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why is croatia split into two?

Why is Croatia Split in Two? How Bosnia got its Coastline

Bridging Western Europe and the Southeast, Croatia is a melting pot of Mediterranean and Balkan culture. Scenic pebbled beaches, turquoise waters, and countless historical cities all contribute to Croatia’s allure and there are tons of places worth visiting from its vibrant capital to its uninhabited islands and the walled old towns of its ancient settlements. 

But what if you had to cross an international border just to get from Croatia’s sprawling northern mainland to its most popular tourist destination, Dubrovnik? Take a closer look at the map and you’ll see that Bosnia and Herzegovina actually bisects Croatia’s 6,000 kilometers of coastline, cutting it neatly in two and claiming a tiny portion of the Adriatic seaboard. 

This nine-kilometer stretch of territory, encompassing the Klek Peninsula that juts out into the Adriatic, is called the Neum Corridor and it cuts the southernmost Croatian enclave off from the rest of the country. Our guide explores how it came to be this way and asks if you really need a passport to get from Split to Dubrovnik. Let’s go.  

Why is Croatia split in two?

croatian seaside town

Croatia is blessed with more than 6,000 kilometers of coast, including its sprawling mainland and picturesque islands. Dubrovnik, like many of Croatia’s most popular tourist destinations, sits on this coastline and is steeped in history, best known for its UNESCO World Heritage Old Town that is encircled by 16th-century stone walls and dotted with well-preserved buildings in Baroque, Renaissance, and Gothic styles. The pedestrianized central plaza is surrounded by restaurants, and the steep cobblestoned streets of its historic core are peppered with boutique shops. 

Yet, the entire Dubrovnik region is cut off from the rest of mainland Croatia by the Neum Corridor. So you’re probably wondering whether you really have to cross two international borders just to reach the city. Before we get into that, let’s look at how Croatia ended up being split in two in the first place. 

Croatia used to belong to Yugoslavia, a former federated country in the west-central Balkans, that was made up of six republics, namely Serbia, Slovenia, Montenegro, Macedonia, Croatia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Later, Kosovo became a seventh independent state from Serbia. Serbia was, and is, the largest, while Montenegro is the smallest recognized country of former Yugoslavia. 

Yugoslavia was established in 1929 by the Polish and other Western Slavs who wanted to forge a common state of all South Slavic regions in order to prevent a Russo-Austrian division of the Ottoman Empire. When Yugoslavia splintered off into its smaller republics in 1991, not every country got an equal deal. 

Croatia was blessed with 4,000 miles of coastline with tiny islands and Medieval towns that would inevitably draw millions of tourists, while Macedonia and Kosovo were left land-locked, but Bosnia wouldn’t draw the short straw. The Neum Corridor might give Bosnia and Herzegovina the shortest coastline of any country in the world, bar Monaco, but it is a coastline nonetheless, and it separated the Dubrovnik region from Croatia. 

Bosnia’s shores stretch for just over 12 miles (20 kilometers) and are even shorter than the coastlines of tiny Pacific islands like Tuvalu and Nauru. Yugoslavia’s separation might have led to the official independence of Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina respectfully, meaning international borders would now separate Dubrovnik from Croatia, but the history of the Neum Corridor goes back much further. In fact, the tract of land has been separated from Dubrovnik all the way since the Treaty of Karlowitz in 1699.   

Has Croatia always been split in two?

croatian coastline
Photo by Sergii Gulenok on Unsplash

During the Great Turkish War in the late 17th century, Dubrovnik, a city and a state at the time, allied with the Ottoman Empire, but this resulted in much of the Ottoman lands in the Balkans being afforded to the victors: the Habsburgs and Venice. 

Dubrovnik feared a Venetian attack so much, that, as a buffer against Venice, it gave away a small belt of land at its northern tip to the Ottoman Empire. This decision made what would come to be known as Neum a permanent part of the Ottoman-ruled provinces of Bosnia and Herzegovina. 

Croatia has essentially always been split in two, but when Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina both belonged to Yugoslavia, it was much easy to cross the Neum Corridor. Even up until 2013, security was so relaxed at these international borders that tour buses and family cars could zip right through Neum without stopping for anyone to show their passports. 

