May 23, 2007

Slovenia, Croatia, the EU and Piran Bay

A long-running dispute over a 20-square-kilometer bay has no end in sight without international arbitration, as Croatia and Slovenia trade venom, with the latter threatening to bloc the former's EU entry.

By Anes Alic in Sarajevo for ISN Security Watch (23/05/07)

As two former Yugoslav republics, Slovenia and Croatia, press on with a border dispute that has dragged on for over a decade, the international community is likely to step in to resolve the issue through arbitration.

In the latest developments, Slovenian lawmakers last week presented a map of the border between the two countries, asking Croatia to hand over a disputed bay and grant access to the open seas. If those demands are not met, some Slovenian politicians warn that they could hold a referendum against Croatia's entry into the EU.

At the center of the dispute is the Bay of Piran, a small body of water in the northern Adriatic Sea some 20 square kilometers in size that is not visible on most maps of Europe. Both countries claim ownership of the bay. Over the past few years, diplomacy over the issue has been characterized by tit-for-tat actions, usually targeting fishermen, on the part of both countries.

There is no clear border demarcation between the two former Yugoslav republics in this area, and neither have any historical base for which to claim ownership of the bay.

The current borders between Croatia and Slovenia were set in 1992 by the Badinter Commission, which was established as part of the European Commission's contribution to resolving the Yugoslav crises when the country was breaking apart.

In 1993, while the war was still raging in Croatia, the Slovenian government denounced the original border between the Yugoslav republics on the Dragonja River and sought the entire Bay of Piran. The border on the Dragonja River was contested because over the course of the previous 50 years, when the border was originally demarcated, the river current had resulted in a natural change in the border, and not in Croatia's favor.

Diplomacy: games and provocations
For Slovenian, the border dispute is of a financial nature. The settlement will mean gaining or losing direct access to international waters and will have consequences for its shipping industry. Croatia fears the loss of a convenient sea link to Italy, as member of the EU, if it gives in to Slovenian demands. This argument, however, may no longer be legitimate, as Slovenia itself joined the EU in 2004, giving Croatia an automatic border with the bloc.

Since the breakup of Yugoslavia in 1991, the two countries have been unable to reach agreement on maritime areas and fishing rights in the Adriatic Sea. Since both nations gained independence, the Bay of Piran has been a place of conflict for fishermen and police from both sides.

In 2002, Slovenian fishing boats were ordered out of what Croatian police said was Croatian waters, only to be reassured by Slovenian patrol boats that they were fishing in Slovenian waters. At that time, Slovenian media reported almost daily incidents in the bay.

Then, in July 2005, Croatian police intercepted an Austrian sailboat in waters claimed by Slovenia and demanded that they identify themselves. In another incident, Croatian police detained a number of Slovenian journalists who were visiting a northern border area to report on joint Slovenian-Croatian police patrols.

In the fall of 2005, the Slovenian government declared an ecological and continental shelf belt, which caused Zagreb to complain that its sovereignty was being violated, responding by sending special forces to the border.

The Slovenian Foreign Ministry later said the decree was a direct response to a decision made by Croatia earlier to extend the borders of its fishing zone to the middle of the Bay of Piran.

In 2006, some Slovenian parliamentarians asked the government to change its tactics toward Croatia, saying that the government should discourage Slovenians from spending their holidays in Croatia. Slovenian Foreign Minister Dmitrij Rupel said he was pleased with the proposal, but stressed that he did not holiday there anyway.

Then in February this year, Slovenia lodged a formal diplomatic protest over Croatia's extension of an offshore drilling contract for state-controlled oil company INA. Slovenia protested against the award of a five-year extension to INA's existing oil and gas drilling contract in the northern Adriatic. The platform is located in the continental shelf belt, which Slovenia recently declared its own.

Slovenia argued that the move amounted to a unilateral grab by Croatia of a sea area that had still to be formally divided by the successor countries of the former Yugoslavia.

However, Croatia rejected Slovenia's position, saying that the concession related to Croatian national territory and the contract extension did not "prejudge the delineation line between the two countries."

And the list of such diplomatic games and provocations is a long one.

The 'bloodless war'
The media in both countries referred to the dispute as a "bloodless war." While Slovenian media and the public, according to the polls, take the issue very seriously, the dispute in Croatia has taken on the characteristics of a long-running joke, with the media haranguing Slovenia with questions about whether the fish in those waters have Slovenian names and the like.

The Slovenians have been decidedly more cynical, with the production of a computer game called "The Piran Bay Game," in which "only you can ethnically cleanse the bay of all Croatian ships and people.” The makers of the game say they are frustrated with the ongoing dispute and were seeking an outlet to put the "bloodless war" into perspective.

