Zagreb Government Unsettled by Language Controversy

Istria's decision to declare Italian a second official language provokes a stern response from Croatia's ruling coalition

Zagreb Government Unsettled by Language Controversy

Istria's decision to declare Italian a second official language provokes a stern response from Croatia's ruling coalition

The unity of Croatia's six-party coalition government has been put in jeopardy by Istria's decision last month to adopt Italian as a second official language.

The Istrian Democratic Union, IDS, a member of the ruling coalition, backed the move threatening to fracture the government, just weeks before local elections.

The language decision provoked an angry response from Prime Minister Ivica Racan. He accused Istrian politicians of undermining Croatian sovereignty - the sort of charge late president Franjo Tudjman once levelled at them - and cynically appealing to Italian voters ahead of a May 20 local poll.

Racan, leader of the Social Democrats, the main governing party, said granting the language equal status with Croatian in a region where Italians make up a minority of the population would open a Pandora's Box - encouraging Serbs and Hungarians to try the same. Some critics claim the move may be paving the way for Istria's eventual secession.

The episode clearly illustrates Zagreb's opposition to decentralisation in Croatia - a long-term Istrian objective.

Istria, one of Croatia's 22 counties, is home to most of the country's Italian minority, which makes up ten per cent of the region's 200,000 inhabitants. It is the most developed region in the country and earns the bulk of its foreign currency.

The IDS's support for the Italian language decision could seriously undermine the ruling coalition ahead of the local poll.

Parliamentary speaker Zlatko Tomcic demanded that IDS either withdrew its backing for the move or leave the coalition. Justice minister Stjepan Ivanisevic temporarily suspended the Istrian decision leaving the constitutional court to have the final say on the matter.

Ivan Jakovcic, IDS president and the only minister from the party in Racan's government, said, "If the constitutional court establishes that introducing the two languages is against the constitution, I am ready to leave the government."

Were he to do so, the ruling coalition would break down and a new government would have to be formed.

Croatian Democratic Union, HDZ, MP, Jadranka Kosor, said the Istrian decision was "an act of violence against democracy, full of unconstitutional elements". In 1995, the HDZ, then in government, blocked the first attempt to introduce a second official language.

The IDS explained their decision to introduce two official languages by citing recommendations made by the Council of Europe, which had been approved by the Croatian government. The IDS is clearly reminding Zagreb that further decentralisation and democratisation are necessary if Croatia is to go down the path of European integration.

The IDS, although members of Racan's coalition, have long been critical of the government's reluctance to deliver on such issues. The region as a whole also has a reputation for upsetting the status quo - it was notably a thorn in the side of Tudjman's nationalist and authoritarian government.

In the ten years since independence, the IDS has run local politics in Istria. The party has a strong democratic, liberal and pro-European agenda. Even during the war, Istria remained an oasis of multi-ethnicity and multiculturalism, where minority rights and human rights were protected. During Tudjman's decade of power, the IDS was a lone advocate of European democratic standards.

Nationalist consternation at the Istrian move can be partly explained by renewed fears that Serbian and other minorities may demand more rights too. But the main reason for Zagreb's universal denunciation stems from the ruling coalition's reluctance to countenance Istria's related demands for greater decentralisation. Racan, despite his support for the process, is not ready to see Zagreb's grip loosened.

Stojan Obradovic is a journalist at STINA, an independent Split-based news agency.

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