AIM: start

SUN, 04 NOV 2001 23:33:15 GMT

Decoration that Conveys a Message

AIM Zagreb, October 29, 2001

The decision of Italy's President Carlo Azeglia Ciampi to award the highest Italian military decoration to the city of Zadar appalled Croatia and turned into a diplomatic scandal. The gold medal was intended not for present Zadar but the one of almost sixty years ago, or more precisely, the Italian administration of Zadar in exile.

Official Italy confirmed the news carried by Il Piccolo from Trieste that on November 13, the President of Italy would decorate "the flag of the last Italian civil administration of Zadar". The given reason for the medal of honour is the suffering of this city caused by massive bombing by the allies in 1943. It is not mentioned that Zadar continued to support the fascist option even after capitulation of Italy.

Official Croatia reacted immediately. Croatian ambassador in Rome demanded an explanation, and Italian ambassador in Croatia was presented a demarche. Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Croatia issued a statement that the decoration of "Italian Zadar" was an expression of an unacceptable attitude towards the past. Rome responded to this by postponing the ceremony of presentation of the decoration. But this did not solve the problem, it was just put on ice.

The award of Ciampi's medal to the so-called "free municipality of Zadar in exile" is evidently a political act. This decision conveys a political message that cannot pass unnoticed by Croatia, nor can it be accepted. It implies, to say the least, a strange attitude towards historical data. As correctly observed by Croatian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, it re-opens the long closed historical chapters. It questions some of generally accepted stands.

If the decoration was awarded to the so-called "free municipality of Zadar" does this mean that at present it is not free? If the decoration is awarded to the Italians in Zadar who do not rely on anti-fascist tradition and for the suffering Zadar endured because of bombing by the allies, does it mean that Italy is changing its stand concerning the anti-fascist attitude of modern Europe? Does Rome consider itself the inheritor of the regime that controlled Zadar and was forced to capitulate in 1943 or is post-fascist Italy its foothold? As far as it is known, not a single European statesman made a move such as Ciampi's.

Perhaps the reasons for the unpleasant surprise from Rome should not after all be sought in the past and in the wish to reformulate it. Perhaps it is primarily an attempt to redesign the present relations between Italy and Croatia. Zagreb stresses that what makes this scandal even more curious is that it followed two weeks after the successful visit of Italian President to Croatia. But at the time it could already be surmised that mutual relations are not so idyllic as it appeared from without.

On the eve of the visit official Rome suggested a change of Croatian laws, or specifically denationalisation in favour of Italian optants and abolishment of, as stated, discriminatory provisions based on ethnic affiliation. Acceptance of these demands would implicitly be a confession that Croatia legally discriminates minorities, the Italians to be exact, which can by no means be considered to be true.

Ciampi's statements in Croatia were in the same tone. He kept repeating, as if giving instructions, the expectations that the law on denationalisation would be amended and "discrimination" eliminated. In one of his speeches the guest stated a longish list of towns in Istria and Dalmatia in which, as he said, Italian culture had left deep traces and this statement sounded as if it did not refer only to the past. The bearing of the Italian guest was the reason, it is claimed, why his Croatian homologue during their joint visit to Istria at a certain moment made a digression from his prepared speech to remind of Italian fascism. President Stjepan Mesic mentioned that Istria knew "the evil of fascism and overdoing of communism" and that both parties had to draw a lesson from history.

Italian party persisted with the formulation that Croatia would eliminate "discrimination" of minorities from its laws even during negotiations on cooperation and partnership which is hastily being prepared and should be signed quite soon because Rome insists on it. Croatian Prime Minister, Ivica Racan, was ready to sign it on Monday, October 29, along with the Agreement on Stabilisation and Joining the European Union. It is out of the question now, at least for as long as the Zadar scandal is not resolved.

The Italian party says that it is absolutely surprised by the reaction of Zagreb. It is considered to be an expression of exaggerated sensitivity. Il Piccolo from Trieste continues to further strain the relations. Having established that President Ciampi has not given up on his decision but just postponed its realisation, this daily announces that like Zadar, Rijeka and Pula might also be decorated. Il Piccolo proclaims the reaction of Croatia literally "insolent, thoughtless and unacceptable". Other Italian media reported on the Zadar scandal in a similar tone. Corriere della Sera writes that "Zagreb is blocking the agreement with Italy" and that it is threatening to withdraw its ambassador if the decoration for Zadar is not definitely cancelled. Repubblica calls Croatian diplomats aggressive, and it does not believe that the negotiations were interrupted because of the Zadar case but because of the content of one of the article of the agreement on partnership and cooperation.

In the office of Croatian President Mesic they believe that the postponement of the ceremony is just the first step. They claim that this is a serious problem in mutual relations between Italy and Croatia and it is possible to eliminate it only if the decision on decorating “Italian Zadar” is withdrawn.

Diplomatic circles in Zagreb are expressing wonder, some even bewilderment because of the latest move of Rome. Even American media noted that “Croatia is embittered by the decision of Italy to decorate fascist administration of Zadar which controlled that Croatian city during the Second World War”. Ciampi’s gesture is not considered as just a message to Croatia, but also to Europe. Diplomats think it is comparable with the recent Berlusconi’s declaration that Christianity is superior to Islamic tradition. It is mostly estimated that the decision to award “Italian Zadar” is an expression of internal Italian relations. But it is also possible to speak of the intention of Rome to silently cease to strictly abide by the Osimo agreements that Italy and Tito’s Yugoslavia regulated the borders with in 1975 and determined the rules in resolving minority questions. Croatia still has certain unsettled debts to Italian optants, and Rome is trying to draw a maximum out of that.

Jelena Lovric