Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Slovenes, like Burgenland Croats, were traditionally agricultural and badly affected by the post-war decline in agriculture. However, there are examples of specifically Slovene enterprises in a variety of sectors, mainly timber-processing, but also clothing, and often in collaboration with counterparts over the border in Slovenia.
The Slovenian-speaking area covers 41 local authorities in southern Carinthia. The Carinthian Slovene population fell from 66,463 in 1910 to 12,554 in 2001. In Styria numbers fell from 3,838 in 1934 to 2,192 in 2001. Slovene organizations estimate the total number in all of Austria to be 50,000, most of whom live in Carinthia, with 3,000-5,000 in Styria. Most Styrian Slovenes live in the capital, Graz, and the rest live along the border with Slovenia. However, the bilingual area of Styria is confined to a small number of villages near the towns of Bad Radkersburg/Radgona, Soboth/Sobota and Leutschach, where the Roman Catholic Church provides services in Slovenian. A federal decree on the status of Slovenian as an official language listed only 91 villages in eight local authorities in 2000.
The provincial government of Styria refuses to recognize the Slovenes, but they gained representation on the Slovene ethnic advisory council to the federal government in December 2003. The Carinthian Slovenes are represented but have not always cooperated because the 1976 Ethnic Groups Act restricts their constitutional rights. The two main Slovene organizations are the left-wing Zveza sloveskih organisatij/Zentralverband der Karntner Slovenen, and the conservative Narodni svet koroskih Slovencev/Rat der Karntner Slovenen. They formed a single list to contest local elections and won 51 seats on 24 local councils.
The independent principality of Carantani was founded by the Slovenes in the seventh century and at its height extended to Salzburg, South Tyrol and Styria. By the Reformation the Slovene-speaking area had retreated roughly to a line across the centre of what is now the province of Carinthia, pushed back by German-speakers.
When the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (SHS), later renamed Yugoslavia, was founded in 1918 it claimed and occupied southern Carinthia. This led to a plebiscite in 1920, called to determine the territorial affiliation of the area; 59 per cent were in favour of remaining part of Austria, 41 per cent for joining the SHS.
There followed intense activity to Germanize the region, reaching its peak under the Anschluss, when all Slovene teachers were removed and lands were taken from Slovene farmers and distributed to German settlers. Slovene wording was even removed from gravestones. Carinthia was the only area of Austria with strong, organized resistance to the Nazi occupation. Yugoslavia’s territorial claims, which had some support among the Slovene population, were settled under the 1955 Austrian State Treaty.
In order to gain Slovene support, the State Treaty offered better conditions to the Slovene minority than have ever been delivered. For example, Slovenian primary schooling has been a hotly contested issue for five decades in Carinthian politics. Federally funded secondary schools became targets of anti-Slovene demonstrations by German nationalists, whose activities were sometimes openly supported by provincial officials and government institutions. The Minority Schools Act of 1988 is considered to have reinforced segregationist tendencies. The federal government set up bilingual road signs in 1972, but these were destroyed by nationalist mobs in 123 villages. The police did not intervene. In 2000 there were bilingual road signs in 63 villages in seven local authorities.
The 1976 Ethnic Groups Act significantly curtailed the minority rights set out in the State Treaty. Slovenian organizations have tried to fight these restrictions and refused to cooperate with the Federal ethnic advisory councils.
Both streams of Carinthian Slovene political thought – the Zentralverband, which strongly supported a Yugoslav presence in Carinthia, and the Rat, which favoured upholding ties with Austria – have criticized post-war Austrian policy for giving in to German nationalistic forces in Carinthia. The Zentralverband and Rat also came together under the Carinthian Unity List to contest elections to the Carinthian legislature, and the first Carinthian Slovene was elected to the Austrian Parliament in 1986.
There are a few bilingual kindergartens, and bilingual education is provided for the first three years of primary school. Secondary-school pupils can register for Slovene language instruction for four lessons a week, and for Slovene as a subject.
The provincial government of Carinthia is openly anti-Slovene and has fought bitterly against the provision of Slovene education. Provision in primary schools is limited to the designated bilingual areas. Secondary education follows federal government policy, but this is administered by the provincial authorities. In 1995 the languages of all neighbouring countries, including Slovenia, were offered in secondary and higher education throughout Austria.
In 2001 and again in 2006, the right-wing governor of Carinthia Jorg Haider, a leading member of the Freiheitliche Partei Osterreichs (FPO) and then of the Bundnis Zukunft Osterreich (BZO), refused to comply with Federal Constitutional Court decisions ordering him to put up bilingual Slovene and German language place-name signs in municipalities where Slovenes are 10 per cent of the population (previously the requirement was 25 per cent). He threatened to close Slovene-language kindergartens and stop Slovene language broadcasts. The BZO won 25 per cent of the Carinthian vote in the October 2006 elections, making it the second largest party in the province. The anti-Slovene campaigns of right-wing groups such as Karntner Heimatdienst have not been discouraged by the governing parties.
However, some local councils are supportive and the Slovene language is used unofficially in public life at this level.
The provincial government of Styria refuses to recognize the Styrian Slovenes. However, their cultural organizations have received support from federal funds. The federal government allowed a Styrian Slovene to represent the community on the Slovene Group Advisory Council from December 2003.
There is no broadcasting in Slovene for the Styrian Slovene community.
Updated June 2015
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