BORDER DISPUTE

FEBRUARY 10 2009 17:00h

Slovenes Defiant In Row Blocking Croatia EU Bid

Slovenian Josko Joras, whose house is on disputed land between Croatia and Slovenia, shows a map of the region in front of his house in Istria

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A huge sign on his house, saying `Tudi tukaj je Slovenija` (This is Slovenia too), leaves no doubt of his personal views.

Slovenian Josko Joras lives on a disputed patch of land on the border with Croatia and says his country must not give way in a quarrel that is blocking Croatia's bid to join the European Union.

A huge sign on his house, saying "Tudi tukaj je Slovenija" (This is Slovenia too), leaves no doubt of his personal views. Right next to it is a border crossing Croatia set up in 1994, indicating that his home is on Croatian soil.

"Politicians still don't know what their mandate is, what is disputable and what must be negotiated," said Joras, a resident since Slovenia and Croatia became independent in 1991.-.-Reuters-.-A house belonging to Slovenian Josko Joras, situated on disputed land between Croatia and Slovenia, with a sign saying `This is also Slovenia`, in Istria.

Angrily, he shows maps of the region, where borders did not matter while both countries were part of communist Yugoslavia.

The two countries have made only half-hearted efforts to agree the borders in the past, but matters came to a head last December, when European Union member Slovenia blocked Croatia's EU membership bid because of the border dispute.

Joras, a 58-year old businessman who serves on a local Slovenian municipal council, is the most vocal protester in the dispute. Initially supported only by a few small Slovenian nationalist parties, Joras has managed to highlight the border issue for years and win wider public support.

Analysts now say Croatia will not be able to complete its EU accession talks this year, as planned, unless a solution to the row is found in the next few weeks.

The European Commission has proposed that Finnish Nobel peace prize winner Marti Ahtisaari mediate in the conflict. But local media say Zagreb prefers the issue to be settled before the International Court of Justice in The Hague.

The two countries' prime ministers are due to meet for the first time later this month, but the date or venue have yet to be set. "There's nothing new, we are still waiting," a Croatian government source told Reuters on Tuesday.

ACCESS TO SEA

Joras has had a history of scuffles with the police because of his refusal to acknowledge Croatian authority. He says Yugoslav-era cadastre maps, which give comprehensive details on property and ownership, clearly put his house in Slovenia.

"I pay taxes in Slovenia, my son went to the Slovenian army. I have all legally valid (Slovenian) documents and see no reason why this should be in Croatia," he said.

When Croats put huge flower pots on a by-road from his house to Slovenia, which circumvents the border crossing, he pitched a tent outside his house and went on hunger strike. Eventually, Croats allowed him to use the road.

A group of experts from both countries said earlier this month that out of some 670 km of the joint border, only the 6 km (3.5 miles) stretch through the northern Istrian peninsula was subject to dispute.

It comprises fertile farmland around the Dragonja river and four little hamlets with fewer than 50 people altogether. Most of them are Croats and have kept a low profile in the dispute.

An even more difficult issue, analysts and experts say, is the sea border. At stake is a shallow bay in the northern Adriatic, referred to by Croats as Savudrijska Vala. For Slovenes, it's the Piran Bay.

Slovenia, squeezed between Italy and Croatia, wants direct access to international waters from the bay, which would force Zagreb to cede part of the sea it claims as its own.

Standing on a mountain top overlooking the disputed valley and the bay, an elderly Croat who identified himself as Marko said the dispute should have been settled much earlier.

"But in 1991, we had a war and more pressing things on our minds and everyone thought the border would not be a problem. Most ordinary people still do not care about borders. When I talk to my Slovenian friends, we agree that this is not good".

Analysts say Slovenia does not seem to seek any wider advantage and the issue is largely symbolic. Borut Hocevar, an editor of Slovenian daily Zurnal24, said access to international waters would not matter once Croatia joins the European Union.

"So it is a symbolic question ... However, it will be difficult to back off from that demand after it has been on the table for such a long time," Hocevar said.

Vivijana Pribac, a 28-year old Croat economist who returned to her father's farm at Skudelin, one of the disputed Istrian villages, said everyone was feeling the pressure now.

"We lead a quiet life here, not looking for trouble. But things have escalated beyond proportion politically. It is high time to put an end to this," she said in front of her family's old stone house.

"We will certainly have no say in what is going to happen. For us, it is the same whether we belong here or there. We will always have to work," Pribac said.