AIM: start

SUN, 29 APR 2001 01:45:09 GMT

Croatia against Bilingual and Autonomous Istria

AIM Zagreb, April 18, 2001

On Tuesday, April 9, the traditionally most disobedient Croatian region, Istria, proclaimed a specific autonomy. After a two-hour session of the assembly of Istrian District in Pazin, the statute of this Croatian region was amended with 27 votes in favour and six abstained, and without a single vote against. Significant amendments were introduced in the new text of the Statute. On the territory of the district Italian language acquired equality with Croatian, so in all the places and municipalities where a sizable Italian group lives, their mother tongue will be the official language. This practically means that all identity papers, official forms, names of streets and similar, will be written in two languages. The district assembly of Istria has also acquired a new second name: Dieta Istriana. The new Statute of the District also prescribes the possibility of expressing special regional affiliation - being Istrian - as an expression of belonging to the Istrian multi-ethnic community. The Statute includes the principle of according to which everything that can be done by low instances of power shall be left to them to do while only what is inevitable functions are transferred to higher instances - and the principle of regionalism, that is, the support to transnational regional cooperation. More or less these are the elements that the Istrian District already had in its Statute three years ago, but then the Constitutional Court annulled the decisions of the district assembly. The circumstances were essentially different: Croat Democratic Community (HDZ) ruled the state, and Istrian Democratic Union (IDS) was in the opposition. Nowadays IDS is part of the Croatian ruling coalition, HDZ has already forgotten what it is like to be in power, but it seems that everything else has remained very similar as before.

Proclamation of the autonomy in Pazin provoked such strong resistance of continental political forces - it was condemned by severe political curses about "autonomy lovers" and "separatism" - that uninformed observers could have thought that it was just a mere re-run of one of the previous conflict of IDS and HDZ. Chairman of the Croatian Assembly Zlatko Tomcic estimated that the move of IDS was a premature, petty political, pre-election gesture, and threatened with the split of the coalition of six parties if the Statute remained in force. Prime Minister Racan declared that the government would, all things considered, give the decision to the Constitutional Court to consider, threatening that it would be nullified. Drazen Budisa, the third important partner in the coalition of six, added the assessment that Italian and Croatian languages could not be in official equal use for a number of reasons among which the fact that is neither the last nor the least is that in Italy in places and provinces where the Croats are the majority population, like Molisi region, this is not the case. Both Tomcic and Budisa stressed as a potential threat the possibility that certain other regions, that is, certain other minorities might follow the lead of Istria. Even the very liberal parties in the coalition of the six, such as HNS of Vesna Pusic, opposed the decision of IDS condemning the Istrian cadre within this party which have not opposed the vote for the “autonomy status”. State television station devoted significant time to the attacks against the move of IDS, while five coalition partners of IDS were in session for a whole day in Zagreb, competing, in absence of IDS, in finding the sharpest words of condemnation for the move of the Istrians.

Only from the Liberal Party of Zlatko Kramaric it was possible to hear expressions of understanding for the decision made in Pazin. Ultimatums were heard from both parties due to which it can hardly be imagined that the government will survive in its present structure. Zlatko Tomcic, president of the Croatian Peasants’ Party – the third ranking party in the coalition – conditioned the remaining of IDS in the government by the withdrawal of the Statute. The Istrians, however, prefer to have their Statute than to participate in the government. “Political principles on which we are standing for ten years already we shall not sell for ministerial posts” said Ivan Jakovcic, president of IDS and minister of European integration in Racan’s government. “If the Constitutional Court establishes that our decisions are founded on law and the Constitution, we expect an apology from all those who have attacked us, and I do not eliminate the possibility of dissolution of the government”. Jakovcic assessed that the other possibility – that small parties such as IDS and LS be thrown out of the coalition of six parties - was unfair. “In that case it would be fair to schedule new elections because the voters did not place their trust in the latest parliamentary elections in the coalition of three, but of six parties and restructuring of the government would in such condition, be a fraud”.

