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Analysis: Breaking The Ice

By Donald F. Reindl Croatian Prime Minister Ivo Sanader (file photo) Croatian Prime Minister Ivo Sanader did not need to travel far for his first official meeting with his new Slovenian counterpart, Janez Jansa. The venue of the 21 January meeting, Slovenia's Mokrice Castle, lies only 35 kilometers from Zagreb. Although the two men had already met at the Central European Initiative's 25 November summit in Portoroz, while Jansa was still prime minister-elect, the working lunch at Mokrice provided an opportunity to discuss the issues that have bedeviled bilateral relations since independence in June 1991.

Four topics stood out in the talks between the two leaders: the maritime border in the Bay of Piran, Croatian investors' frozen hard-currency deposits in the Ljubljanska Banka, developments in the border incident involving political gadfly Janez Podobnik of the Slovenian People's Party (SLS), and the founding of a Slovenian-Croatian historical commission.

Regarding the dispute over fishing rights and the border in the Bay of Piran, Jansa and Sanader agreed that arbitration is a possibility if bilateral negotiations fail. This is a step forward from the stance of Slovenia's previous government, which opposed arbitration.

Border Dispute

However, this could become complex. The SLS, which belongs to the governing coalition, took a tough position by announcing that it will accept arbitration of the Slovenian-Croatian border if this also addresses where the land border in Istria should be established between the Dragonja and Mirna rivers, "Delo" reported on 31 December. The latter is deep inside Croatian territory, and the SLS statement is tantamount to relaunching the claim that Croatia gained territory after World War II at Slovenia's expense (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 31 May 2002). At the same time, Jansa and Sanader predicted that an agreement on avoiding incidents in the bay will be adopted soon.

No common viewpoint was reached concerning Croatian citizens' hard-currency deposits in the former Ljubljanska Banka (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 16 July 2004), although the leaders agreed on the need for continued dialogue. Zagreb maintains that the deposits were private transactions between the bank and investors, and should be refunded by the bank's successor -- Nova Ljubljanska Banka -- or the Slovenian government, whereas Ljubljana insists that the matter is part of unresolved succession issues and hence subject to bargaining.

Four months after the arrest of Janez Podobnik and 11 colleagues for allegedly crossing the border illegally into Croatia in September (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 27 September 2004), a Croatian court in Umag levied a $3,280 fine against the men. Podobnik has refused to pay. It is unclear what effect this will have on a proposed joint Slovenian-Croatian government session to be held in Croatia in the first half of 2005, because if Podobnik attends he risks being arrested. Responding to the press, Jansa said that the Podobnik issue is not of "strategic importance," reported on 21 January.

Righting Historical Wrongs

The proposal for a Slovenian-Croatian historical commission offers additional opportunities for dialogue. A 24 January "Delo" article points out a number of open historical issues, from the 1943 Slovenian-Serbian discussions on partitioning Croatia to the communist-era influence of the Slovenian politician Edvard Kardelj (1910-79) on Croatian political life under Josip Broz Tito, who himself was of mixed Croatian and Slovenian origin.

Slovenian media blame Croatia's alleged unwillingness to engage in dialogue for encumbering relations, pointing to unilateral moves such as Croatia's declaration of an exclusive Adriatic fishing and ecological zone (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 17 October 2003). One of the more bizarre proposals to come from Croatia recently has been Zagreb architect Branko Kincl's proposal to build a tunnel under the Bay of Piran to link Croatia with Italy, bypassing Slovenia.

However, Slovenia has been accused of making difficulties by launching questionable proposals of its own. In late 2004, Croatia's HINA news agency reported that Slovenia's new government was considering sending soldiers to the Croatian border because of a lack of police to staff the border under the new Schengen regime. The shortfall arose after Slovenia's EU entry on 1 May 2004, when only 161 of an expected 500 redundant customs officers transferred to the police. State Secretary Vinko Gorenak at the Interior Ministry emphatically denied that Slovenia has any such intentions, "Delo" reported on 21 January. "The European Union does not have troops on its borders. I do not know of any government official considering this," Gorenak said. Instead, some soldiers will be temporarily employed as police after additional training.

In early 2004, Croatian President Stipe Mesic used the same argument to urge the withdrawal of Slovenian troops from a military facility at the peak known as Trdinov Vrh (or Sveta Gera in Croatian) on the Croatian border. "It is also important for Slovenia that it not have troops stationed on its border. This can no longer remain an open question," Mesic said at a press conference in Rijeka on 30 April. Croatia claims the strategic point outright and Croatian media characterize the Slovenian presence as an occupation.