"Chocolategate 2" erupts in the Balkans

By Ivana Jovanovic in Belgrade December 21, 2016

As the festive season gets underway, Christmas gift giving has sparked a new diplomatic spat between Croatia and Slovenia. Government officials in Ljubljana were reportedly outraged to receive presents from the Croatian embassy consisting of chocolate boxes featuring a map of Croatia, whose border with Slovenia was drawn across the middle of the Piran Bay – the subject of a longstanding dispute between the two countries.

2016 marked the 25th anniversary of the breakup of Yugoslavia. The seven countries that emerged from the former federation still see each other as a “near abroad”, and personal and economic links are strong. At the same time, however, historic tensions are never far from the surface. These have been amply illustrated in December, as this is the second diplomatic incident concerning chocolate to erupt within the month. 

“Chocolategate 1” broke out on December 6, the national day of the Defenders of Dubrovnik, when Croatian President Kolinda-Grabar Kitarovic met with Croatian children in the town, and gave them packages of presents. One of the parents complained later in a Facebook post that the Croatian president had given her child a Serbian chocolate on the day of remembrance of the siege of Dubrovnik by Serbian forces.

Kitarovic apologised to all the parents involved and launched an investigation to find out who was responsible for the incident. The president’s office later explained that each package of presents included only one Serbian chocolate, Mony made by Serbian company Pionir, among many other sweets. 

However, the president’s apology sparked anger in Belgrade for the implied insult to Serbia, and the dispute was further fuelled by the media. 

The lesson to check chocolate-based gifts for political context apparently wasn’t learned in Zagreb, as two weeks later the Greetings from Croatia chocolate boxes, produced by Croatian company Kras, were delivered to the Slovenian foreign ministry and the cabinets of Prime Minister Miro Cerar and President Borut Pahor, regional media reported.

Croatian news portal Total Croatia News reported that the Slovenian foreign ministry had confirmed that some of its employees had received gifts with a map on which the border between the two states passes through the middle of Piran Bay.

“Given the fact that the border between Croatia and Slovenia has not been determined and is a subject of arbitration proceedings, the ministry has returned the gifts to the Croatian Embassy,” said the Slovenian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Bordering on the ridiculous

The border between the two countries has been an issue since 1991, when they broke away from former Yugoslavia. In 2007, the two countries decided to submit the matter for arbitration to determine the entire course of their land and sea borders. However, the Croatian government pulled out of the arbitration in 2015 after leaked transcripts revealed a Slovenian judge on the arbitration tribunal and a Slovenian foreign ministry official discussing how to influence the outcome.

The ministry has returned the chocolate boxes in bags with the inscription “I Feel Slovenia” (the Slovenian government’s main slogan), as was confirmed by the Croatian ambassador to Ljubljana Vesna Terzic, according to Total Croatia News. 

“I personally chose the gifts, and it did not even cross my mind that this gift would send a political message, much less be considered a provocation,” said Terzic, seemingly forgetting that it was her country that began the ethnic chocolate wars.

“In diplomacy, it is customary to send small, modest gifts to people you regularly collaborate and communicate with. This year, we have sent appropriate gifts, some people received Croatian wines, some people got chocolates, and some people got both. I personally decided what would be given and this was actually my message of good wishes. I did not think that this was some sort of political message, much less provocation,” she said.

According to Terzic, chocolate boxes were not sent to Cerar or Pahor personally, but to employees in their cabinets with whom the Croatian embassy cooperates.

At least Croatia didn’t send Teran wine, which is the subject of another open dispute between the two countries.