AIM: start

TUE, 18 SEP 2001 22:59:40 GMT

Slovenia & Minorities

Ethnic Cleansing, European Style

Joerg Heider, head of the Austrian Freedom Party and administrator of the Carinthia region, is again giving Austria's southern neighbor a headache.

AIM Ljubljana, September 7, 2001

The Heider policy of pressure on the diminishing Slovenian minority in the Austrian part of Carinthia has never changed its nature and goal, though it used to change form often. As of recently, Heider has begun to play the open and charming politician, joyfully touring Slovenia, developing and nurturing good relations with Slovenia's officials, and promoting good neighborly cooperation, whereas at home, through administrative measures and decrees, he is gradually eliminating the remnants of the Slovenian minority living on the other side of the Alps.

All this is proceeding efficiently and almost unnoticed; from a legal point of view, the position of the Slovenian minority has never been better. Relations between Slovenia and Austria are good, many agreements have been signed between the two states, Austria has finally recognized the existence of a Slovenian minority even in another province, Styria. Furthermore, the Austrian Constitutional Court recently ruled that fourth-graders in Slovenian-language elementary schools should also receive instruction in their native language, in addition to the first three grades, and that the Slovenian language should be official in places where ethnic Slovenians account for at least 20 percent of the population. Heider, however, was openly against expanding minority rights, and did what he could in the executive branch of government. He said bilingual signs with the names of populated areas will not be put up in municipalities where his party is in power. That means that following the closure of Slovenian schools, police stations, courts, and post offices in areas where ethnic Slovenians live, funding for Slovenian-language media outlets will also be reduced.

The Carinthia administrator sided with the nationalist Heimatdienst veterans' organization and the regional Kronenzeitung newspaper in demanding that the Slovenian-language programs of Austria's ORF TV should be gradually phased out and replaced by broadcasts intended for "ancient Austrians." Heider also demanded that new radio frequencies created by taking ORF-sponsored private station off the air, be used for "ancient Austrians" living in Slovenia, primarily in the region of the town of Kocevje. The first question one should ask is who are these "ancient Austrians"? They are members of the most recent minority in Slovenia, which until the 1990s numbered slightly over 200 people. This minority was "recognized" by Slovenia this year, when an agreement on "cultural cooperation" was signed with Austria. This, in turn, was a result of great pressure by the Austrian federal government (in which Joerg Heider has considerable influence) on the government in Ljubljana, and was tied to Slovenia's aspirations to join the European Union.

Heider's policy towards the Slovenian Question has been met by a few angry, verbal reactions in Slovenia. That these reactions brought little benefit is confirmed by the inferior role currently played by Slovenian diplomacy in regard to Austria. Namely, Heider is on the offensive even when the expansion of the European Union is concerned, which tops the list of Slovenia's priorities. The EU cannot accept new members without a consensus, meaning that without Austria's consent Slovenia cannot hope to join. This is why Heider has taken steps to hinge Slovenia's, and even the Czech Republic's and Slovakia's, EU membership on a whole series of conditions: Slovenia has to shut down its Krsko nuclear power plant (the Czech Republic will have to do the same with its Temelin plant), it will have to recognize the "ancient Austrian" minority, repeal Benes' decrees and former communist Yugoslavia's decisions, as well as a transitional period in providing for the free movement of workers. As of recently, Heider has come up with a referendum which will enable Austrians to decide on conditions under which they would accept the expansion of the EU. Although the plebiscite will not take place before 2003, Heider already claims that a new term of office of the incumbent Austrian prime minister, Wolfgang Schuessel, will depend on its results.

In this light the fact that the Slovenian Congress, an organization representing Slovenians living outside Slovenia, was the first to strongly protest the gradual suppression of the Slovenian minority came as no surprise. According to its members, Heider's idea to close down Slovenian-language schools, media companies, and other institutions in Carinthia is unacceptable for the Slovenian minority, violates the Austrian Constitution and European democratic principles...

A response from Carinthia was not slow in coming. Joerg Heider, the head of the province, said the closure of the schools was legal, "because it was supported by municipal governments." And the municipal governments asked that they be closed because of "high costs." True, Heider did mention that the demand for Slovenian language teachers would increase following the Constitutional Court decision expanding the minority-language elementary school curriculum to include the fourth grade as well. Thus, in addition to the existing 180 teachers, another 40 are supposed to be employed. What Heider failed to say, however, is that their future jobs might blink out of existence before they manage to get them.

Igor Mekina