AIM: start

TUE, 01 MAY 2001 01:12:23 GMT

Slovenia - Croatia

The Van Returned Home

Although the official Zagreb returned the "lost" spying van to Prime Minister Janez Drnovsek, it is certain that an agreement on accumulated problems between these two states will not be reached by summer.

Ljubljana, April 20, 2001

Customarily serious Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Drnovsek smiled sourly for TV cameras at his most recent meeting with the Croatian delegation in the castle of Otocac, near Brezice, when with adequate address delighted Ivica Racan handed him over the spying van that was in the hands of Croatian authorities for the last three years. The green van of "Volkswagen" type was transported on a special trailer to the venue of diplomatic meeting, while not even the customs officers knew to the last moment that the "goods" were heading for Otocac. That detail was supposed to symbolise the thawing of relations between Slovenia and Croatia, while the meeting itself was later commented as a turning point after which two diplomacies would proceed like a glacier with the resolution of the accumulated problems.

Let us recall the fate of the spying van, which was a thorn in Slovenia's side the last couple of years. The Croatian police got hold of it on January 6, 1998 when a Croatian MUP (Ministry of the Interior) patrol caught a vehicle with two officers of the Slovenian Military Intelligence Service some ten kilometres inside its territory. Law enforcement officers did not beat around the bush much - they orderly arrested the uninvited guests and summarily brought them in before the investigating judge. The caught Slovenian spies tried to justify themselves by claiming that they have missed the Slovenian-Croatian border and quite unexpectedly walked right into the arms of the Croatian patrol in their special vehicle equipped for electronic reconnaissance. The intelligence agents were soon deported back to their homeland, while the valuable van, which according to some data is worth several million DM, remained on the Croatian side.

Before that, two Slovenian spies were interrogated by the investigating judge and then, later on, given mild sentences in absentia, although Croatia prescribes up to 20 years in maximum-security prison for the crime of espionage. It was precisely this detail that prompted numerous speculations since the Croatian Army has tried for years to buy for its intelligence service such a vehicle - i.e. a van equipped with specialised electronic machinery of German manufacture. However, foreign partners could not agree on the sale - Germany might have turned a blind eye and approved this transaction, but at that time the USA called the shots in the region.

Besides, the peace in the Balkans was still fragile then and the price of the van too high. Consequently, the deal fell through and there was nothing else to do until the Slovenian intelligence agents made this unbelievable beginner's mistake. This gave some analysts the idea that all this had actually been a subtle agreement between Croatia and Slovenia that made Tudjman's dream come true. To make things even better, at the moment of arrest the surprised Slovenian spies did not manage to put out of action any of the valuable equipment so that in the last three years the Croatian side had at its disposal very powerful tools with which it could do what it wanted.

The then Slovenian Defence Ministry rushed to lay all the blame for the loss of this unique van on the clumsy agents. Speculations about some Slovenian-Croatian-German agreement gradually stopped, but a dilemma remained why did the agents, whose route for that day had been in the opposite direction - towards Rogla (a mountain somewhere halfway between Celje and Maribor) ended in Croatia. In the last couple of years the "amortised" van was a strong negotiating trump card for the Croatian side, especially in arguments about unresolved border issues. The reply to the question whether the van would be returned or not was, for example just after the incident, made conditional on the withdrawal of the Slovenian Army from the Trdin's Peak (or St.Gera as the Croats call that same hill) which represents one of the hardest border problems between the two states.

Although the return of the van to its original owner undoubtedly represents a goodwill gesture, the seriousness of unresolved problems remaining to be settled between Slovenia and Croatia is nevertheless the same. The most important question - the delineation of borders on the ground and at sea - still seems like insurmountable problem. Just three years ago the Slovenian and Croatia diplomacy were announcing pending resolution of border problems and turned for help to William Perry, the former American Defence Minister and an expert for "invisible" technology. Perry agreed to serve as an advisor (but not arbiter too) and in for that sake once took a drive along the Bay of Piran, visited (on the host's expense) both sides to the dispute and went home. After that, he disappeared into thin air. That did not prevent the Ministers in charge, from one year to the next, to keep setting new deadline for the signing of the agreement. However, lightly given promises never bore fruit.

Drnovsek's and Racan's latest meeting was held in the same fashion. After six hours of discussion in Otocac another agreement was reached on a new "decisive" date, to the joy of both the domestic, as well as the European public. The two Prime Ministers agreed that their expert teams should "intensify their work" during the next month and a half and after June 1 assess whether that deadline should be extended for another month or so, or should the arbitration procedure start immediately. Similar was the fate of other agreements. Concerning the border at sea, Ivica Racan offered the boundary line in the Bay of Piran as an "interim solution", but his proposal met with total silence of the Slovenian side. After that Racan named the debt of the "Ljubljanska Banka" to Croatian depositors as the most complex Slovenian-Croatian problem. On the other side, Janez Drnovsek thought that even naming the problems on which the two sides have practically reached an agreement, was so "risky" that he did not dare say a word even about something so simple.

In short, this time the two delegations have once more failed to break the diplomatic impasse, which will bring further headache both to the Slovenian, as well as to the Croatian side. It is somehow getting too hot for Slovenia since the European Union has criticised it for ten-year deadlock in the resolution of its problems with Croatia. The European Union wants clear guarantees regarding the safety of its external borders. Naturally, Slovenia would very much like to put up firm boundary stones along the Kupa river and thus reassure its partners from Brussels, and become a full member of the EU, as soon as possible. That arouses new fears in Croatia, primarily because of the "Schengen wall on the Kupa". Perhaps this is so because many Croats see Austria "as a neighbouring country", as Racan's Foreign Minister Tonino Picula once confirmed. Therefore, if as of September Slovenia truly introduces the "Schengen regime" at its borders, the official Zagreb expects Ljubljana to first sign an Agreement on Border Trade and Cooperation. Croatia has already ratified this Agreement, but Slovenia did not because of the stand of its Right parties that the Agreement was prejudicial to its borders.

On the other hand, the introduction of the Schengen regime on "southern" Slovenian borders would not only distance Croatia from the "neighbouring" Austria, but from Europe in general and create other problems for the Croatian citizens. That is why Croatia demands that in future special treatment should be accorded to its citizens, special passage at border crossings, as well as permission to enter Slovenia with identity card alone, etc. It is known that the border, which had been proclaimed in 1991, has adversely affected some regions of Slovenia and Croatia. This border meant not only the partition of the territory, but also strict implementation of new regulations, which was never the case in these parts.

For example, the airline from the village of Jelovica in Cicarija and Trieste is only 17 kilometres long, but a traveller from that village has to take four times longer road in order to pass through all border controls. A more rigid border regime between Slovenia and Croatia would only make matters worse. The only long-term solution for this and similar problems is for Croatia - and later on Bosnia, FRY, Macedonia and other countries of South-East Europe - to join the European Union as soon possible.

This is clearly impossible to achieve in the short run, while problems will only keep piling up. This makes it easier to understand the game of Slovenian and Croatian diplomats, whose work boils down to the wearing out of the opponent and a war of nerves. According to players in this diplomatic roulette, the winners is the one who stays in the game longer since there re no wise ones nor any giving in, as the recent past has shown. The greatest shortcoming of such maneuvering is the fact that the great endurance of the top ranks mostly brings true disaster to those at the bottom. It is not hard to guess who will get the short end of the stick - yesterday, those were voters and today, common folk of all newly emerged states in the region.

Igor Mekina

(AIM Ljubljana)