The incident did not come out of the blue. As in previous summers, friction between Slovenia and Croatia over the Bay of Piran and other maritime issues have 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).
Nongoverning 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 and 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's 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's 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's 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 both 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.