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Slovenia, Croatia fight over a bit of sea

Croatia's bid to join the EU is at stake in territorial dispute.

Croatia sea
The Croatian Navy gunboat Sibenik patrols at daybreak during a navy exercise in the Adriatic Sea on May 22, 1998. In an ongoing dispute Slovenians want Croatia to guarantee their country access to international waters. (Matko Biljak/Reuters)

MARIBOR, Slovenia — Why is picturesque, prosperous and peaceful Croatia not a European Union member? One reason is the tiny nation of Slovenia, where on Sunday voters will decide if they should settle a long-running border dispute with their neighbor and fellow former-Yugoslav state. If the answer is no, Croatia's bid to join the EU will be in jeopardy.

At the center of the dispute is about 8 square miles of land and sea that have been in question since Slovenia became independent of Yugoslavia in 1991. Slovenia's main goal is for its ships to be able to reach international waters without having to leave Slovenian territory. Theoretically, Croatia can interfere with traffic in and out of the Slovenian port of Koper or stop warships from passing through.

The dispute led Slovenia's prime minister, Borut Pahor, to use Slovenia's right as an EU member to stop Croatia's EU bid in December 2008. It was November 2009 before Pahor agreed with the new Croatian prime minister, Jadranka Kosor, to put the matter in the hands of arbitrators. Croatian legislators have since authorised the resulting agreement. The referendum represents Slovenia's opportunity to do likewise, after its parliament failed to approve the deal.

The referendum's "yes" campaign started with a lead of about 8 percentage points, but a populist "no" campaign led by former Prime Minister Janez Jansa has seemingly closed the gap, or even drawn slightly ahead. A survey conducted for Jansa's Democratic Party (SDS) in the last week of the campaign put the "no" campaign at 36.4 percent compared to 34 percent for the "yes" campaign.

“They have taken Carinthia, Trieste and Gorizia — they will not take the sea!" says SDS campaign literature, recalling a short spell after World War I when Yugoslav soldiers stood in these parts of present day Austria and Italy.

“We don't want anything from foreigners, we don't give anything away," according to another slogan. The saying comes from Tito, who led Communist Yugoslavia until his death in 1980 — he has seldom been a figure of inspiration for Slovenia's right wing. “It is even from the days when Tito was still good friends with Stalin!" said Social Democrat Bojan Horvat, whose governing party is campaigning under the slogan, "For the agreement, for reason."