However, Croatia signed the accession treaty in 2011 and became part of the EU on the 1 July 2013, while Bosnia and Herzegovina remained outside. This bought tighter border security and long traffic backups to the Croatia-Bosnia border at Neum.  

Why did Yugoslavia break up?

a map of the world
Photo by British Library on Unsplash

Yugoslavia was once a vast federated country, but it dissolved into its constituent states at the end of the 20th century for a number of cultural and political reasons. Religious divisions between ethnic groups, centrifugal nationalist forces, and painful memories of atrocities committed by all sides in WWII all contributed to the split. 

Yugoslavia was a communist country, and before its division, it was considered to be the most well-developed of all communist states. Yugoslavia was actually first divided into its six republics after WWII, but they were held tightly together by Josip Broz Tito, the communist revolutionary born to a Croatian father and Slovenian mother in Croatia in 1892 – which was part of Austro-Hungary at the time. 

Tito was responsible for the “second Yugoslavia”, which covered similar territory to the preceding state, but it included land acquired from Italy, like the Istrian Peninsula and Dalmatian coast that would come to belong to Croatia. Although cultural and religious divides ultimately led to Yugoslavia’s fall, a series of major political events also served as catalysts for compounding tensions in the republic. 

Tito’s death in 1980 was succeeded by the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe in 1989, the unification of Germany a year later, and the fall of the Soviet Union. As Eastern European states started to abandon communist governments and move toward market economies and democratic elections, attention from the West diverted from Yugoslavia, and the external financial support needed to save an economy already on the brink of collapse was denied of the republic.

What’s more, the removal of an imminent Soviet threat meant Yugoslavia no longer had such profound incentives for unity. While a communist president promoted nationalism in Serbia and was met by Kosovan protests, Slovenia and Croatia elected non-communist parties to control the state legislatures and governments. Slovenia was the first state to declare sovereignty in 1990, stating that Slovenian law would take precedence over Yugoslav law, Croatia followed a few months later, and Bosnia-Herzegovina a few months after that. 

As George H. W. Bush was appointed president of the United States, his focus remained on the Soviet Union, Germany, and the crisis in the Persian Gulf. Yugoslavia had seemingly lost the geopolitical significance it benefited from in the Cold War. When the Yugoslavian crises ultimately turned bloody, the West sat back and waited to see what would happen rather than intervening. 

Violence sparked between armed militias when the Serb minority in Croatia tried to declare their own independence. The Yugoslav Army intervened but they favored the Serbian-Croats and a civil war followed that devastated Croatia. Tens of thousands of people were killed and hundreds of thousands were displaced from their homes. The Serb minority also boycotted a referendum for independence in Bosnia and Herzegovina, but they successfully declared independence in 1992, following Macedonia which declared independence after a September 1991 referendum. 

Croatia and Slovenia joined the United Nations, closely followed by Bosnia, and by January 1992, the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia no longer existed. Serbia and Montenegro attempted to form a new Yugoslavia, but it wasn’t recognized by the rest of the EU. War broke out in Bosnia and Herzegovina, claiming thousands of lives and displacing millions over the next few years, this was followed by violence in Kosovo from 1998-99, calling for their own independence from Serbia. Milosevic finally lost his power in 2001 and was charged with his war crimes. Kosovo finally declared independence in 2008 and was recognized by the US and most European states, but against Russian and Serbian objections. 

Do Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina get along?

birdseye view of croatia
Photo by Zac Wolff on Unsplash

The diplomatic relations between Yugoslavia’s former states can be tricky to navigate. Conflict and political upheaval have been a big part of Yugoslavia’s modern history, and Bosnia and Croatia are no different. 

The Croat-Bosniak War, in which the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina clashed with the Croatian Republic of Herzeg-Bosnia was supported by Croatia and saw a climax of tension reached between the two countries. However, Croatia officially recognized Bosnia and Herzegovina on 24 January 1992, which led to Bosnia doing the same for Croatia on 7 April, and the two republics signed an agreement of mutual friendship and cooperation on 21 July, even though the Yugoslav Wars persisted.

Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina have signed 111 treaties between them regarding diplomatic missions and deliminate border disputes. Today, Bosniaks and Croats haven’t forgotten their complex pasts, but they tend to be friendly and admire each other’s hospitality, faith, and unity. 

