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Alpine village (population 58) goes independent

By Margaret Studer / August 30, 1982



Zurich

A tiny Swiss village declares independence, issues passports, and sets up a border post with a customshouse? Alpine operetta or reality?

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For the 58 inhabitants of the postcard village of Vellerat, what sounds like light theater is in dead earnest. They have just declared their sovereign territory, all 520 acres, a ''commune libre'' (free community).

For these resourceful mountain folk, the Vellerat declaration of independence is only the latest move in an ongoing liberation campaign. Other tactics include a refusal to pay taxes or to participate in Switzerland's population count.

Vellerat has a language problem, unusual as it may seem in Switzerland. The farming village is French-speaking but belongs to the German-speaking canton of Berne. Cantons (states) in Switzerland are not paper tigers but play a decisive political role, and Vellerat is fighting to join the French-speaking canton of Jura.

''We do not want to break off from Switzerland, but from Canton Berne,'' Pierre-Andre Comte, Vellerat's patient council president, explains. Mr. Comte, the intellectual head of the freedom movement, is also the village schoolmaster.

So far 700 passports to enter Vellerat have been issued at the makeshift border post. With Swiss efficiency, passport photos are taken at the border. Stamped into the passport, which costs around $4, is ''Free Community Vellerat, Frontier Post.'' Unpopular Bernese officials are stopped at the border - no passport for them.

Though the Swiss postal authorities refused to issue Vellerat a special postmark, the locals have overcome the problem with envelopes stamped: ''Today, on Aug. 14, 1982, Vellerat announced its independence. This announcement is based on a decision of the community taken on Aug. 11, 1982.''

Only one road leads into Vellerat and that passes through the new Jura canton's territory. No police forces, bent on bringing delinquent villagers into line, will be allowed to pass through. The Vellerats are therefore keeping a sharp eye aloft for helicopters carrying ''enemy forces.''

The Vellerat action is based on a history of colonialism through Berne, minority resentment (Switzerland is more than 70 percent German-speaking), and linguistic pride.

In 1979, after decades of often bitter struggle, Switzerland created a new canton to satisfy French-speaking people living in the Jura area of the canton of Berne. To the French-speaking ''Jurassien,'' the Bernese were a colonial power that had occupied their territory. Led by Roland Beguelin, a slightly built Francophile with a strong bent toward Napoleon and Charles De Gaulle, they managed to throw off the yoke of Berne for most but not all of the area's French-speaking people.

Over the centuries many German-speaking people had moved into the Jura area. Before the creation of the new canton of Jura, each district had to vote to join the new canton or to stay with Berne. Districts dominated by German-speaking inhabitants voted to stay with Berne. They were not included in the new canton.

Vellerat sits on the border of the Jura's French- and German-speaking areas, but politically belongs to a pro-Bernese region. Although 100 percent in favor of joining the new canton, it remained part of Canton Berne. Since 1979, the tiny community has fought doggedly to join its ethnic brothers in the new Jura canton.

But such a transfer of territory has constitutional complications that probably require a national referendum. Though the Swiss government is sympathetic to the villagers, it wants more time to work out the legal solution, and Vellerat is impatient.

''Ridiculous that a national referendum has to be held about 210 hectares ( 520 acres), which is not much bigger than a private estate,'' Comte argues.

What now? ''It's all up to Berne,'' says a defiant Comte during a school lunchbreak. How many children attend the village school? Four. Strength does not necessarily come from numbers.