Croatia: Border Disputes Plague Zagreb

Right-wing nationalists seize on sovereignty issue to weaken Croatia's hard-pressed government.

Croatia: Border Disputes Plague Zagreb

Right-wing nationalists seize on sovereignty issue to weaken Croatia's hard-pressed government.

Wednesday, 28 August, 2002

Prime Minister Ivica Racan has come under pressure from Croatia's right-wing nationalists to chase away Slovenian fishing boats following a maritime border dispute between the two nations.

The row blew up over shipping rights in the Gulf of Piran on the Adriatic coast. An agreement last year between Racan and his Slovenian counterpart Janez Drnovsek resulted in a shift of Croatia's maritime border to the east, ceding part of its territorial waters and allowing Slovenia access to the open sea.

Ever since the pact was made, fishing boats, escorted by Slovenian police, have been entering the waters conceded by Zagreb. However, furious Croatian nationalists have claimed that as neither parliament has ratified the pact, it is not yet in force and the vessels have no right to be there.

Extreme right-wing Croatian parties have seized on the dispute as a useful tool for hammering Racan's already weakened government. His ruling coalition barely survived a walkout late in June by the Croatian Social Liberal Party, HSLS, led by Drazen Budisa.

Having emerged from a damaging war only seven years ago, Croatian people are super-sensitive on the subject of territorial sovereignty and can invest it with a semi-mystical glow. Border issues thus make Racan an easy target for accusations of "going soft on sovereignty".

Slovenia takes the view that, ratified or not, the agreement is already in force and that two thirds of the Gulf of Piran have come under its sovereignty.

Last week, Slovene foreign minister Dimitrije Rupel stated there would be no more talks about demarcation in the Gulf of Piran, suggesting that the status quo - the shape of the borders as if the Racan-Drnovsek agreement was already ratified - should remain.

Replying to Rupel's statement, Racan said, "We will defend Croatia in the Gulf of Piran by making every effort to avoid incidents and endeavouring to discuss the problem because this is in the best interest of both Slovenia and Croatia.

"If we cannot settle the border dispute, we should accept international arbitration or simply freeze the existing state of affairs, which is what some more intelligent countries have done. Croatia and Slovenia can do the same."

The border Racan spoke of freezing is the existing boundary through the middle of the Gulf of Piran, which existed before the prime ministers drew up their pact.

Political analysts believe that Croatia's border problems - particularly those with Slovenia - have been aggravated by the weakened position of the governing coalition in Zagreb. This vulnerability simply encourages extreme right-wing parties to stir up further trouble.

The dispute with Slovenia is not the only border problem to trouble Zagreb since the disintegration of former Yugoslavia and the declaration of Croatian independence.

On July 28, Yugoslav border police fired shots over the heads of several Croats who were sailing along the river Danube to visit the uninhabited island of Sarengradska ada, which had been their home before it was seized by Serbia at the beginning of the war.

The villagers, from Sarengrad on the right bank of the Danube, wanted to see the cottages where they once lived and the pastures where they had grazed their cattle. They were accompanied by the head of the Croatian Vukovar-Srem district, Nikola Safer, and by Mayor Zvezdan Kisic from Backa Palanka on the Yugolslav side of the Danube.

Kisic wanted to explore the prospects of renewing the thriving cooperation his town used to enjoy with Croat residents of Sarengradska ada. The land register shows this 900-hectare island belongs to Zagreb, but it is still occupied by Belgrade's troops.

The event heightened tensions between the two countries and even led to a call for armed retaliation from radical Croats. However, Racan met with Yugoslav foreign minister Goran Svilanovic immediately after the incident, on a bridge across the Danube near the Croatian town of Ilok and Backa Palanka in Serbia, diffusing much hostility.

However, the beleaguered Croat prime minister has another disputed boundary to negotiate.

There has been a further clash over the Prevlaka peninsula in southern Croatia on the Adriatic coast. Zagreb lays claim to the peninsula, but Belgrade wants it because the southernmost tip of Prevlaka controls the entrance to the Gulf of Kotor - the only natural harbour where the Yugoslav navy can anchor,

UN military observers have been on Prevlaka for years now, and their mission has been repeatedly extended. The solution to this dispute will probably be demilitarisation, after which the peninsula would remain under Croatian sovereignty.

In early spring another demarcation dispute broke out on the Una river between Croatia and Republika Srpska in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Zagreb claims a tract of around 35 hectares of land on the right bank of the river, which is allegedly entered into the land register as Croatian property.

Thanks to timely intervention of the international community, which maintains a strong presence in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the dispute was defused but remains unresolved. This must be another headache for Racan as he looks to consolidate his power base and appease the nationalists.

Drago Hedl is a regular IWPR contributor.

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