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Istrians are inhabitants of Istria, a peninsula at the head of the Adriatic between the Gulf of Trieste and the Gulf of Quarnero, the region spanning the borders of Croatia, Slovenia and Italy. The Croatian word is Istrani, or Istrijani, the latter being in the local čakavian dialect.

The ancient Istrians, known to the Romans as a fierce tribe of Illyrian pirates, protected by the difficult navigation of their rocky coasts, were only subdued by the Romans in 177 BCE after two military campaigns.

After the fall of the Western empire, Istria was pillaged by the Longobardi and the Goths, annexed to the Frankish kingdom by Pippin III (789), then successively controlled by the dukes of Carinthia, the dukes of Meran, the duke of Bavaria and the patriarch of Aquileia, before it became territory of the republic of Venice. It passed to the Habsburgs in 1797, (reverting temporarily to Napoleon in 1805 - 1813).

The region has traditionally been rather ethnically mixed. Under Austrian rule in the 19th century, it included a large population of Italians, Croats, Slovenes and some Istro-Romanians. In 1910, the ethnic composition was completely mixed with 170,000 Croats (43%), 150,000 Italians (38%) and 55,000 Slovenes (14%). After World War I, Istria passed from Habsburg to Italian rule, under which the Slavs complained of being forced to Italianize their names. Also, more than 50,000 Italians have been colonized by the Mussolini Fascist regime in Istria from other parts of Italy (Calabria, Sicily) in order to make the province ethnically Italian.

Following the Second World War, Istria became part of Yugoslavia and around 200,000 Italians, Croats and Slovenes, fearing the Communist oppression, fled from Istria. The Istrian peninsula was subsequently populated with Croats, Slovenes, Serbs and Montenegrins.

Although most Istrians are ethnically Croats, a strong regional identity has developed over the years. The Italian minority is small, but the Istrian county is bilingual. In the 1990 elections, the regional party Istrian Democratic Congress (Istarski Demokratski Sabor or Dieta Democratica Istriana) received some 70% of the vote routing the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) which triumphed in the rest of the country and formed the government in Zagreb.

The IDC had called for Istria to become an autonomous region and the calls are likely to be heard once more with the defeat of the Left-Center SDP coalition and the comeback of the HDZ, in November 2003.