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Vol 3, No 6
12 February 2001
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Trieste's Burden of History
The Slovene minority in Italy
Brian Požun

For the bulk of its history, the Italian port of Trieste was an incontestable part of Central Europe as the Slovene center called Trst, within the Austrian empire. After changing hands several times in the past century, the city fell firmly under Italian control in 1954, though it remains home to a sizable Slovene minority.

Until relatively recently, this corner of Italy was decidedly Slovene, not Italian. The 1911 census showed that almost 30 percent of the population of the city of Trieste was Slovene, while almost 95 percent of the rural areas surrounding the city were inhabited by Slovenes. In fact, at this point, Trieste was home to the largest urban Slovene community in the world, far ahead of Ljubljana and Cleveland (United States), the second and third largest communities.

Today, the total population in the north-eastern Friuli-Venezia-Giulia region of Italy is 500,000, and only 20 percent is ethnically Slovene. In the much more urban province of Trieste, Slovenes number just 49,000 out of a total population of 300,000.

In the past, the minority has been able to use the relative strength of Yugoslavia as leverage against Rome, but since Slovene independence, the situation has been much more precarious. Slovenia alone is no match for the strength of the former Yugoslavia on the international level, but the country has been doing all it can to support the minority.

Italian repression

The history of Trieste reads like prelude to the ethnic cleansing of Bosnia. Until 1918, the city was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire along with all of the Slovene lands. But with the end of the First World War, Trieste, together with the entire coastal region of what is now Slovenia and Croatia, was given over to Italy.

Starting in 1920, Italian hostility toward the new Slavic minorities ignited with the arson attack on the Slovenski Narodnji Dom, the major Slovene cultural center in Trieste and home to the Slovene community's archives. The building and everything inside was destroyed.

After that, the Italian authorities launched a violent assault on the Slovene community. Slovene language instruction was phased out of schools beginning in 1923. In 1925, the community's bank, Jadranska Banka, was shut down. Two years later, it was forbidden to use Slovene in public and the following year it was forbidden to use Slovene in the press. Even the clergy was not spared—more than 50 priests were arrested, and 200 were exiled.

The Italian authorities went so far as to force the Slovenes to take on Italian surnames. And they were not satisfied with just the living; headstones were changed, turning Slovene cemeteries into Italian ones overnight.

Before the First World War, more than one million Slovenes lived in the coastal region; in the interwar period, more than one tenth fled, were deported, arrested or executed.

Koper: the new Trst

During the Second World War, it seemed that Trieste would be reunited with Slovenia within Yugoslavia, as in fact the rest of the coastal region was annexed to either Slovenia or Croatia. In May 1945, Tito's forces occupied Trieste for forty days, but were then pushed out by the Allied Forces.

From the end of the Second World War until 1954, Trieste and its immediate hinterland were put under an international administration led by the British and Americans. The intent had been to create a "Free City of Trieste," controlled directly by neither Italy nor Yugoslavia. However, through the London Memorandum of 1954, the territory was seceded outright to Italy, despite election results from 1949 wherein 60 percent of the native-born population opposed unification with Italy.

Yugoslavia did not cry for long over the loss of the major northern Adriatic port, however. Starting in 1957, Belgrade began building up the neighboring port of Koper, which it had gained during the war. By the time of Slovene independence in 1991, Koper was equal in size and capacity to Trieste. In fact, in the past ten years Trieste has fallen into sharp decline, its annual turnover falling annually by 5.5 million tons. Koper, on the other hand, has boomed, its annual turnover having grown by 60 percent to over eight million. Koper is the preferred port of both Hungary and Austria, and business is increasing with Bavaria, Slovakia and Poland.

Unexpected support

The situation of the Slovenes in Italy today is nowhere near as dire as in the interwar years. The community has two central organizations, the Slovene Cultural-Economic Union and the Council of Slovene Organizations. It has also started a theater and scientific institutions. There is a Slovene-language daily, Primorski Dnevnik, and a Slovene political party called the Slovene Community.

