Italians Yearn for Slice of Balkans

Border disputes in Europe extend to Italy, where some officials want the Istrian Peninsula back

SILVA PERI longs to return to her home, remembering the days of her youth when Mussolini was in power and the Istrian Peninsula was part of Italy.

``Mussolini, God bless him,'' says the 62-year-old Italian housewife-turned-political activist, clasping her hands up to the sky. Along with an estimated 300,000 other Italians, she fled to Italy when the scenic peninsula, popular with tourists, shifted from Italian to Yugoslav territory after World War II.

Her family left behind a restaurant, a house, and a large tract of land in the town of Motovun, which now lies inside Croatia. Ms. Peri, who lives close to the border in Trieste, Italy, dreams that one day the borders will be changed so that her family's property will once again lie inside Italy.

``Oh boy, I think it would be nice if Istria would be Italy again, and we could go there to those beaches and mountains I adore,'' she says. ``But for this we can just dream, it doesn't cost anything.''

Peri's dreams are shared by many Italians, and they are making many in Croatia and Slovenia wince in trepidation; they know all too well what talk of changing borders in this part of Europe can bring.

Peri is the secretary for a group in Trieste that calls itself the Italian-Istrian Community in Exile. Members believe that Istria historically and philosophically belongs to Italy.The group's irredentist claims, sidelined for years by Italy's socialist government, have been resurrected by Italy's newly elected right-wing leadership headed by media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi. The neofascist National Alliance won three posts in President Berlusconi's Cabinet, and the party's leader, Gianfranco Fini, has been outspoken about Italy's territorial claims on Istria.

New territorial claims

Italy's government ``didn't want to hear us for 50 years, but this new government is listening to our arguments and understanding our needs,'' says Denis Zigante, president of the Italian-Istrian Community in Exile in Trieste. ``We don't want to hear anything about compensation for our troubles, we want our property back.''

Istria was under Venetian and Austrian rule for most of the 500 years prior to 1918, when Yugoslavia was formed. After the 1991 breakup of Yugoslavia, Istrians became part of two new states, Croatia and Slovenia, with most of the peninsula lying inside Croatia's borders.

On a visit at the end of June to Croatia, Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Martino told Croatia and Slovenia that neofascist demands for Istria's return to Italy would not become official government policy.

``We hope that from now on some statements will not be overemphasized to create problems where they don't exist,'' Mr. Martino said, apparently referring to Mr. Fini's comments. ``It is important that the future of our relations is not hampered by any delays.''

Nevertheless, Italy vetoed Slovenia's bid for associate membership in the European Union (EU) in June and has vowed to do the same for Croatia until two key issues are settled: the property rights of Italians who left after the war and the rights of the Italian minority in Istria.

But leaders of the estimated 30,000 Italians living in Istria say Italy's hard-line stance toward Croatia and Slovenia have impeded their negotiations with the government. Many Italians in Istria back a regional movement for more local autonomy for the region, as well as strengthening Italian minority rights in Istria.

Progress was being made, at least concerning the Italians in Istria, on extending the areas where bilingual street signs would be required and on teaching more Italian history.``It doesn't help us when they bring into question the sovereignty of borders,'' says Fabricio Radin, head of the Italian community in Istria. ``We want to survive as a national minority in a new state because we are citizens of that state, and our wish is that our culture survives.''

The Slovenian government says it is willing to offer compensation to the Italians who were expelled, but will not extend the property rights being demanded by the Italian government.

One step at a time

``We have offered a face-saving solution for both sides,'' said Vojko Volk, an expert in the Slovenian foreign ministry on the issue. ``We are prepared to compromise, but we're not prepared to be blackmailed.''

That Italy blocked Slovenia's bid for associate membership into the EU angered many Western diplomats working to lure Croatia away from war. Washington scored a diplomatic coup last February when it convinced Croatia to reverse its expansionist policy in Bosnia and stop the war with the Bosnian Muslims in exchange for a promise of loans and quick acceptance into western European circles.

``Just when we are trying to lure Croatia away from war and toward Europe with things like associate membership with the EU, Italy pulls something like this. It makes things very difficult,'' says one European diplomat in the Croatian capital, Zagreb.

Istria's own demands for more autonomy from the Croatian government have further complicated the issues. Unlike the rest of Croatia's coastal areas suffering from a lack of tourists as a result of the war, Istria, close to Italy, Germany, and Austria, still boasts a lucrative tourist market. Istrians complain that much of the money generated from the tourist industry gets sucked back into Zagreb's war chest.

The Istrian Democratic Party (IDS), which garnered 70 percent of the votes in the last elections, held in Feb. 1993, has spearheaded the regionalist movement. Istria was one of only two areas where President Franjo Tudjman's ruling Croatian Democratic Union lost.

IDS leaders calling for more autonomy have been villianized by the government-controlled media, and President Tudjman has deemed Istria's regionalist movement an act of treachery against the government. Nationalist claims from across the border in Italy only encourage the Croatian government to tighten control over the area.

``We want tourists in short Bermudas and T-shirts ... on the beach, not men in uniforms,'' said a jovial Ivan Jakovcic, president of the IDS.

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