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    WED, 30 SEP 1998 21:29:00 GMT

    Istria as the Eternal Enemy

    AIM Zagreb, 18 September, 1998

    A plate on the building which is the seat of the Istrian district in Pazin became a national problem. The plate bears an inscription in Croatian and in Italian, and exactly that bilingualism fluttered the dovecotes. To be precise, the bilingualism has become a new immediate cause for revival of the thesis on trouble-making Istria which Tudjman's authorities keep warming up, and occasionally turn them into real campaigns. Just as the Croatian president once threatened that he would colonize Istria with some thirty odd thousand "true Croats" in order to improve the "problematic" loyalty to Croatia of the Istrians, nowadays the country is buzzing with accusations that a plot of "de-Croatization" is carried out in the region on the south side of mount Ucka.

    The ruling Croat Democratic Community (HDZ) has recently established that the controversial plate on the seat of the Istrian district was contrary to the law and demanded that it be removed. Pursuant Croatian law, bilingualism is permitted on the level of municipalities and cities, but not districts. Referring to these legal norms, the relevant ministry ordered that the plate be removed. As customary, media close to the regime offered their logistic support - Istria was on the carpet again, this time suspected of moving towards "Italianization". However, the Istrian Democratic Union (IDS), party which rules Istria, refused to remove the plate, and indeed, intensified its position. The assembly of Istrian district passed a declaration in which it expressly declares that this district is multiethnic and multilingual. Except for establishment of this known fact, official use of Italian language in district administration was formally demanded by the declaration. It was also demanded that an advisory referendum be scheduled on the topic.

    The HDZ proclaimed this initiative of the IDS a political idiocy, cheap petty politicking. It spoke of a program of de-Croatization of Istria, claimed that Istria was intentionally put in the excess situation in relation to the Constitution, meaning "also against the state". The controversial plate led to the latest, so far the most acute straining of relations between the ever opposed HDZ and IDS. But, the conflict has not remained only on the level of these two parties, the number of those involved is increasing, ranging from Italian minority in Croatia to IDS's partners from the opposition.

    The controversy has several dimensions. Legally, from the aspect of strict adherence to the law, at first sight it seems that the Istrian Democratic Union is not right. According to the Constitution, Croatian language and Latin script are in official use in Croatia, and pursuant the law on rights of ethnic communities, bilingualism can be practised only in municipalities in which a minority forms more than half of the population. However, this law had been passed before districts were established in Croatia, so the IDS claims that the provision on bilingualism can be broadened from the municipalities to include districts. Indeed, this would only make the existing practice legal, since Italian language was used so far in the assembly of the district equally as Croatian. Italian is spoken at the sessions, invitations and material are printed in both Italian and Croatian, and even the controversial plate on the district building is not at all new.

    But the problem is, primarily, of a political nature. If this had not been the case - the legal controversy would have been easily resolved. It is possible to speak of three significant reasons why the HDZ has chosen this moment to demand that the bilingual plate be taken down, initiating in this way a new crisis in the persistently strained relations between Zagreb and Pazin. First, the controversy refers to the Italian minority but it is in fact aimed at the Serbs. The ruling party is not afraid of twenty odd thousand Italians who live in Istria. They somehow got used to them by now. But they are afraid of the possibility that use of minority language on the level of the Istrian district - either by an expressive provision of the law or tacitly - could be a precedent which others would then refer to in their demands.

    Croatian authorities are in fact afraid that the same right might also be claimed by the Serbs and that Cyrillic script and Ekavian dialect could appear on inscriptions on seats of the district of Vukovar-Srijem, and perhaps even of Sibenik-Knin. The HDZ is trying to stir up aversion of the public towards use of minority languages, which should not be too difficult, because the Croatian public is not exactly sensitive to problems of minorities. Creation of an atmosphere of intolerance against minorities is the introduction to the assembly debate about the law on official use of languages of ethnic minorities. The draft of this law was already discussed in the parliament, but now it will be presented to the deputies in a form which is significantly more restrictive than the former text.

    Second, by raising dust over the plate in Pazin and by allegations on silent Italianization of Istria, the HDZ wishes also to interfere with the relation of forces between political parties. Ever since Tudjman came to power, the ruling party has persistently, in plain terms, accused the IDS, suspecting it of lack of Croatian patriotism, Italianophilia, even irredentism. Such heavy political artillery was fruitless so far. But, by taking another opportunity to square accounts with the IDS, the HDZ is this time primarily intending to break the recently initiated links among opposition parties. They claim in the IDS that the ruling party has produced the problem with a clear intention - to stir up discontent among the opposition which is for the first time trying to articulate a serious strategy for a joint appearance in the elections.

    It seems that this ominous intention is bearing fruit. The opposition partners of the IDS have already started disassociating themselves. Some have distanced themselves silently, others explicitly. They reproach IDS for responding to intolerance of the HDZ in the same manner, for preventing solution with its radical stand, for intensifying marginal problems. The oppositionists are stressing that they are against creating strained situations, and teaching the Istrian "enfant terrible" that tensions should be avoided, that the law on use of language of minorities may cause problems, but that it must be implemented, because implementation of the law and the procedure for its amendment is the foundation of every legal state. Without making a distinction between motives of the HDZ and those of the IDS, they are trying to disassociate themselves equally from both. They stress that they support multiethnicity, but, they also say, by radicalization of the problem of bilingualism the IDS has shown that it is not sensitive to problems of the other parts of Croatia, and that in this way it is acting in the same manner as the HDZ which this conflict is, in fact, convenient for.

    The IDS interprets this with understaning, saying that the other "opposition parties in this case could not support them for fear of loss of votes in other parts of Croatia, where they still feel ethnically threatened, which is only natural". But they claim that as concerning bilingualism they will not give in, neither will they allow their stand to cause a split in the opposition ranks. How they will accomplish this, remains to be seen.

    Third, shortage of external enemies after the end of the war resulted in dissolution of the national monolith and raising of certain issues unpleasant for the Croatian regime, so it is in an urgent search for enemy substitutes. Hysteria is stirred among the public by a fabricated "Italianization" of Istria, which is conveneint for development of a feeling that the nation and the state are in danger again. Internal enemies - this is the new formula for national homogenization. Although Croatia is one of ethnically most homegeneous states, the Croats are persuaded that they must stick together, because if they do not, those few per cent members of ethnic minorities could allegedly threaten everything accomplished. The struggle against irredentism in Istria is expected to serve for closing ranks around the regime. The eroded legitimacy of Tudjman's regime can best be re-established in conditions of national danger, even if it were fictitious. That is why it is possible that interethnic relations will intentionally be further strained in the future.

    British ambassador in Zagreb, Colin Munroe recently said that Europe looked upon Croatia as an expressively nationalistic country. That is the reason why some independent analysts rightfully believe the conflict between official Zagreb and Istria to be a civilizational disagreement. Multiethnicity, respect of differences, tolerance, coexistence - Istria has been all that for decades. Everything that Tudjman's Croatia is not. Because of these very civilizational accomplishments which it can neither understand nor appreciate - Istria is unbearable for Croatian authorities.

    JELENA LOVRIC