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Inside File: Cousins next door trouble Slovenes

IF you thought Slovenia was the one survivor among Yugoslavia's republics safely out of the woods of territorial dispute, think again. It is true that the country is a shining example of prosperity and stability relative to its fellow former republics. But old passions are stirring across the border in Italy, home of the optanti who chose Italian citizenship after the abolition of the Free Territory of Trieste 40 years ago.

It may not be quite as if the spirit of Gabriele d'Annunzio - the Italian poet and nationalist who in 1919 seized and held the Dalmatian port of Fiume, now Rijeka in Croatia - rides again. All the same, the Italians want something that cannot be acquired through money or legal niceties: the property the optanti (as the Slovenes call them) left behind when they fled Communist Yugoslavia.

Some 350,000 Italians left Slovenia and Croatia to settle in Italy. Between 30,000 and 40,000 of them still claim properties, or those of their families. Ljubljana and Zagreb say the issue was all but resolved in the 1975 Treaty of Osimo between Yugoslavia and Italy, which called for Yugoslavia to pay the Italians some pounds 80m in compensation. Before falling apart, Yugoslavia managed to disburse less than one sixth of the agreed amount; Slovenia and Croatia have expressed willingness to pay the remainder between them.

Not good enough, say the Italians. The Osimo Treaty was negotiated in dark secrecy during the Cold War, by a government in Rome under pressure from two fronts: the Americans - anxious to consolidate Tito as a cushion between East and West - and the Italian Communist Party in Enrico Berlinguer's heyday. Italian public opinion is demanding that Rome get its own back on Tito's partisans, now that Yugoslavia has been succeeded by small and vulnerable states, by demanding not money but land. The claim is somewhat like Germans seeking to regain property in Poland and what was Sudetenland.

Enter Livio Caputo, the deputy editor of the right-wing Il Giornale, who last year collected 144,000 signatures demanding for the Osimo Treaty to be renegotiated. 'It's not a question of money any more,' Mr Caputo argues. 'It's a question of national rights, and the feeling of having been kicked in the arse by Yugoslavia for too long.' The Italian Foreign Ministry has responded by opening negotiations with Slovenia and Croatia on 'improving' the treaty.

Historically, the Slovenes harbour a deep-seated suspicion of their Western neighbour - a key factor in their decision to help form Yugoslavia in 1918, only to find themsleves locked into a Serb-dominated federation. They are about to introduce legislation preventing foreign ownership of land - to guard, they say, against German holiday home-makers as much as the Italian claimants. They also point out that after four decades, many of the properties in question have been either destroyed or rebuilt completely. Mr Caputo's response: 'They want one day to be part of Europe. They say they have thrown Communism overboard and gone free-market. Why should they deny foreigners ownership of property? They should behave like Europeans, not like bloody Balkans.'

The Italians say they have little gripe 'at the moment' with the treatment of the few thousand ethnic Italians remaining in Slovenia. But they do accuse Croatia of not respecting existing agreements on the cultural rights of the larger Italian community there. The community has increased demands for cultural autonomy following a Croatian government proposal to resettle 20,000 ethnic Croats from Romania to the Istrian peninsula, home of a large part of Croatia's Italian community.

Slovenia's full membership to the Council of Europe - widely taken to be a graduation ceremony for fledgling democracies - goes to the vote next month. Italian officials say they will not veto the membership proposal, but it should be conditional upon guarantees that Slovenia will respect the right of minorities. A recent EC-Slovene co-operation agreement was accompanied by an Italian addendum on the principle of free proprety ownership. Given that, and Mr Caputo's 144,000 signatures, the issue looks unlikely to go away in a hurry.