In Serbia, a textbook case of identity politics

The president’s gift to schoolchildren in a northern city sparks howls of outrage across the border in Croatia.

In early September, Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic made a magnanimous gesture to a minority group in his country’s northern Vojvodina region. He gave – as a private citizen, he stressed – 200 textbooks and 260 grammars to children of the Bunjevac community, written in their mother tongue.

The books had been written by the Bunjevac National Council, a government-funded body that speaks for the minority on cultural, educational, and other matters. But the council had no money to print them. Which is where Nikolic came in.

Whatever its motivation, his donation set off a ruckus among Croatian politicians, who insist that the Bunjevci are really ethnic Croats. The gift spurred resentment among some Croats in Vojvodina, who have been asking for their own textbooks.

A photo of a group of Bunjevac women hangs in an early 20th century Bunjevac farmhouse museum in southern Hungary, near the border with Serbia. Photo from

A photo of a group of Bunjevac women hangs in an early 20th century Bunjevac farmhouse museum in southern Hungary, near the border with Serbia. Photo from

The move was “the latest manifestation of the politics of destroying the Croatian language and cultural identity in Vojvodina,” Ruza Tomasic, a member of the European Parliament, wrote on her Facebook page.

Croatian President Ivo Josipovic told reporters the textbooks “represent the continuation of a politics that wants to assimilate the Croats in Serbia.” Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic gave Nikolic an admonition: “Decency sets limits to what you can do.”

The diplomatic furor is over 16,706 people in Serbia who declared themselves Bunjevci in the 2011 census – about 0.02 percent of the population. Self-declared Croats in Serbia number 57,900.

Marija Ilic, an anthropologist and linguist at the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts, said the spat over a few thousand people and a few hundred first- and second-grade school books has its roots in the 18th– and 19th-century idea – embraced by post-Yugoslavia nation-builders – that the identity of a “nation” is created by and expressed in its language. “Therefore, we cannot talk of a specific people (nation) if it doesn’t have its specific language,” she wrote in an email.

Ilic said the effort to standardize and teach the Bunjevac tongue is an extension of a two-decade-long process of cultivating branches of Serbo-Croatian – Bosnian, Croat, Montenegrin, and Serbian – which some linguists believe was and remains one language.

But while 16,000 people in Vojvodina may see the textbooks as confirmation that they have their own language – and therefore are a discrete nation – most Croats and the government of Croatia see Bunjevac identity as artificial, constructed at the encouragement of Serbia.

It does not help that the textbooks are written partly in Cyrillic, an alphabet associated with the Greater Serbia philosophy in the parts of Croatia attacked by the Yugoslav army during the 1990s war.

In mid-September, national broadcaster Croatian Radiotelevision covered the issue of the “Cyrillic” textbooks and broadcast the vice chairman of the European Parliament’s foreign affairs committee, Croatia’s Andrej Plenkovic, complaining to colleagues that with the books Serbia was continuing its anti-Croatian policy “from the beginning of the ’90s.” Plenkovic demanded that the issue be included in Serbia’s negotiations to join the EU.

In an email, Nikolic’s office denied that Serbia was trying to assimilate the Bunjevci and stressed that the books had been produced by the Bunjevac National Council. The statement noted that the first part of the textbook is written in Cyrillic and the second in Latin because Serbia’s primary school curriculum introduces Latin letters only in the second half of the second grade, “and it’s not methodologically correct to speak to children in a writing they haven’t yet learned.”

Behind the criticism of Nikolic’s gesture, his office said, is “a new effort to negate the Bunjevci as an autochthonous people and to assimilate them into the Croatian community.”


According to the Bunjevac National Council’s website, the Bunjevci are Dacians who in the sixth century fled to Herzegovina and Dalmatia (now western Bosnia and southern Croatia) when Bulgarians invaded their lands in present-day Romania. In the late 17th century, they moved to the southern part of the Pannonian Plain – in today’s Hungary and northern Serbia – fleeing an Ottoman advance.

Like Croats, the Bunjevci are historically Catholic. Traditionally they have raised large families in isolated farmsteads called salas. But although cattle breeding and farming are still dominant professions, urbanization means that an important part of what used to be Bunjevac culture is disappearing.

