On Trans-Regional and Trans-Border Cooperation


Author: Melita Richter – Malabotta, writer and sociologist, Trieste, Italy

Introductory paper presented at the Ninth Conference “Danube – River of Cooperation”, held from October 23 to 26, 1997

Appreciating all the efforts of the International Scientific Forum “Danube – the River of Cooperation” in maintaining in its goals to improve international understanding, tolerance and cooperation in Central and South-East Europe, I was participating in the Conferences “Danube – the River of Cooperation” several time. I have to confess that it has never been so difficult for me to accept your invitation for cooperation, as it was in 1996. Never up to then have I been eluded by such doubt in the essence of our engagement, engagement and endeavour of individuals that politics and present-time-life, in a word life itself, should start towards other and different courses. The aggressiveness of political structure of totalitarian countries has never been up-to-then so obvious, their ethnocentrism and their national homogenization. It seems, as it has never been so difficult to affirm free thoughts and intellectual independence. Never such a widely accepted and instigated idea on division of territories, on usage of weapons and solving of conflict situations. Never so much concealed agreement on forced emigration of whole masses of people, on extermination of undesirables, on suppression and forgiveness of crime. The spirit of resistance against that general madness of nationalistic ghosts looks as exhausted, as if many brave people become ruined in despair, as if they were broken in their fight for bare survival. Many accepted reality as Fate, as the only Fate of people. All those sufferings and distresses are to be borne for the sake of some higher and sacred aim, and with this aim they manipulate continually and expertly.

The fact is that we are today still far from that Hugo’s vision of Europe where the battlefield would be exchanged for market and spirit would become open for ideas. Perhaps nowadays when we discuss at the most about united Europe we are as far from being united as we were after the Second World War, or at the time of the so-called Cold War. Undoubtedly, however the fact is that for South-Slavs this period is much more baleful. The most painful geopolitical pre-structuring of powers in this present Europe were happening on the Balkans, where our peoples still warfare, exterminating themselves reciprocally; they are destroying objects they have built together, they are digging trenches and building impervious barriers. The category of hate settled on the Balkans, and this hate is continuously encouraged and bursting into flames. Indefatigable propaganda of national centres for information was sent to ether and the printing houses were overflowed by them, where in the raving whirl of black/white pictures, bloody reality and lies, it multiplies itself and gives birth to again.

Dramatic happenings on the political scene were transmitted to the field of culture, too. As we already mentioned (Richter-Malabotta, Culture), this historical moment contains a great danger for culture: in front of it are placed explicit demands of serving national interests, i.e. interests of national state. The national homogenization needs binoculars logic of black/white techniques, it needs enemy, fear, danger, it needs saintliness “of us”, and demonizing of “the other”, “different”. Reconstruction of values was needed, Cosmo-genetic myths were needed, new and different reading of signs from the past and their glorification, as well as the feeling of transcendental role of our own nation. In such systems, it is but logical that even the school-desks are transformed into laboratories for creating intolerance, ethnocentrism and xenophobia. The aim was to scratch out even the smallest positive memory of what Yugoslavia signified once, of the meaning of culture and nationality being mutually together. In their schoolwork ten-year-old boys and girls transfer eagerly the attitudes they were taught from their textbooks, by their teachers or by mass media. “We are the only rightful and good people. In spite of it, injustice snapped at out innocent Serbian people”, writes Dušica. “It is impossible to have peace with Serbs, because they kill, hang, execute collective massacres, steal, set on fires and kidnap people in order to put them into concentration camps”, writes a boy from Croatia of the same age as Dušica. In the introduction part of school program for middle schools in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the minister for education says precisely: “The purpose of educational activities is that our children learn how to defend themselves in the hostile world surrounding them, and to become strong enough to resist extermination (Igrić, La guerra). To abhor the other is being taught everywhere, how to hate him, and how to oppose him. The textbooks in schools are “purified” from Marx ideology, but also from the supranational collective memory, which is replaced by the ideology of the most extreme nationalism. Mutual experiences of Yugoslav people are being snapped out, they surrender their place to “centuries-long, based on history” hostility, blood experience, death and demolition. Factors of irrationality and non-tolerance creep into our present-day; culture is being “Balkanized”. International market is being fractured and localized, national is becoming narrow and bordered, language is purified, and attention is paid not to slip into foreign expressions, specially the so-called “Serbism” in Croatia, and “Croatism” in Serbia, insisting to use their own alphabet… (Richter Malabotta, Transizione e cultura). The well-known linguist Ranko Bugarski in his book “Language from peace to war” analyses the intensified politicization of language problems and the ways how to use language for breaking up social and political writhing the sources being out of it.

