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Problems with Croats Keep Slovenia Near the Quagmire

November 14, 1992

LJUBLJANA, Slovenia (AP) _ A year after its amateur army drove out Yugoslav troops, independent Slovenia seems distant from the war and economic misery that plague other parts of the former federation.

But not distant enough. Disputes with neighboring Croatia threaten to pull Slovenia back into the quagmire.

Unlike Bosnia and Croatia, Slovenia is at peace. Unlike Macedonia, it has gained broad international recognition. Unlike Serbia and Montenegro, now joined in a new Yugoslavia, its economy is not being strangled by economic sanctions.

The last Yugoslav soldiers withdrew from Slovenia on Oct. 26, 1991, after a 10-day war with the tiny republic of 2 million people, which nestles between the Alps and the Adriatic.

Europe was shocked by the war, in which 64 people were killed. But it caused little material damage and was insignificant compared to what came next: six months of Serb-Croat battles in Croatia that cost 10,000 lives, then spilled into Bosnia, where at least 14,000 more have died.

″In many concrete ways we are already out, but we haven’t escaped completely,″ said Zoran Thaler, the deputy foreign minister.

Only Slovenia is exempted from tight European Community controls related to the trade embargo on the new Yugoslavia. Croatia, Bosnia and Macedonia must prove their imports are not being resold to Serbia and Montenegro, which are widely blamed for Yugoslav bloodshed.

Slovenia also is the only republic to start negotiations on trade and aid with the EC and is the first of the former Yugoslav republics in line to join the Council of Europe.

After fruitless talks among Yugoslav leaders in 1991 aimed at saving the federation, Slovenia prepared for independence.

At the time, said France Bucar, president of Slovenia’s parliament, ″I look around, I see those people and I say, we don’t belong in any of this.″

So Slovenia left. The rest of Yugoslavia went up in flames.

Now, according to Ivo Vajgl, spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, disputes with Croatia over borders, roads and tariffs ″are drawing us back closer to Yugoslavia″ and the chaos.

Tensions have increased between the erstwhile secessionist allies. As President Franjo Tudjman of Croatia moves toward better relations with Serb- dominated Yugoslavia, Croatia’s media have begun depicting Slovenia as a new enemy.

The main dispute centers on the 300-mile border, which last year’s independence declarations by both states said would not be changed.

That has changed, Vajgl said with a sigh, and ″we are heavily armed with maps. So are the Croats, it’s just that theirs are different.″

A border barracks on Mount Trdin that was turned over to Slovenian soldiers by the departing Yugoslavs is not only in Croatia, but is an ideal spot for watching Bosnia and parts of Croatia lost to Serbs last year. Slovenia says it will surrender the barracks when a joint commission confirms the border.

Croatia has insisted on policing half of Piran Bay, which is in old Yugoslavia at the southern end of Slovenia’s 25-mile coastline and is under Slovenian control.

The Croatians, whose coastline stretches for 900 miles, say Slovenia must negotiate free passage from the bay to international waters. Croatian police have fired on and confiscated Slovenian boats in the bay.

Radicals on both sides have called for changes in the border, but few Slovenes seem to feel the dispute will turn violent.

″It’s more likely to stay in a phase of ‘cold war’,″ said Ervin Hladnik, a journalist with the weekly Mladina in Ljubljana.

Behind the polemics lie questions of trade and links to the West. Slovenia and Croatia are each other’s most important trading partners, but the Croatian economy is near collapse.

Croatia wants to link Zagreb, its capital, with European highways, but all roads must pass Slovenia, which is building links to Austria and Italy along different routes.

As inflation soared, Croatia put tariffs on goods from Slovenia and taxes on Croatian holiday homes owned by Slovenes.

In October, the day after Tudjman held a summit with President Milan Kucan of Slovenia and declared that ″the spirit of old times are back,″ Kucan’s government imposed retaliatory duties on Croatian goods.

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