Croatian in Sea Battle with Slovenia
Slovene ambassador withdrawn as maritime dispute escalates.
By Drago Hedl in Zagreb (BCR No 459, 12-Sep-03)
Long-standing tensions between Croatia and Slovenia have escalated into a war of words over territorial claims to the Adriatic Sea.
Croatia says it plans to forge ahead with asserting its economic rights to an area of water far out to sea, blocking free access to the Mediterranean for Slovenia.
Analysts say the dispute reflects an obsolete nationalist approach to resolving foreign policy differences, at a time when both countries are seeking membership of the European Union, EU.
Slovenia recalled its ambassador to Zagreb, Petar Bekes, "for consultations" on August 31, after Croatian foreign minister Tonino Picula confirmed that his country was determined to declare an Exclusive Economic Zone, EEZ, in the Adriatic. Picula made the remarks in an interview published in the newspaper Slobodna Dalmacija earlier the same day.
The following day, Slovene foreign minister Dimitrije Rupel warned that once his country gets into the EU next May, it may not support Croatia's application to join in the next wave, expected in 2007.
Croatia's government has indicated that its decision is final, and that it will be submitted to parliament in October, a move which seems to undercut the possibility of compromise at talks with Slovenia scheduled for September 16.
The speaker of Croatia's parliament, Zlatko Tomcic, has denied accusations by his Slovene counterpart that Zagreb's stance on the EEZ is an electioneering tactic. The suggestion was that Prime Minister Ivica Racan's left-of-centre government, which faces an early general election in November, needed to do something to enhance its nationalist credentials.
Croatia is claiming an EEZ under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which would give it a broad strip of the Adriatic all the way along its coast, extending much further than its current 12-mile territorial waters. It would not have full sovereignty over the area, but would have exclusive rights to fish and exploit mineral resources there. The latter aspect has become much more significant since the discovery of gas reserves in the Adriatic.
Croatian officials have made it clear that they resent Slovenia's presumption that it can interfere in a decision that Zagreb can take unilaterally.
Slovenia, with just 47 kilometres of coastline tucked into the northernmost corner of the Adriatic, faces the prospect of losing all claim to fishing and gas outside its own small offshore zone, and having its ships pass through foreign waters every time they head for the Mediterranean.
"If all countries in the Mediterranean were to start proclaiming trade zones, there would be chaos," said Foreign Minister Rupel.
Slovenia is not entitled to declare its own EEZ because its waters do not open onto the high seas. But in recent weeks its politicians and legal experts have been arguing that Croatia has no right to carve out a sector of the sea, because there has been no formal demarcation since the old Yugoslav state disintegrated. They say that as one of the inheritor countries, Slovenia should have a fair share of the former state's maritime territories.
What makes the Slovenes even angrier is that they thought they already had a deal with the Croatians. The Piran Bay agreement, drafted in 2001, drew new lines on the map to give them a sea corridor to international waters in the Adriatic, squeezed between the 12-mile zones of Croatia and Italy. But Croatian politicians subsequently got cold feet on the deal, sensing that it was viewed as a territorial loss at home, and failed to ratify it. Picula's latest announcement that the EEZ was going ahead appears to have killed the Piran accord off completely.
Faced with the spectacle of two prospective members quarrelling over borders, the EU has refrained from intervening but has urged both countries to negotiate a compromise solution. European officials hope that the September 16 bilateral talks will produce some kind of agreement.
The two countries have a record of wrangling over unresolved ownership issues that are the legacy of the Yugoslav break-up. As well as a dispute over sovereignty in the Piran Bay, they have rowed publicly about the Krsko nuclear plant, built by both countries but located on Slovene territory, and about outstanding debts arising from Slovenia's now-defunct Ljubljanska Bank.
Some local analysts are weary of what they see as a continuing pattern of confrontational behaviour, more reminiscent of the past than of a future within an integrated Europe. Slovene law professor Lojze Ude, who was involved in ratifying the UN convention on the sea when he was justice minister in the old Yugoslavia, says politicians on both sides are "slaves to nationalism".
Damir Grubisa, an analyst at the Institute for International Relations in Zagreb, thinks politicians in both countries have failed.
"Croatian and Slovenian politics long to distance themselves from the Balkans," he said. "Yet it could be said that they are led by typical Balkans politicians, in the derogatory sense of that phrase, used in both countries."
Drago Hedl is an Osijek-based IWPR contributor