Wednesday, 14 December 2022

Croatia’s Border Disputes with Neighbours in Light of Schengen Entry

December 14, 2022 - As the day of the Croatian entry into Schengen area approaches, we take another look at the border disputes Croatia has with its neighbours.

(This is an updated article from the original back in 2016)

The total length of the land borders of Croatia is 2,370 km, and all of those borders will experience a change on January 1st, when Croatia joins Schengen: the borders to Slovenia (659 km) and Hungary (355 km) have been the outside borders of the Schengen area until now, and will become much less important now as Croatia joins the Agreement and all border controls within the Area are abolished. The borders to Croatia's other neighbors, the longest one to Bosnia and Herzegovina (1011 km) as well as to Serbia (326 km) and Montenegro (20 km) are set to become the outside borders of the Schengen area.

Among many problems which burden relations between republics of former Yugoslavia, one of the main issues are numerous border disputes which are a consequence of the fact that Yugoslavia, while having strictly defined borders with other countries, did not have precisely marked or defined borders among its constituent parts. That fact explains why Croatian relationship with Hungary is not burdened by yet another problem, unless you count the current Hungarian Prime Minister recently claiming most of the Croatian territory.

While the disputed areas between the former republics are usually relatively small, they represent a major headache for governments of now independent states, since they are under pressure from the media and voters not to compromise and “give away” an inch of supposedly their territory.

Border disputes with Slovenia and Croatia are certainly the most well-known of all. Not only do they burden the bilateral relations, but they even delayed the entry of Croatia in the European Union. The most important part of the dispute concerns the border at sea. At issue is whether the border should follow the middle line between Croatian and Slovenian coast (which would mean that Slovenian sea would border just Italy and Croatia), or should be drawn in a way which would allow Slovenia to reach international waters. The dispute has been unsolved since early 1990s, with occasional incidents at sea between police and fishermen’s boats. There were repeated attempts by the two governments to come to an agreement, but they would inevitably be impeded by pressure from the media and public against any compromise.

Border piran

Slovenia knew that the best time for an agreement to be reached was during Croatia’s accession negotiations with the European Union. Since Slovenia had entered the EU earlier, it was able to blackmail Croatia and that is exactly what it did in 2008 when it blocked the negotiations. The move caused a complete breakdown in relations, with Croatia accusing Slovenia of hostile behaviour. After Ivo Sanader, Croatian Prime Minister at the time resigned in July 2009, new Prime Minister Jadranka Kosor prioritised the unblocking of negotiations. Later that year, Kosor reached an agreement with Slovenian government that negotiations would continue and that the border dispute would be decided by arbitration proceedings. In return, Slovenia unblocked the negotiations and Croatia became a member of the European Union in 2013.

After that, there was an entire international scandal during the arbitration process, in which the media published evidence of collusion between a supposedly independent arbiter and Slovenian Foreign Ministry, which led to Croatia dropping out of the arbitration process completely. The arbitration concluded in 2017 with a win for Slovenia, and Croatia still not acknowledging that decision as binding.

And that's more or less where we stand today still. Once the decision of Croatia's entry into Schengen was announced, both Croatia and Slovenia issued their reaction to their border dispute, and it seems the disputes are here to stay. Both Croatia and Slovenia issued one-sided statements upon the confirmation of the decision, both standing firmly at their previous stances.

There are several disputed sections of the land border as well, with the one in Istria being very important since the endpoint of the land border will influence the sea border as well. River Dragonja in Istria used to be a border, but when an artificial channel was made about 500 metres in Croatian territory in order to control flooding decades ago, Slovenia decided that this was now Dragonja and that the border should be there.

Border istria

Another point of contention is Sveta Gera peak in Žumberak hills. Actually, even Slovenia more or less accepts that the peak itself and a military installation which is located there belong to Croatia, but that has not prevent its army from “occupying” the facility for the last 25 years. This was the first major border dispute between the two countries, but in recent years it has been somewhat overshadowed by the sea border issue. There are also several other sections of the land border that both countries claim for themselves.

