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Slovenia Risks Becoming Just Another Bump In The Road

Prime Minister Borut Pahor (right) and Slovenia risk being seen as an just another obstacle to Euro-Atlantic integration.
Prime Minister Borut Pahor (right) and Slovenia risk being seen as an just another obstacle to Euro-Atlantic integration.
Each year hundreds of thousands of Europeans flock to the coast of Croatia for their summer vacations. Many of them choose to drive, happily speeding from their home cities to their destination along Europe's modern superhighways.

Except for one 60-kilometer stretch that runs through Slovenia. There, motorists encounter a tiny, narrow, old roadway, and they never know if it will take them one hour or three to drive it. Either way, they have plenty of time to wonder why no one has bothered to improve this god-forsaken stretch.

The story goes back to 1969, and a Yugoslavian political scandal dubbed the "Road Affair." Yugoslavia applied for and received an International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan for highways. But Slovenian officials were unhappy when their share of the largess turned out to be smaller than they expected. They tried to divert attention from the fact that they had failed to submit the proper documentation.

In the intervening decades, Slovenia has had several opportunities to improve the highway from Austria to the Croatian border, but officials always refused. Germany and Austria both expressed interest in the project, but Slovenia lobbied instead for a road to take vacationers to the Slovenian coast. In 1993, Croatia offered to improve the 60-kilometer stretch, but again Ljubljana refused.

In 1989-90, Yugoslavia and Italy agreed on a project to construct a railway from Trieste to the Croatian resort of Rijeka. But after gaining independence in 1991, Slovenia backed out of the deal.

Two decades later, the railroad is still a dream and the road through Slovenia to Croatia remains a nightmare. Now, Slovenia is a member of the European Union and money for a new highway would seem within grasp. But last year, Ljubljana started a new Road Affair when they began charging the outrageous amount of 35 euros ($45) for drivers wishing to pass through the country into Croatia. The same old, hated road -- but now with a 35-euro price tag. The EU protested, and Slovenia decided to rescind the fee -- beginning next year. In the meantime, drivers will just gnash their teeth and the millions of euros will keep rolling in.

Inside Looking Outside

Slovenia's strained relations with the EU go further than just the Road Affair, however. Over the last couple of years, the country's leadership has decided to use a longstanding border dispute with Croatia to block Zagreb's efforts to join the EU and NATO. Originally, Slovenia proposed settling the dispute over a tiny patch of land through international mediation and Croatia agreed. But before the process could get under way, Slovenia changed its position and decided to settle the dispute through direct talks. However, Ljubljana insists that Croatia cannot use the documents it has to bolster its position.

Just recently Slovenia informed the other 26 EU member states that it would block Croatia's EU membership talks because of the standoff.

The Bay of Piran continues to be an issue.
The border dispute also goes back decades. In 1993, the Slovenian legislature passed a declaration asserting that all of Piran Bay belongs to Slovenia. Following on this declaration, lawmakers last week declared that two small patches of Croatian territory belong to Slovenia as well. The declarations have transformed a demarcation issue into a full-blown territorial dispute.

Meanwhile, Slovenia is the only NATO-member country that has not yet agreed to allow Croatia to become the next member of the alliance. In fact, officials in Slovenia are debating whether to hold a referendum on the question. Last week, the Slovenian People's Party began collecting the 40,000 signatures necessary to force a referendum. At the same time, a Slovenian television channel issued a poll that found 54 percent of Slovenians oppose holding a referendum.

Slovenian Prime Minister Borut Pahor has said he sees no need for a referendum, arguing that NATO membership for Croatia is in Slovenia's national interest. However, during the elections that he won three months ago, Pahor adopted some hard-line rhetoric regarding Croatia. In doing so, he removed the cork from the bottle and the genie escaped.

The same day that Slovenia's parliament issued its pronouncement, Croatian President Stipe Mesic responded angrily: "The political elite in Slovenia thinks they can abuse their EU and NATO membership to blackmail Croatia. In other words, they want to block our negotiations on joining the EU and NATO if we do not accept their demand to settle the border problem through political negotiations."

Ugly Precedent

Slovenian parties have been winning and losing elections on the Croatia question for many years. "We are in the EU, and Croatia is not," politicians in Ljubljana argue. "If Croatia wants to get in, they should give something up." The latest moves might well succeed for them -- it isn't hard to imagine EU officials pushing Croatia to "settle" the dispute. Under such pressure, Zagreb might cave in to Slovenia's demands.

But if this happens, it would be an ugly precedent for international relations and the basic principles of the EU and NATO. Greece is already blocking Macedonia's NATO bid over the dispute about that country's name. If Turkish EU membership ever becomes a real possibility, will Athens raise the Cyprus issue? If Croatia joins NATO, will it then seek to block membership for Serbia?

But what comes next for Slovenia and Croatia? Theoretically, the Slovenian People's Party might abandon its bid to force a referendum on Croatian NATO membership. But it might also succeed in gathering the needed signatures. The worst-case scenario would be that a referendum is held and Croatia's NATO bid is put on indefinite hold. The issue could even be used to further delay Croatia's EU talks.

That would be a victory for the Slovenian People's Party, but it would be a defeat for Slovenia. The country's leadership is having a hard time convincing NATO and the EU that Slovenia is not an obstacle to a new security and political arrangement in Europe.

Ljubljana has calculated well in the past -- it has profited (so far) from refusing to improve its highway or build the Italian railroad. It played various bureaucracies well and benefited. But toying with the government of Yugoslavia, the IMF, or EU bureaucrats is not the same as challenging basic principles of NATO and the EU. Slovenia now risks being seen internationally as just another obstacle to Euro-Atlantic integration instead of being the only Balkans country contributing to the process. That would be a serious miscalculation.

Nenad Pejic is associate director of broadcasting for RFE/RL. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL