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Slovenia to hold poll on border dispute with Croatia

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(LJUBLJANA) - Slovenia goes to the polls this Sunday for a referendum on what, to many outsiders, appears to be no more than an arcane border dispute with Croatia.

But analysts are describing it as a 'high noon' moment, saying the outcome of the vote could have implications not only for Slovenian foreign policy, but perhaps for the future of EU enlargement in the Balkans.

Ljubljana and Zagreb have been squabbling for 19 years now over 13 square kilometres (five square miles) of largely uninhabited land and a wedge of territorial water in and around Piran Bay.

Slovenia, which has just 46 kilometres (29 miles) of coastline, sees its access to international waters at stake, because Croatia, whose huge Adriatic coast stretches for 1,700 kilometres, wants the border to be drawn down the middle of the bay.

When both countries were part of Yugoslavia, borders were not really important. But since both countries declared independence in 1991, the issue has festered, souring relations between the traditional allies.

Slovenia -- which was the first former Yugoslav state to join the European Union in 2004 -- has long vetoed Croatia's bid to become the bloc's 28th member, fearing that Zagreb's membership application would tacitly recognise Croatia's definition of its borders.

However, in a compromise deal last November, the two sides agreed to resolve the issue via an international arbitration committee, whose decision would be legally binding.

Both countries' parliaments approved the solution, but Slovenia decided to put it to a popular referendum as well this Sunday.

Some 1.7 million Slovenians are eligible to vote and turnout is expected to reach 60-65 percent, which is unusually high for referendums.

Prime Minister Borut Pahor and his centre-left coalition insist that resolving the dispute via arbitration was the best possible solution because it would specifically include an article giving Slovenia direct access to international shipping waters.

But the head of the opposition centre-right Slovenian Democratic Party (SDS), Janez Jansa, slammed the deal as "capitulation", saying it went against the country's interests.

According to the latest opinion polls, the vote could go either way.

A poll published by Ljubljana's daily Dnevnik showed 37.6 percent of citizens were against the dispute going to arbitration, while 37 percent were in favour.

But another survey published by the Delo daily said 50.7 percent of voters backed the deal while 36.1 percent would vote against it.

A "No" vote would certainly weaken Pahor and his Croatian counterpart Danilo Turk, who similarly backed the deal.

But analysts said the dispute, which may appear to be of only modest global implications, could have a much wider fallout.

According to analysts Kristof Bender and Gerald Knaus at the European Stability Initiative, a "No" vote would be "a godsend to opponents of EU enlargement, playing to every Balkan stereotype.

"If even Slovenia and Croatia, two traditional allies with no history of conflict, cannot resolve their disagreements, what hope is there for the rest of the region? Why would Europe want yet more fractious members in its already troubled ranks," they asked.

By contrast, a "Yes" vote "would truly be a step towards the day when the Northern Adriatic would become at last a place without borders," the analysts said.

"All is now in the hands of the Slovenian electorate. It is truly high noon in Slovenia," they added, referring to the 1952 classic western movie starring Gary Cooper as a town marshall facing a deadly gunman.

Voting will start at 7.00 am (05H00 GMT) on Sunday and polls will be closed at 7.00 pm, with the first unofficial results expected late on Sunday.

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