The Fight for Istria

On the Slovenian-Croatian border, an ancient cultural feud is kept alive by thoughtless political decision making

News | Maruska Strah | October 2008

A young Slovenian marches with compatriots along the Slovenia-Croatia border (Photo Credit: Reuters)

With the Slovenian Social Democrats set to win the recount in the Parliamentary elections just past in late September, the ground may shift in the long-standing border dispute with Croatia and determine whether Slovenia will vote for or against Croatia’s membership in the European Union.

Slovenian border issues were at the top of the list in pre-election debates. "Slovenia will probably not interfere with the entrance of Croatia into the European Union," insisted Dr. Bogomil Ferfila, Chair of Policy Analysis and Public Administration at the Faculty of Social Sciences in Ljubljana. "It would only be possible for Slovenia to block their entrance if the majority of the states agreed on it. But with Germany is a strong supporter of Croatian membership that is unlikely."

Trade relations are also critical as Croatia is a major trading partner, as is Germany. Interfering with the Croatian accession could affect the Slovenian economy, and make relations with Croatia worse in other areas.

In addition, there were unresolved issues with Italy; after international recognition in 1992, Slovenia formally recognized the Treaty of Osimo – ensuring free entry for Yugoslavia to the port of Trieste – as a pre-condition to its own entering the EU. This treaty was based on a ´Memorandum of Understanding´ signed in London in 1954 between the Ex-Yugoslavian Republic and Italy that had become binding in 1975.

But the border issue is tenacious, explained Zmago Jelinčič Plemeniti, president of Slovenian National Party.

"The fault in the border issues lies deeply in European history, going back to the end of the Ottoman Empire and the creation of many states in that time," Plemeniti said. "Slovenians voted for annexation to Italy because they were convinced that they would fare better under its rule." Another part chose to join the Austrian state of Carinthia, where a big Slovenian minority still resides.

A turning point came when Slovenia lost a big part of its territory at the end of the First World War with the end of the Austrian-Hungarian Monarchy, leading to the creation of Yugoslavia. According to Plemeniti, "parts of Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina were given to Serbia and Montenegro as loot" – a suspicion stemming from documents that are still in a state archive unavailable to the public.

The end of the Second World War caused the loss of yet more territory. At that time, Slovenia lost the peninsula of Istria to Croatia, even though Istria had never been part of Croatia before this event.  "We can see proof of this on every military map from that time," Jelinčič said, "as well as a 1991 publication of the Croatian Ministry of Information  [journalist Željko Krušelj, ed.] although denied by the current Croatian government."

"During the Yugoslavian era,", "Marshall Tito convinced his allies that he would be able to control the entire territory of Yugoslavia," said National Party president Plemeniti. A very persuasive politician, Tito took over Istria and some other parts to Croatia in order to calm tensions.  "Today, the Croatian government claims that they got Istria before that, in year 1943. As maps and documents from that time show, Istria was always part of the Slovenian national territory, even before Tito annexed it to Croatia." A similar maneuver took place on the Croatia-Serbia border, Plemeniti says. "Croatia got the whole of Dubrovnik and Konavlje, which used to be under Montenegro."

Ironically, it was these tensions that led to Slovenian independence in year 1991. If there had not been strong objections from Milošević, the country would have stayed in the Yugoslav fold, a solution preferred by, among other former Slovenian president Milan Kučan.

As predicted, Slovenia appears to have withdrawn its resistance to Croatian entrance into the European Union. However, a long term resolution to these disputes -- the best interest of both states – is still far off. Perhaps the long-promised Peace Conference – promised by the European Union – would bring formal closure to the Yugoslav war of the 1990s and resolve old disputes that compromise the sovereignty of states as well as the safety of the people living in the border areas.

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    the vienna review October 2008