When thinking about the claims for territorial autonomy in the Western Balkans one usually thinks about Serbia, Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia or Bosnia and Herzegovina. In the eyes of many today’s Croatia does not have these ‘problems’. After the mass exodus of Serbs from the Republic of Croatia caused by the operation storm in 1995, Croatia seemed peaceful with its centralized model of governance. This is, however, not the case, at the beginning of 2006 Democratic Union of Istria-Dieta Democratica Istriana, dominant party in this part of Croatia, announced its plan to fight for the granting of territorial autonomy for this costal region of Croatia close to Slovenia and Italy.
Istria had a rather turbulent history constantly changing rulers, after World War I Istria passed from Austrian Habsburg rule to that of Italy. The Slavs were exposed to a policy of forced Italianization. Some claim that the Fascist regime of Benito Mussolini colonized Istria with up to 50,000 Italians. Others claim that there is not clear evidence for such high number of immigrants from southern Italy.
After the end of World War II, parts of Istria were assigned to Tito's Yugoslavia. This time it was the local Slavic population who committed, what would be in todays’ jargon called ethnic cleansing of the region, from 1945 to 1956, thousands of Italians, were killed and their bodies thrown into caves (foibe) and about 300,000 Italians forcibly left the region to settle in Italy. The ethnic cleansing (‘esodo’) was completed in 1956 and the rest of the region was incorporated into Socialist Federative Republic of Yugoslavia. Following the exodus, the areas were settled with additional Croats, Slovenians and a small number of other Yugoslav nationalities like Macedonians, Albanians, Serbs or Montenegrins. Istria, a potentially rich region, presented ‘California’ of Tito’s Yugoslavia where many people from all parts of former Yugoslavia poured. These migrations resulted in an extremely heterogeneous population mix in this region. Despite the fact that many Istrians are ethnic Croats, a strong regional identity has existed over the years. It is largely for this reason, in combination with historic legacy of striving for independence, that the calls for the autonomy of Istria come back to the political agenda in Croatia.
Since Croatia's first multi-party elections in 1990, the regional party Istrian Democratic Assembly (Istarski Demokratski Sabor or Dieta Democratica Istriana IDS DDI) has consistently received an absolute majority of the vote and maintained a position often contrary to the government in Zagreb (despite the authoritarian nature of Tudjman's regime) with regards to their regional autonomy. Today, IDS-DDI is asking for the establishment of the territorial autonomy of Istria once Croatia enters the European Union.