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Balkan Report: October 4, 2004


4 October 2004, Volume 8, Number 36

SLOVENIA THREATENS TO BLOCK CROATIAN EU MEMBERSHIP. Slovenian Prime Minister Anton Rop told Reuters in Ljubljana on 23 September that his country might "not allow any further procedures regarding Croatia's accession to the EU." He added that Croatia must "accept the European policy of avoiding conflicts." An unnamed Slovenian diplomat, who declined to be identified, told the news agency that his government will raise the "issue of Croatia" at the EU foreign ministers' meeting slated for 11 October. The diplomat did not specify what Ljubljana will ask the EU to do.

These statements by Rop and the diplomat follow a recent incident in which Croatian border guards briefly arrested 12 Slovenes, including two legislators, for allegedly failing to show their documents at the Secovlje border crossing. The Slovenes had just visited Slovenian nationalist politician Josko Joras, who lives in one of three disputed villages in the border area.

The incident did not come out of the blue. As in previous summers, altercations between Slovenia and Croatia over the Bay of Piran and other maritime issues marred relations in 2004 (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report", 20 August 2004). Slovenian politicians are also using that --as well as the latest -- dispute to score points with voters ahead of the 3 October parliamentary elections.

On 11 September Rop, accompanied by Transportation Minister Marko Pavliha and Foreign Minister Ivo Vajgl, donned coveralls to cast shark nets into the bay in front of photographers. Later, Vajgl commented that Slovenian fishermen are afraid to cross the centerline of the bay because "pirates rather than colleagues" await them there.

The comment signaled a change of tone for the government, which until now has stressed friendly relations and support for Croatian EU membership, which is a top priority for Zagreb (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 17 September 2004).

Non-government parties have been less reserved. The newly-formed Active Slovenia (AS) party has reacted to tensions with Croatia with near hysteria. In a statement in "Delo" on 21 September, the party urged the government to respond to all incidents with official complaints to the EU, NATO, and the UN Security Council, to block Croatian EU accession, and to demand NATO protection.

Tensions at the coast have affected relations inland as well. On 19 September, Croatia opened a new cross-border tourism zone northwest of Zagreb, even though the necessary arrangements were not worked out with Slovenia. Mladen Norsic, the Croatian head of the project, commented, "We can't even talk with the Slovenes before their election, because at this moment they're obviously not ready to cooperate with Croatia," "Delo" reported on 22 September.

One of the thornier issues in Slovenian-Croatian relations is the dispute over three border villages, marked by the efforts of the aforementioned Joras to keep his property under Slovenian jurisdiction (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 3 August 2001, 23 August 2002). Under the unratified 2001 Drnovsek-Racan agreement, the villages were ceded to Croatia. Croatia has now rejected the agreement, but has insisted on extending its jurisdiction over the contested villages anyway. On 23 September, Slovenian President Janez Drnovsek commented that Croatia has essentially implemented the provisions of the agreement in its favor while rejecting others -- including concessions in the Bay of Piran.

Joras' troubles started 11 years ago, when Croatian authorities tried to bar him from "importing" 11 liters of milk and a washing machine purchased in Slovenia. On 21 August this year, after Croatian authorities impounded a load of lumber, Joras and his friends blocked the Secovlje border crossing for over an hour in protest.

An interview with Joras' neighbors published in "Delo" on 31 August raised the question of why Joras -- who moved to the area from Maribor -- continues to face such troubles. "We've been here for 150 years and have never had such problems," commented Costantino Pribaz. However, Joras' raised profile has clearly won him backing in some quarters -- Joras is a Slovenian People's Party (SLS) candidate in the upcoming elections, albeit for District 3 (Ljubljana-Center) and not District 2, where his house is located.

Tensions with Croatia escalated sharply on 23 September, when Croatian police detained the head of the SLS, Janez Podobnik, and 12 other SLS members when they refused to identify themselves to Croatian officials at the Secovlje border crossing after they visited Joras. A struggle ensued in which Podobnik was punched in the stomach, and the Slovenes were held for five hours. Prime Minister Rop condemned the action by the Croatian police, and Foreign Minister Vajgl notified the EU's High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana that the incident was unacceptable. Slovenian Interior Minister Rado Bohinc charged that the incident violated a bilateral agreement to avoid altercations.

The view was somewhat different from the other side of the border. Zagreb's "Vecernji list" reported that the politicians were escorted across the border after illegally entering Croatia, and Rijeka's "Novi list" printed a denial by the Croatian police that any physical abuse had occurred. President Stipe Mesic stressed the importance of rejecting violence and finding a solution "around a table," with outside mediation if need be.

In response to the incident, Slovenia recalled its ambassador to Croatia "for consultation." Slovenian political parties also took a tough stance. The Slovenian Youth Party (SMS) criticized the SLS for provoking the incident and condemned the government's policy toward Croatia as "spineless," the online news site 24ur.com reported. The Slovenian National Party (SNS) called upon Slovenia to initiate procedures for removing Croatia's EU candidacy status.

The opposition New Slovenia (NSi) party blamed the current center-left government for taking a weak stance on Croatia, while the coalition member Democratic Party of Retired Persons (DeSUS) blamed the diplomacy of ex-Foreign Minister Dimitrij Rupel -- now a candidate for the opposition Slovenian Democratic Party (SDS) -- for poor relations with Croatia. Foreign Minister Vajgl of the governing Liberal Democracy of Slovenia (LDS) party characterized the incident as a stunt staged by the SLS.

