Croatia is very proud and possessive of its brilliant coastline.
Known as “the land of 1,000 islands”, it seems unwilling to give up two of them (actually it has about 1,244 islands) to neighboring Bosnia and Herzegovina.
To this day, both countries claim ownership of Mali Školj and Veliki Školj, and the tip of the nearby Klek peninsula.
While this could be a dark debate, Croatia is an EU member state and Bosnia is not.
Croatia is also expected to enter the Schengen area in 2022, according to its prime minister Andrej Plenković, which means that it would form the outer edge of the free travel zone within the EU.
What is the background to this dispute?
The two Školjs have been the subject of a border dispute since the countries declared their independence during the disintegration of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s.
An agreement reached in 1999 considered the islands to belong to Bosnia, but Croatia never ratified it. The last attempt to find a solution took place in 2012, just before Croatia joined the European Union.
“At that time, we were bombarded with stories about Mali and Veliki Školj,” recalls Bosnian journalist Almir Panjeta.
“For several days in a row, I would open any newspaper, especially the ones that supported the government at the time, and this was all they wrote about. It was presented as a great victory, as if it were a dispute over a large island, like Mallorca or something like that ”.
Panjeta told Euronews that he was irritated by the boasting of local politicians and intrigued by islands that he had never heard of, or seen, before, as were many of his compatriots.
“I called my editor at the weekly Slobodna Bosna and said I’d like to see what’s out there. He liked the idea and two days later he was on his way with a photographer ”.
But when the two arrived in Neum, the lonely town on Bosnia’s 22-kilometer coast, the second shortest coastline in Europe after Monaco, they realized something was wrong.
“We asked how to get to the islands and received a couple of puzzled looks. Then we visit one of the owners of the islands, Tihomir Putica, to obtain his permission. He laughed at us, ”recalls Panjeta.
The islands turned out not to be Mallorca, after all. The smaller of the two, Mali Školj, resembles a pile of rocks and is completely submerged when the tide rises. Veliki Školj is barely the size of two football fields, describes Panjeta.
“We reached the first island, Mali Školj. We could not disembark because it was under water, the skipper of the boat told us that this is what usually happens, “he said. “So we told him to take us to the other one.”
Once in Veliki Školj, they unfurled a Bosnian flag and hoisted it with a pole.
“We call it a journalistic performance: ‘The Školj Landing’. We even tried to recreate the famous image of the American flag on Iwo Jima, ”said Panjeta with a laugh.
“It was really a satirical take. We had no intention of provoking anyone or creating an international scandal. By caricaturing our visit as an expedition, we wanted to highlight the absurdity of the whole situation and show that while it is important to resolve all border disputes, the full story about the two islands was simply not worth it, “he explained.
The trick of the Bosnian flag on Veliki Školj did not go unnoticed in Croatia, explains Panjeta. It also coincided with the protests that were being organized in Croatia, driven by Zoran Milanović, who was prime minister at the time and is currently the country’s president, after he said that Bosnia could keep the islands because “we will not get in a discussion with our neighbors for two pebbles in the sea. “
“The far right organized protests in several cities in Croatia on the same day, specifically against Milanović’s statement,” recalls Panjeta.
“They gave passersby two pebbles as a symbol of how the prime minister disrespected the Croatian land.
“But to be fair, most of the media in Croatia knew perfectly well that raising the flag was a joke, and they even ran headlines like ‘Journalists from Slobodna Bosna went to the two islands: there is nothing there.’
“Which is true, we found remains of an old washing machine, a couple of tires and a small pile of mixed garbage, and that was it. We organized an incident that relaxed the tense situation in the end,” concludes Panjeta.
Borders are no laughing matter in the Balkans
After the disintegration of the former Yugoslavia, the question of borders was nominally resolved by the Arbitration Commission of the Conference on Yugoslavia. Also known as the Badinter Commission (named after its president, former French justice minister Robert Badinter), ruled in January 1992 that the borders of the federal republic were recognized as international borders, now that the republics had declared their independence. and they could only be changed by agreement. not by force.