During the 19th century and first half of the 20th century, Bunjevac was used not only in school textbooks but also in periodicals, newspapers, books, and religious literature, and at Mass. A Hungarian-Bunjevac dictionary was printed in 1894 in what was then Austria-Hungary, where Bunjevac was one of 13 official languages.

In 1911, about one-third of the approximately 96,000 residents of Subotica – the city in Vojvodina where Nikolic donated the books – had Bunjevac as their mother tongue, Ilic and Bojan Belic, an expert in Slavic linguistics at the University of Washington, wrote in a volume on southeastern European languages published this year. Four percent of the population identified Serbian as their mother tongue, and 26 people – .00027 percent of the population – named Croatian.

Ilic said the recognition of the Bunjevci as a nation could “be said to give a boost to Serbian nationalism,” as it correspondingly reduces the number – and political power – of Croats in Serbia. But she asserted that the push for recognition comes mostly from the Bunjevci themselves.

The decision to teach Bunjevac speech may be freighted with identity politics, but it is hardly unusual in Vojvodina, according to the region’s secretary of education, Mihalj Njilas.

In an email, Njilas pointed out that teaching in the province’s schools is done in five languages in addition to Serbian, Croatian among them. Further, classes in a student’s “mother tongue with elements of the national culture” are held in 11 languages, including Bunjevac.

“The discussion concerning Croatian and Bunjevac autochthony is still ongoing,” Njilas wrote, saying the Vojvodina administration “cannot and does not want to judge in this question.” He said the Bunjevci are deemed a national minority under Serbian law and thus have the right to education in their mother tongue.

But far from encouraging the notion of a Bunjevac nation, some outsiders think Belgrade is not doing enough to ensure the community’s survival.

In a 2011 assessment of Serbia’s compliance with a European charter on regional or minority languages, a Council of Europe commission noted that although the size of the Bunjevac population in Vojvodina entitled them to use their language in official matters, including on street signs, that had not happened. In response to the Serbian government’s explanation that the language is not yet standardized, the council suggested “flexible interim measures” such as allowing Bunjevac speakers to use the language when talking to local government representatives.

The report also encouraged Serbian authorities to expand the teaching of “Bunjevac speech with elements of national culture” to secondary schools and kindergartens.

Three years later, there are no signs that will happen. Several candidates for the Bunjevac National Council, running in a 26 October election for Serbia’s approximately 20 minority councils, have declared standardization of the language a primary goal but make no mention of secondary education – even as the number of Bunjevac students has risen fivefold since the 2007-2008 school year, to 400.

Indeed, any further progress for the Bunjevci and their language likely depends as much on the group’s internal politics as on anything Belgrade does.

The last two national councils were so beset by squabbling that in 2010 and 2013 authorities dissolved them, introducing a temporary regime consisting of five of the former 20 council members. The dysfunction could threaten the council’s ability to preserve the Bunjevci’s common identity, a condition for the group being recognized as a national minority under Serbian law.

Mirko Bajic, a Bunjevac leader, warned the Bunjevci could go the way of a kindred ethnic group, the Shokci, who are deemed a sub-group of Croats “because they haven’t shown themselves to take care of preserving their specificity.”

Bajic, who has sat on the council since it was created in 2002 but is not a member of the interim group, accused some members of the more recently dissolved body of holding Croatian passports and acting in the Croatian community’s interest to sabotage the work of the council.

Suzana Kujundzic Ostojic, the current leader of the national council, disputes Bajic’s sabotage theory but shares his concern about the group’s unity. In her 2013 book Bunjevci Between Assimilation and National Community, she wrote that internal conflict “threatens the existence of the Bunjevci as an ethnicity.”

This fear is historically based, insofar as authorities in socialist Yugoslavia ordered that Bunjevci and Shokci be treated as Croats in official documents, including voter rolls, identification papers, and travel permits.

The Shokci never recovered, but Bunjevci returned to the census questionnaire in 1991. That year – when Yugoslavia came apart – 21,434 people in Vojvodina declared themselves Bunjevci. Not until the 2011 census, however, could anyone claim Bunjevac as a mother tongue, which 6,835 did. Most Bunjevci declared Serbian as their mother tongue – a situation the national council hopes to change with “the first textbooks after more than a hundred years,” as Kujundzic Ostojic, a co-author, stressed when presenting them in July.

Uffe Andersen is a journalist in Smederevo, Serbia. 


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