It remains to be seen whether Slovenian parties will find common ground on relations with Croatia, let alone reach an understanding with their Croatian colleagues. At least until 3 October, the chance for any solution appears remote. (Donald F. Reindl, dreindl@indiana.edu)

FOREIGN POLITICIANS LOOK AT MACEDONIA. Some 15 members of the recently formed International Commission on the Balkans arrived in Skopje on 21 September for high-level talks on the country's ambitions to join NATO and the EU. Some of them gave their impressions to the local media.

The commission was created by the Sofia-based Center for Liberal Strategies and is funded by U.S., German, and Belgian foundations (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 13 February 2004 and "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 September 2004). Former Italian Prime Minister Giuliano Amato chairs the group; its executive director is Center for Liberal Strategies Director Ivan Krastev. Other prominent members of the commission include the former premiers of Sweden, Bosnia, and Belgium -- Carl Bildt, Zlatko Lagumdzija, and Jean-Luc Dehaene, respectively -- as well as former German President Richard von Weizsaecker.

Following its visit to Macedonia, the commission was expected for talks in the Albanian capital Tirana, with more consultations to follow in Croatia and Bosnia in October.

Although the group's talks with Macedonian President Branko Crvenkovski, government members, representatives of political parties, the media, and businessmen took place behind closed doors, several commission members used the opportunity to share their opinions on the political situation in Macedonia with the local media.

The former Italian premier was among the first to talk to the journalists. Asked about the overall situation in Macedonia, Amato said the country is an example for stability in the region. In Amato's view, Macedonia's biggest problem is the ailing economy, with its very low industrial growth rate, high unemployment, and bureaucratic obstacles that deter would-be investors.

Amato refrained from commenting on the upcoming referendum against the government's redistricting plans (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 3, 11, and 17 September 2004). But he encouraged Macedonian citizens to overcome their fears, since the country's future NATO membership is a form of insurance, "Utrinski vesnik" reported. Amato said Macedonians must be more confident regarding their future and less afraid of the past.

Former Albanian Prime Minister Ilir Meta, who is also a member of the International Commission on the Balkans, was more skeptical about the political situation in the neighboring country. In an interview with the same Skopje daily, Meta said he is very concerned about the referendum because it is not "constructive" and could result in new tensions between Macedonians and Albanians. Meta warned that if the referendum succeeds, ethnic Macedonians could use it to block other improvements for the Albanian minority, too.

Meta chose not to respond to a question about the possible reaction of Macedonian Albanians if the referendum succeeds. He said, however, that the referendum must be suspended and a political solution sought instead. He argued that collecting signatures for the referendum drive and manipulating constitutional provisions to obstruct the proposed changes "could lead to unexpected situations, and, above all, undermine the EU's confidence in this country's progress on its way to European integration."

Neven Mimica, who is a former Croatian minister for European integration and also a member of the International Commission on the Balkans, told "Utrinski vesnik" of 24 September that the referendum could be an obstacle to the implementation of the 2001 Ohrid peace agreement, which ended a brief but tense period of interethnic strife between the ethnic Albanian rebels of the National Liberation Army (UCK) and the Macedonian security forces. He added that the European Commission will therefore pay close attention to the outcome of the referendum.

Regarding Macedonia's next steps on its path to EU membership, Mimica said it must follow in the footsteps of previous candidates. He noted that the European Commission's questionnaire on the country's preparedness for EU membership will arrive soon, adding that he believes that Macedonian institutions will have no problem in answering the questions.

For Mimica, the European Commission's only political precondition for starting negotiations on Macedonia's EU membership is the full implementation of the Ohrid peace deal. "I believe if this issue is resolved, there will be no reason for the European Commission to postpone its assessment [of Macedonia's readiness to joint the union], or to grant [Macedonia] the candidate status."

Mimica also ventured a guess as to when he expects the EU to grant Macedonia candidate status. "In my opinion, this will happen either at the end of 2005 or early in 2006," Mimica said.

Macedonian Minister for European Integration Radmila Sekerinska, for her part, told A1 TV on 24 September that answering the questions of the European Commission -- even the difficult ones on economic, industry, and agriculture policies -- will be no problem. "And regarding the question as to whether Macedonia has met the economic criteria for EU membership, it is clear that it has not. But this is nothing unusual," Sekerinska said, recalling similar experiences in Croatia and Bulgaria. (Ulrich Buechsenschuetz, ub@itinerarium.de)

QUOTATIONS OF THE WEEK: "For the moment there is no reason to change our policy towards Croatia, but we want more information about that particular incident." -- The European Commission's external relations spokeswoman, Emma Udwin. Quoted by Reuters in Brussels on 24 September.

"We deem Slovenia a friendly neighbor and partner and are ready to start a dialogue at any moment on open bilateral issues, but cannot accept Ljubljana using the EU as a tool for resolving bilateral disputes." -- The Croatian Foreign Ministry's state secretary Hidajet Biscevic, quoted in ibid.

"In so doing, an unelected EU bureaucrat has set in stone the most far-reaching political decision for Europe in the coming decades." -- Gerd Mueller, the foreign policy spokesman of Bavaria's conservative Christian Social Union (CSU), on the recent declaration by Guenter Verheugen, who is EU enlargement commissioner, that Turkey is ready to start EU admission talks. Quoted by the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" from Berlin on 25 September. He also accused Verheugen of having the "political understanding of a Sun King."

"Politicians are probably the most criticized group of people I know. They are also the hardest-working people who work, in most cases, for the least amount of money and the least amount of respect and appreciation. The politicians I've dealt with in Macedonia are some extremely good politicians." -- U.S. Ambassador to Macedonia Lawrence Butler, in the Albanian-language weekly "Lobi" of 24 September.

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