Minorities, Regional Transformation
and Integration in Borderlands: A Case Study
by Milan Bufon
The question of regional identity and the influence of regional
factors on the development of cross-border relations increasingly
appears to be one of the central problems of the process of
European integration. Unlike the early post-war period, when
the paradigm of modernization strongly emphasized integration
or rather the standardization processes within states, entirely
neglecting regional ethnic and cultural specificity, modern
European societies have now had to face up to the durability
of ethnic phenomena, and have begun to take greater notice of
and deal with ethnic and regional issues. The "new" paradigm,
stemming from both social urbanization and tertiarization, is
connected, therefore, to a process of decentralization, expanding
throughout the territory and forming a more regionally based
social system within and between states. In such conditions,
minority regional, ethnic and national groups also acquire greater
opportunities for their own assertion and development.
Assuming that it is possible to apply the term regional communities
to social groups with a local or regional dimension which have
strong ties to the settlement area they have shaped into a specific
cultural landscape (Bufon, 1991), then, while this term contains
various dimensional levels of ethnic communities, it nevertheless
reveals a common relationship towards space. Indeed, the strong
attachment that minority regional groups have to their geographical
and historical environment conveys a particular territorial
behaviour, as a result of which the concepts of ethnicity and
territoriality are becoming increasingly intertwined.
Territoriality not only determines local communities, but also
binds them in their ongoing activities and their social transformation,
which is expressed through the spatial and social mobility of
group members. Territoriality can also be defined as the static
component of a local community and social-spatial mobility as
its dynamic component, while interactions between the two components
influence the changing of both social structure and the form
of relations with the social and spatial environment of a given
regional group (Bufon, 1988). The results of these changes are
ultimately reflected in the forms of regional, i.e. spatial
and social development of the ethnically mixed border landscapes.
Clearly, this situation involves not only the economic contraposition
between the centre and the periphery, but also the crisis of
the modernist development model, thereby yielding more space
and opportunities to a renewed social and ethnic pluralism which
may reflect both the cultural characteristics and human expectations
of the peripheral areas (Petrosino, 1986). In the opinion of
a number of social scientists, modernization processes, including
the centralization of productive and residential functions and
locations, on the one hand, and the standardization of culture
and society into a single state model via administration and
education, on the other, have destroyed the original socio-economic
equilibrium and cultural regional diversity. As a result, not
only has there been an uneven socio-economic development as
regards central and peripheral areas, but there has also been
an imposition of foreign cultural elements, which has been felt
by peripheral regional communities as a threat to the preservation
of their own ethnic, linguistic and other traditional features
At the same time, the central administration of increasingly
complex socio-economic situations has with time become increasingly
difficult and expensive for the state apparatus and, as a result,
less necessary, too. Thus, the question has arisen of more viable
direct forms of regional government, based on the assumption
that regional development plans must be adapted to the particular
historical, social and cultural features of the area concerned.
At the same time, a number of border areas sharing similar characteristics
and common interests have begun to unite to form border and
cross-border regional associations. These spatial units, which
previously represented only the periphery of centralized state
organizations, are now becoming new "centres" of international
unions (Rokkan and Urwin, 1983).
Regional development within border and ethnically mixed regions
International integration on the continent of Europe has been
the single most important factor contributing to the growth
of interest in border and ethnically mixed regions. It has become
evident that border regions, with all their specificity and
"unity in diversity" experiences, can acquire a central role
in the integration of neighbouring areas which are politically
and administratively divided. Since they are connected to the
mother state, but also have many features in common with the
neighbouring areas, they represent a truly transitional zone,
a region of flow and connection between two socio-economic systems.
This situation has been shown quite clearly by Johansson (1982),
who justifiably concludes that borderlands introduce a new aspect
into the standard theory of thecentre-periphery relationship.
