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Friday, January 14, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Without white horses, days black in Slovenia

Chicago Tribune

ITS FAMED LIPIZZANER STALLIONS, which were spirited away by Hitler then snatched from the advancing Red Army by Gen. George Patton, have yet to officially come home.

LIPICA, Slovenia - In the autumn of 1943, Hitler's army snatched about 200 prize Lipizzaner stallions and mares from their ancestral home, a 400-year-old stud farm in Lipica.

The horses, famous for their white coats and high-stepping dressage at Vienna's Spanish Riding School, were shipped to a stud farm in German-occupied Czechoslovakia. They remained there until the Reich collapsed in May 1945.

It was clear from the fighting that the Russians soon would be the postwar masters of Czechoslovakia.

But Gen. George Patton, a former Olympic horseman with a connoisseur's eye for equine excellence, saw no reason the Russians should get the Lipizzaners as part of the deal. His Third Army was in Austria. A few days after the formal German surrender, he dispatched a unit that included five tanks to snatch the horses from under the nose of the Red Army.

The Lipizzaners were brought across the border to Austria, an exploit mythologized in the 1963 Disney movie, "The Miracle of the White Stallions."

But the story did not end happily ever after for all concerned. The horse breed, described as "a masterpiece of nature and the human mind," is at the center of a modern controversy involving both money and national honor. Ownership rights to the animal's name have been the focus of one political crisis and are the topic of an international trade dispute.

Austria, Italy split herd

The argument began at the end of the war when, in an ironic twist with the spoils of victory going to the losers, Allied authorities divided the herd between Austria and Italy. Each received about 100 horses. Only 11 were returned to the stud farm in Lipica, even though Slovenia was part of the Federal Peoples Republic of Yugoslavia, which fought on the Allies' side.

This obscure bit of history recently resurfaced in an unlikely venue, Geneva, before the World Trade Organization (WTO) committee that handles intellectual property-right disputes. Slovenia, an independent state since bailing out of Yugoslavia in 1991, notified the WTO last fall that it was claiming exclusive rights to the name Lipizzaner ("Lipicanec" in the Slovenian language) as a protected national symbol.

Austria, which sees the Lipizzaners as part of its national patrimony and a healthy source of tourist revenue, was outraged.

The property-rights argument began a year ago when Italy and Austria, both members of the European Union (EU), agreed that Austria would be the official keeper of the Lipizzaner studbooks, which in horse breeding are the Bible and Holy Grail.

Slovenia was not consulted.

"It created a political crisis. People were demanding the resignation of the foreign minister," said Bojan Pretnar, director of the Slovenian government's intellectual-property office.

Slovenia appealed to WTO

Pretnar orchestrated Slovenia's counterattack. Slovenia filed its appeal with the WTO, whose rules take precedence over regional organizations such as the EU.

Slovenia asked the WTO to recognize "Lipizzaner" as a geographical indication, much the way France successfully has reserved the designation "champagne" for wines from its Champagne region and the Czech Republic is contemplating a claim to the names Budweiser and Pilsner for beers brewed in the Czech towns of Budweis and Plzen.

If the WTO upholds Slovenia's claim, it would be the first time a geographical indication has been applied to an animal.

The Austrian government argues that, unlike plants or food products, animals should not be entitled to protected geographical indications because animal breeds are defined by their genes, not their birthplace.

The Lipizzaners are more than just an animal breed. "They are part of the cultural heritage of both countries," Pretnar said. "A lot of symbolic value is at stake here."

The stallions undoubtedly owe their present-day fame to the Spanish Riding School and its glorious baroque performance hall in Vienna's Hofburg, the former Imperial Palace complex.

The Slovenian government told the WTO that the Spanish Riding School can keep its dancing horses, it just can't call them Lipizzaners anymore. The Lipizzaner name, it contended, traces to Slovenia.

The stud farm at Lipica was founded in 1580 by the Viennese Habsburgs, whose empire stretched from the Philippines to Peru. Lipica, then known as Lipizzan, was part of the realm.

Horses from Spain, Italy and Arabia were brought to be crossbred with indigenous stock. The result was the exquisite white Lipizzaner.

After World War I brought the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Slovenia and the Lipica stud farm fell under Italian control, and the Austrians began breeding Lipizzaners, from Lipica stock, at a stud farm near Graz.

When the defeated Italians abandoned Slovenia during World War II, they took the original studbooks for 1918 through 1943. Despite a 1975 agreement between Italy and Yugoslavia, the books have not been returned. Italy this month is supposed to give Slovenia an electronic copy of the breeding records, but the Slovenians want the originals.

From the 11 horses repatriated to Slovenia after World War II, the stud farm at Lipica began to rebuild its herd, no easy task under a communist regime more interested in rapid industrialization than regenerating a noble line of horses.

But the Lipizzaners found a patron in Marshal Tito. The white stallions appealed to the Yugoslav leader's sense of dash. He kept eight of them at his Adriatic retreat on the island of Brioni and kept the Lipica stud farm in oats.

Despite the trouble and turmoil in Yugoslavia after Tito's death in 1980, the Lipica herd has continued to thrive. Today it numbers more than 500.

"This horse is a masterpiece of nature and the human mind," said Milan Bozic, manager of the stud farm, a vast complex of baroque stables and riding halls, misty pastures and Linden trees.

Since gaining its independence, Slovenia has tried to boost tourist traffic at the stud farm by adding a gambling casino, a golf course, hotels and other amenities. But no place in the former Yugoslavia has had much luck recapturing its former tourism market, and Bozic admits Lipica is struggling.

Austria accuses Slovenia of filing the WTO complaint in a bid to grab off a piece of one of Vienna's most lucrative tourist attractions. Bozic denies this.

"Lipizzaners are a part of our national identity. How would Americans feel if another country claimed the Grand Canyon or the redwoods in California?" he said.

The European Commission has proposed "bilateral consultations" to avoid a confrontation before the WTO.

Pretnar, the Slovenian official, said his government might consider a joint association to maintain the studbooks, a solution that would allow both countries to claim victory.

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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