Row of rivers in Serbia and Croatia leaves locals dry
For more than three decades, Sandor Perzolt’s ancestral farm has resided in Serbia or Croatia, depending on the map. His family’s land near the Danube is locked in a permanent conflict shaped by the changing course of the river.
The feud has left locals like Perzolt caught in an administrative standoff, reducing their livelihoods in ways that could turn combustible.
Over generations, Perzolt’s small patch of gentle farmland has seen kingdoms rise and fall with borders coming and going.
The meanders of the Danube have long served as a border across much of central and south-eastern Europe, where the river divided competing empires and ethnic groups.
In the 1990s, new borders were drawn again after years of brutal fighting that saw Yugoslavia torn apart and several republics emerge in its wake.
“I feel like I live in two countries,” the 64-year-old man told AFP, while peeling corn with his wife.
The ongoing struggle over the region stems from different interpretations of the exact location of the border.
For decades, Serbia has maintained that the national border cuts the center of the river – wherever it may flow right now – with the land east of the Danube belonging to Belgrade.
Croatia, meanwhile, claims a handful of enclaves along the eastern banks of the Danube, citing older maps that no longer reflect the current course of the river.
– Talking about discussions –
The Perzolts and a small number of families residing in the disputed plots must deal with the pitfalls that come with living in Territorial Purgatory.
“After my marriage in the (early) 1990s, I became a Croat for the first time and I am still their citizen,” Perzolt explained.
“But I also received Serbian nationality because I couldn’t register my tractors otherwise.”
Zagreb continues to provide the family with state subsidies for agriculture.
Still, Perzolt is not allowed to sell his goods in Croatia because the Croatian authorities demand tariffs for all goods that pass through his checkpoint across the river.
“You know the procedure… They would ask me if I was carrying alcohol or cigarettes. We are not smugglers, we are farmers,” Perzolt said.
Most of the disputed 140 square kilometers (54 miles) of land is uninhabited and largely consists of forests and islands.
The region briefly made headlines in 2015 when a group of right-wing libertarians sought to exploit overlapping claims and announced the formation of a new country – the “Free Republic of Liberland” – over the one of the islands in the river, to be chased away by the Croatian border police.
Croatian and Serbian authorities have made occasional attempts over the years to resolve the issue.
In the early 2000s, a joint commission was created to settle the dispute but rarely met and offered no roadmap for moving forward.
And then in 2018, the presidents of Serbia and Croatia promised to take the case to international arbitration if they didn’t reach an agreement by 2020.
The deadline then passed with officials citing the pandemic as the reason for the delay.
“We expect that after the return to normal of international travel as well as the practice of holding sessions, talks on the establishment of the border will continue,” the Croatian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
– ‘Complicated and stupid’ –
Croatia – an EU member – has pledged to use the issue to block Serbia’s path to bloc membership if it fails to come to an agreement.
Serbian officials appear to have little appetite to concede land to their former rivals in Zagreb no matter what.
“It is certain that the Republic of Serbia will not accept any arrangement which would involve trade in our own territory,” Nemanja Starovic, State Secretary at the Serbian Foreign Ministry, told AFP.
Political analyst Aleksandar Popov said neither country seemed to be doing much to strike a deal, with both sides using “inflammatory rhetoric” instead.
Disagreements over plots of land are common in several countries of the former Yugoslavia, with Brussels warning EU aspirants in the Balkans that border disputes must be resolved before joining the bloc.
With no solution in sight, residents of the disputed areas remain stuck in the middle, some regretting the days when the land was part of one country and life was simpler.
“It’s complicated and stupid,” said Petar Maksimovic, who owns a disputed fish restaurant along the Eastern Shore.
Gone are the days, explained the fisherman, when he could easily cross the river to help a friend with his harvest or enjoy a glass of wine.
“To visit my old friends on the Croatian side (…) I need my passport and a vaccination record,” Maksimovic told AFP.
“Now I don’t even go there anymore.”
mbs / ds / jv