6 Lessons Of Fence Erection

It took less than twelve hours for Miro Cerar‘s “temporary technical obstacles” to hit their first, well, obstacle. And, boy, did they hit it. While Miro the Man is trying to find his way through the minefield of domestic political ill-wishers, the Mid-East burning and own good intentions paving the road to hell, a familiar monster came from under the bed and bit him right in the ass: the border dispute between Slovenia and Croatia.

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(source)

That erecting the fence tehnical obstacles will be anything but a walk in the park was more or less clear. But even though the government did take the precaution of notifying the Arbitration Court as well as the government in Zagreb, the latter claimed that parts of the fence crossed into its territory and threatened to remove it of its own accord. Needless to say that Croatian special police immediately appeared in the area already teeming with Slovenian police and army personnel. Which provided for some nice throwbacks to 2007 when then-PM Janez Janša sent special police units on the bank of the Mura where Croatia was up to, ironically, technical work on levees and railroads.

Only this time around it was Slovenian authorities who were putting up fence technical installations and the Croatians who are going apeshit about it. To their credit, Zagreb thusfar only issued a strong protest to the Slovenian charge d’affaires, but this is the sort of situation where things can go very wrong very quickly.

A few things need to be noted at this stage:

1) For the second time in as many months, the situation on the border between two EU member states has flared up dramatically. Weeks ago, Hungarian security services disarmed a number of Croatian policemen on a train full of refugees supposedly on Hungarian territory. So far these are isolated incidents in an altogether precarious situation. But mistakes do happen and when people are tired and/or scared, they tend to see patterns that don’t exist. They also tend to overreact. Then all hell breaks loose.

2) The pull-back-or-else tactic employed by Croatia is additionally complicated by the fact that it was that same approach that caused Slovenia to relocate its border checkpoint on the Dragonja river a few hundred metres north in 1991, thereby writing the opening chapter of the still-running border dispute.

3) Both governments, especially the one in Ljubljana should remember there are idiots aplenty on both sides of the border. Sometimes they’re even elected. And that they will inevitably try to foment trouble to advance their own agenda.

4) Speaking of fomenting trouble, it should now be clear (once again) that politics is not linear and that introducing a new variable changes the entire environment and has unpredictable consequences.

5) Which is exactly what Cerar’s opponents, both within the coalition and without, are counting on. Apart from expecting the new influx of refugees (which has yet to materialise) everyone is on the lookout for a scuffle between the two neighbouring countries. And to top it off (and as predicted) the hardcore proponents of the fence are claiming it is too little too late and that Cerar should resign immediately while the fervent among those opposing the fence are already calling Cerar a Fascist anyhow. Talk about losing friends and alienating people.

6) The Pandora’s box is now open and instead of managing one particularly demanding crisis, Cerar now has at least two more on his hands: a crisis in relations with Croatia (not that we were all that chummy to begin with) as well as a political crisis which will explode right in his face the very moment this thing with refugees will start showing signs of abating.

Howgh.

 

The Wire: Arbitration Agreement Edition

In the good old days, men were men, women were women, Eccentrica Gallumbits, the triple-breasted whore of Eroticon Six was Eccentrica Gallumbits, the triple-breasted whore of Eroticon Six and Slovenia-Croatia border disputes flared up every summer. Like clockwork. Then came the Arbitration Agreement and put an end to all that. And I’m not talking about hipsters here, if you catch my meaning. Since yesterday, however, it feels like the good old days.

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Arbitration Tribunal in session (source)

Croatian daily Večernji list ran a bombshell of a story, claiming Slovenia acted in bad faith vis-a-vis the Arbitration Tribunal and had the country’s agent with the court Simona Drenik (full disclosure: pengovsky knows her personally) discuss tactics of Slovenian case with Jernej Sekolec, the country’s appointee to a five-member tribunal. Obviously all hell broke loose, with the Croats going all Captain Renault on arbitration and hinted at bailing out of the proceedings, which, if the three phone records are to be believed (and so far no-one has denied their authenticity), were going well in Slovenia’s favour.

There are multiple aspects to the issue, not in the least why exactly were the records made public now, when they were apparently made between November last year and January this year. But while Croatia is crying foul, the debate in Slovenia immediately took on a holier-than-thou attitude, taking the Zagreb spin at face value and started dissecting the Sekolec-Drenik convo, looking for clues to support Croatian claims. Which are, well, on rather thin ice.

