Indigenous linguistic minorities living in Italy's Alpine area benefit from strong legal protection; among these, the Slovene minority is the least protected. The slowness in guaranteeing its rights is due to deep-rooted historic factors
Translation for Osservatorio Balcani: Risto Karajkov
by Francesco Palermo and Giulia Predonzani*
The factors of a "doubtful protection"
Italy is a country of different speeds and this also applies to the legal protection of minorities. From the 12 legally recognised indigenous linguistic minorities, those in the Alpine region enjoy quite superior legal protection compared to the others. Among these "super-protected" minorities, the Slovene minority has by far the "weakest" protection. This is not because of size: the almost 100,000 Italian Slovenes exceed the Ladins, and are a bit fewer than the Valdostans. The slowness in guaranteeing the rights of the Slovene minority, and the torturous and still incomplete process of implementing these guarantees has deep historic roots. Protecting Slovenian language rights does not seem to have followed the dynamic in relations between Italy and their country of reference (first Yugoslavia, then Slovenia), which went through phases of conflict and cold war, progressive relaxation and now friendship from their common membership in the European home.
Protection for the Slovene minority was, above all, vested in the peace accord Italy signed with the winners of WW II and, subsequently, in the Memorandum of Cooperation signed in London in 1954, which compelled the regime to protect the rights of the residents of the two areas already comprising the Free Territory of Trieste. The Memorandum provided that the Slovene minority in the former Zone A would be protected according to Italy's constitutional principles, in particular, Articles 3 and 6; by Article 5 of the peace accord; and by Article 3 of the statutes of the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region, following its adoption in 1963. These general principles were supplemented by the Memorandum's more specific provisions concerning the use of mother tongue in education and public employment, administrative and judicial bilingualism in both public documents and in toponymy, and support for regional economic development and cultural activities.
The next step, towards a greater, yet more controlled relaxation of relations between Italy and Yugoslavia, was made with the Treaty of Osimo in 1975. These years witnessed the opening of collaboration between Tito's Yugoslavia, and in particular its northern republics, especially through the working communities in the Alpine regions established by Arge Alp (1972) and Alpe Adria (1978). The Treaty that definitively assigned the Zone B of the former Free Territory of Trieste to Yugoslavia, while requesting the two countries to ensure the protection of respective minorities, perhaps demonstrated too much confidence in the states' capacity to guarantee minority rights. Following the breakup of Yugoslavia, the Treaty applied to the successor states of Slovenia and Croatia.
The guarantees continued to be provided by norms of general character and limited applicability, and to be subject to formal respect of international standards. Over time, they allowed for a "monitored" protection of minority rights, politically conditioned by the evolving bilateral relations.
The first strong impulse for overcoming this impasse came from Italy's Constitutional Court that, after many petitions, recognized in 1982 the direct applicability of the provisions from Article 6 from the constitution and Article 3 from the Statute of the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region. The Court's decision opened the way for a minimal protection guaranteeing minorities the right to use their mother tongue in investigation proceedings and when receiving responses from judicial authorities.
Meanwhile, the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region hesitantly began to implement the provisions for all the linguistic minorities on its territory (in particular with the regional Law 46/1991 on the Slovene minority), thus providing more specific content to the principles in the regional statute. The disparate protection regulations from the tangle of international accords, legislation, administrative acts by the state and the regions, and different statutes, remained limited to the provinces of Trieste and Gorizia. Because the immediate post-war issues relating to Trieste's sovereignty did not concern the province of Udine, it offered no protection, except that provided by its own regional laws.
The new phase: legislation from the last decade
The framework law for the "protection of historic linguistic minorities" (L. 482/1999) guarantees Slovene linguistic minority rights that are modelled on the list and structure of rights contained in the Framework Convention of the Council of Europe; in particular, those rights referring to education, teaching of minority languages, official use of language, toponymy and media. This has significantly increased the role of the regional governments and the local authorities in protecting and promoting the rights of linguistic minorities present on their territories. Soon after, legislation (L. 38/2001) specifically concerning the Slovene minority has been adopted. This law contains "global" provisions that apply specifically to the Slovenes and, for the first time, recognizes their presence in the province of Udine. In particular, the law guarantees the right to use a Slovenian place name; elaborates the right to use Slovenian in public administration and education; and establishes a Joint Institutional Committee in charge of issues concerning the Slovene minority. Furthermore, the law promotes collaboration between populations alongside the border, the linguistic minority and its cultural institutions and, in a climate of reciprocity, promotes implementation of common policies in the neighbouring regions.
Overall, in just a few years, the normative frame has developed more than in the preceding half-century. More recently, a regional law (26/2007) has further integrated the national legislation that defines the basic forms of regional policies concerning cultural and linguistic diversity on the territories of regions. A consultative regional commission has been created, as well as a secretariat of the Joint Institutional Committee that provides for collaboration among regional linguistic identities. This includes defining the conditions for minority organizations and a regional listing of Slovene organisations. In addition, the establishment of sector-specific actions, including financial support, will facilitate the protection, promotion, and the understanding of minority cultures.
Despite the significant progress in creating the regulatory framework, its implementation nevertheless proceeds slowly, as if overshadowed by the long period of "suspicion" towards the Slovene minority. The new draft regional statute that, perhaps forcibly, declared the region's multilingual and multicultural character, was voted down by Parliament, after having been approved by the Regional Council. Only in December 2007, did Law 38/2001 become effective and establish a single, government administrative window for Slovenes that would provide a single outlet for public services in Slovene language. Bilingual identity cards are being printed. Nevertheless, the minority's geographic (but also political and cultural) dispersion throughout the region creates obstacles to using Slovene as a common language for all the Slovene communities. This particularly applies to groups from the Udine province (Slavia Friulana), which insist on promoting cultural specificities and local histories.
Protection of the Slovene minority continually results from various, indirectly related factors. Recognition of Slovenian language rights, even though significantly improved over the past years, remains a reflection of other things: sometimes of its own shadow.
*Francesco Palermo is a professor of comparative constitutional law at the Law Faculty of the University of Verona, and director of the Institute for the Study of Federalism and Regionalism, at the European Academy of Bolzano.
Giulia Predonzani is a final-year student in European, international, and comparative legal studies at the Faculty of Law at the University of Trieste.