The Slovenian Foreign Ministry in an April public statement asked Croatian politicians and media to take a healthier approach to bilateral relations, saying that current attitudes were causing unease among the Slovenian public, which could turn into anti-Croatian sentiment and lead to retaliatory responses.

A new dimension to the dispute
The fact that Slovenia has been an EU member since 2004, and that Croatia is a candidate for membership and likely to join the bloc in 2009, adds a new dimension to the long-running border dispute. Slovenian officials, believing that Croatia needs their support to join the bloc, suggest that fighting rights in the Bay of Piran should be tied to EU rules and regulations.

Likewise, Slovenian officials have not excluded the possibility of holding a referendum on Croatia's EU entry. Theoretically, Slovenia could block Croatia’s entry, since new members need support from all EU states.

Marjan Podobnik - director of the recently founded “25 June Institute,” which is tasked with collecting documents related to the border dispute - told ISN Security Watch that the institute might soon begin preparations for a national referendum on Croatia’s EU aspirations.

On 14 May, the institute published a map showing the borders how they "should be," saying that Slovenia had lost some parts of its territory during the arbitrary identification of borders in the former Yugoslav federation.

The Institute asked Croatia to give Slovenia the entire Bay of Piran and access to open seas, and threatened to hold the referendum if ignored.

“We support Croatia's membership in the European Union, but if Croatian authorities continue with territorial ambitions toward Slovenian territory, and disable us from having direct access to international waters, I believe that Slovenian citizens will be against it,” Podobnik said.

Podobnik a former deputy prime minister and leader of the Slovenian National Union (SNZ), under the Slovenian People's Party, which is a member of ruling coalition, was one of the parliamentarians arrested by Croatian border guards in 2005 in the disputed Bay of Piran area after they refused to show their identity cards.

However, downplaying the dispute, Rok Srakar, spokesman for Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Jansa’s cabinet, said in a statement that Podobnik's institute was not connected to the Slovenian government, which had nothing to do with the map's release.

In the meantime, Podobnik says his institute will begin collecting the necessary 40,000 signatures in the coming months to launch the referendum.

According to a public poll from two weeks ago, 62 percent of Slovenian citizens would block Croatia’s EU entry if Zagreb refused to the demands, while 22 percent said they were against blocking their neighbor's entry into the bloc.

Vesna Pusic, leader of the Croatian People’s Party (HNS) and vice president of Croatian Parliament, told ISN Security Watch that Croatia’s EU entry bid would not depend on border disputes, nor could Slovenia use its membership to block it.

“Border dispute cannot be a criteria for EU entry since Slovenia itself joined the EU with the same problems and border disputes. This dispute is deeply politicized and has become the priority in pre-election campaigns in both countries,” Pusic said.

Croatian officials have of course rejected Podobnik’s proposed map, with Croatian President Stjepan Mesic telling local media that Slovenia could declare ownership over some other part of Europe using the same logic.

“Our friends in Slovenia can draw whatever kind of maps they want to, as a part of Slovenia, they can enclose, let us say, Helsinki, Reykjavik even, this does not interest me one bit,” Mesic told Croatian Television.

Just to keep things going, the Croatian government for its part, published a different map in local media. Slovenia promised to answer with a diplomatic note, not only because of “one more provocation concerning borders,” but because Croatia renamed the Bay of Piran the "Bay of Savudrija" (referring to a part of the bay clearly on the Croatian side) on the map.

European Parliament has urged both governments to exploit every possibility available to agree on the border issues, by taking into account agreements reached earlier but never implemented, including one from 2001 which was valid for only three weeks until the Croatian government refused to follow Slovenia and ratify it.

According to the 2001 agreement, all holders of fishing permits would be allowed to fish freely in the area covered by the bilateral cross-border cooperation agreement. Croatia would get approximately one-third of the bay and grant Slovenia a corridor to international waters in return for several villages in another disputed border territory.

The arrangement also envisaged a joint police patrol and a code of conduct for fishermen to avoid incidents. The deal met with a negative response from Croatian fishermen, while their Slovenian colleagues welcomed it.

European Parliament said that if the two sides could not reach agreement, a third party would be called in to mediate or the dispute would be resolved through international arbitration.

The Croatian government has also suggested international arbitration. While no body for arbitration has been specified, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague has been most often mentioned by both sides. However, Slovenian officials immediately rejected the possibility of international arbitration only for the Bay of Piran dispute, suggesting that all unresolved disputes between the two countries be settled as such.

The two countries are also locked in disputes over the mutually owned Krsko Nuclear Power Plant, Croatian citizens' foreign currency deposits in the defunct LB bank and several other border crossings.

Anes Alic is a senior writer and analyst for ISN Security Watch. He is based in Sarajevo.

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