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.

“Lik i djelo” of Comrade Janša

Pengovsky is (yet again) extremely late for today’s posting feast, but it seems that it was worth it. I was about to deliver the skinny on Slovene-Croat storm in a teacup, but something much better emerged today.


It seems that former PM Janez Janša has added one more notch to his lawsuit-happy belt. This time around, Janša filed a lawsuit against Slavko Ziherl, former State Secretary at Minstry of Health who resigned even before he started his job, officially out of protest against PM Borut Pahor‘s naming former FM Dimitrij Rupel as a personal advisor. This is the fifth lawsuit Janša filed in a little less than a year and a half. After filing a lawsuit against his predecessor Tone Rop for accusing him of coordinating border incidents with Croatia, then suing Boško Šrot for claiming that Janša sold Mercator to Šrot as a price for gaining political influence over Delo daily, later in the year he filed a suit against Finnish public broadcaster YLE and its journalist Magnus Berglund for claiming that he (Janša) was bribed in the Patria Affair, and – by the same extention – he also sued the head of the Anti-Corruption Commission Drago Kos and President Turk’s national security advisor Bojan Potočnik, both of whom -according to Janša- implied that he was on the take in the Patria case.

So how come Slavko Ziherl, a member of LDS, whose resignation was prompted by PM Pahor’s inexplicable love for Dimitrij Rupel found himself in Janša’s crosshairs? Well, among many harsh words directed at Pahor in his letter of resignation Ziherl said that he entered politics as late as 2005, prompted by “Janša’s style of governing which posed a danger to many liberal or even human values”. Which was enough for Janša to put him on the “to do” list.

So, what are we looking at here? A lawsuit-happy politico who can’t get enough of himself in the news? I don’t think so. On one hand this is a clear manifestation of one of Janša’s predominant personal traits, and on the other an obsession with defending his public image and record by any means possible.

In former Yugoslavia top politicians were exempt from public scrutiny by having their public image (“lik i djelo) and record legaly protected. At the very least this went for Comrade Tito, and then this implicitly applied to entire top political echelon. Since one of the upsides of a democracy is elimination of such legal nonsense, Janez Janša cannot have (as much as he would have perhaps liked) his “lik i djelo” protected by default. So, he is left to his own devices in protecting it. For most politicians poblic opinion polls and elelctions are enough. Janša, it seems, wants a court to tell him what everyone else already knows…