Inside File: A gentlemen's agreement ends

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The Independent Online
IT IS almost a year and a half since Croatia and Slovenia won international recognition as independent states. Both are trying to shed the dreaded 'former Yugoslavia' tag; they have set up modest embassies in major capitals, including London - the Croats in a cluttered fifth-floor attic next to a Neapolitan restaurant in Jermyn Street, the Slovenes in Heather Lodge in Kingston-upon-Thames, which also serves as their ambassador's residence.

Slovenia, which managed the smoothest departure from the Yugloslav federation, has been the more successful in presenting a respectable front to the world. With a population some 90 per cent Slovene and no serious minority problem, it has developed a democratic system and remains relatively aloof from the Balkan imbroglio.

But Croatia, encouraged by what looks like a successful carve-up of Bosnia with the Serbs, is taking on its northern neighbour. Tension is flaring over a border post the Croats are building in disputed Adriatic coast territory. The Slovenes accuse the Croats of violating a gentlemen's agreement over the demarcation of the frontier. The Foreign Minister, Lojze Peterle, conceded that the issue at present involved no more than 200 yards of territory at the border crossing, which the Slovenes call Secovlje after the nearest village in Slovenia, and the Croats call Plovanija after the nearest village in Croatia. But, he declared: 'We cannot accept the policy of fait accompli.'

The sensitivity is in part due to the fact that Slovenia has only 30 miles of coast anyway. But to a larger extent it is due to what Ljubljana perceives as a new, bullying trend emerging from Croatia over the past few months.

'They have been jealous of Slovenia for escaping this Yugoslav mess relatively unscathed,' said one Slovene official. Slovenia's fight for statehood in 1991 resulted in fewer than 50 deaths, only six of them Slovenes. Although both Slovenia and Croatia lost a sizeable Yugoslav export market, Slovenia's economy has fared far better. The international community was quick to send envoys to Ljubljana, and considerably slower in opening missions in Zagreb (the United States is only now about to send an ambassador there). Last week Slovenia became a full member of the Council of Europe, 'which Croatia can only dream about', the official said. Recently, Slovenia was the only former Yugoslav republic to attend a meeting on co-operation agreements between the European Community and Eastern Europe.

'Our willingness to co-operate and negotiate had always paid off,' said a Slovene diplomat. Because Slovenia quickly became a member of the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe, 'we have always been willing to respect the rules of the game. We have tried to apply this in Croatia's case as well.' That is, until Croatia's new tactics. 'It now is more or less apparent that our approach has not been successful,' said a Slovene envoy. 'There are other ways in the Balkans which are much more predominant and which have paid off: the land-grabbing has been rewarded. The Croats would like to apply that approach vis-a-vis us as well.'

Until now, the Slovenes have resisted calling for intervention by the international community. They privately admit the issue may now have to go to mediation after all. An important role could be played by the Germans: having forced the rest of Europe to recognise Croatia prematurely, they are now taking a tough line with their traditional ally, who they feel betrayed their trust. Klaus Kinkel, the German Foreign Minister, had harsh words to deliver in Zagreb a few weeks ago about the Croatian advances on Bosnia's Muslims.

'The Croats do pay attention to what the Germans tell them,' said a Slovene official. To all intents and purposes, Slovenia should rank up there with the Mittel-Europeans. But with the Croats tugging at the foot Slovenia retains in the Balkan grave, it needs all the help Europe can provide.