Funny shorts and silly hats don't mean

Frustration and resentment could lead to serious violence, writes Andrew Gumbel in Venice
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The Independent Online
Picture a sympathiser of Europe's newest group of urban terrorists: black boots, green Bermuda shorts, black leather jacket, cellular telephone holder and Tyrolean hat.

This bizarre character was to be seen last week outside the courtroom at Mestre, the mainland town across the lagoon from Venice, where eight men are charged with commandeering a vaporetto (water bus) a month ago, storming the campanile in St Mark's Square, and proclaiming the revival of the Most Serene Venetian Republic with the help of a few flags, a home- made armoured car and a makeshift radio transmitter.

They had some kind of weapon with them, although it is still not clear whether it was primed to fire bullets or custard pies.

The rest of Italy hardly knows whether to laugh or shudder. But the authorities were not amused, and decided to launch a full-scale criminal prosecution. It may look like an innocent caper, they muttered in the ministry corridors in Rome, but this is the kind of agitprop tactic that got the left-wing terrorists in the Red Brigades going in the 1970s.

Last week a group calling itself the Most Serene Armed Front of La Fenice (after Venice's recently burned-down opera house) sent an ultimatum to Il Gazzettino, the newspaper for Venice and the Veneto, warning that if the eight "patriots" were not released and the Veneto was not granted full regional autonomy by the end of July, "we will automatically consider ourselves at war with the Italian state".

Enclosed was a blank cartridge of the kind used in military exercises.

This is uncomfortable stuff, and even the Veneti themselves are beginning to wonder if the Rome government's fears of a new terrorist wave might not turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy. For all the high jinks and low comedy, it could be a bad mistake to underestimate the separatists, who seem to reflect the nationalist fervour of their neighbours in the Balkans.

There are ideologues preaching about the stolen honour of the Venetian nation, the ethnic distinctness of the people and the individuality of the local dialect. There is a hate campaign against central government that goes beyond all bounds of rational protest. And, in a corner of the country partial to hunting, there are plenty of weapons around.

Throughout the Veneto, the rich lowland region around Venice, people like the man outside the Mestre courthouse have for months been demanding autonomy from the brutal bloodsucking colonialists in Rome.

At first they merely threatened to stop paying their taxes, but now the talk is of commando raids, bomb threats and armed struggle. Since the arrest of the Venice Eight, newspapers receive tip-offs about bomb attacks every few days. First there was the gas canister filled with gunpowder that was found under a bridge at Cimadolmo, near Treviso. Then the bomb in the toilets at Venice train station that turned out to be filled with cement dust. The authorities are so unnerved that they have banned separatist demonstrations and refuse to countenance public displays of the Venetian flag, with its distinctive lion motif.

At root there is a legitimate grievance. Like the rest of the north of Italy, the Veneto feels held back by decades of inefficient central government and a lack of autonomy.

Even more than the rest of the north, the Veneto feels it deserves better. It is the single richest region in the country, a patchwork of phenomenally successful small and medium-size family businesses that account for nearly half of Italy's exports. Most of the rides in Disney theme parks are made by a

small firm at Altavilla, near Vicenza; just down the road, in Gambellara, is the single biggest wine-producer in the country, Gianni Zonin.

The Veneti completely blow the myth of the lazy, hedonistic Italian workman; they are among the most serious, hardest workers in the world. "There isn't so much as a bricklayer in this region who is not thinking of putting aside his savings and setting up on his own, using his children as workers and perhaps his wife or sister to do the accounts," explained Paolo Pellizzari, mayor of the small town of Arcugnano, near Vicenza.

Being small business people, though, the Veneti are easy prey for tax inspectors, especially now that Italy is desperate to raise revenue to qualify for the European single currency. They have the money to pay, without the political power to put up resistance.

"The Veneto is like a colony, we are a cow ready for the milking," complains Carlo Trevisan, an energetic member of Life, a recently founded association of Veneto entrepreneurs dedicated to resisting the payment of more taxes to Rome, and an active supporter of the Venice Eight. "When the bureaucratic elephant comes down to crush us, we are expected to pay up first and seek redress later. Well, we aren't prepared to take it any more."

This applies to the whole of Italy, but the separatists are convinced they are specially singled out for official abuse, and they spread conspiracy theories, such as that the Italian government has deliberately allowed thousands of Albanian refugees into the country so they could set up criminal rackets in the Veneto. "I have an Albanian prostitute working the street right under my house," complained Francesco Scarpa, who runs a metal appliance business near Venice. "I denounced her to the finance police, thinking that if she and her customers were going to keep me awake all night, she might at least pay her taxes. But they told me she was a foreigner, so there was nothing they could do. What a country!"

Such rants demonstrate the lack of intellectual coherence in Veneto separatism. After the Second World War, the region was dirt-poor and dedicated almost exclusively to agriculture. In the last 40 years it has made itself rich, but has fallen far behind on education and general culture.

The Veneto has the earliest average school-leaving age in the country; so high is the demand for skilled labour that even professional training schools lose their best students before graduation because they are snapped up by companies.

The result is a population that knows it is not happy, but cannot decide why. If the gentle countryside and beautiful old cities of Vicenza, Verona and Padua are now choked by small factories and industrial parkland - well, it must be Rome's fault. If the rest of the country seems to be laughing at the Veneto's earnest diligence - well, we can go it alone.

The greatest peculiarity about Veneto separatism, though, is that there is no support for it in Venice itself. That may be because its populace is mostly more fulfilled ... and, should they ever want to know why, all they need to do is look around them.