Bosnia and Herzegovina
Compared to Slovenia, the border disputes with Bosnia and Herzegovina seem insignificant, but listening to some politicians in the past, you could get the impression that it was the most important thing in the world.

The entire disputed area is around Neum, Pelješac Peninsula and, obviously, the Pelješac Bridge, whose exact location was one of the reasons so many unimportant problems kept being brought up. The first is the small Klek peninsula, rather, its very tip, which Croatia has claimed as theirs for a while, together with two small islands next to it, Veliki Školj and Mali Školj. Both islands are uninhabited and too small to serve any useful purpose, but Croatia insisted that it should have control over them. While Croatia has hundreds of similar islands in its part of the Adriatic Sea, Bosnia and Herzegovina has a very short coast around Neum, and these two islands would virtually be the only ones it would have, so they have great symbolic importance for it as a supposedly “maritime” country. Another disputed area is a part of the border near Hrvatska and Bosanska Kostajnica, where at issue is a small castle currently controlled by Croatia, with both countries claiming it as theirs.

Border Klek

In the late 1990s, then presidents of the two countries, Franjo Tuđman and Alija Izetbegović, signed an agreement on the border demarcation, which provided for the disputed area at Neum to be given to Bosnia. However, the Croatian Parliament never ratified the agreement, claiming that a mistake was made by experts who were working on maps which are part of the agreement. Interestingly, then Croatian President Tuđman was never accused by “patriots” of being a traitor for signing such an agreement, as opposed to Prime Minister Račan, who in early 2000s tried to solve border problems with Slovenia by almost coming to an agreement with Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Drnovšek and who is still being blamed for all the border problems with Slovenia (any many other things). Luckily, these days, with the project of Pelješac Bridge finished in spite of the opposition by (some) Bosnian politicians, nobody is really talking about the tip of Klek or the small islands any more. 

Montenegro is the smallest of all of Croatia’s neighbouring countries and its part of the border is the shortest one, so it is understandable that there is just one disputed area. It again concerns sea border, at the Prevlaka peninsula, which is with its Oštra Cape the southernmost tip of Croatia. In 2002, Croatia and Montenegro signed an agreement on temporary border regime. There have been no major incidents since, but it has still not been defined whether the temporary line will be turned into a permanent one. There were some disputes between the two countries when both of them announced tenders for oil and gas exploration in the area, with both countries claiming that the other one had no right to publish such tenders, but tensions soon calmed down.

border prevlaka

Every list of Croatia’s problems has to include Serbia, and this one is no exception. If you think that the fact that the border between them is in a large part defined by the Danube, one of major European rivers, would make it easy to know where the border is, you would be wrong. The Danube has an unfortunate habit of changing its course, which leaves an open question of whether the border moves with it or not. Croatia claims that the border should follow an old course of the river, while Serbia wants the border to follow the middle of the current course.

According to Croatian proposal, both countries would have significant parts of territory on the “wrong” side of the river. While a perhaps logical solution would be for the two countries to exchange these pieces of land, the problem is that Croatia has about 10,000 hectares of land on the Serbian side of the Danube, while Serbia has just 1,000 hectares on the Croatian side.

Border Dunav

Any compromise about borders is difficult, but when it comes to the border with Serbia, it is absolutely impossible that any Croatian politician would survive giving an inch of territory. Since the border area was occupied during the Homeland War and was only returned to Croatian jurisdiction after seven years, in 1998, the pressure from the public and the media would be impossible to resist. And, while “our people have bled for this land” argument is being used against compromise for all the disputed territories, in the Danube area that is literally true, making any compromise virtually unattainable.

The border on the Danube does not involve just the territory on the other side of the river, but also the issue of small pieces of land in the middle. And that leads us to Croatia’s final border “dispute”.

Liberland (?)
While border disputes usually involve two or more countries claiming that the same piece of land or sea belongs to them, due to peculiarities of the border dispute on the Danube, there are several areas which Croatia claims belong to Serbia, and Serbia claims belong to Croatia. One such area is Gornja Siga, a 7-square kilometre large uninhabited area on the Croatian side of the river. In 2015, Czech libertarian politician and activist Vit Jedlička proclaimed “the Free Republic of Liberland” there, saying that, since both countries claim that they do not want the territory, it was “terra nullius” and could be claimed for a new state.

