Tuesday, July 18, 2006

NYTimes.com: A Balkan Border Dispute Is Nonviolent but Nettlesome

Secovlje (or Plovanija) Journal

A Balkan Border Dispute Is Nonviolent but Nettlesome

Filip Horvat for The New York Times

A boat floating in the Bay of Piran, where the maritime border between Slovenia and Croatia is disputed. On dry land, a town is called Secovlje by the Slovenes and Plovanija by the Croats.

Published: July 18, 2006

SECOVLJE, Slovenia, or PLOVANIJA, Croatia, July 14 — Even in a very small country like Slovenia, population under two million, you would not expect a matter of customs duties on a washing machine to capture national attention.

The New York Times

But a while ago, there it was on the nightly television news: Josko Joras’s refusal to pay customs duties to Croatia on a washing machine he was installing in his home. It is situated on a strip of land just south of the Dragonja River that Mr. Joras considers part of Slovenia but is treated by Croatia as Croatian territory.

And therein lies the fuss. Ownership of the strip of land is officially unresolved, a leftover from the days when Slovenia and Croatia, now both independent countries, were part of Yugoslavia.

In fact, in its only official proposed settlement of the border issue, Slovenia offered to concede Mr. Joras’s house and the land it is on to Croatia, making Mr. Joras a Slovenian nationalist opposed by both governments.

Still, skillful at getting press attention and belonging to a party that is now a part of Slovenia’s governing coalition — the Slovene People’s Party — Mr. Joras has managed to keep the issue here in Secovlje, Slovenia, or Plovanija, Croatia, not only alive but an irritant in relations between the countries. In fact, it is possibly an obstacle to the governments’ efforts to resolve the larger border dispute.

“Every time this guy has a conflict with the Croatian police it’s the lead item on the television news,” said Ali Zerdin, deputy editor of Slovenia’s best-known weekly magazine, Mladina. “But basically it’s a story about one house, and it’s strange that Slovenian diplomacy is being held hostage to that one house.”

As for where the border lies, Mr. Zerdin said, “When I was in grammar school and the question was asked ‘What is Slovenia’s border with Croatia?’ the correct answer was the Dragonja River.”

Mr. Joras, obviously, disagrees and can provide maps, local population registers and his own complicated version of local history to substantiate his claim, though his deeper reason for wanting to live in Slovenia, not Croatia, seems highly personal.

“I feel a duty to respect the heritage of my family,” he said, recalling that the house, where he has lived for 40 years, had belonged to his mother, who was kept in a concentration camp for three years during the Nazi occupation of Yugoslavia.

“I feel a duty to maintain the integrity of the country for which she sacrificed,” he said.

Mr. Joras was interviewed on the terrace of his house, overlooking the verdant fruit and vegetable garden on the south bank of the Dragonja cultivated by him and his wife. On the side of the house, just above a Slovene flag he installed there — provocatively, the Croatians say — is a sign in large black letters facing the Croatian border station only a stone’s throw away. “This is Slovenia,” it says.

It is an odd situation involving odd gestures. Because he refuses to recognize Croatian sovereignty over his house, Mr. Joras also refuses to pass through the Croatian border post, though he does pass by the Slovene post just north of the river. He then walks down a gravel track between the two border posts to get to his house.

He used to drive on the gravel track, but the Croatian police, annoyed by his constant intrusions into what they see as Croatian territory without observing border formalities, have erected four large yellow concrete planters that block his driveway. Mr. Joras swears that one day soon he will remove them.

For Slovenia the important border issue has nothing to do with Mr. Joras’s house, but with the demarcation line in the nearby Bay of Piran, through which its ships have to pass to reach Koper, its sole Adriatic port.

Croatia claims half of the bay, and with the coast of Italy just few miles north, that claim does not give Slovenia a passage wide enough to be in international waters, which it very much wants. There are also some continuing disputes between the countries’ fishing fleets.

A few years ago the Slovene and Croatian governments struck a deal that would have given Slovenia the open-water access it desired and recognized the Dragonja River to be the land border with Croatia.

But in a way, Croatia’s Parliament did Mr. Joras a favor by refusing to ratify the agreement — which Mr. Joras said was a nearly treasonous mistake by Slovenia in the first place — thus perpetuating the disputed status of his house.

Nobody in either country is questioning Mr. Joras’s ownership of the house or his right to live there. By his own account, his problems began a few years ago after he was elected to the local city council and, as he put it, “I affirmed that my house belongs to Slovenia.” Croatia had pretty much ignored him until then.

The trouble for Croatia is that Mr. Joras has proved to be a master publicist for his cause, getting attention every time something happens, whether spending a few weeks in prison for nonpayment of a fine imposed on him for displaying the Slovene flag on his house or refusing to pay a duty on his washing machine.

Last September, with an election campaign going on in Slovenia, the president of the Slovene People’s Party, Janez Podobnik, arrived in the disputed strip of land without observing Croatian border formalities and was roughed up by the Croatian police when he came to plant a linden tree, a Slovene symbol, alongside Mr. Joras’s house.

One outcome that Croatia wants to avoid in all this is that Slovenia, so far the only former Yugoslav state to become a member of the European Union, could veto Croatia’s application for membership unless it agreed to Slovenia’s position on the border, though the current government of Slovenia denies that this is the case.

“We will try to solve the problem,” Slovenia’s prime minister, Janez Jansa, said in a recent interview, “but it won’t be a condition for Croatia to enter the E.U.”

Whatever the governments may decide — and they are in the process of exchanging position papers on the entire border question — Mr. Joras shows no sign of giving in.

“People here lived for decades in a totalitarian regime,” he said, referring to the Communist dictatorship of Yugoslavia. “Not very many people have the courage to express their will, and the Croatians want to exploit that fear and impose theirs.”

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