As a result of its diffused ethnic mixing and historical memory,
the borderland population is no longer attached solely to the
centres of the state in which it resides; it also maintains
stable relations with nearby centres across the border. In this
case, the actual spatial and social borders related to the range
of actions of the regional communities do not coincide with
the state border, but extend beyond it, thereby uniting the
entire region into a new, complex system. Border regions seem,
therefore, to be a special case of peripheral territories, the
main characteristic of which is that their economic and social
life is directly influenced by the existing border position
and cross-border communications (Hansen, 1977).
An important contribution to the study of border regions has
undoubtedly been made by Central European geographers, who have
carried out a number of detailed case studies (1). The position
of Slovenia within the cross-border regional community Alpe-Adria
has been analysed in great detail by Klemencic (1987), who stresses
the new function of borderlands and border communities within
the context of greater cross-border economic cooperation and
an increasing flow of people, goods and information. Formerly
under-developed frontier zones are, thus, turning into urbanized
and integrated border regions, particularly in relation to certain
basic cross-border functional activities, such as housing, work,
supplies, leisure and education.
In addition to the generally acknowledged factors contributing
to the increased permeability of borders, i.e. the comparability
of social systems, the harmonization of the social and economic
structures in border regions, a sufficiently high degree of
spatial and social mobility of the borderland population, inclusion
in international traffic and economic flows, the presence of
a modern transportation network and other similar factors, it
has also been possible, more recently, to add certain cultural
factors, including a positive attitude towards one's neighbours
and bilingualism on both sides of the border (Klemencic and
These cultural elements of connection and transformation of
border regions have probably been more prominent in Slovenia
than elsewhere in Central Europe, considering its specific location
and the presence of sizable Slovene ethnic minorities in most
of its border areas. Perhaps the most intensively studied region,
here, has been the Italian-Slovene border region (formerly the
Italian-Yugoslav border region), where both the degree of urbanization
of the population and cross-border relations have reached higher
levels than in all the other Slovene border areas.
The Ethnic and Regional Development
of Borderlands: the Case of the Slovene Minority in Italy
Several studies conducted on the present Italo-Slovene border
region (to which the Slovene Research Institute in Trieste has
made a considerable contribution since its foundation in 1974)
have revealed that the intensiveness of cultural contacts across
the border is a fundamental factor in the dense network of cross-border
social and economic exchanges and even represents a springboard
for the development of higher forms of international cooperation.
Local cross-border cultural contacts are maintained by the urbanized
areas in particular on both sides of the border and bilingualism
This is most clearly evident in the southern part of the border
region between Italy and Slovenia, where the myriad cross-border
contacts reflect the needs of the local population for the maintenance
of the regional structure, which was destroyed by the new international
border drawn after 1945, particularly in its gravitational,
ethnic and economic aspects (Klemencic and Bufon, 1991).
An analysis of daily cross-border transactions as recorded by
newspapers (Sussi, 1973; Delli Zotti, 1982) revealed not only
the quantitative growth of these transactions, but also the
role of the national minorities in maintaining cross-border
ties. Typically, local political contacts only appeared after
local economic and cultural exchanges had significantly increased,
and both these types of exchanges were primarily supported by
the Slovene ethnic minority in Italy as a result of their bilingualism
and their long-lasting ties to the mother nation (Bufon, 1993).
In the determination of the ethnic regional development of the
border area inhabited by Slovenes in Italy (Bufon, 1992), attention
must be drawn to the fact that this process is still going on,
especially as regards social urbanization within the ethnically
mixed border area and the related growth of interest people
have in their ethnic roots, and the regional role which the
Slovene minority group tends to have in this border landscape.
The first attempt to explain the dynamic aspects involved in
the transformation of the ethnic and regional structures in
the Italo-Slovene border area was provided by Klemencic (1979)
at the International Conference on Minorities in Trieste in
1974, when the effects of a rapid industrialization were predominant.
Simplifying the matter, it is possible to divide the process
of ethno-regional development into three different phases. The
first phase is characterized by the stability of the ethnic
and social structures, and lasts from the rise of modern territorial
states to the beginning of industrialization. No particular
interactions between centres and periphery are apparent and
so this phase can be defined as a period of static coexistence
between an immobile, ethnically clearly distinct agrarian countryside
and nearby self-sufficient, ethnically mixed urban centres with
a pre-industrial economy.