Border liberland

Reactions from Croatia and Serbia were different. Serbia announced that, although it considered the whole affair to be a trivial matter, the “new state” did not impinge upon the Serbian border, which it believes should be on the Danube river. Croatia, which currently administers the land in question, has stated that, after the resolution of the border dispute, the territory will be awarded to either Croatia or Serbia and therefore cannot be considered as “terra nullius”.

People coming to the island, including “President” Jedlička, have been occasionally arrested by Croatian police, which appears confused whether people should be arrested when coming from Croatian or from Serbian side of the river. Croatian courts first ruled that it was forbidden to cross from Serbia to Liberland, but then realized that they were actually confirming that the area was not part of Serbia, which was precisely what Serbia wanted. In later verdicts, courts ruled that it was forbidden to enter Liberland from Croatia. In recent years, it seems that everyone's interest in the stunt has subsided, probably around the time when the Liberland government announced that they would be issuing their own cryptocurrency. In light of the newest developments, with Croatia getting rid of any border controls with Hungary, it would be interesting to see what would happen if "President" Jedlička or some of his supporters decided to take a river boat from anywhere within Schengen and come to the island following the Danube, thus not entering from Croatia nor from Serbia.

Monday, 6 June 2022

Agreements for Croatia-Serbia Cross-Border Cooperation Granted

ZAGREB, 6 June 2022 - Minister of Regional Development and EU Funds Nataša Tramišak presented the first grant agreements within the Croatia-Serbia cross border cooperation programme for 2022, with a total value of HRK 3 million.

"For the first time, we are implementing a programme to strengthen Croats abroad, in this case, cross-border cooperation between Croatia and Serbia and have secured HRK 3 million from the state budget for 20 various projects for that," Minister Tramišak said.

She added that 65 projects applied worth more than HRK 10 million.

Tramišak recalled that during the pre-accession period and especially since it joined the EU, Croatia has implemented various European territorial cooperation programmes with neighbouring countries.

"In the new period 2021 - 2027, we will have Croatia - Serbia cross-border programmes with more than €42 million available," she underscored. Tramišak said that the condition for cross-border cooperation requires at least one partner each from Croatia and Serbia.

Žigmanov: Three key steps by Croatia towards Croats in Vojvodina

President of the Democratic Alliance of Croats in Vojvodina and Member of Serbian Parliament, Tomislav Žigmanov underscored that in the past few years three key steps were made in relations between Croatia towards Croats in Vojvodina.

Žigmanov noted that about 80% of Croats in Serbia live in Vojvodina in fact, adding that the first step was political support for Croats followed by more interest by the media in Croatia regarding how Croats in Vojvodina live.

The second step was when material and financial resources were increased, Žigmanov said, adding that two-thirds of that was earmarked for cultural institutions.

The third key step was cross-border cooperation between Croatia and Serbia which will be a great help to Croats in Serbia, who are the poorest Croats in the world.

For more, check out our politics section.

Thursday, 21 February 2019

Croatia and Serbia Far from Agreement on Border

ZAGREB, February 21, 2019 - A year after Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović and her Serbian counterpart Aleksandar Vučić met in Zagreb and agreed that the two countries should try to reach an agreement on the border in the next two years, there is still no agreement between Croatia and Serbia on the matter, with their positions being the farthest with regard to the border on the Danube River.

In February 2018 the two presidents agreed that Croatia and Serbia would try to reach an agreement on the border in the next two years and that if they did not succeed, they would address an international tribunal.

The Serbian president said at the time that Zagreb and Belgrade had opposed positions on the border.

According to officials in Belgrade, even though there has been some progress with regard to the land border, Croatia and Serbia are still miles from an agreement on the border on the Danube River.

