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Slovenia and Croatia - After border dispute, more dispute

The border dispute was one of the reasons Slovenia blocked Croatia's membership in European Union | wikimedia

The border dispute between Slovenia and Croatia dates back as far 1991 when both countries decided to cut ties with Yugoslavia and declared their independence. Almost two decades of bilateral negotiations didn't lead anywhere. The dispute served perfectly the internal political affairs of both countries. Furthermore, the border dispute was one of the reasons Slovenia blocked Croatia's membership in European Union. Although there were many disputed border areas on the land, the most significant was the maritime border at the Piran Bay and Slovenian access to international waters.

A final agreement was reached between the governments of Slovenia and Croatia, putting the dispute in the hands of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in Hague. The agreement was signed by former Prime Ministers of Slovenia and Croatia, Borut Pahor and Jadranka Kosor, in Stockholm, November 4 2009, in which it was agreed that the start of an arbitration process would be after Croatia signs the Accession Treaty with the EU. On December 9 2011, Croatia signed the Accession Treaty and all preconditions for the beginning of the arbitration process were fulfilled. 

In January 2012, experienced judges of International Law Gilbert Guillaume, Bruno Simma and Vaughan Lowe were appointed with two judges from Slovenia and Croatia, Jernej Sokolec and Budisav Vukas. The process started a year after, when disputed sides presented their arguments. Everything seemed to go in order and according to the signed agreement.

In 2015, the arbitration process got seriously disrupted. A leaked audio recording showed that Slovenian judge Sokolec on several occasions talked on the phone with a Slovenian representative before the Court, Simona Drenik of the Slovenian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, revealing confidential statements and discussions of arbitration judges in closed sessions of the arbitration process. It was the violation of arbitration process which lead to the resignation of Sokolec and Drenik.

After the incident, on July 29 2015, the Croatian Parliament unanimously adopted the resolution to withdraw from the arbitration agreement under the pretext of violation of “fundamental principles of the arbitration procedure, principles of honesty, legitimacy, independence and credibility” according to Article 60 of the Vienna Covention, termination or suspension of the operation of a treaty as a consequence of its breach . A day after, Croatian judge Vukas resigned from the Court.

Even though Croatia left the process and specifically noted that the decision of the Court would not be valid in any segment of the future ruling, the Court appointed new judges to replace the Slovenian and Croatian judges, and continued its work until the final verdict in June 29 2017. With the verdict, Croatia gained significantly on land, and Slovenia gained on the maritime border. Two thirds of the Piran Bay was ruled as Slovenian territory, with the “junction” through Croatian territory to international waters.  

Slovenia accepts the decision in its fullest form without any preconditions, and it is determent to implement the verdict. On the other hand, for Croatia the verdict is invalid and without any significance and it calls for continuation of dialogue and resolving the dispute through bilateral negotiations. Since both sides stand firmly behind their decisions, the deterioration of bilateral relations are expected.

At the Court of Justice of the European Union in Luxembourg, Slovenian Minister of Foreign Affairs Karl Erjavec announced a lawsuit against Croatia for not complying with the verdict of the Permanent Court of Arbitration. Croatian PM Andrej Plenkovic responded by calling for a dialogue, stating that “he doesn't see the basis for a lawsuit.” He said that if Slovenia, “goes to the offensive, we will know how to respond.” Rhetoric which is not in the spirit of good bilateral relationships.

Meanwhile, there have already been incidents in Piran Bay. Croatian fishermen find themselves in a difficult position since by the verdict the areas where they were fishing for decades, their ancestors for centuries, are now out of their reach. Since Croatia does not recognize the verdict, fishermen are being harassed by Slovenian police boats now entering the disputed waters with Croatian police boats, which only complicates the situation. Slovenian fishermen should profit the most from the verdict since new areas are open for them, but they too are being harassed, this time by Croatian police boats, leaving them also in very tough position. In this border dispute, the fishermen from both countries are the real victims.

Diplomatic notes have been exchanged between the countries because of the incidents. Both countries have sent fines to fishermen for violating the maritime border, and those fines are not small. As the fishermen from both countries will indeed suffer the most, maritime border dispute is perfect for politicians who will use, and most probably abuse, the situation for their own political benefits. It is understandable that every country should defend and preserve the unity of its borders, but at what cost?

In this particular case, both countries are acting like there are no other ways but their own, leaving very little space for an agreement which would please all sides. Sharing the membership of the European Union should have brought Slovenia and Croatia closer together, unfortunately it is not the case. The border dispute remains the same as it was back in 1991, and we can only hope that situation will not escalate beyond the boundaries of civilized behaviour. Common people who are living in the bordering areas of Slovenia and Croatia share excellent relations in the most friendly manners. Governments of both countries should learn from them.

Matija Lukač

Matija Lukač is a pro-Syrian activist and researcher of the Syrian conflict; he is also a Special Assistant and Contributor for the Middle East and Syria at the GlobalCIR website.