The Straw That Broke The Camel’s Back

Today a bit more on the Slovene-Croat diplomatic crash which happened shortly before new year, when Slovenia effectively blocked the continuation of Croatian EU accession negotiations.

The SLO-CRO border solution as proposed in Drnovšek-Račan Agreement (middle of the Bay of Piran shown as well). Adapted from (source)

As you know, the border dispute between the two countries is as old as the countries themselves. While Yugoslavia was still a country (and not a semi-mythological term of the good old days), it had well defined and furiously defended borders with all its neighbours. Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Greece, Albania, Italy and Austria. As the federal country broke appart, most of the emerging new states inherited the defined international borders (Bosnia-Herzegovina being the obvious exception as it bordered only on republics). They did not however inherit well defined internal borders, as these were often only superficially defined to serve administrative purposes. I mean, who cared if the River Mura changed its flow thirty metres to the north?

I remember when I was still a kid, we’d go on summer vacations and some point mid-way my father would say that “we’re in Croatia now”, but there was no sign, no flag, nothing. Just a road juncture. Even more to the point, parhises of Roman Catholic church did not follow the borders between republics, which caused a lot of bad blood some ten-plus years ago, when the tiny parish of Razkrižje was “claimed” by Zagreb Archdiocese. Well at least that particular dispute was quickly solved as the Vatican redrew borders to match the reality on the ground.

And it was exactly the reality on the ground which in the end proved to be the straw which broke the camel’s back. Be it out of political necesity of a country ravaged by war or out of sheer cold calculation, Croatia sought to execute its sovereignity at what it saw as its territory in relation to Slovenia (some would say that it overcompensated for the fact that it could not do so in a significant part of the rest of its territory). This included a part of territory which Slovenia claimed as its own, but – contrary to Croatia – always maintaned that the territory was disputed rather than Slovenian.

Always? Not exactly. It takes two to tango and in this case Slovenia is not without blame. Specifically, the Slovenian parliament at some point early in the game passed a binding resolution, laying claim to entire Bay of Piran, instantly creating a curious negotiation position where Slovenia in effect demanded that a tourist on the Croatian side of the bay would sunbathe in Croatia, but would enter Slovenia when jumping in the sea for a swim.

While the stupidity and naivete of such a resolution can in part be attributed inexperience of a fledling country and its decision-makers, it should be noted that the main proponents of this resolution (even after the imbecility of the text was realised) was the Slovene People’s Party (SLS), whose former presidents, brothers Janez and Marjan Podobnik are known for creating border incidents when it suits them politically

Yes, the Bay of Piran. An unsignificant pond of water in its own right is vital for Slovenian access to international waters. Specifically, the way the borded is drawn makes all the difference between Slovenia being a maritime and a nearly landlocked country without direct access to international waters. If the border is drawn midway across the bay, Slovenia can go suck a lemon with its excuse for a sea. Even worse, its strategic Port of Koper would probably be turned into a third-class marine because it would no longer have access to international waters.

The problem is, as noted here, that the maritime border was never drawn (as opposed to borders between republics, which were drawn, but never enforced), leaving the problem with little to no actual precedent to draw from. So both Slovenia and Croatia dug in, each proving to the other why the border should be drawn exactly one way and not the other.

In any case, Croatia imposed its sovereignity on the disputed area and was always seen as playing the table against Slovenia, its poorly and unconflicting neighbour whose foreign policy was in complete disarray. At least, that was the prevailing view in Slovenia. You won’t be surprised that in Croatia Slovenian foreign policy was seen as masterful, with Croatia continually receiving the wrong end of the stick. But in recent years, as Croatian aspirations for EU memberships began to take shape, the country’s pre-modern concept of sovereignity, which is defended at the borders and in full, clashed with European modern concept of sovereignity, where the latter is exerted in relation to other countries via a set of (more or less) predefined rules and – barring that – tends to avoid escalation.

Thus in the beggining of 2008 Croatia basically had to revoke its Ecological Maritime Zone, because it clashed with EU fisheries policies – among other things. The zone also extended all the way to the middle of the Bay of Piran and was yet another attempt to create a new reality on the ground, as it would be imposed by Croatian Navy. And then, at the end of 2008, when Croatia was due to open additional chapters in the negotiation process, Slovenia blocked the move as Croatia in its documents cited its legislation which put the maritime border in the middle of the bay of Piran.

