Vol. 5, No. 12 (June 15, 2012)

The South Tyrol model: Is it relevant for the South Caucasus?

Paul Goble
Publications Advisor
Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy

In June, the Center for Strategic Research attached to the President of the Azerbaijan Republic and the Italian Institute for Foreign Relations organized a conference in Baku on “National Minorities in Europe: The South Tyrol Model and Its Relation to the Caucasus,” the latest of a long series of efforts to draw on European autonomy efforts to help resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. [1]
Farhad Mammadov, the director of the Center for Strategic Research, welcomed the participants and explained that the basic requirements for the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict were the withdrawal of Armenian occupiers from Azerbaijani lands and the return of refugees and internally displaced persons.  Then, Roberto Toniatti of the Italian University of Trento described the history of the South Tyrol conflict and the way it had been peacefully resolved.  Finally, Gulshan Pashayeva, the deputy director of the Baku Center, described the ways in which the Nagorno-Karabakh and South Tyrol problems are both similar and different. 
Until 1918, South Tyrol was part of the Austro-Hungarian county of Tyrol, but in the wake of World War I, it was annexed by Italy under the terms of the Treaty of Saint-Germain.  This German-speaking region was subject to an intense “Italianization” campaign during the fascist regime of Mussolini, a campaign that provoked underground resistance by German speakers.  In 1939, under an agreement between German dictator Adolf Hitler and his Italian counterpart Benito Mussolini, residents of the South Tyrol could either emigrate or accept complete Italianization.  Those who remained were viewed by other German speakers as traitors to Italy, while those who departed in order to save their Germanness were denounced as Nazis.

After World War II, Italy and Austria signed an agreement which kept the South Tyrol in Italy but explicitly recognized the rights of the German minority.  German became the second language of the region, but because Rome drew the borders in such a way that Italians were the majority, the ethnic Germans were not able to govern themselves.  That provoked a resistance movement, which, in the form of the Befreiungsausschuss Sudtirol, turned to violence in the 1950s and 1960s.  The United Nations took up the issue in 1960, and Italy and Austria launched initially unsuccessful talks in 1961.

Finally, the two countries agreed in 1969 on a new settlement, one that changed the borders of the South Tyrol so that there would be a local majority of German speakers and allowed any disputes between that local majority and Rome to be settled by the International Court of Justice in the Hague.  Under the terms of the accord, which in the event was not fully implemented until 1992, the South Tyrol has considerable autonomy, retaining nearly 90 percent of its tax revenue and organizing a rotation of government offices between the two communities on a regular basis.

As a result of this accord, separatist passions have cooled, and South Tyrol today is the wealthiest of Italy’s provinces.  Its special status has been reinforced by the creation after 1995 of a Euroregion, which links the Italian state of South Tyrol to the Austrian state of Tyrol and establishes a special joint Tyrolean parliament while retaining Italian sovereignty over the South Tyrol.

Given Italy’s success in ending separatism by granting wide autonomy, it is no surprise that many in the Caucasus have wanted to consider this model.  There are obvious lessons to be learned—even with the best will in the world, resolving such complex controversies and developing genuine autonomy take a long time.  But the differences between the two, particularly the presence of Armenian forces on Azerbaijani territory and the lack of any overarching international organization in the South Caucasus, likely mean that the South Tyrol, like most other European autonomy projects, will be at best suggestive rather than a road map toward the resolution of the longstanding Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.


[1] For a survey of these efforts, see Elkhan Shahinogly, “Applicability of European Autonomy models to Nagorno-Karabakh,” 2011, available at http://hca-anc.org/en/?p=1184 (accessed 14 June 2012).