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Venetian Separatists Have Voted For Independence From Italy

On top of movements in Crimea and Republika Srpska, another secession movement is brewing in Europe.
March 28, 2014, 1:55pm
Photo by Alessandro Rampazzo

This article originally appeared on Vice Italy

The square was crammed with separatists waving flags of the centuries-old Most Serene Republic of Venice, a nod to the historical Italian region they were hoping to revive. Taking to the stage, Gianluca Busato – the man behind the recent referendum for Veneto’s independence – addressed the crowd, saying: “Life conquers death; this is the great heart of Venice.”

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In case you’ve been too preoccupied with Crimea and Republika Srpska to handle any more secession news, Veneto is a northeast Italian region with a long history of seeking more autonomy – or even complete independence – from Italy. After being independent for centuries as part of the Most Serene Republic of Venice, the region was annexed by the Austrian Empire and eventually ceded to the Kingdom of Italy in 1866.

Certain Venetian groups didn’t like that, and since then have been campaigning for things to go back to the way they were, hoping to protect the region's economy from the corruption they claim is rife in southern Italy. Busato’s “Plebiscite.eu” movement is the latest and loudest of those groups, holding an online referendum all of last week where voters could cast their ballot in support of – or against – Veneto becoming independent.

And on the day of Busato’s speech – last Friday, the 21st of March – in the Venetian city of Treviso, Veneto’s fate was set to be revealed.

One of the first supporters to get to the square was a man waving two flags – a Russian one and a Most Serene Republic of Venice one. At first it seemed that the combination was a reference to the situation in Crimea, but the man quickly shut down that theory, saying he’d been carrying a Russian flag around since the beginning of February to protest the decision to hand out “gay” fairy tale books to Venetian teachers. Which was an odd start to the event.

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The crowd continued to gather and, a few minutes before the 7PM kick off, the square was full. Someone – clearly not someone associated with the separatist movement – walked by, shouting about the Plebiscite referendum being a “farce”. He got an immediate response from a separatist activist: “If this is a farce, so was the 1866 referendum [in which Veneto was ceded to Italy]!”

Venetian separatists are clearly an eclectic bunch, because, while waiting for Busato to make his entrance, the warm-up DJ played a very sexy disco track from the Montana Sextet, some 80s house tune and a couple of other bangers, before segueing into the big climax: a 1796 composition by Vivaldi that was written to celebrate the Venetian victory against the Turks in Corfu, which Venetian separatists have since adopted as their own national anthem.

After Vivaldi got a couple of rewinds, the music was cut and Busato took to the stage.

He seemed shy, but like he could easily get used to the applause. Speaking in a measured tone, he talked about civilization and how it’s impossible to eradicate “a culture – an ancient people”. He went on to explain that the committee at plebiscite.eu – the referendum website – isn’t fighting “a battle for freedom, but a battle for dignity”, adding that “the wind of independence and of freedom is blowing in the world, and today it blows with great strength in Europe”.

Then he shouted: “We are the heirs of the Most Serene Republic of Venice!” and the crowd burst into applause.

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A few minutes later, in the middle of his very Italian speech, he said an English word: “understatement”. An old man behind me yelled, “Speak as we understand you!” Others pitched up in agreement. “Yes, indeed – speak in Venetian!” they shouted. “Speak our beautiful language!”

Busato apologized for flaunting his English skills and switched to the local Venetian dialect.

He then referred to the open wound left by Italy’s annexation of Veneto, pointing to a plaque that commemorates the offending 1866 referendum. “That shameful engraving, there in the corner – that represents the supposed will of 148 years ago!” he shouted.

Following that outburst, Busato called all the Plebiscite organizers onto the stage, allowing them to launch into a short round of personal speeches. The first guy talked about a “tinkling” that’s been echoing around the region, adding, “We’re opening the cage! We’re coming out from the winter – the Venetian Spring has started!”

The second, a girl from Padua called Aurora, reminded the crowd that Venetian is not a “dialect”, but an “out-and-out language recognized by UNESCO and the UN”. She added that we should all speak Venetian all the time, and a good amount of people cheered when she suggested that it should be taught in the region's schools.

After the organizers’ speeches, the VIP for the day – Andrea Viviani – was brought up to the stage. Viviani was one of the eight members of the militant nationalist organization Venetian Most Serene Government, which – in 1997 – occupied Venice’s St Mark’s Square with a tank.

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After that brief 90s revival, it was time for a history lesson, courtesy of Franco Rocchetta, founder of the Venetian nationalist Liga Veneta party and the suspicious kind of historian who bookends everything he says with, “This kind of thing can’t be read in the history books.”

Here’s a quick summary of what we learned:

- This year marks the 100th anniversary since the beginning of World War I, which was “the Italian war against Veneto”.

- The Italian constitution is “the shame of Europe, because it ratifies the Italian discrimination towards Veneto”.

- This year also marks the bicentenary of the foundation of the national military police of Carabinieri, AKA “the force of the Kingdom of Sardinia to repress Venetians”.

- “The Italian State has always been mendacious, rapist and ruinous.”

With that over, it was time for the crowd to hear the outcome of the referendum. Anna Durigon, a 25-year-old who'd previously been on a hunger strike – somehow in aid of Venetian independence – had the honor of reading the results. Ballots counted, the overwhelming majority (89 percent) had voted in favor of Veneto seceding from Italy.

A couple of days after the event, Busato announced the formation of a new political party – “Veneto Sì” (Veneto Yes) – that “will take the committee for independence and turn it into a real political organization that will defend the actual results”.

Because really, the results of the Plebiscite referendum mean absolutely nothing – which isn’t that surprising, considering it was an online poll with no official recognition. However, according to Mario Bertolissi – an Italian constitutional scholar – the aim was not to hold a referendum, because that “would go against the constitution”, but to “get to know the opinion of [Veneto’s] citizens”.

Only, for Veneto's separatists, the online referendum results clearly count for more than just a gauging of opinion.

Follow Pietro on Twitter: @pietrominto

Photo by Alessandro Rampazzo