Because of the forthcoming local and regional elections Jakovcic demanded an urgent declaration of the government concerning this problem giving it the time limit by May 15. According to him, the amendment of the Statute of the District was not a politically relevant act: it is simply implementation of Croatian laws, primarily of the Constitution and the Law on Local Self-administration which was recently passed by the Assembly and which offers a complete legal framework for all the reached decisions. Jakovcic considers the attacks against IDS as petty politicking and concerning the allegations that IDS wished to attract support of the voters in the forthcoming elections with this move he declared that he could say the same about his opponents. According to him, other parties will base their campaign in Istria on the attacks against IDS, so they needed this whole hubbub only because of the elections. It is indeed hard to disregard the fact that the decision on the amendment of the Statute of the Istrian District was made just before the beginning of the election campaign in Croatia.

Besides, the Statute has experienced quite drastic amendments. In view of the fact that only between seven and eight per cent of the population in Istria are Italians the reached level of protection of minority rights is a precedent in Europe, as Jakovcic himself admits. On the other hand, the undisturbed almost ten-year long rule of IDS in Istria has shaken the position of this party on the biggest Croatian peninsula. Among the local population it is lately possible to hear assessments on absolute power of IDS in Istria, nepotism, corruption and similar. Therefore the negative campaign from Zagreb is very useful for IDS. All that uproar from the capital, the oversized disapproval, will quite certainly unite the Istrian electorate and bring to the polls a large number of those who intended to abstain. For the parties from the coalition that are attacking IDS this turmoil will help somewhat improve their rating among “patriotic” circles for which even the slightest notion about autonomy of Istria has the same effect as waving a red cloth in front of a bull.

Regardless of the political, or rather, pre-election motives of IDS and its opponents, it is possible to draw two far-reaching political conclusions from the story about the Statute. First, Racan’s government is not inclined towards broadening of minority rights, either in Istria or anywhere else in Croatia. That might be the real reason for resistance to the move of Istrian assembly. Official Zagreb fears that such a move could cause the wish primarily of the Serb minority to pass similar provisions in the assemblies where they are the majority population. Such a move would cause a real turmoil in Croatia. Renaming of the streets in Donji Lapac – without any doubt absolutely in accordance with the law - has already caused terrible reactions of Croatian political parties who already imagined new logs on the roads across Lika, Banija and northern Dalmatia (that is how the war in Croatia began). Milan Djukic, leader of Serb People’s Party immediately welcomed the move of IDS, of course.

The second political conclusion is the one about the obvious structural weakness of the coalition government. Analysts claim that immediately after the local and regional elections in the end of May it is possible to expect not just the announced reconstruction of the government structure, but also of the parties that will form it. According to them, there is a big chance that four major parties (SDP, HSLS, HSS and HNS) will simply throw out the two minor, ideologically different ones (IDS ad LS) and form a new government. The final conclusion could despite everything be favourable. From the raised noise everybody could gain some benefit. Until the very elections IDS will, quite certainly, practically have a free campaign. For this move they will get strong support in Istria and keep power in the peninsula, which they are concerned with the most. If they do not remain in the government, the coalition of six will restructure itself, so if IDS and LS are thrown out of the government, they will be able to form a strong “left” opposition to the existing administration which was so far opposed only by the members of HDZ and Rightist parties associated with it. Racan’s government and its partners will also gain some support on the peninsula, but also in Croatia, demonstrating an enviable quantity of patriotism which not even HDZ would have been ashamed of. Such a big reform of the government would give Racan more time in power which in the current Croatian situation is quite a valuable gain.

The decision on whether the Statute of Istrian District is legal will have to be made by the Ministry of the Justice. It is expected to issue its judgements whether the text of the Statute is in accordance with the law. As it is more than certain that the Ministry (controlled by Racan’s SDP) will take a negative stand, the final decision will have to be made by the Constitutional Court. It will also probably be negative, so that the forecasts of dissolution of the ruling coalition seem quite credible. In the whole story about the Istrian Statute, only one fact is negative – and sad: that the new Croatian administration, even after HDZ, is afraid of its own minorities and wishes to offer them only as many rights as it is forced to do.

Boris Raseta