Slovenian move was in stark oppositon with its attitude to date, but it was probably the last chance to defend its maritime interests as all previous attempts to solve the problem have failed. The closest the two countries ever came to an agreement was the so called agreement Drnovšek-Račan, where PMs of both countries, Ivica Račan and Janez Drnovšek agreed on an unconventional solution (the picture above), where Croatia would declare a corridor of its sea as international waters, while keeping a maritime border with Italy, thus giving Slovenia control over most (but not all) of Bay of Piran as well as access to international waters. The agreement met its premature demise in the Croatian parliament, but is now reffered to by Slovenia as a significant point in settling the dispute.

So, what to do? Apparently Slovenia is playing the table against Croatia – this time for real. While it may be the sole voice of opposition to Croatia continuing the accession process, rumours have it that there are other member states which think Croatia should be slowed in its tracks, albeit for differend reasons – mostly to do with corruption and the rule of law in the country. Or the lack thereof, rather. The dispute took EU mostly by surprise, as shown in the now-famous exclamation of French foreign minister Bernard Couchner: “But it’s only 25 kilometres of disputed border!“.

That may be, but small disputes can turn into big problems, especially in the Balkans. And fact of the matter is that Slovenia apparently opted to play hardball, which will probably come in handy in times of economic crisis, keeping people’s mind off more important things. That goes for Croatia as well, mind you, which is apparently nearing an economic collapse not unlike the one in Iceland, because of its overpriced currency, the kuna.

In any case, a compromise will have to be reached. And a compromise during EU negotiation process will hold indefinitely more weight in front of any international border tribunal than any other unilateral move by either party. So they might as well go for broke and settle this thing once and for all. There are two dangers, though. One, that Slovenia, with its new-found confidence will try to compensate for years of being pushed around and will get to brash and will start making humiliating demands. And two, that Croatia, used to getting its way, will continue to over-react as it is completely unused to Slovenia being tough about anything, effectively putting off its EU membership for years or even decades. Imagine the indignation of Serbia making it to the EU before Croatia.

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Agent provocateur and an occasional scribe.

19 thoughts on “The Straw That Broke The Camel’s Back”

  1. Overcompensating is exactly what Croatia is doing, as that tiny sliver of ocean that Slovenia wishes to claim is insignificant to Croatians but of massive importance to Koper and the entire Slovenian economy.

    The fact that neither country has sole claim to it should be dealt with between the two nations. I would assume that having Slovenia as a stanch ally and supporter of Croatian aspirations of EU entry would be a more then fair trade for just a few km of ocean that doesnt even completely belong to Croatia in the first place.

    This is typical Croatian behaviour, instead of acting positively they create tension and agression where there was none, and in turn harm themselves just so that Slovenia is harmed as well.

  2. The best solution is the issue the author is mentioning in the context of Croatian minuses – the rule of law. EU by Slovenian influence is forcing Croatia to give up from internatioanal laws and conventions. It was the case with Ecological and Fishery Zone Croatia proclaimed on the basis of international law like most of EU costal countries had done and it is going on with forcing Croatia to, what thay call the compromise, which would not comply to international law again but Slovenian interests or sentiments only. If that is not the case, why not just submit it to relevant international legal institution?

    By the way, Koper harbor is doing very well in present circumstances and no ships to could come or leave it by using only Drnovšek-Račan corridor and ships have free access to the opened see now as well

  3. I think the question at hand is which international legal institution. As far as the Eco-Fisheries zone was concerned, it was a case of Croatia jumping the gun. Such zones do indeed exist, but not for EU member states. Croatia had to revise its position on that, if memory serves.

    And any compromise would comply with international law, because it would take the form of an international agreement, which would become international law.

