Beaches of the World: A 30-year Balkan border row
Slovenia and Croatia mostly get along, but can’t agree on beautiful Bay of Piran
Young people fishing reading sunbathing on dock at Piran Slovenia on the Adriatic Sea coast with Church of St Clement at Punta Lighthouse. Photograph: Education Images/UIG via Getty Images
Slovenia is so small, bigger ex-Yugoslav republics like to joke, that the capital Ljubljana’s marathon is actually a lap of the entire country, and planes fly over it before air traffic controllers have time to welcome pilots to its patch of airspace.
But behind the jibes of its southern neighbours, there has always been more than a little jealousy towards Slovenia, the most stable and prosperous of the former Yugoslav states. To make matters worse, it is also a stunning corner of Europe.
Despite being barely one-quarter the size of the island of Ireland, Slovenia offers fine skiing and hiking in an arm of the Alps, dense forests where wolves and bears still roam, a pretty, vibrant capital blending Baroque, Art Nouveau and Renaissance architecture and a precious window on to the Adriatic Sea.
The jewel of Slovenia’s 47 km coastline is Piran, which first appeared in historical records in the 7th century but acquired its current beauty during 500 years of rule from Venice, which is just 2½ hours away by car or boat.
Most visitors now while away their days wandering its narrow streets and shady squares, enjoying fresh seafood and local wine in its seafront restaurants, and cooling off with regular dips into the pellucid Bay of Piran.
The town sits at the tip of a peninsula fringed by stone piers and pebbly beaches, from where swimmers, snorkelers and paddle-boarders pootle out into the shallows, while beyond white-sailed yachts slide silently across the deeper blue.
The scene is typical of southern Europe at sunny, summer play. But Piran Bay also has a different story to tell, one which keeps resurfacing in the tranquil present like wreckage from the region’s history.
Between Slovenia and Croatia, the sorest point of contention is the beautiful – and fish-rich – Bay of Piran
Slovenia was the first republic to declare independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, and escaped the grip of an increasingly nationalistic and belligerent Serbia after suffering only a few dozen casualties in 10 days of clashes with government forces.
Belgrade would not allow Croatia, Bosnia or later the autonomous province of Kosovo to leave so easily, and devastating wars erupted, leading to some 140,000 deaths and, ultimately, the emergence of seven sovereign states.
Slovenia and Croatia supported each other’s bids for independence, but once that was achieved they could not agree on where to draw their borders on land and sea.
It is the kind of niggling territorial dispute that can still sour even the best of neighbourly relations across the Balkans, while baffling outsiders who try to bring them to terms.
And between Slovenia and Croatia, who get along well on most other matters, the sorest point of contention is the beautiful – and fish-rich – Bay of Piran.
Croatia laid claim to half the bay, a demand that Slovenia said threatened its open access to international waters and was an unedifying display of greed by a country with a coastline of some 1,700 km.
The disputed area amounted to a mere 13sq km of water, but the impasse prompted Slovenia – a country of 2 million people not known for its aggressive diplomacy – to block Croatia’s EU accession talks for several years.
Ljubljana finally lifted its veto in 2009, when Zagreb agreed to let an international arbitration court rule on the row, and Croatia joined the EU four years later.
If Brussels thought that a quiet, civilised resolution to the standoff would serve as an example to the pair’s more fractious Balkan neighbours, then its hopes were misplaced.
In June last year, the court in The Hague ruled that most of the Bay of Piran belonged to Slovenia, which should also have a corridor cutting through Croatian waters to give its ships “uninterrupted and uninterruptible” passage to the open sea.
But as Slovenia celebrated, Zagreb flatly rejected the decision and an arbitration process that it said had been compromised by a secret exchange of information between a judge on the panel and the Ljubljana government.
A year on, calls from Brussels for the implementation of the verdict have fallen on deaf ears, and Slovenia is reportedly considering more serious EU legal action against Croatia, despite the deeper chill it would send through their relations.
There are problems when fishermen go out. There are one or two on both sides who are a bit nationalistic and cause problems
Anger in the bay is rising, too. Police boats from Slovenia and Croatia now watch over their fishing vessels, while also monitoring ships from the other side and warning those that stray over the disputed borderlines in the Adriatic.
While refusing to back down, both states are pressuring each other’s fishermen by issuing court summons and large fines for alleged violations; confrontations at sea have been reported, with nets being cut and police from each side called to the scene.