The major issue facing the Slovene minority these days is the draft Law on the Global Protection of the Slovene Minority in Italy (Law No 4735). Throughout the north-east of the country, Slovenes have varying degrees of legal protection. In Trieste, Slovenes were accorded a reasonable degree of minority rights by the London Memorandum and the Slovenes in Gorizia received some minority rights by the 1947 peace treaty, while the Udine region does not recognize its Slovene minority at all.

The Law on the Global Protection of the Slovene Minority in Italy would apply to all Slovenes in the territory of Italy and would ensure high levels of protection in all regions and provinces. The Slovene government has done everything it can to push the Italian government to finally pass it, and help has come from yet another, most unexpected, source: Trieste mayor Riccardo Illy and the city administration.

In a move no one would have expected just a few years ago, Illy and his group have joined Ljubljana in lobbying Rome for passage of the law. Until very recently, the city refused even to admit that a Slovene minority existed there.

A demonstration, in May 2000, in support of the law drew more than 5000 people out onto St Anthony Square in the center of Trieste. Organized by the two umbrella organizations of the Slovene community in Trieste, the Slovene Cultural and Economic Union and the Council of Slovene Organizations, the demonstration also had the support of the city authorities.

Mayor Illy addressed the crowd, stressing that the Slovene minority is a cultural treasure that must be defended. The city administration also planned a roundtable on the occasion of the demonstration to create a dialogue between Italian and Slovene representatives of Trieste's political, cultural and economic communities.

More than 50 Slovene and non-Slovene institutions took part in the cultural program that was conducted during the demonstration. In the end, it became the largest demonstration of Italian Slovenes since 1984, when Travnik pri Gorci hosted a demonstration for the respect of human rights in Italy.

In mid-June, the city followed up its roundtable with a conference called "Italians and Slovenes: Two Autochthonous Ethnic Groups Serving Trieste and the Friuli-Venezia-Giulia Region." Trieste assistant mayor Roberto Damiani led the conference, which drew more than 200 people, including numerous important regional political figures and representatives of the local Slovene community.

Parliamentary debate begins

After several delays, the efforts of Trieste, Ljubljana and the Slovene minority paid off when the draft law finally appeared on the agenda of the lower house of the Italian parliament at the end of June. It was sponsored by the parties of the center-left governing coalition, but was staunchly opposed by the right-wing and far-right parties.

The law's opponents started the debate by disputing over 1500 points in the document. Among the opposition's arguments against the law was the supposition that it would give Slovenes more rights than Friulians, and even that the Slavic minority in Friuli was not Slovene but some sort of proto-Slavic tribe.

Debate over the law, which lasted several weeks, was heightened by a commentary published in the Trieste daily Il Piccolo by then-Slovene Foreign Minister Lojze Peterle. Peterle suggested that failure to pass the draft law could harm Slovene-Italian relations. The opposition groups in Parliament accused Peterle of interfering in the internal affairs of Italy, but the affair blew over quickly.

On 12 July, the lower house of Parliament finally passed the law, and it moved on to the Senate, which now must pass it before it can become law.

Senate takes up the cause

The Senate took up the law in September, at the conclusion of the summer holidays. Once again, the right-wing MPs tried to block the law by proposing more than 1700 changes to the text. But the obstruction of the right-wing MPs proved not to be the major problem: in the end, it was the packed agenda of the Senate.

The 25th anniversary of the signing of the Osimo Agreement, the treaty that finally settled the border between Yugoslavia and Italy, was on 10 November. Part of the agreement called for legal protection of the Slovene minority in Italy, a duty that 25 years later has still not been fully accomplished. Hopes were high that the Senate would push through the law in time for the anniversary, but it ultimately did not come to pass.

Debate on the law was deferred in December so the Senate could take up the budget, and then was further put off by the Christmas and New Year holidays. At the end of the month, the law appeared once again on the Senate's agenda, for 25 and 31 January along with 1 February.

The final vote was scheduled for 7 February, but has now been deferred until Tuesday 13 February. For now, the law remains in limbo. A concentrated effort on the part of the liberal forces in the Senate is needed if the law is to be passed at all, since Italy is preparing for parliamentary elections scheduled for April. If it is not passed in the current session, parliamentary review must start again from scratch. If the right-wing parties, who are hotly contesting the law, do as well as is expected in the elections, it could dash any hope of passage.