Namely, Croatia claims that Slovenia tried to influence the tribunal consisting of three independent experts plus an arbiter from either side by coaching the national arbiter in aspects that are beneficial to the Slovenian cause. Well, is the Pope Catholic? I mean, both sides have put forward a memorandum stating their case and left it to the tribunal to decide on the merits of claims. The fact that both countries agreed to appoint a national arbiter shows that the conflicting parties wanted to have a) continuous oversight over the proceeding (as opposed to being merely informed of the decision) and b) the ability to at least try to steer the deliberations to their benefit. Sekolec at one point even implies that everyone subscribed to the tacit understanding that the national arbiters are by default biased (duh!) by hinting at the three foreign experts (occasionally?) meeting separately to discuss the issues at hand.

The gist of the story is that the tribunal is due to release a binding decision in December and – apparently – award two-thirds of the Bay of Piran to Slovenia and provide for a short corridor to international waters. Thus a key Slovenian maritime goal would have been achieved, after more than two decades of border incidents and even armed confrontations on land and on the sea. Which explains why the Croatian side went public with the wiretaps only now and not immediately after they were recorded.

For all intents and purposes, this is a major intelligence scoop by Croatian spooks. Despite the prevailing narrative of “amateur hour”, Slovenian foreign ministry takes security pretty seriously. Doubly so in the case of the arbitration. This, pengovsky knows for a fact. So what we are dealing with here in all probability is not two bureaucrats with a frivolous attitude towards security but rather a major breach or even an inside job (conspiracy theories! \o/). Which means that Slovenian spook services will have a lot of explaining to do.

But the main takeaway here is not that Sekolec and Drenik were indeed confabulating (no-one on the Slovenian side denied the authenticity of the recordings and both have since resigned) but that the Croats went public with phone taps at all. Which means either that a) the breach was since sealed (unlikely, given the panic on the Slovenian side) or b) the wiretap had lost operational potential and Slovenia achieved what it wanted regardless. Which left Zagreb only with the nuclear option, to burn their asset and hope the whole thing takes the arbitration agreement with it.

Doubly so when one takes into account the fact that the final decision of the tribunal is to be published in December, awfully close to Croatian parliamentary elections where the incumbent left-wing government is apparently poised to lose to HDZ, prompting PM Milanović to suck up make overtures to right-wing voters to try and turn the trend. Should the tribunal indeed award more than a half of the Bay of Piran to Slovenia, the projected defeat of the Milanović government would most likely turn into a rout, especially since the Blut-und-Boden rhetoric is even more hyped-up in Croatia as it is in Slovenia. So while official Zagreb is professing its shock and innocence, the conclusion here is that the other party is trying to mitigate the disastrous effects a decision, favourable to Slovenia, international credibility be damned.

Interestingly, while Croatian political class is united feigning disbelief (former PM Jadranka Kosor, who signed the agreement with Slovenian then-PM Pahor, called the deal null and void), it is getting a lot of help from Slovenia as well. Not only did PM Cerar and FM Erjavec immediately leave Sekolec and Drenik hang out to dry, the two have been treated to a generous helping of proper backstabbing, either by various elements of the opposition, trying to cash in on the panic or by would-be arbiters who failed to wiggle their way into this story. Case in point by judge at the Constitutional Court and a long-time diplomat Ernest Petrič who saw it fit to delve right into the fray (Slovenian only).

Curiously enough, the only two high-profile individuals who have appealed for calm and warned against buying into the Croatian narrative are the two people who at the height of their game were seen as arch-enemies – Janez JanÅ¡a and Gregor Golobič

Both appeal for calm and point out that it is Croatia which is in a weaker position, a stark opposite to the prevailing narrative of a Slovenian diplomatic failure. The President, however, who in his capacity as PM signed the Arbitration Agreement in 2009, was  – 24 hours after the crisis erupted – making hay while sun shone. Literally.

But, to be fair, the man did later say he expected the tribunal to finish the job. Whis it apparently intends to do, as per tweet of this Večer newspaper reporter

Just how exactly this will play out, is hard to say. But it does suggest Croatia found itself in a spot so tight, FM Vesna Pusić stated publicly that it doesn’t matter who made the tapes or how Croatia obtained them. Now, this is a bit of a Catch 22 situation for them, as problematic activity was detected by problematic methods and revealing that makes Croatia just as problematic as it believes Slovenia is. Which doesn’t exactly further their cause. Not to mention that wiretapping senior officials is somewhat frowned upon in this day and age. In the final analysis, the releasing of the tapes seems more like a domestic policy stunt to cover their asses if the tribunal really does decide to award a large part of the Piran Bay to Slovenia than anything else. But for all the talk about declaring the agreement null and void, just because they don’t like the result, it is worth to remember that one series which dealt with wiretapping, bad life decisions and tautologies.

A deal is a deal.

 

P.S.: For a good take on the issue, friend and colleague Nataša Briški provides over at Metina lista (Slovenian only)