Slovenia accused of cynical move to deny rights to minorities

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The Independent Online

On the eve of joining the European Union, Slovenia will vote on Sunday on whether to restore the civil rights of its ethnic minorities, which were "erased" in 1992.

On the eve of joining the European Union, Slovenia will vote on Sunday on whether to restore the civil rights of its ethnic minorities, which were "erased" in 1992.

Opinion polls indicated last night that the overwhelming majority of Slovenes will vote against the move to restore full citizenship rights. Human rights organisations condemned the referendum as "cynical" and ill- befitting a member of the EU.

Aleksandar Todorovic realised that officially he did not exist on the day that his daughter was born in 1993. When he went to the public records office for a birth certificate for the baby in the tiny Slovenian town of Ptuj, he was told that his name could not be put into the form. It was no longer in any records.

"You have been erased," the clerk said.

An astonished Mr Todorovic presented his ID card, thinking that the administration often makes mistakes. But this time, his ID card was taken from him and destroyed on the spot.

It took him some time before he realised that he belonged to the group of almost 130,000 non-Slovenes living in the newly independent country who had failed to apply for Slovenian citizenship. The deadline for applications was short, only six months after Slovenia obtained independence from former Yugoslavia in June 1991. But the catch was that only a few knew about it, somewhere at the top levels of power. Those who did not know were, by chance, or on purpose, the non-Slovenes, Serbs like Mr Todorovic, but also Croats, Bosniaks and ethnic Albanians. They were simply erased from all the records with a simple push of a button on 26 February 1992.

"I felt I was no longer a person," Mr Todorovic, now 49, said in an interview with The Independent. "The years that followed made me think I was one of the living dead."

Being one of the "erased," as these people became known over the years, meant having no social security number, health care, driving licence, passport, or even a job.

As many of the "erased" had lived for years or even decades in Slovenia, built homes and raised families, they decided to stay, even as illegals. They risked being deported within 24 hours to their countries of birth if found without proper documents. Many were left by their spouses as they could not provide for their families. Many left for Serbia, Bosnia or Croatia. Some even committed suicide. In the tiny country of two million, they were worse than second-class citizens, as they simply did not exist. But many decided to stay, like Mr Todorovic, who has dedicated more than a decade to prove that non-Slovenes can be equal to Slovenes. He heads the Association of the Erased, which fights for recognition.

Opposition right-wing politicians have succeeded in their effort to put the issue to a popular vote, believing that the Slovenian public will say "no" to the people who have already been segregated by society.

An opinion poll commissioned and broadcast last night by Slovenia's most popular television channel, Pop TV showed that only 3 per cent of people who voted said they would vote for the restoration of the rights of the erased; 82 per cent said they would vote against and 15 per cent of those questioned said they would abstain.

Neva Miklavic Predan, head of the Slovenian Helsinki Monitoring Group, said: "Erasing non-Slovenes from all the records meant administrative ethnic cleansing. It was a planned and systematic operation. It did not leave a pile of bodies, but did leave enough traces so that we could act. Slovenian authorities have tricked the EU into believing that everything was all right here. And Slovenian society is racist."

Alvaro Gil Robles, the Council of Europe's human rights commissioner, has urged Slovenia to move quickly and decisively to settle the issue of the erased. He said that Slovenia should "keep the lid on growing racism and xenophobia".

Mr Todorovic said: "On the side of the state, it can also be all about money: if and when our rights are restored, we might ask for compensation." The sum could reach €2.5bn euros (£1.7bn), analysts say. But what is more important, Mr Todorovic says, is that restoring all the rights of the erased would mean getting their dignity back. "For many people, that would mean having a chance to see their relatives again," he says. Like many of the erased, he has not seen his brother for more than a decade. Without a passport, he could not travel. And being a non-existent person, he could not send a letter of invitation to his brother to come from Serbia and visit, as required by visa regulations.

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