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Ten years since agreement on bilingual signposts in Carinthia

Ljubljana/Klagenfurt, 26 April - Exactly ten years ago the Austrian government, the state government of Carinthia and representatives of the Slovenian minority signed an agreement to erect bilingual city limit signs in 164 localities in the state. The deal is seen as having helped improve the situation, but there is still room for improvement.

Klagenfurt, Austria
A bilingual city limit sign in Austria's Carinthia.
Photo: An┼że Malovrh/STA
File photo

The signs have been set up, but a memorandum accompanying the agreement has been implemented only partially.

The agreement involved the pledge to adopt a new law on minorities, systemic funding for the Slovenian Music School, and efforts to regulate financing of private bilingual kindergartens.

It also contained a clause allowing municipalities to decide on their own on additional signposts beyond the number agreed.

Rudi Vouk of the Slovenian Consensus for Constitutional Rights (SKUP) is critical of the situation, saying that the deal was a capitulation of the rule of law.

"We got a mere half of what we were entitled to, the situation regarding the official language has worsened, and there has been no sign of promised voluntary improvements so far," he told the STA ahead of the anniversary.

The SKUP was established in 2019 by members of the minority who maintained that the existing political organisations were not doing enough for the recognition and respect of the minority's rights.

Vouk thinks the atmosphere in the region has significantly improved, not due to the compromise but in spite of it. Slovenian minority organisations should be more active in boosting the visibility of Carinthia's bilingual landscape, he believes.

The current Austrian government has a very ambitious minority strategy, but "it is high time they started implementing it", he noted.

Vouk also stressed the need for reforms in education and the minority's representative structures to attract more members. "Slovenian as an official language does not function as there are no officials who would use it," he said.

The heads of all three umbrella organisations of the minority mostly see the agreement in a more positive light, but also highlight there is room for improvement when it comes to education, additional signposts or other areas of bilingual visibility.

Manuel Jug, the head of the Association of Slovenian Organisations (ZSO), told the STA that the agreement delivered a solution that transformed 56 years of conflict into dialogue and co-existence.

Valentin Inzko, the head of the National Council of Carinthian Slovenians (NSKS), highlighted the unfair outcome of the negotiations ten years ago and unfulfilled promises.

He thinks that the Slovenian community should have been granted some 800 signposts based on the 1951 census and a decision by the Austrian Constitutional Court. "Even based on significantly less favourable censuses later, we should have gotten some 270 larger and smaller signposts," he added.

He noted that the NSKS minority representative council rejected the agreement, however he signed it "due to pressure and to keep peace in the region but also due to numerous vows given by negotiators".

Bernard Sadovnik, the head of the Community of Carinthian Slovenians (SKS), described the agreement as a blow to the Slovenian community. It paved the way for a new, positive era though.

"Under the slogan All or Nothing we had always been losers, so dialogue and policy of agreement are the only way for a positive development of the Slovenian language in Carinthia," he said.

The Slovenian Foreign Ministry told the STA that the agreement had been an important step in implementation of the minority's rights in line with Austria's and international legislation. It stressed the role the umbrella organisations had in signing the agreement and in ongoing efforts to pursue the interests of the minority.

The agreement also helped further improve Austrian-Slovenian relations, the ministry said, hopeful that Austria will continue taking the steps to fully implement the minority's rights.

The agreement has contributed to efforts to reduce ethnic tensions in the area, however the regulation it entails comes with shortcomings from a legal point of view, Minister for Slovenians Abroad Helena Jaklitsch said.

She explained the number of signposts had been reduced compared with a 1972 law. Moreover, the agreement does not meet standards set by Article 7 of the Austrian State Treaty and the Constitutional Court rulings. She finds it regrettable that the 2011 regulation even aggravated the situation in certain municipalities.

Meanwhile, Austrian Ambassador to Slovenia Elisabeth Ellison-Kramer told the STA that a trustworthy dialogue was key for resolving minority issues. She assessed relations between Slovenia and Austria as "truly very good".

In light of the Slovenian EU presidency in the second half of 2021 the relations have been intensified with Austria fully supporting Slovenia's priorities, she noted.

Ten years since the agreement, there is a new type of bilateral ties, she said, describing the agreement as a very good outcome of lengthy negotiations.

Ellison-Kramer highlighted that any incidents of signpost-related vandalism needed to be condemned in the harshest possible terms, adding that a zero-tolerance policy must be applied in the event of discrimination.

She pointed to higher funds for minorities in Austria and a one-off donation granted to the Slovenian minority on the occasion of the centenary of the Carinthian plebiscite last year. She believes Article 7 of the Austrian State Treaty has been implemented in full.

Austria often raises the possibility of Slovenia's granting the German-speaking community minority status when discussing efforts to tackle open issues of the Slovenian minority. Asked about this, the ambassador said Austria supported the German-speaking community in these efforts due to mutual cultural ties.

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© STA, 2021