Slovenia and Croatia at loggerheads over Adriatic

The Slovene parliament's approval of the setting up of a protected zone in the northern Adriatic has led to further friction between Slovenia and Croatia. Slovenia says the law would protect the country's sovereign rights on the open sea; Croatia sees the move as legally void and unfounded.

When it comes to relations between neighbours Slovenia and Croatia, the devil is in the details. Although the two countries, which were once part of Yugoslavia together, generally have good relations - a number of thorny issues continue to cause grief on both sides.

This week, both sides finally agreed that they simply cannot agree on certain problems, particularly their border - and that they will not be able to solve this problem alone. Both sides are now putting their hopes on international arbitration to break the decade-long impasse. At the heart of the debate is the 670-kilometer-long border. Interestingly, there is no argument for about 99% of the border. On land, there are only a few disputed villages. At sea, there are a few more problems.

Slovenia insists that it has access to international water, which Croatia disputes. There are also disagreements about fishing rights in the bay of Piran. This Tuesday, Slovenia re-ignited the dispute when its parliament declared an epicontinental zone in the Adriatic. This would give Slovenia the right to protect and utilize the sea bed there. Croatia protested. The EU stepped in the next day, insisting that an agreement be reached before Croatia joins the European Union. Croatia began its entry negotiations this year, after a slight delay because of protests from the Hague war crimes tribunal. After an occasionally heated exchange, Slovenia's Foreign Minister sent an official letter to the Croatian government:

"Croatia will have to lower its tone when communicating with us. Slovenia is a member of the EU and NATO; Croatia is not. I don't want to talk about the details of the letter since it has just been sent. Croatia will carefully read it and try to tackle all the problems that are in this letter. There are a lot of them. I think Croatia is aware that they're not talking into the wind but talking to the border of the EU."

But Croatia's Foreign Minister Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic dismissed the letter as "old news" and a continuation of 15 years of Slovenian policy. The letter asked that there be arbitration, but only when Croatia met certain conditions. The two foreign ministers later met on the sidelines of a meeting in Budapest, leading to reports that slowly but surely the two countries were, in fact, moving towards arbitration. In the meantime, Slovenia has repeatedly stressed that it supports EU expansion into the western Balkans as "soon as possible" while Croatia has insisted that relations between the two countries are fundamentally healthy. In an editorial this week, the Croatian newspaper Jutarnji List described the dispute as the "most senseless, least dangerous and most insoluble political conflict in this part of Europe." It added that:

"No one gains anything, except for those who think they can increase their popularity by pursuing an anti-Croatian or anti-Slovenian policy."

Only the future will show if the two neighbours manage to iron out the kinks that still hamper their relationship.