The next phase is characterized by the rapid development of
the industrialization process in the regional centres and growing
trade between these centres and their hinterlands. The urban
centres only have an indirect or fairly uneven impact on the
rural space, triggering a wave of emigration among the agrarian
population, but having little effect on the ethnic structure
of the countryside, despite the fact that the standardization
of state institutions, such as schools and public administration,
also penetrates from the centres into the rural areas. The emigration
of nationally quite aware ethnic Slovenes from their native
territory to the nearby industrial areas and centres of employment,
on the other hand, objectively increased the spatial extent
of the Slovene ethnic range of action. 4
The third and last phase is characterized above all by the strong
growth in tertiary activities, a process which also spread centrifugally
from the centres outwards. The difference is that ties between
the urban centres and their hinterlands are now growing stronger
and acquiring a reciprocal character. The effects of social
innovations related to tertiarization and the increasing spatial
and social mobility of the population are particularly evident
in the phenomenon of daily migration. As a result, the difference
in the degree of socio-economic development between urban centres
and their now essentially peri-urban environments is rapidly
diminishing and a common urban way of life predominates. There
is a growing tendency for the urban population to settle in
the countryside and so ethnically mixed areas are also forming
within the formerly "pure" Slovene ethnic territory. Nevertheless,
the local minority population still maintains or even strengthens
its regional function, particularly in those cases in which
the growth of its economic base takes place at the same time
as the growth of its social and political role.
The Slovenes in Italy: Identification
Problems of a Community in Transformation
A major problem concerning the study of the current situation
of the Slovene minority group in Italy regards the very identification
of this group. At first sight this problem may seem easy to
resolve: a Slovene is someone who belongs to the Slovene ethnic
community and can, therefore, be identified by his/her mother-tongue,
ethnic origin and cultural horizons. The case of the Slovenes
in the northern part of the province of Udine clearly indicates,
however, how the original language of the members of a given
minority group may regress to the point that it is only considered
a local dialect. These Slovenes were unable to take part in
the Slovene national movement after the political partition
of 1866 had separated them from the core of the Slovene ethnic
community and the local Slovene population was never able to
use its own language in public contacts or learn it at school.
As a result, the use of the original minority tongue is becoming
less and less frequent even within families and the Slovene
language is, thereby, losing much of its value.
It is necessary, therefore, to consider, on the one hand, the
ethnic Slovene population in the province of Udine, where the
state assimilation policy has been particularly long-lasting
and incisive, and, on the other hand, the Slovene minority in
the provinces of Gorizia and Trieste, where there are several
Slovene schools, but where the public use of the minority Slovene
language is quite limited. The Slovene minority organizations
have tried to counter this situation of linguistic inequality
by establishing a large number of exclusively Slovene associations
within the Slovene ethnic territory. Yet, the urban centres
still represent a great problem as they continue to function
as an assimilative "melting pot", especially as regards the
socially or economically more disadvantaged classes (Rebula
Tuta, 1980; Cataruzza, 1989).
All these processes have developed within a "continuum" of ethnic
change, ranging from acculturation to deassimilation (Sedmak
and Sussi, 1984; Fonda, 1990), although it is only recently
that cases of the latter have begun to occur with a certain
frequency, particularly among the younger generation. This has
led to a serious complication of the ethnic identification issue,
with minority members having in many cases lost two essential
identification attributes: mother-tongue and cultural horizons.
At this point, only the third identification attribute, i.e.
ethnic origin, remains, but only in the case of a complete isolation
of the minority group itself - something which has never happened
since the advent of industrialization.
It is evident, therefore, that the answer to the question "what
ethnic group do you feel you belong to?" is turning out to be
anything but unchangeable and univocal, especially bearing in
mind the changing political and social climate, which can be
more or less favourable towards the granting of the demands
made by the minority group. Ethnic identification in ethnically
mixed areas thus exceeds the "objective" social sphere and becomes
part of the "subjective" one.
