Slovenia, Croatia, the EU and Piran Bay

world | May 23, 2007 | By Anes Alic

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, Sl


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Anes Alic is a senior writer a