Croatia is one of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s official languages, along with Bosnian and Serbian, which are also both recognized in Croatia as minority languages. Croats account for 15.43 percent of Bosnia’s population with over 500,000 Croats residing in Bosnia and Herzegovina, while 31,500 Bosniaks call Croatia home, accounting for just 0.75 percent of the total population. 

Do you need a passport to visit Dubrovnik from Croatia?

border at split croatia
Photo by Arno Senoner on Unsplash

To drive from the northern Croatian mainland over to the Dubrovnik region through the Neum Corridor, all passengers, including Croats, Bosniaks, and foreign nationals, require a passport since two international borders must be crossed. Bosnia and Herzegovina are not a member state of the European Union, which means you must leave the EU and reenter just to drive from one side of Croatia to the other. However, Croatia finally found a solution to this in 2022. 

With traffic jams and border queues deterring tourists and requiring more manpower at the Croatia-Bosnia border, at the turn of the century, Croatia proposed the construction of a 2,400-meter bridge across the channel between Komarna on the northern mainland and the Peljesac Peninsula, which is connected to the Dubrovnik region but sits across from Neum, facing Bosnia’s small strip of coastline. 

Unsurprisingly, Bosniaks protested this idea, since the bridge could embroil ship traffic if Neum were to ever become a bustling seaport. As it stands, the only seafront in Bosnia is home to a quiet resort town, but with imminent political shifts in Bosnia and Herzegovina, that could all change. 

Nevertheless, Croatia started construction in 2007, but global economic collapse led to delays and the bridge had just a few concrete foundations to show for itself for the following decade. However, Croatia managed to secure €420 million to restart the project, 85 percent of which came from the EU, and the Pelješac Bridge finally opened in July 2022. 

The bridge is 2.4 kilometers long and 55 meters high and cuts the journey time between Dalmatia and Dubrovnik down from one hour to around 20 minutes. The “project of generation” also includes 30 kilometers of new roads and has been described as “achieving (…) unification of Croatian territory” and representing “the essence of the EU’s existence, in bridging and connecting”. 

This means, you no longer need to cross the Neum Corridor, and therefore any international borders, to travel from Dalmatia to Dubrovnik. These changes have only come into effect very recently, but there were also other ways to get to Dubrovnik without using your passport, such as traveling by boat from northern Croatia to the southeast, which many tourists chose to do over the border crossing. Still, the bridge is a big move toward the unification of Croatia, but as of October 2022, Bosnia has been recommended for the status of EU candidate, which could remove many of the persisting border issues at the Neum Corridor anyway. 

Is Bosnia’s coastline worth visiting?

Bosnia’s tiny stretch of coastline, the second-shortest in the world, is one of Europe’s best-kept secrets and an undiscovered gem. Neum is Bosnia’s only coastal city, and it’s mostly frequented by locals or a rare, few in-the-know tourists. Neum was mostly built to serve the communist elite in the 60s and it does give the feeling that you’ve been transported back to Yugoslav times, but the crystal clear waters are as inviting as Croatia’s, and protection from the Pelješac Peninsula means the uncrowded beaches are perfect for swimming, snorkeling, and jet skiing. 

When did Croatia split from Italy? 

Many parts of Croatia were historically owned by Italy, including Istria and Dalmatia. In fact, Croatia was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, like Italy, for more than a century before World War I. Croatia was briefly returned to Italy after the war, but it was claimed by Tito’s second Yugoslavia in 1929. Croatia declared sovereignty in 1991 and successfully fought a War of Independence for the following four years. 

How do you get from Split to Dubrovnik?

There are a few ways to travel the 230-kilometer distance from Split to Dubrovnik. You can take a four-hour bus that crosses the Neum Corridor and requires you to show your passport, there’s also a ferry service that runs regularly in the high season and takes a similar amount of time but doesn’t cross any borders, or you can travel via the new Pelješac Bridge, either by bus, private transfer or hire car. The bridge is just under a two-hour drive from Split on the Dalmatian mainland, and just over an hour from Dubrovnik. The total driving time from Split to Dubrovnik via the Pelješac Bridge is around three hours.