This is quite well illustrated by the results of a survey involving
a representative sample of the population resident within the
ethnically mixed border area of the Italian region of Friuli-Venezia
Giulia carried out in 1985 (2). It can clearly be stated from
this survey that the percentage of those people who declare
themselves to be Slovene is everywhere much lower than the percentage
of the "potential" Slovene population, particularly in the already
discussed case of the Slovene population in the province of
Udine where, as a result of the long-lasting assimilation policy,
"linguistic memebership" no longer coincides or does not as
yet coincide with "ethnic membership". The situation is completely
different in the province of Trieste, where the percentage of
those who declare themselves to be Slovene is substantially
higher than the percentage of those who actually speak Slovene
at home. This means that, as a result of a stronger national
identity, Slovene ethnic feelings are more persistent here even
in a large number of cases of inter-marriages.
It does not seem, however, that linguistic practice alone can
be considered a satisfactory way of determining the percentage
of the "potential" Slovene population in the area studied. Indeed,
while Slovene is spoken or understood by 14.7 per cent of the
inhabitants of the borderland, it is only used at home by 9.7
per cent of the same population. Consequently, nearly one third
of those who are able to speak or understand Slovene do not
use this language at home, and the percentage of the "potential"
Slovene population is even higher if the linguistic practice
and knowledge of the interviewees' parents, i.e. their ethnic
"origin", is selected as a criterion for identification. In
this case 23.3 per cent of the population in the border area
studied is descended from a completely Slovene family and a
further 11 per cent from a family with just one Slovene parent.
Exactly one third of the population considered, therefore, is
descended from a Slovene or partially Slovene family. If one
then considers the interviewees' partners' linguistic knowledge
and practice (31.7 per cent of them speak or understand Slovene),
it can be argued that the "potential" Slovene population can
still be estimated at nearly a third of the sample. The survival
of this "potentiality" among the next generation is indicated
by the fact that 21.5 per cent of the interviewees' children
understand or speak Slovene.
In an attempt to translate the above percentages into whole
numbers, the Slovene presence today in the borderland studied
can be set between two rather different limits (see Table 1).
The numerical minimum is represented by those who declare themselves
to be Slovene, while the numerical maximum is represented by
the criterion of the partner's linguistic affiliation. The former
refers to the Slovene "core group" and the latter to the Slovene
"potential area". As always, the actual "everyday" Slovene presence
within the border area considered is to be found somewhere in
the middle, i.e. in the percentage of families in which both
the senior and junior generations are able to speak or understand
Slovene. The data regarding the ethnic "persistence" over three
generations lead to an estimation of the "everyday" Slovene
presence in the area at 22.5 per cent of the total population.
It will not come as a surprise for students of minority phenomena
to learn that only 43 per cent of the Slovenes in Italy, on
the basis of the above-mentioned criterion of ethnic persistence,
are currently willing to identify themselves as such. It is
essential to stress the "momentariness" of ethnic self-identification
as ethnic changes within a context of inter-ethnic continuum
are continuous at a micro level, although they do not seem able
to significantly alter the ethnic structure of the area studied
over a longer period. Assimilation processes are not, therefore,
an irreversible, "one-way" process, but are accompanied by de-assimilation
events of greater or lesser importance. Ethnically mixed areas
are consequently changing from a two-dimensional social space
into a "fractal" one in which several forms of ethnic interaction
are possible and may coexist. Ethnic identification cannot,
therefore, follow a merely "yes or no" statistical logic and
is unlikely to be revealed by a census alone. From an ethnic
point of view, one of the most important results of present-day
social urbanization is the erasing of the once clearly drawn
linear ethnic border and the creation of an ethnic "continuum"
in which a more conscious ethnic integration, preserving ethnic
pluralism and the strengthening of bilingual practice, is taking
shape (Bufon, 1992).
Conclusion: a "New" Role for National
Minorities Within Borderlands?
