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THU, 08 MAR 2001 19:24:33 GMT

Slovene Minority in Italy

Injustice from the Fascist Era Amended

The autochthonous Slovene ethnic minority in Italy had to wait for the recognition of its minority rights for over half a century in a supposedly ordered European country. Finally, a few days ago, the injustice done to it during Duce's rule was amended in the Rome Senate

AIM Ljubljana, February 20, 2001

Authorities in Ljubljana have finally witnessed the fulfillment of a "several-decades-old dream" marking yet another "historic date" on the calendar. This time, the news comes from Italy where the Senate (Upper House of the Parliament), after years and years of parliamentary obstruction and futile debates, has at long last adopted the so-called Minority Law. The victory came "mere" thirty years after the first bills (52, all in all) were submitted to the Parliament, half a century after the adoption of the Constitution, following thousands of amendments and countless attempts of the opposition to obstruct the law on the protection of Slovene minority rights in Italy. Besides the French and German minorities (in Southern Tyrol), the Slovene ethnic minority has thus at last obtained the necessary legal prerequisites for the protection of its minority rights.

The newly adopted law regulates the protection of the Slovene minority in three Italian provinces (Trieste, Gorizia, Udine/ Videm). The third article of the parliamentary rule provides for the establishment of a standing parity committee entrusted with solving pending issues concerning the Slovene minority and the day-to-day implementation of the new law. The committee has twenty members, ten Italians and ten Slovenes. The new law explicitly states that Slovenes are entitled to "giving their children Slovene names" which goes for the names of firms in their ownership as well. The seemingly rough tone of this provision of the law is the result of the fact that, to this very day, Italy has not yet revoked numerous acts and decrees adopted in the fascist era which, in the thirties, during the rule of Benito Mussolini, served as an instrument to re-name Slovenes with Italian names.

The law guarantees Slovenes from the protected zone the right to use their mother tongue in bodies of both municipal and local authorities. A few years ago, an over-zealous Slovene activist ended up in jail in an attempt to demonstrate his right, at the time unrecognized, to fill in a form in Slovenian in a local post office. Now it has been decreed that the elementary school from Gazben be turned over to the state, while the Slovene minority in Trieste will be restituted ownership over the People's Hall and the Merchant Hall in Trieste, nationalized during the fascist era.

Parliamentary debate on Law number 4735 did not open before the Senate until last July, although the bill had been filed as far back as 1996. Since the Italian Constitution prescribes the adoption of identical texts of individual laws in both the Upper and the Lower Chamber of the Parliament, the opposition (rightists from Forza Italia, Alleanza Nazionale and Lega Nord) braced themselves for a long-lasting trench-warfare. That the fight had indeed been fierce is best illustrated by the final phase of the whole procedure, the senate debate, wherein the opposition leaders presented no less than 1720 amendments to a law numbering 29 articles all in all. Furthermore, they took the stand in order to clarify their arguments on each of the 1720 amendments, not forgetting in the meantime to demand a recount of quorum in at least a hundred instances, thus further prolonging the debate. To make the whole matter even more bizarre, each article was voted on separately, while the media supplied the anxious public with daily reports on the number of paragraphs adopted during each particular 24-hour session.

The goal of the opposition was self-evident from the very beginning: to thwart the adoption of the law, utterly unacceptable to their judgment, recognizing the Slovene minority even in the Videm province, to say nothing of the Cedade where it provides for the establishment of a counter in the municipality where all proceedings will be carried out in Slovenian language. If the opposition's tactic had been more successful, the ruling Olive Branch (L' Ulivo) Party would have been obliged to place the issue on the agenda only after the close of the forthcoming elections, meaning that the parliamentary debate would have had to be reopened in both Chambers of the Parliament, thus delaying the adoption of the law for another couple of years.

Moreover, the legislative protection of Slovene minority rights has been Italy's constitutional obligation since the founding of the Republic. This obligation has been repeatedly cited in various international documents, starting with the London Memorandum up to the Osim Agreement. The first serious attempt to formulate the law dates back to the sixties, when the president of the Slovene Cultural and Economic Alliance (SKGZ), one of the two leading Slovene organizations in Italy, wrote the first draft of the law mirroring the solution reached in Southern Tyrol. After the signing of the Osim Agreement between Italy and Yugoslavia in 1975, the Italian Right organized the List for Trieste (Lista per Trieste) with the purpose of fighting the said law. The wrangling in the Parliament had assumed such proportions that, in the end, even the passing of a governmental decree protecting Slovene minority rights which does not call for parliamentary verification was considered for a time. Despite the verbal and administrative war waged, Slovenes in Italy still enjoyed a certain degree of constitutional and legal protection. As, for instance, representation in the Parliament where they had a seat, notwithstanding their numbers.

One of the supposedly crucial arguments against the granting of minority rights to ethnic Slovenes living in Italy boils down to the repetition of the thesis that the population inhabiting the surroundings of Cedade, Resia and other regions of northern Italy are not Slovenes but, in fact, Slavs who do not even speak Slovenian. Villagers in remote and inaccessible mountain valleys in the Italian Alps have, in fact, preserved certain specific customs and speak in a distinct dialect, but that cannot be used as a convincing enough argument for denying them their minority rights. The adoption of the General Convention on the Protection of Minority Languages in the Council of Europe has played a significant role in the promotion of Slovene minority rights. On the local level, the cause was backed by archbishops of Trieste and Videm (Udine) and found fervent supporters in the persons of the mayor of Trieste Ricardo Illy and the president of the Trentino-Alto Adige state administration.

The first reactions to the adoption of the "Slovene law" varied. Rightist newspapers carried the statement of the member of Parliament Ricardo that the law was "a gaping wound on the Italian identity", while the communist Piccolo wrote of "the triumph of openness and diversity" over "all those who refuse to recognize the rights of others".

The happy ending of the Slovene minority story in Italy has a dark side to it, too. If nothing else, it explains why new nations in the process of constituting their own countries fight so fiercely to survive within the narrow border lines of their prospective states. Slovenes who have managed to regulate rather solidly the rights of at least two autochthonous minorities living in their own country - neglecting to solve the issue of all other, unrecognized ethnic groups - had to wait half a century for the injustice done to them in the fascist era to be corrected in a democratic European country. What are those not living in such an "ordered" country to expect?

IGOR MEKINA

(AIM LJUBLJANA)