In new states arisen on the territory of the former Yugoslavia, the politicization of language questions is more or less in the function of affirmation of their newly-obtained sovereignty, this is to say, securing of state and political powers in the hands of the national elite.

(Bugarski, Language)

The function of both the language and the alphabet is put in direct and essential relation towards national identity, by this forgetting the language as an instrument of communication and understanding. The language is approached as being only the fact of separation and distinction.

This simplified approach has, undoubtedly, no justification in the facts of life, neither has it in the science of language, but it belongs to ideology exclusively. And when this happens, then it is possible, as Bugarski says, to fight against language with guns.

The same as new borders of eventual new states were drawn by tanks and guns, so would it be with the language, too. Those people (…) consider that they can, even in matters of language, as well as anywhere else, judge so and to draw new language barriers. And all this is but the consequence of a psychological pattern, comprising solving of each question by force.

(Bugarski, Language, p. 117)

Under circumstances like these and such régimes being far from the realization of veritable democracy and civilian pluralistic societies in which an individual would finally be freed from compelled homogenization in these sad times of ours, times of general tragedy, when fire-brands are still not cooled, and weapons do not come to a stop, when the trenches among South-Slav peoples are being dogged even deeper, and rivers and plateaus present more and more borders of clashes and separation, it seems almost incredible, almost incomprehensible when thinking about the elemental essence for human life: to be initiated towards the other. To honour the other, his distinction, and his ethnic and cultural identity and to be aware of the fact that just the cultural difference and ethnic-linguistic heterogeneity represent the century-long heritage and wealth of our mutual European identity.

Maybe it is essential just in there fatal times not to be dejected spiritually, and whenever it would look difficult, it is necessary to remote the spirit of cooperation and mutual confidence; it is necessary to damage the imposed walls and endeavour so that the borders among us become more and more passable, to allow people, goods and ideas to circulate ever so free. In this context the international project “Danube – the River of Cooperation” is an exceptionally significant effort and it dovetails in European endeavours promoting the restoration of ties among peoples and cultures, but at supranational and national levels, regional and inter-regional ones. Taking Danube as a basic element of binding peoples who live along its banks, the Danube, being the utmost source and the shortest natural communication-way between the European West and its South-East, this project in practice gives value to the pulsation of the continent of Europe, and by this neglecting (as much as official politics and new geopolitical pre-structuring allow) the classic block ideological-military division.

In spite of even greater segmentation and division of spheres of interest on the Balkans, in spite of nationalism which is nowadays an overwhelming and dominant ideology, the consciousness of necessity of international cooperation and its improvement, grows the regional and trans-regional cooperation, are but one of the forms of “Europeanization”, most probably its most vital part. Just with a few words I would like to emphasize some of the most important ones of this cooperation.

Seventy years ago not great and deep signification was attributed to regions and regionalism; moreover it was not rare that regionalism was identified with province and provincialism so that it was regarded as a kind of reactionary antipodes of progressive ideas of the State. The province was throughout the XIX century, especially through literature (French and English novels) the symbolic bearer of backwardness and it played the role of anti-modernism. It was only in the XX century when, through open, political clashes and wars, regions became subjects and bearers of complex autonomous processes and greater manifestations concerning autonomy, whether linguistic, cultural shaping. (See: Alzas, Bretagne, and Basque) It happens that these regional aspirations for greater autonomy are expertly used from the centres of powers outside national borders (see this on the example of Nazi Germany during the time of the Second World War). Therefore, nationalism started to be looked at with suspicion; it became a suspicious concept, up to the sixties. After the sixties, the traditional concept of a region and of regionalism were changed with integrated projects, especially in multinational communities.

The process of industrialization turns a region (which now carries a neutral connotation) into an “economic subjects”, “economic region” or, if looked upon through different optics, the region becomes a cultural model with specific customs, tradition, language and literature. But it is still stays strictly a part of the state and well within the borders of the sovereign state.