However, disagreements over actual borders persisted through the 1990s.
Things were on the verge of escalation in 1998, when the misunderstanding over the border near the town of Martin Brod almost led to a conflict between the Croatian police and the international peacekeeping forces in Bosnia.
First, the Croatian police withdrew, but Croatian President Franjo Tuđman ordered that the border be forcibly protected, which could have led to a direct conflict with NATO. The international community and other Croatian politicians managed to calm the situation.
Finally, in 1999 an agreement was reached on the two Školjs, between the Bosnian member of the country’s tripartite presidency at that time, Alija Izetbegović, and Tuđman. While the Bosnian side was willing to ratify the document, Croatia never completed the procedure, as Tuđman fell ill and died months after it was signed and before it was ratified in parliament.
But as things were tense back then, the kind of legitimacy that both Izetbegović and Tuđman had as wartime leaders, both since their deaths, in their respective countries does not translate into today’s politicians, says the former Croatian minister of Foreign Affairs Vesna Pusić, making things difficult. so that these problems are solved once and for all.
“I just don’t see that the two parties and their committees sit down and reach an agreement in the future, or that the presidents of the countries have enough legitimacy, especially among internal voices on the right, to even dare to ratify the existing agreement. as such ”, he explains.
As banal as they are, the disagreements, over the two islands, but also the demarcation lines near Martin Brod and Hrvatska Kostajnica, could further fuel nationalist fervor, according to Pusić.
“If we are going to see the agreement from a rational point of view, the best option for Croatia would be to ratify it, as it was when it was drafted,” he said.
“It is a situation that arouses nationalist feelings a lot because it is exactly the type of problem that it generates [nationalists] space to seek care. “
The problems of the Balkans are also problems of the EU
According to Pusić, the argument that it is impossible to enter the EU without resolving border disputes should not be the main impetus to find a proper solution, especially since it is not true in practice.
Croatia has a myriad of seemingly trivial but still unresolved border problems with all of its Western Balkan neighbors.
Serbia and Croatia have yet to solve the problem of a part of their border along the Danube, with two other islands (the river ones) caught in the dispute. Croatia claims another disputed peninsula, Prevlaka, parts of which Montenegro claims as its own because they lie at the entrance to the Montenegrin Bay of Kotor. A temporary solution was found in 2012, but negotiations on a long-term deal have stalled ever since.
Instead, it should serve as a means to disarm the region’s ultra-nationalists, who appear to be on the rise again.
“The current border problems show that you can enter the EU without solving them; both Slovenia and Croatia did, ”he said. “If you have functional countries with decent relationships, that makes nationalists look old-fashioned. They lose their purpose. “
“Whenever this problem reappears, it is the extreme right that makes the most noise, but it also creates the greatest obstacles to solving problems and applying the most rational solutions. I don’t think the current situation hurts anyone, but it leaves the possibility of creating another emotionally charged political conflict, ”concluded Pusić.
The real owners of the Školjs
One of Mali Školj and Veliki Školj’s two owning brothers, Tihomir Putica, told Euronews that while he doesn’t mind the occasional curious explorer of his islands, he doesn’t mind decades-long questions about which country they belong to. for.
“They asked us if we would like the islands to belong to Croatia or Bosnia a thousand times over. I’d rather they belonged to Australia if I’m honest, ”he said.
The two brothers have no plans to develop the larger island as it lacks the necessary permits and access to infrastructure. But owning the only two islands that belong to Bosnia, while surrounded by Croatia, is a source of pride for the Putica family.
“You can’t really anchor a ship there or anything like that. Sometimes we go to check if someone left trash there. But that’s all, ”Putica said.
“The islands are part of our heritage for a long time and it is something that we will leave to our children so that they can say that they are the sole owners of the only two islands in Bosnia.”
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George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism