Balkan rivals battle for place in the Adriatic sun

A row between Croatia and Slovenia over a stretch of coastline appeared on the EU's agenda yesterday, and its foreign policy supremo, Javier Solana, offered to help defuse a tense diplomatic stand-off.

A row between Croatia and Slovenia over a stretch of coastline appeared on the EU's agenda yesterday, and its foreign policy supremo, Javier Solana, offered to help defuse a tense diplomatic stand-off.

The argument over a small but scenic stretch, a magnet for tourists from across Europe, has simmered for more than a decade and provoked an international rift after Croatian police arrested 12 Slovenians, including two parliamentarians.

Yesterday Mr Solana, who held talks with the Croatian Prime Minister, Ivo Sanader, said bilateral issues between Croatia and Slovenia "should be resolved through negotiations in the spirit of dialogue and good will". He added: "EU institutions and me personally are ready to assist in such efforts."

The arrests were made two weeks ago when the Slovenians failed to show their documents at a disputed land border near Piran Bay on the northern Adriatic. One of those who were held then released was Janez Podobnik, who could become a minister in the Slovenian government being assembled after elections on Sunday.

Croatia, which wants to join the EU, will be given a report on its progress towards membership today and criticised for failing to help catch an indicted war criminal. The commission will recommend that talks on membership for Croatia should have an "emergency break" under which they can be ended if human rights criteria are no longer met.

Slovenia was among 10 countries that joined the EU in May. Its last government threatened to slow Zagreb's EU application for membership if the border disputes were not resolved.

About 1 per cent of the land and sea border has not been formalised, including the area of Piran Bay. Slovenia, with just 50km of coastline, considers it a vital part of its access to the sea.

The row is a hangover from the break-up of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. Under the Yugoslav system, the territorial rights of the Slovenian and Croatian republics were blurred because there were no fixed border crossings. After the break-up of Yugoslavia, tensions remained for a decade before an attempt to resolve them brought about a provisional agreement in 2001. That deal was never signed because there was insufficient political backing in Zagreb.

Other problems include the Krsko nuclear power plant, jointly owned by the two countries, and the debt of the now-defunct Ljubljanska Banka to Croatian depositors. Zagreb has more or less accepted an agreement on the land frontier but still disputes the sea border. Slovenia argues that, if international arbitration is needed, the whole package should be considered.

EU officials cautioned that the main initiative should come from the two capitals rather than Mr Solana. "They need to solve this issue bilaterally through dialogue," one said. "If at some stage there needs to be someone who would assist, and the EU needs to play a role, why not?" Mr Solana, who was in Zagreb for a one-day visit, also went to the Slovenian capital last week to try to alleviate tensions.

The Croatian Prime Minister said he hoped a solution could be found in talks with Slovenia's new government."We are prepared to settle this through international arbitration," he said.

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