Different and unequal development of European macro-economies and market capitalism intrude a natural need for the mobility of working masses of population as well as for the capital. This process is visible in western capitalistic countries which stimulate private initiatives and investments, as well as administrative and plan agreement of greater private corporations, while in socialistic countries, with planned economy and development of national market, they make efforts to influence the increase of the degree of inter-regional equality, i.e. standardization (with us these efforts are directed both to inter-republic relations and to specific regions within the republics themselves). This pressure to diminish the span of non-equality and to increase the ability of competition gives a new meaning to the very notion of region. National governments and politics of both capitalist and socialistic countries endeavour to make balance with periphery, lagging-behind, less lagging-behind and developed regions, searching models of well-balanced economy development. At that time (as, however, in most cases today, too) the dependence of the region from the centralized system of decision is obvious, and periphery aspirations for autonomy as great as possible, are still not expressive enough. According to Peterson, empirical analyses in Sweden show that in the seventies in the West, industrial and economic development was faster in those intermediary regions where national politics mixed up the least, or did not mix up at all. This proves the supposition that development does not depend on far-away centres of decision as much as the development depends on spontaneous interactions of undertaking which takes over the initiative to make maximum use of local resources at disposal. In Sweden, therefore, regionalism became a synonym for “less development but more market”. (Peterson, Regionalism)

However, there exist needs you cannot rule over in the same way you do with material goods. Those are spiritual needs. Their specification is manifested through language, dialect, literature, religion and customs, and they all ask for free expression and affirmation, they ask for recognition and identity from the others and the different. The relation of regional identity towards political centres of power results often in local opposition because centralized mass media and educational system broaden the culture of national homogenization. It is not often the case that a region feels this homogenization as a compulsory and obstructive one so that its jeopardized identity then, even on the political plan, asks greater autonomy and local self-government.

Today, the demands for as great autonomy as possible are dovetailed into the process of European integration and regions with expressed identity become basic actors of this integration process. In such a way they oppress the national centers and the State to develop itself alone, and to strengthen instruments and institutions of trans-regional and transnational cooperation. Accordingly, as an ideal model, the guarantees of functional systems of trans-regional and trans-frontier cooperation would be the states, which would gradually transmit a part of their competence to the local level, i.e. to trans-region. Higher phase of trans-border cooperation supposes the transition of a part of sovereignty of a state to sub-national institutions. In the documents treating such a model of trans-border cooperation are mentioned, more or less, states – members of European Union, but it is obvious that the European integration processes can by no means be worked up only by these examples, but that all those countries of Europe which would really want, should be included, too.

In states created on the ground of former Yugoslavia, at the moment when still violent fights are being fought, fights for more radical, deep-rooting separation and bordering of national identity (and mainly to the detriment of the other), actual historical moment is for sure not favorable for regional and trans-border cooperation. We would come to the conclusion that wartime is the least favourable time for development of any kind of constructive cooperation among nations, peoples. It is obvious that all our peoples will pay their debts, for quite a long period of time, to these gloomy times of ours, and they will experience considerable backwardness in the process of European integration. Some of them will be eliminated from these processes, some maybe pushed into new geopolitical spheres of foreign and stronger interests. Many of them will develop, as can be observed even today, different relations towards trans-regional cooperation. Regardless of those differences, which will undoubtedly appear, it is necessary to point out basic suppositions of the functioning of trans-regional models of regional cooperation. First of all, they are composed as follows in:

  1. Autonomy or determined level of autonomy of the region in economic, cultural but also in political outlooks,
  2. Decentralization of political power,
  3. Transfer of competence from centre to periphery,
  4. Settlement and stability of borders, i.e. without raising the question of territorial sovereignty,
  5. Passage-way and propulsion of borders,
  6. Voluntary association of regional communities where the ethnic principle is not the only dominating one, but where economic, geographical, historical, cultural and other principles are acting, too,
  7. High degree of tolerance in the relations between the majority and the minority.