For families on the Slovenian and Croatian shores of the bay, some of whom have peacefully fished its waters together for generations, these are troubling times.
“There are problems when fishermen go out. There are one or two on both sides who are a bit nationalistic and cause problems,” Peter Bossman, Piran’s mayor since 2008, tells The Irish Times.
“It’s a political problem that shouldn’t be a problem at all,” he explains in Piran’s ornate town hall, which overlooks the house where Italian violinist and composer Giuseppe Tartini was born in 1692.
“I think it’s something that could have been resolved many years ago. But because of the egos of political leaders back then on both sides, it wasn’t resolved and just grew and grew, and now it’s reached a point that it’s about prestige.”
Citing reports that a Slovenian fisherman from the nearby port of Koper has amassed unpaid Croatian fines of €72,000, Bossman adds: “It’s getting complicated. So we hope politicians will sit down, be level-headed and sort it out.”
Bossman arrived in Yugoslavia from Ghana in 1979 and, after graduating, worked as a doctor in Ljubljana and Piran before being persuaded to run for office in 2010, when he became the first black mayor in eastern Europe.
If the “Obama of Piran” embodies progress and tolerance in Slovenia, then the border impasse is an example of how this region’s politicians and voters often become mired in the same quarrels and fixed, failed ideas as previous generations.
Serbia disputes its border with Bosnia along the River Drina and with Croatia on the Danube, where in 2015 Czech libertarians exploited the confusion to establish the “Free Republic of Liberland”.
Croatia is also at odds with Montenegro over a stretch of their frontier and with Bosnia over its land and sea borders – a spat that is now escalating over Zagreb’s plans for the 2.4 km, €540 million Peljesac Bridge.
It will link the Croatian mainland with the Peljesac peninsula and allow drivers to and from southern Croatia to avoid delays as they pass through a sliver of Bosnia’s territory at Neum, its only seaport.
Bosnia’s government says the EU-funded project should be frozen until border issues are resolved and the impact of the 55 metre-high bridge on shipping access to Neum is clarified. Last month, however, Croatia officially started construction.
The Balkan border news is not all bad. In February Kosovo finally ratified a 2015 demarcation agreement with Montenegro, as part of its bid to secure visa-free travel for its citizens to the EU.
Brussels has told would-be members that they must resolve all territorial disputes with their neighbours before joining the EU, and this still provides the strongest impetus for Balkan leaders to make compromises and tough decisions.
Playing with borders and divisions in the Balkans was dangerous in the early 1990s, and remains so now
The EU promised a “borderless” future, but to have any hope of joining the club Balkan states must first fix their frontiers in perpetuity.
Serbia and Kosovo face the biggest challenge in crafting a final deal to normalise their relations, establish their boundaries and see Belgrade finally recognise the independence of its mostly ethnic Albanian former province.
Frontiers are again the crucial question, with Belgrade now apparently seeking partition of its neighbour along ethnic lines, and Kosovo’s president calling for a “border correction” that would bring part of Serbia into his territory.
Since the Balkan wars, the EU and US have ruled out any major border changes in the region, fearing that it could trigger a domino effect of land claims and population movements, fuelling the danger of violence in several countries.
Now, in the absence of any other solution for the Serbia-Kosovo stalemate, the idea seems to be creeping back on to the negotiating table.
“Playing with borders and divisions in the Balkans was dangerous in the early 1990s, and remains so now,” former Swedish prime minister Carl Bildt, who was a top international official for former Yugoslavia after its wars, said recently.
“The borders that were there in old Yugoslavia should remain in place, and solutions should be sought within them. To further Balkanise the Balkans is to open the region up for further conflict and bloodshed.”
It all feels a million miles away from the sunbathers on the beaches of Piran, the swimmers working up an appetite for a fish lunch beside the Adriatic, and the families strolling with ice creams over the smooth white stone of Tartini Square.
Slovenia and Croatia will not come to blows over the Bay of Piran, but their three-decade dispute is a reminder of the enduring power of borderlines here and elsewhere in Europe – a power that migration and rising nationalism are only likely to fuel.
“There is no hostility between Slovenians and Croats,” says Bossman. “We just hope that we’ll get political leaders who are bit wiser . . . and who will work something out, so there will be no more problems.”