  4. “An unsignificant pond of water in its own right is vital for Slovenian access to international waters. Specifically, the way the borded is drawn makes all the difference between Slovenia being a maritime and a nearly landlocked country without direct access to international waters. If the border is drawn midway across the bay, Slovenia can go suck a lemon with its excuse for a sea. Even worse, its strategic Port of Koper would probably be turned into a third-class marine because it would no longer have access to international waters.” This is totally pretensious to say so! Direct acces to international law is regulated by right of innocent passage in the Law of the Sea. Even more, Slovenia since indenpendence does not have contact to international waters (it is controlled by Croatian police) and yet Port of Koper traffic trippled in the same time. A more accurate and legally supported argumentation of pros and contras could be found on web page Regards

  5. You haven’t really read what I wrote, have you? Do me a favour and do it. Carefully. Line for line. Then maybe we can talk. Because your comment bears absolutely no relevance neither to the quoted paragraph nor to the post as a whole. It’s just an excuse to post a link to your suspiciously pro-government propaganda. Try to use your own head and think outside of the box. I know it hurts, but it is worth it.

    And to show you that I did read your comment, let me point out a small-but-significant trick you’re trying to pull:

    “Direct acces to international law is regulated by right of innocent passage in the Law of the Sea.”

    This is not true. Claiming the right of innocent passage is an indirect access to international waters. Which makes all the difference. Besides, it was established by both sides beyond doubt that a maritime border between republics did not exist and has yet to be drawn.

  6. I am sorry, I might be ignorant, or my knowledge of English might be unsufficient, but it seems to me that you suggested that without direct access to international waters, Port of Koper would be reduced to a marine. Correct me, if I am wrong, please.

    First of all, this statemenst suggests that huge Belgian port of Antwerpen (2nd in the world) is also a marine, since access to that port goes only through Dutch territorial waters…

    Second, Mr. Zbogar, your minister of foreign affairs has said two days ago, responding to his Austrian counterpart, that Slovenia already has direct access to international waters, and that this is so according to international law. Mr. Zbogar said that what Slovenia really wants is contact with international waters. Maybe Mr. Žbogar should first make clear what your country really wants. And of course define what “direct access to international waters” (expression invented by Slovenia) really means.

    And the last, but not the least, you claim that maritime borders were not defined in Yugoslavia. That is your opinion that I disagree with. According to Badinter’s principle ut posseditis iuris one can rigthfully claim that maritime border existed, since the border of jurisdical authorities was well known. There are several clear documents that prove that matters in southern part of Bay of Piran were resolved on courts in Pula and Umag.


  7. Apparently you still didn’t read what I wrote. Because if you had, you would have no doubt noticed that I am defending neither position and am in effect saying that both sides had ample time to solve the dispute.

    As for Koper becmoming a marine, you know that it would happen, especially with neighbouring ports of Trst/Trieste and Rijeka. I’m not saying that Croatia should just give in because of that, I’m merely stating that it would happen.

    Furthermore, I’m not my government’s shoutbox, so you will have to try very hard to find me simply repeating minister Žbogar’s position. It is he and PM Pahor who will have to bear political consequences of a solution (if any). Same goes for PM Sanader and FM Jandroković on the Croatian side. Therefore, any problems you have with minister Žbogar, you can direct them at him.

    As for maritime borders: One cannot claim that a maritime border existed if it didn’t exist. You can use legal principles and documents as tools for defining zones of control and cosequently draw borders, but that something both sides can agree with. Which is of course the gist of the dispute. Anything beyond that is an attempt at creating a new reality on the ground. Something Croatia has been very good at – and by saying that I’m again merely stating a fact, without prejudice.

  8. I am sorry about above, I had problems posting the comment…

    You argued that it takes two to tango. I agree with that. Both sides contributed to the conflict. However I would disagree with you on who contributed more. Let’s take “creating a new reality on the ground”. You are most probably aware that Croatia has no problem defining 25.6.1991 as a starting point of negotiations. If Croatia was so successful in creating a new reality on the ground, this would most certainly not be so.

    As for Koper becoming a marine, this might happen, but I repeat again – this has absolutely nothing to do whether Slovenia has territorial contact with international waters. Croatia de facto controls access corridor to port of Koper and Trieste for last 18 years and there was no problem (exit corridor goes through italian territorial waters). Koper is far from being the only port which access goes through foreign territorial waters (take Antwerp as an example). And finally even if Slovenia had territorial contact with international waters, ships for Koper should still pass through Croatian territorial waters near island of Palagruza, not to mention Maltese and Spanish territorial waters in order to access Atlantic ocean…

    I am sorry, but as explained at I cannot find any other reasonable argument on why Slovenia needs contact with international waters except for the fact that in such circumstances it could have its own ECONOMIC ZONE, have GAS EXTRACTION CONCESSIONS and have its own FISHING ZONE up to Vrsar. Let’s look at arguments, let’s use Occam’s razor!

