Croatia is very proud — and possessive — of its glittering coastline.
Known as “the land of 1,000 islands”, it seems to be unwilling to sign over two of them (it actually has about 1,244 islands) to neighbouring Bosnia and Herzegovina.
To this day, both countries claim ownership over Mali Školj and Veliki Školj, and the tip of the Klek peninsula, which is found nearby.
While this might otherwise be an obscure 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 it would form the outer border of the free travel zone within the EU.
What’s the background to this dispute?
The two Školjs have been the subject of a border dispute since the countries declared independence during the disintegration of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s.
An agreement reached in 1999 deemed that the islands belonged to Bosnia, but Croatia never ratified it. The last attempt at finding a solution took place in 2012, right before Croatia entered the European Union.
“At that time, we were bombarded with the stories about Mali and Veliki Školj,” Bosnian journalist Almir Panjeta recalls.
“For several days in a row, you’d open any newspaper, especially the ones supportive of 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 big island, like Majorca or something.”
Panjeta told Euronews that he was irritated by the boasting of local politicians and intrigued by the islands he had never heard of — or seen — before, just like many of his compatriots.
“I called my editor at the Slobodna Bosna weekly and told him I’d like to see what’s out there. He liked the idea and two days later I was on my way together with a photographer.”
But when the two got to Neum, the solitary town on Bosnia’s 22-kilometre coast — the second shortest shoreline in Europe after Monaco’s — they realised something was amiss.
“We asked around about how to get to the islands and got a couple of puzzled looks. Then we visited one of the owners of the islands, Tihomir Putica, to get his permission. He laughed at us,” Panjeta recalls.
The islands turned out not to be Majorca, after all. The smaller of the two, Mali Školj, resembles a pile of rocks and it becomes completely submerged when the tide rises. Veliki Školj is barely the size of two football pitches, Panjeta describes.
“We got to the first island, the Mali Školj. We couldn’t disembark because it was underwater — the skipper of the boat told us that’s what usually happens,” he said. “So we told him to take us to the other one.”
Once on Veliki Školj, they unfurled a Bosnian flag and raised it on a stick.
“We dubbed it a journalistic performance — ‘The Školj Landing.’ We even tried to recreate the famous image of the American flag on Iwo Jima,” Panjeta said, laughing.
“In truth, it was 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 to show that although it’s important to resolve all border disputes, the whole story about the two islands simply wasn’t worth it,” he explained.
The Bosnian flag stunt on Veliki Školj didn’t go by unnoticed in Croatia, Panjeta explains. It also coincided with protests that were being organised across Croatia, spurred by Zoran Milanović — who was prime minister at the time and is currently the president of the country — after he said that Bosnia could have the islands because “we won’t be getting into an argument with our neighbours over two pebbles in the sea”.
“The far-right organised protests in several cities in Croatia on the same day, specifically against Milanović’s statement,” Panjeta recalls.
“They would give two pebbles to passers-by as a symbol of how the PM was disrespecting Croatian land.
“But to be fair, most media outlets in Croatia knew perfectly well that us raising the flag was meant as a joke, and even ran headlines like ‘Slobodna Bosna journalists went to the two islands: there’s nothing there’.
“Which is true — we found remnants of an old washing machine, a couple of tyres, and a small pile of assorted junk, and that was it. We staged an incident that relaxed the tense situation in the end,” Panjeta concludes.
Borders are no laughing matter in the Balkans
After the breakup of the former Yugoslavia, the question of borders was nominally solved 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) it ruled in January 1992 that the federal republic borders were recognised as international borders, now that the republics had declared independence and could only be changed by agreement, not by force.
However, disagreements over the actual borders persisted throughout the 1990s.
Matters were on the brink of escalation as late as 1998 when the misunderstanding over the border near the town of Martin Brod nearly led to a conflict between the Croatian police and the international peacekeeping forces in Bosnia.
First, the Croatian police retreated, but Croatian president Franjo Tuđman ordered the border to be protected by force, which could have led to a direct conflict with NATO. The international community and other Croatian politicians managed to defuse the situation.
An agreement on the two Školjs was finally reached in 1999, between the Bosniak member of the country’s threeway presidency at the time, Alija Izetbegović, and Tuđman. While the Bosnian side was ready to ratify the document, Croatia never completed the procedure, as Tuđman fell ill and died within months of its signing and before it was ratified in parliament.
But as fraught things were back then, the kind of legitimacy that both Izetbegović and Tuđman had as wartime leaders — both since deceased — in their respective countries does not translate to today’s politicians, says former Croatian Minister of Foreign Affairs Vesna Pusić, making it hard for these issues to be solved once and for all.
“I simply don’t see the two sides and their commissions sitting down and reaching an agreement in the future, or that the presidents of the countries would have enough legitimacy — especially among the domestic right-wing voices — to even dare to ratify the existing agreement as such,” she 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 fervour, according to Pusić.
“If we are to look at the agreement from a rational standpoint, the best option for Croatia would be to ratify it, just as it was back when it was drafted,” she said.
“It’s a situation that very much stirs up nationalist sentiments because it’s exactly the kind of issue that gives [nationalists] space to seek attention.”
Balkan problems are EU problems, too
According to Pusić, the argument that it is impossible to enter the EU without resolving border disputes should not be the main impetus for finding an appropriate solution — especially since it is not true in practice.
Croatia has a myriad of seemingly trite but yet unresolved border issues with all of its Western Balkan neighbours.
Serbia and Croatia still haven’t resolved the issue of a portion of their border along the Danube, with another two islands (river ones) caught in the dispute. Croatia claims another disputed peninsula, the Prevlaka, portions of which Montenegro claims as its own because they are found at the entrance of the Montenegrin bay of Kotor. A temporary solution was found in 2012, but negotiations over a long-term agreement have stalled since.
Instead, it should serve as a means of disarming the ultranationalists in the region, who seem to be on the rise again.
“The current border issues show that you can enter the EU without resolving them — both Slovenia and Croatia did that,” she said. “If you have functional countries with decent relations, that makes the nationalists look passe. They lose their purpose.”
“Whenever this issue reappears, it’s the far-right that makes the most noise, but also creates the biggest obstacles to resolving the issues and applying the most rational solutions. I don’t think the current situation hurts anyone, but it leaves the possibility of another emotionally charged political conflict being created,” Pusić concluded.
The real owners of the Školjs
One of the two brothers who own the Mali Školj and Veliki Školj, Tihomir Putica, told Euronews that although he doesn’t mind the occasional curious explorer of his islands, he doesn’t care about the decades-long questions about which country they belong to.
“We were asked about whether we’d like the islands to belong to Croatia or Bosnia a thousand times already. I’d prefer they belonged to Australia if I’m honest,” he said.
The two brothers have no plans to develop the larger island since it lacks the necessary permits and access to infrastructure. But owning the only two islands that belong to Bosnia — while being surrounded by Croatia — is a matter of pride in the Putica family.
“You can’t really anchor a boat there or anything like that. We sometimes go check whether someone left some trash there. But that’s it,” Putica stated.
“The islands are a part of our inheritance from a long time ago and it’s something we’ll leave to our children so that they can say they’re the sole owners of the only two Bosnian islands.”
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