Insult to injury

Thursday 8 February, was the national holiday of Slovene culture, and it was hoped that the minority would have a double celebration: the holiday and the passage of the law. Sadly, this was not to be.

To make matters worse, the Italian Parliament failed to budget for the Slovene minority, expecting that the law would be passed. The law contains provisions for the financing of the minority, which means that Rome would not have needed to set aside special funds. Now, it appears the minority will be in an even worse situation than before. The minority has not had much protection, but it has never before been in a financial crisis.

On 7 February, the Slovene Cultural-Economic Union and the Council of Slovene Organizations staged a demonstration in front of the Friuli-Venezia-Giulia regional government building in Trieste to demand funding for the coming year, as well as to protest the establishment of the Regional Institute for the Slovene Minority. The demonstration was timed to coincide with the final debate in the Senate over the law.

The lack of funding for next year will be a harsh blow, but the proposed Institute could have even worse long-term consequences. It would be under the authority of the regional government, and would dispense funds to the minority, including funds provided by the Republic of Slovenia. The move would severely limit the autonomy of the Slovene minority, and the umbrella organizations believe that the regional authorities are pushing for the Institute as a means of silencing the minority.

The minority has not been discouraged by all of this, contrary to what one might expect. The only Slovene party in Italy, the Slovene Community Party (SSk), held a press conference in Trieste on 7 February to announce two proactive initiatives: the publication of a brochure, "Asserting the Slovene Language in Dealings with Public Administration," and the organization of an Office for Human Rights within the party itself. The press conference and the two initiatives, like the demonstration, were timed to coincide with the Senate's debate.

The SSk's brochure contains information on rights to deal with the public authorities in Slovene, and lists all relevant legislation. The list mentions articles of the Italian constitution, articles of the Statute of the Free City of Trieste, the 1954 London Memorandum, the 1975 Osimo Agreement and Italian Supreme Court decisions as well as decisions of regional courts. The brochure also contains the regulations concerning the return of Slovene names from Italian equivalents.

The Office for Human Rights was created because the SSk sees minority rights issues essentially as human rights issues. The Office is housed in the party's headquarters in Trieste and will offer information as well as legal advice.

Will decades of struggle end in defeat?

The National Day of Slovene Culture was also celebrated in Trieste. The speaker of the Slovene Parliament, Borut Pahor, was on hand to address the crowd. In his speech, he expressed his hopes that the Senate would be able to take the final step. Should the law be passed, he said, it will not be just a law but a historical milestone.

Pahor told the crowd that passage of the law will strengthen faith in a common, multicultural Europe. He also gave assurances that Ljubljana has done everything in its power, and that now the law's fate rests with the democratic forces within Italy.

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The Senate will continue its debate on 13 February, since it only managed to discuss 18 of the 28 articles of the draft law by 7 February. Once all the articles have been debated and approved, then the heads of all parliamentary parties must make a final statement, and the law must be voted on again, as a complete document.

For now, the Slovene minority is pegging all hopes of its survival on the final vote. Protection has been sparse in the past, but now that passage of the law is looking less and less likely, and has been compounded by the double burden of the lack of funding and the state-controlled Institute, the situation the minority finds itself in may be more than it can bear.

Support from Rome, if past experience is any indication, will be nearly impossible to elicit, while support from Ljubljana is uneven, since Slovenia's economy gives its own citizens a comfortable lifestyle, but leaves little left over for the various minority groups outside its borders.

And even if the law is eventually passed, true protection could still be a long way off. The government must publish executive norms in order to enforce the law. Executive norms for the Law on Minorities (No 482) were passed a full calendar year after the law took effect, and a similar situation could happen with this law, especially if the right-wing parties win in the upcoming elections, as they are expected to do.

Brian Požun, 9 February 2001

Central Europe Review will continue to follow this story in our weekly Slovene news coverage.

Shedding the Balkan Skin

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