Slovenia, Croatia fight over a bit of sea

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."

"Croatia is an occupying power," said 70-year-old Stanislav Polanec, prompting laughter from his five fellow pensioners supping coffee at a shopping mall cafe in Maribor, Slovenia's second-largest city.

Despite a complete lack of rancor toward Croatian "occupiers" there is still a note of bitterness in Polanec's words.

"They have built a kind of checkpoint a mile into Slovenian territory. This is not something good neighbors do. It's like someone moving into your house one room at a time,“ he said, slicing an imaginary salami with the side of his hand. Yet, despite such irritations, Polanec and his friends all say they will vote in favor of the arbitration agreement.

"Relations could be worse than they are now," said Gregor Pivec, head of Maribor's SDS.

The opposition worry, however, that the agreement (written in English) is biased against Slovenia, in particular where it talks of Slovenia's "junction“ with the high seas. "It could be a corridor, but also could just be a right of passage," said Pivec. "If they had meant corridor, as the government claims, they would have written corridor."

But Horvat, the Social Democrat, is sure a "junction" to the sea is adequate to describe an acceptable solution, taking heart from Honduras and Nicaragua's successful maritime border settlement in 2007.

Elsewhere in the mall, Katarina Kocbek, 27, said she will vote "no." "The Slovenian politicians should have settled this themselves rather than pass the question on to the people," she explained.

Rok Dolenc, a 23-year-old law student agreed, saying "the government should have agreed with the opposition before signing the agreement." He will, however, use the opportunity to vote for it.

Neither Horvat or Pivec want to see Slovenia re-impose the block on Croatia's EU bid. Pahor's decision to impose it was "unwise," according to Horvat.

Yet neither Pahor nor Jansa has ruled out exercising Slovenia's right to block: A "no" majority would give Pahor little room to manoeuvre, while Jansa sees the issue as a possible springboard for a return to power. As he puts it, the issue was not that Slovenia had blocked Croatia's EU accession, but that Croatia had blocked Slovenia's access to the sea for 19 years.