  9. You cannot seriously entertain the idea that this is about natural resources? 🙂 Seriously, fisheries and natural gas reserves are poor excuses at best. But since you invoked Occam’s razor, let’s get down to the gist of it.

    It is about the removing even the theoretical possibility of Croatia or Italy lawfully blocking Slovenian access to international waters. If a clash of interests should occur it is foolish to expect of any country to put it’s neighbour’s interests first. Slovenia therefore does not want to be at the mercy of Croatia, no matter how benign a regime of passage Croatia can offer. Because it can also revoke this regime.

    Again, let me stress that I don’t automatically assume that every Slovenian claim is justified. But I also don’t believe that every Croatian claim is justified.

    As for playing the blame game – we can go on and on and on. I have no desire to do so. Fact of the matter is that Slovenia raised objections which must be overcome rather than circumvented. And once a solution is reached (it has to be), things will be back to normal.

  10. OK, I agree that our dicussion goes nowhere. So this is my last post.

    Concerning natural resources, Croatia gets more than 50% of its needs for natural gas from its own sources. This is no joke. Especially in time of economic and energetic crisis. If you don’t give a damn, well Slovenian politicians do. And unfortunatelly for them, Croatian politicians too.

    I will make a last attempt to argue that neither Croatia nor Italy can LAWFULLY block Slovenian access. Ever. Period. Read Law of the Sea and right of innocent passage! Practice? Since Law of the Sea was signed in 1984 there has not been a single instance that this right was denied. Moreover, at least one huge port – 10 times larger than Koper and Trieste together – operates exclusively through foreign territorial sea. And nobody cares.

    Corridor regimes are not here to ensure the right of innocent passage (this is per se guaranteed) but to regulate traffic. You don’t want big ships to crash, do you? So there is an agreed traffic separation scheme: all ships to Trieste and Koper go through Croatian territorial waters and return through Italian terriorial waters. And Croatia is prepared to give in its half of corridor even more liberal conditions than guaranteed by right of innocent passage (which is actually meaningless unless Slovenia gets the same conditions from Italy, but it is still a nice gesture toward Slovenia).

    Second, suppose that Slovenia has territorial corridor with international waters. Suppose that both Croatia and Italy decide to block Slovenia (which is of course an illegal act). And let’s suppost that they still decide to respect the Slovenian corridor (this is contradictio in se, but let’s suppose so). Then they could put blockade between island of Pianosa (Italy) and island of Palagruza (Croatia). Islands are 21 miles apart, even less than Grado and Savudrija peninsulas. So this Slovenian corridor is pure nonsense, because it is bridging only one of two consecutive obstacles.

    And finally. Yes, let’s suppose the worst case scenario – that both Croatia and Italy start the war with Slovenia. Do you believe that Slovenian corridor to international waters would pose any serious barrier for blockade? I seriously doubt.

    You have many many if’s – and yet, there is no logical explaination.

    Sapienti sat.


  11. Yes, one has to look at this from the worst-case-scenario-point-of-view. And I’m not even thinking about war. Rather just a very strict enforcement of sovereignity (due to, say, bad relations between the country).

    It would be foolish for any country to allow even for a theoretical possibility of extortion by a neighbouring country.

    And before you start – yes, this is precisely what Slovenia is doing to Croatia right now. It is using a favourable position against Croatia to force some sort of a settlement. Had it not done that, Croatia would gain the upper hand by having its border claims become part of the acquis.

    It is all very logical.

    In the final analysis no country can rely on another country to look after the former’s interests. And it is absolutely obvious that Slovenia will do everything in its power to preserve its interests.

    You mentioned Antwerp a couple of times. There is one huge difference. The maritime border between The Netherlands and Belgium is not disputed. Whereas in our case the border was never set.

    This is not a case of Slovenia trying to chip away a part of Croatian sea. It is a matter of Slovenia and Croatia having to partition the once-common sea in a manner that will equaly satisfy (or equaly dissapoint) both parties.

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