In mono-centric, non-democratic societies, based on strict attachment of ethno-national concept towards state, the fulfilment of these, even only some of the conditions, is made difficult and is made impossible, and the sole process of trans-border linking of communities, towns and regions, and their cultural identities is experienced like contraposition to the national center, so that such projects are proclaimed as separable and contrary to national interests. As an illustration for this, we could mention more examples, but the one nearest to us is the one which can be seen in the relation of the government of Croatia, the leading party and especially president Tudjman, with reference to endeavors of Istria for the preservation of Istrian own identity, autonomy and the improvement of trans-border cooperation.

The endeavours of Istra result in “The Declaration of Euro-region of Istria”, declaration adopted at the special Convention of the IDS (Istrian Democratic Party), held at Rovinj on April 24, 1994. The model of Istra is a many-sided didactic one, and in our opinion it presents the most successful attempt in the transition from one-party-totalitarians towards European civil democracy. It deserves a serious analysis and much more attention than the given here as we are imposed by time and space.

The multi-culture of Istra is the result of a long-time historical experience which was not a painless one, and it was not without conflicts, but today it is decanted into authentic culture of present-life-time, being a component part of the high degree of political tolerance. While in the rest of Croatia acts the process of national homogenization, in Istria a certain kind of civil integration is being realized. The riches of identity and the feeling of Istrianism are today divided among three states: Croatia, Slovenia and Italy, but the Euro-region of Istria overwhelms the state borders, it overwhelms the concept of nation itself, as well as ideology, and shows itself like a united whole. According to its characteristics and to its democratic endeavours, Istra presents the most successful Croatian step towards European integration, but, nevertheless, the central state government and the president himself, constantly accuse Istra for being against Croatia, or at least for expressing not enough Croatian politics, as well as of being separatist.

These accusations are, in fact, typical examples of clashes of totalitarian centralist conceptions with polycentric and democratic ones. This can be illustrated best with the worlds of Furia Raduna, the representative of the Italian community to the Convention of the Republic of Croatia, as well as member of the Community of Istrian Parish, and member of the Assembly of European Regions: “CDC (Croatian Democratic Community) imputes us often that we want to create a new state reality because we do not want to be united with parts of other states. They pretend to see everywhere losing of territories, but they know very well what all this is about. They know very well that it is a good project, but they have no confidence in the one who is carrying it, because they are not the ones carrying it”. (Istra). And further on: “… in Istria, the territory is by no means to be in question, here the battle for competence is to be fought, i.e. for the decentralization of political power and for the opening towards Europe. I do not see in it less of sovereignty, I only see its enrichment and fulfilling of new contents”. (Istra, p. 17)

The regional cooperation and trans-bordership was imposed by life itself, the most trivial things of life: to communicate easier, to live more economically and better, and to regulate some open questions of the usage of mutual defined ecological matters, such as rivers, sea, and the similar. Therefore, it is not without reason to be reminded that while solving quite practical matters of our today, but also of our tomorrow, that we are but directed one to the other, we are oriented to pass over and to overcome the borders and to develop the ideas of cooperation, mutual confidence and life, no matter how much we are today prevented by non-
democratic, aggressive, totalitarian régimes. I would like now to put an end with the words from the document of the European Council under the title “Trans-border cooperation in European border regions”:

The principle motives for trans-border cooperation are: to extend
democracy, to increase standard of living, and realize quicker inclusion into
united Europe, by this, at the same time, preserving the greatest possible degree
of autonomy.

Bibliography notes:

  1. Melita Richter Malabotta, “For Culture and European Integration”, VI International Conference “Danube – the River of Cooperation”, Beograd – Kladovo, 1994.
  2. Gordana Igrić, “La guerra riscrive la storia”, September 1995. cited in “Le Monde Diplomatique” (Il Manifesto)
  3. Melita Richter Malabotta, “Transizione e cultura – le divergenze balcaniche”, XXXII International Congress of Sociology, Trieste, July 1995.
  4. Ranko Bugarski, “Language from Peace to War”, Belgrade Circle, Beograd, 1994.
  5. Martin Peterson, “Regionalism: Passage to Parochialism or Platform of Universal Change?” Euroconference on Costs and Benefits of Europeanization, Vienna, April 1995.
  6. “Istra”, talk in the editorial office of Erasmus, participating Ivan Jakovčić, Furio Radin and Dino Debeljuh, Erasmus, No. 11, Zagreb, May 1995.



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