Slovene-Austrian relations strained over Austria's Slovene Minority


Disagreement over the Slovenian minority living in Austria broke out this week, sparked by a comment made by an Austrian official about the Austrian State Treaty. The treaty deals with the protection of minorities in Austria.

The Speaker of the Austrian Parliament, Andreas Khol, soured relations between Slovenia and Austria last month by saying that Slovenia was not party to the Austrian State Treaty. Article 7 of that treaty covers the rights and protection of the Slovenian and Croatian minorities in Austria, most of whom are concentrated in the southern Austrian state of Carinthia. Technically, the statement is correct: Slovenia didn't exist as an independent state when the treaty was signed 50 years ago - it was still part of Yugoslavia.

However, Slovenia still qualifies as a legal successor to Yugoslavia, a point Slovenian diplomats were quick to point out. In an attempt at reconciliation, Khol arrived in the Slovenian capital of Ljubljana this week to hold talks with high-level politicians. He immediately calmed Slovenian fears by saying that his comments had been misunderstood, and that Austria and Slovenia were in agreement about the treaty.

"I just want to say that the entire delegation dealt with the question of the Slovenian minority in Austria very openly and that there is a consensus. The state treaty, ladies and gentlemen, is not disputed. The state treaty is a fact."

According to a recent census, there are roughly 14.000 Slovenes living in Carinthia, out of a total population of more than half a million people. As an officially recognized minority, Slovenes there are guaranteed such things as a Slovene-language radio program, RADIO DVA, which is funded by Austrian national broadcaster ORF and transmitted throughout southern Carinthia. There are also Slovenian kindergartens in Carinthia, with roughly 18 groups and roughly 400 children.

The problems begin with the thorny issue of dual-language signs, which the current government (led by the conservative populist Joerg Haider) has been loathe to implement. Three years ago, Austria's constitutional court ordered Carinthia to put up the bilingual signs in Slovene and German, but the project is still at a standstill.

Austria's Speaker of parliament Andreas Khol insists that there is agreement in parliament, and that it will eventually be solved:

"With regard to the difficult question of road signs, we still have a way to go. But even here there is consensus among all parties of the parliament. Things just haven't been finished.

This means that we shouldn't concentrate on false problems. We want to make our Slovenian minority into a bridge between Slovenia and Austria."

Another point discussed by both sides was the inclusion of representatives of the Slovenian minority within the local parliament of Carinthia. The idea found support in Slovenia's parliamentary speaker France Cukjati:

"Of course, this idea is a good one. We support this idea and discussed the issue today. I must say that with regard to minorities in the local government in Carinthia, we reached an agreement with our partner. I believe this internal, political question for Austria and Carinthia will be solved to the advantage of the Slovenian minority."

A meeting on Sunday to discuss some of these issues, however, ended without any agreement. A similar conference, held in 2002, similarly collapsed without consensus. The Slovenian newspaper DELO, for its part, questioned the entire idea of holding consensus talks, pointing out that the Austrian Constitutional Court had already made its decision in favor of the bilingual signs in 2001.

The momentum was further slowed down on Tuesday, when Carinthian Governor Joerg Haider announced that the Austrian State Treaty was not relevant to the issue of bilingual signs. Slovenian groups in Carinthia continue to insist that it is.

So the deadlock continues, despite efforts by both sides to bridge it.