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Slovenia/Croatia: A New Dispute In Bilateral Relations?

By Donald F. Reindl Troubled waters? The disputed Bay of Piran is just one sensitive bilateral topic Relations between Croatia and Slovenia continue to be strained by a number of problems left over from the breakup of former Yugoslavia 14 years ago. This year, in addition to the hardy perennial question of maritime border issues, a dispute over highway construction has moved to center stage.

The first half of 2005 represented a generally peaceful respite from the tensions that have marred Slovenian-Croatian relations since they both declared independence from former Yugoslavia in June 1991 and traditionally flare up during the summer months. Perhaps it was in part to take advantage of this lull that the Croatian and Slovenian governments held a joint session on the Croatian island of Brijuni in early June. Although a number of agreements were reached -- most notably, an understanding to avoid future incidents in the contested Bay of Piran -- the goodwill expressed at the meeting appears to have reflected wishful thinking rather than true rapprochement in bilateral relations.

Polarized Publics

Years of petty incidents and squabbles between Slovenia and Croatia have polarized attitudes among both the general public and political leaders in both countries. Some of the contentious issues stemming from the post-Yugoslav succession include property rights, bank accounts, land frontiers, and the use and funding of the nuclear power plant at Krsko. But heading the list has been the dispute over the demarcation of the countries' maritime border, which was nearly resolved in 2001 by an agreement initialed by former Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Drnovsek and his Croatian counterpart at the time, Ivica Racan, but which was later rejected by Croatia's parliament (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 3 August 2001). Since then, numerous incidents involving fishing vessels have taken place every summer, and resentment in Slovenia reached its apex in 2003 when Croatia unilaterally extended its jurisdiction over much of the Adriatic, effectively cutting Slovenia off from access to the open sea (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 17 October 2003).

The Bay of Piran appears set to become a point of contention once again in summer 2005. Slovenia's daily "Delo" reported on 16 July that there are almost daily incidents in the bay, mostly involving maritime police notifying fishermen that they are in contested waters. It was reported that on 14 July Croatian police intercepted a sailboat of Austrian tourists in waters claimed by Slovenia and demanded that they identify themselves. Slovenian Foreign Minister Dimitrij Rupel also raised Croatian hackles in an interview published on 9 July in which he stated that the Drnovsek-Racan agreement remains the optimum basis for resolving the maritime dispute, despite its having been repudiated by the Croatian side.
Popular opinion in Croatia contends that Slovenia is deliberately delaying the development of road links to the south in retaliation for what Slovenes see as Croatian intransigence on bilateral issues.

Further inland, however, grumbling can be heard about a new issue: Slovenian delay in building highway connections to link Croatia's superhighway network with points northward. In July, Croatia celebrated the completion of a superhighway link extending most of the length of Dalmatia, as far south as Split. Dalmatian tourism is big business for Croatia and a key element in both the national economy and Croatia's image as a maritime country.

The Dalmatian superhighway is intended to speed Dutch, Austrian, and German tourists to their destinations -- and money into Croatia's coffers -- but there is one catch: You cannot get there from here. Or, at least, getting there is very inconvenient. Croatia's western and eastern superhighway connections feeding into Rijeka and Krapina stop short at the Slovenian border, where they degenerate into tedious secondary roads threading their way northward. The central Zagreb superhighway link does extend into Slovenia but peters out on its way to the Slovenian town of Novo Mesto. The comments published in Rijeka's "Novi List" on 1 July exemplify Croatia's resentment: "We're building, and the Slovenes are standing still. At least we're better than the Slovenes [who are members of both the EU and NATO] at road construction.... The Slovenes probably won't finish their part for another 20 years!"

Setting Priorities

Popular opinion in Croatia contends that Slovenia is deliberately delaying the development of road links to the south in retaliation for what Slovenes see as Croatian intransigence on bilateral issues. However, Slovenia counters that it is simply pursuing its own priorities first in highway construction. Slovenia's mountainous terrain has represented a significant challenge in developing its highway network (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 12 July 2002), and the superhighway linking Slovenia's two major cities -- Ljubljana and Maribor -- is slated to be completed only on 12 August.

Completing Slovenia's second national superhighway -- from Jesenice to Brezice -- will be the next priority, and creating connections to regional population centers will follow. Unfortunately for Croatia, the Slovenian regions that abut Croatia's northbound superhighways are some of the least populated in the country, and Slovenia therefore has little or no national incentive to hasten highway construction in those areas.

In a meeting at the Slovenian resort of Otocec on 4 July, Slovenian Transport Minister Janez Bozic promised his Croatian counterpart Bozidar Kalmeta that Slovenia would accelerate its plans to complete the link to Croatia's eastern superhighway connection. According to a 4 July article in Zagreb's "Vecernji List," construction of Slovenia's 40-kilometer Maribor-Gruskovje/Macelj segment has been advanced from 2010 to 2008, while Croatia will complete its 15-kilometer Krapina-Macelj segment by 2007. This will complete Croatia's lucrative connection to Germany via Austria's Pyhrn (A9) superhighway.

A 5 July "Delo" article pointed out that the Slovenian segment is due to become the greatest bottleneck on this route between Scandinavia and the Adriatic. Perhaps ultimately German and Dutch beachgoers -- rather than Zagreb politicians -- will pressure Slovenia to meet Croatia's highway demands.