian language are printed, Croatian associations and institutions are equipped and incentives are provided for pupils and students, and there are also programs for the socially disadvantaged. In total, about 40 cultural associations are active with about 300 events a year.
However, little of this would have been possible if it had not been for the financial assistance of the Croatian government, counties and cities from the Republic of Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, and other Croatian institutions. The position of Croats in Serbia is to the many times worse than the position of Serbs in Croatia, who enjoy all possible rights and protection at the national and municipal/city level. National minorities in Croatia, including the Serb minority, have the greatest rights in the EU. That is not the case in Serbia. Everything is said by the fact that Croats in Serbia receive as much money from the Serbian state as Serb minority from the city of Zagreb.
Special anti-Croatian propaganda
Unmistakably, various Serbian films and TV series, as well as the promotion of the Bunjevac identity, are only one part of the mosaic of special anti-Croatian propaganda that has been coming from Serbia since the 1980s until today. It is enough to look at the morning program of Serbian national televisions such as Happy TV and RTV Pink (plus countless podcasts on You Tube), which tirelessly broadcast anti-Croatian propaganda day after day.
The guests coldly talk that Croats as a people do not exist but are actually Catholicized Serbs, mention is made of a million victims in Jasenovac (it is insinuated that the Croats are butchers), the events of the 1990s are wrongly portrayed (it is shown that the Croats are the aggressors in Croatia, and the illegal and criminal creation of the RSK is treated as legal), the Chetniks are publicly glorified as anti-fascists even though they were in the service of the German and Italian occupiers, etc. It goes without saying that the most distinguished guests on Serbian public television are the convicted war criminals Vojislav Šešelj, Veselin Šljivančanin, captain Dragan, Nikola Šainović. In Croatia, it is unthinkable that some politicians or intellectuals deny the existence of Serbs as a nation on public mainstream television stations, and it is even less likely that acquitted or convicted generals from The Hague do so.
Discrimination of Croats – an integral part of the Greater Serbian project
The satanization of Croats by the media, but also of Albanians, Montenegrins and Bosniaks, is an integral part of the toxic Great Serbian ideology, which has long been accepted by the Serbian intellectual and, since 2012, undoubtedly by the political elite, as it was before the October 5th Revolution in 2000. We should never lose sight of how Serbian the progressive party of Aleksandar Vučić is just a euphemism and a mask for the ultra-nationalist Serbian Radical Party. Vučić, Tomislav Nikolić and their friends elegantly made this stylistic change in 2008 so that they could come to power and be acceptable to the European Union and the USA. The wolf has changed its hair, but its temper has not. Lately, Šešelj has publicly supported Vučić in all key items of Serbian politics, so now the mentor and student no longer hide their true relationship. Vučić is occasionally politically correct in his words, but in fact he is a passionate apostle of Šešelj’s policy, a policy that denies the right to exist to Croats in Serbia and beyond. Unfortunately, when such an anti-Croatian radical is in power in Serbia, no (significant) progress of the Croatian national minority can be expected.
Vučić as Serbian president today in 2023 is the equivalent of a (neo)Nazi being German chancellor in 1973 (we all know that Vučić promised a Greater Serbia to the rebel Serbs in Glina in the spring of 1995). In that case, the position of the Polish and French national minorities in Germany would be similar to the position of the Croats in Serbia. In short: ruthless systematic discrimination. Unfortunately, unlike Germany, Serbia was never de-Nazified and did not face mass war crimes and ethnic cleansing committed by Serbian forces in Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, and also against Croats in Serbia where there was no war. If Serbia had faced the past in the right way, today it would have the same attitude towards Croats as Germany has towards Jews and Israel: recognition of historical mistakes, remorse and the establishment of friendly relations. However, it is difficult to expect such a scenario to happen because some special rules apply in the Balkans and Vučić’s Serbia is a desirable partner of the West and the East.
There are hopes for a better tomorrow
Nevertheless, hopes for better days for Croats in Serbia do exist because Croats did not disappear even during the turbulent 1990s when it was the hardest for them, and they will not disappear now either. The levers for improving the position of Croats are mainly possessed by the Republic of Croatia as a member of the EU and the European Union itself, which must ask Serbia to protect its minorities and respect their legally guaranteed rights.
If Serbia wants to join the EU, and it does, then it must enable its national minorities primarily human, and then political, cultural, linguistic, religious and all other rights. Other friends of Croatia, such as the USA, could get involved here, because they could condition Serbia’s implementation of economic projects (the American company Bechtel is building Serbian highways) if the status of Croats and other minorities improves. More than anything else, the democratization of Serbia would help, which will have to wait for some time.