A State Secretary at the Serbian Foreign Ministry, Nemanja Stevanović, said in a recent interview with the Serbian news agency Tanjug that the biggest obstacle to the agreement were two river islands on the Danube - the Šarengrad and Vukovar islands - and that Zagreb insisted on a solution that was contrary to international law.

In a comment for Hina, the Croatian Foreign Ministry dismissed the claim about the violation of international law, reiterating that the border of Croatia as a Yugoslav republic had become its state border with its declaration of independence.

"The positions and demands of the Republic of Croatia are firmly founded in and are in line with international law," the Croatian Foreign Ministry said, adding that Croatia wanted a future bilateral border agreement to incorporate "the 1991 border of the former republic which on the day Croatia declared independence became an international border between Croatia and Serbia."

In other words, Croatia wants the basis for an agreement to be the cadastre. "This was also confirmed in the position of the Badinter commission," it added. It noted that the border between the two republics had never been on the Danube.

"The border between the two former republics, in line with both Croatia and Serbia's legislation, was defined precisely and it was not on the Danube but rather stretched, both in Srijem and in Baranja, along the outer borders of municipalities of both republics that were also the outer borders of those municipalities' cadastres in 1991," the Croatian ministry said.

It also stressed that in the continuation of negotiations it expected "Serbia to abide by its general position, made public on a number of occasions, on the need to respect the borders between the former republics as one of the main principles of international law, and to apply them in defining its position for the entire border with Croatia because at present it accepts that principle for only one part of the border, in the area of Srijem."

Stevanović nonetheless notes that at a meeting of the inter-state commission for borders in 2018 certain progress was made with regard to the land border.

The Croatian side underlines that the border commission held a meeting in June 2018 in Zagreb at its invitation and that a meeting of an expert working group was held at the end of 2018. "We now expect an invitation from the Serbian side to a new meeting, and we hope it will be held soon," the Croatian Foreign Ministry said.

More news about the relations between Croatia and Serbia can be found in the Politics section.

Wednesday, 28 March 2018

Romanian Arrested Smuggling 16 Illegal Migrants to Croatia

ZAGREB, March 28, 2018 - A Romanian driving a truck with 16 illegal migrants from Pakistan, India, Afghanistan and Iraq was caught at the Bajakovo border crossing in the night between Tuesday and Wednesday, the local police reported on Wednesday.

Sunday, 18 March 2018

Serbian Prime Minister: No Seats for Croats in Parliament

ZAGREB, March 18, 2018 - Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabić said in an interview with Croatian Television on Saturday that the Croat minority should not have a guaranteed seat in the Serbian parliament, expressing hope that the issue of border delimitation on the Danube would not require arbitration and her willingness to address the issue of missing persons from the 1991-1995 war.

Sunday, 18 February 2018

Croatia Against Future Border Arbitrations

ZAGREB, February 18, 2018 - Border disputes between southeast European countries which cannot be solved bilaterally, should be forwarded to an international court rather than going to arbitration, Croatian Foreign and European Affairs Minister Marija Pejčinović Burić said in Munich on Saturday where she was attending an international security conference.

Monday, 12 February 2018

Croatia and Serbia Give Themselves Two Years to Solve Border Issues

ZAGREB, February 12, 2018 - Croatia and Serbia will try to bilaterally resolve the border dispute on the Danube river, yet if they do not manage to do so within the next two years, the dispute will be referred to an international court or arbitration, the presidents of Croatia and Serbia said in Zagreb on Monday.

Saturday, 6 January 2018

Solving Border Disputes Precondition for EU Membership of Croatia’s Neighbours

After the experience with Slovenia and Croatia, the EU does not want to deal with another border dispute.

Monday, 24 July 2017

Arbitration with Slovenia Helpful to Croatia for Border with Serbia?

The arbitration tribunal has taken into account land cadastre borders, which would be favourable for Croatia in its border dispute with Serbia.

Sunday, 22 January 2017

Overview of Croatia’s Border Disputes with BiH, Montenegro, Serbia, Slovenia, Liberland

An overview of numerous border disputes between Croatia and its neighbours.

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