Tiny bay makes waves in Slovenia-Croatia border row

Piran (Slovenia) (AFP) - Tourists tucking into their cuttlefish risotto have little idea that the local seafood delicacy was caught in waters subject to one of the EU's longest-standing border feuds opposing Slovenia and Croatia.

Nestled on a craggy peninsula, the southwestern town of Piran is the pearl of Slovenia's tiny coastline, with medieval buildings tumbling down to a port where boats gently bob on the turquoise Adriatic Sea.

But there's a snag to the postcard-perfect scene. The tranquil bay is also shared by Croatia, and has poisoned relations between the neighbours since they both declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1991 and began fighting over the 670-kilometre (415-mile) border separating them.

Ljubljana insists it has a historic claim to the entire bay while Zagreb says it owns half of it.

On Thursday, an arbitration tribunal set up in 2009 in The Hague is due to issue its ruling on the battle over 13 square kilometres comprising the bay as well as largely uninhabited land.

Slovenia, which has just 46 kilometres of shoreline, believes its access to international waters will be at stake if the court finds in favour of Croatia, where the coast stretches 1,700 kilometres.

"[The verdict] is about Slovenia having official sovereign access to international waters," said Slovenian expert Verica Trstenjak, a law professor at the University of Vienna.

"It's a very emotional debate for the country which only has a tiny coastline."

French analyst Joseph Krulic, who specialises in ex-Yugoslavian countries, told AFP the court could opt for "a compromise granting Slovenia a narrow corridor with sovereign access to international waters".

Either way the decision will be largely "symbolic", he added, because Slovenia is already guaranteed access to international waters under international law even if it doesn't hold sovereignty over the bay.

- 'Headed for ruin' -

Whatever the outcome, Croatia has made clear it will ignore the ruling.

The country -- which only agreed to join the proceedings after Ljubljana lifted its veto in 2009 to Croatia's accession to the European Union -- pulled out again two years ago following a phone tapping scandal.

A Slovenian judge from the tribunal and a Ljubljana official were recorded discussing tactics for a ruling favourable to Slovenia.

The pair resigned but Zagreb said it had lost trust in the court's impartiality.

"Croatia is neither going to accept nor reject the arbitration's ruling for one very simple reason: the tribunal doesn't exist," Croatian President Kolinda Grabar Kitarovic recently told the Dnevnik newspaper.

An invisible frontier cutting the bay in half already exists, with coast patrols on both sides regularly stopping boats venturing beyond their country's perceived maritime border.

Slovenian fisherman Zdravko Novogradec said a victory for Slovenia would expand his small fishing area but he holds little hope for a positive outcome.

"It will change nothing because the Croats reject the deal," he told AFP while tying his boat to a dock at the pier in Piran.

Pointing to his meagre day's catch, Novogradec lamented that "this will barely bring me 100 euros ($113)".

"We're headed for ruin," he said.

Some ten kilometres south of Piran in Umag, on the Croatian side of the bay, fisherman Daniele Kolec defiantly told AFP that "there will be no ceding" on Croatia's behalf.

- Risk of escalation -

While the story barely made waves in Croatia, it has dominated Slovenian headlines for weeks. The government hopes for a favourable outcome for Ljubljana, which Croatia will eventually have to accept.

But Slovenian media have struck a pessimistic tone.

"There is no mutual trust (between Slovenia and Croatia) and the implementation of the arbitration deal is not plausible. The situation seems, once again, hopeless," columnist Sasa Vidmajer wrote in the Delo newspaper.

Observers meanwhile warned that Zagreb's non-compliance with the ruling could further strain already tense relations with Slovenia, which is Croatia's key entry point into the passport-free Schengen zone.

At worst it could land Croatia in the International Court of Justice, according to some commentators.

"By not accepting the arbitration ruling Croatia will find itself in a completely new position," the Croatian Novi list newspaper commented last week.

"Slovenia will accuse it as a violator of the international law, putting hurdles (for Zagreb) wherever it can, while Croatia will be pressed from Slovenian allies in Europe and world."

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