A squabble

The next anniiverssary guest post is by the funny and clever Michael Manske.

Border disputes between Slovenia and Croatia flare up with the regularity of teenage zits, and they’re about as equally exciting. The latest one to pop was in the swampy little Slovenian hamlet of Hotiza last week, when Croatian police arrested some Slovenian journalists and the tired cycle of outrage and mutual recrimination began again. Slovenia’s foreign minister promptly tattled to the EU, and Slovenian special forces were sent to the area where they and their Croatian counterparts engaged in a brief, but intense, staring match.

The EU has never shown much of an interest in the dispute, and this time was no exception. Commissioner Ollie Rehn, like a teacher in an unruly classroom, admonished the two neighbors to behave as befits an EU member and an EU candidate country. But otherwise the EU’s tried and true doctrine of telling everybody to just get along had very little effect on the Slovenian-Croatian dispute.

So what is the problem exactly? I don’t want to get too much into it (like I said, it’s not the most exciting topic — there’s an overview of it over here at wikipedia if you’re interested) but it goes beyond the ill-defined border to a chronic inability, or perhaps cynical desire, to let the issue fester on indefinitely.

Slovenia and Croatia have been independent now for 15 years, the wars of Yugoslav secession have been finished for more than a decade, and still the border isn’t clear. The closest the two sides came was in 2001 when they almost accepted the so-called Drnov¹ek-Raèan agreement. In the end, the Croats failed to ratify it — a mistake that may come to haunt them in any future negotiations, since next time around Slovenia will bring a nuclear weapon to the table: the EU membership veto. It’s been dangled threateningly in front of Croatia before. Back in 2004, the previous center-left government (during another border incident) explicitly said as much. Now the government is comprised of center-right parties and even includes Janez Podobnik, a man who personally got roughed up at the border a few years ago. (He’s now serving as environment minister.)

Slovenia knows what it’s like to be on the receiving end of a threatened veto. During Berlusconi’s mid-90s reign, Italy strong-armed concessions out of Slovenia with regard to property rights and the Italian minority. This culminated in the so-called Madrid (or Spanish) Compromise of 1995. The question is whether Slovenia will decide to pay it forward, this time with Croatia. And what effect that may have on already soured relations.

4 thoughts on “A squabble

  1. Michael,

    Point of clarification on the Madrid agreement. Apparently the original dispute was about the recompense due to Italian citizens who had lost property to the Communist Yugoslav government after WWII. But apparently this issue was not addressed in the final agreement; it only allowed foreigners to buy land in Slovenia.

    If I understand correctly (and maybe I don’t), the point of this was to allow some Italian families the chance to repurchase their lost estates.

    What’s not clear to me is whether the Italians got some special rights in purchasing the lands, like a right of first refusal or some such. I found one article that mentions a “right of priority” for the Italians, but it’s written by a mouth-breathing nationalist, and doesn’t say whether this ended up in the final agreement or not:


    Article 68 of the Slovenian Constitution only says, “Aliens may acquire ownership rights to real estate under conditions provided by law or if so provided by a treaty ratified by the National Assembly, under the condition of reciprocity.”

    (That reciprocity bit is trickier than it sounds, because not all EU members allow foreigners to freely purchase land.)

    So, did the Italians get their land back? And what did the final compromise really entail?

    As to Croatia: I’ll be rather surprised if Slovenia seriously threatens to veto Croatia because of the border stuff. Surprised in a good way — I think Croatia still needs another rinse cycle before it’s ready for membership — but surprised.

    Does it seem likely to you?

    Doug M.

  2. It’s hard to find clear information about the Madrid Agreement and to make matters worse, the negotiations leading up to it were terribly convoluted. The Slovenian side was tight-lipped about what was going on, and the Italian side repeatedly changed their minds — basically floating all kinds of proposals around, including, if memory serves, a huge cash compensation, new apartments for expelled families, and in the end the right to buy property.

    As for a Slovenian veto: I think it’s becoming increasingly likely. A poll last week showed that 60% of Slovenes thought the government “didn’t do enough” about the incident in Hotiza, and a hefty 40% want to see the government get “more resolute” with Croatia. Since election campaigning started here today, it’s certainly going to be a big issue.

    It’s going to be difficult for either side to back down. I can easily imagine Slovenia threatening to veto, but I really can’t imagine what might happen after that.

  3. I’m not surprised that this situation keeps flaring up.

    What I cant understand is how the EU and other actors dont intercede and force Croatia and Slovenia to negotiate this properly.

  4. The EU is too busy with matters more directly pressing for Europe, like the Congo.

    I actually don’t know why. At one point, the Croatian side even suggested having the Pope act as mediator — a funny idea that sadly came to nothing.

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