It is possible to conclude by stating that the transition and
inclusion of the Slovene ethnic community in Italy into an ethnic
"continuum" is also connected with its active integration into
a wider social environment, as somehow guaranteed by the process
of urbanization in post-industrial societies which by definition
already represents an alternative to the centripetally arranged
and spatially restricted industrial society. In this framework
formerly neglected "border" communities and national minorities
can perform their "natural" role as cultural and economic integrators
of neighbouring countries and thereby become an important factor
in regional development (3).
This very close and "natural" relationship between minority
groups and their own historical and cultural environment makes
it possible to conclude that spatial affiliation or territoriality
imposes itself as one of the most significant elements in identification
processes in relation to local or regional communities, including
autochthonous ethnic or national minorities (4). It can also
be stated that territoriality determines not only the spatial
"roots" of a local community, but also conditions its activity
and socio-economic development, creating a specific social and
spatial mobility among the members of a given community.
The creation of a new situation in which local communities tend
to strengthen their regional role is undoubtedly influenced
by certain contingent needs concerning the internal transformations
of the structure of ethnic communities, but it is also related
to the changed relationship between minorities and the dominant
group. At present, rather than a conflict between two socially
and culturally different formations, this relationship involves
a contraposition of interests between the minority or regional
group and the dominant state institutional framework (Jogan,
1991). This new regional and inter-regional role that local
communities tend to perform is generally ignored or even rejected
by the still powerful political and institutional centres.
Cross-border cooperation between Italy and former Yugoslavia
started quite early, even earlier than that between the socially
more developed countries of northern Europe, above all as a
result of the fact that national minorities, which are present
on both sides of the border, stimulated and took part in this
cooperation (Valussi and Klemencic, 1978). Although relations
between Italy and Yugoslavia, or rather Italy and Slovenia,
have eased over the last ten years, notwithstanding a general
growth in local cross-border relations within the border region,
the fact that these very local relations are still more intensive
than those between Italy and the other countries beyond the
Alps is both interesting and significant, particularly in the
light of recent political transformations (5). Here, too, the
presence of national minorities along the border seems to be
determinant. It can, thus, be argued that border minorities
still have large resources in the field of cross-border cooperation,
especially where they are able to develop their "natural" intermediation
role (Bufon, 1994). The evolution of these minorities from passive
into active regional communities, which is supported primarily
by the improvement in their cultural and educational level,
makes it possible to be a bit more optimistic about their present
and future situation.
1) For a review of the work conducted, see, among others, contributions
in the edited books: Europaischen Symposium der Grenzregion,
Basisbericht, Vol. I-II, (1972-75), Strasbourg; Biucchi, B.
and Godard, G. (eds.), (1981), Regions frontaliers - Grenzregion
- Regioni di frontiera. Saint-Saphorin; Strassoldo, R. and Delli
Zotti, G. (eds.), (1982), Cooperation and Conflict in Border
Areas. Milano: Angeli; Maier, J. (ed.), (1990), Staatsgrenzen
und ihr Einfluss auf Raumstrukturen und Verkaltensmuster, Arbeitmaterialen
zur Raumordnung und Raumplanung. Bayreuth; Gallusser, W. (ed.),
(1994), Political Boundaries and Coexistence. Berne: Peter Lang.
2) The investigation was carried out by a leading Italian social-investigation
group (SWG) and analysed in greater detail by Bufon (1992).
3) See, for instance, the articles by Bufon, Klemencic and Štrukelj
in: Štrukelj, I. and Sussi, E. (eds.), (1994), Narodne manjšine
danes in jutri (National Minorities Today and Tomorrow). Trst-Trieste:
Slovenski raziskovalni inštitut-Slovene Research Institute.
4) Different aspects of territoriality have already been discussed
by Soja (1971) and more recently by Gottmann (1982) and Knight
5) Further aspects of this problem can be found in the proceedings
of several meetings, e.g. the Gorizia conference (1972) on Problems
and Perspectives of Border Regions (Trieste: Lint, 1973) and
the conference in Val d'Aosta (1988) on L'effet frontiere dans
les Alpes (Aosta, 1992).
Table 1: The Slovene population in Italy according to different
identification levels: 1985
Source: SWG, Survey data from a representative sample of the
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