On January 30, 1996, two NATO allies, Greece and Turkey, almost went to war over two uninhabited islands in the Aegean Sea. The New York Times called it “a reckless little show down over rocks, goats, and flags”. It was the prompt and decisive mediation of the United States that helped avoid military confrontation. Eighteen years later Southeastern Europe has changed dramatically, leaving behind the legacy of the bloody dissolution of the former Yugoslavia and confrontations in the Aegean Sea. Five countries in the region (Bulgaria, Croatia, Greece, Romania, and Slovenia) are now members of the EU and seven (Albania, Bulgaria, Croatia, Greece, Romania, Slovenia, and Turkey) are NATO members.

While the SE mainland is largely at peace as it strives to advance politically and develop economically, several issues remain and new problems have emerged in the adjacent waters of the Balkan Peninsula. From the Adriatic to the Black Sea, several maritime delimitation disputes are engaging the political, diplomatic and legal communities of the countries concerned. The good news is that no one seems to resort to actions similar to those of 1996 between Greece and Turkey. Issues of maritime delimitation fall within the purview of the International Convention of the Law of the Sea [UNCLOS] of 10 December 1982. In addition to bilateral negotiations, international adjudication bodies are being engaged in delimiting the military boundaries of the coastal states of the region. In the context of Southeastern Europe, questions about bilateral maritime delimitations are currently raised in various fora between Slovenia & Croatia, Croatia & Bosnia, Albania & Greece, Greece & Turkey, and Romania & Bulgaria. Future discussions and negotiations are expected between Montenegro & Croatia, Montenegro & Albania, and Italy with all its adjacent states in the Adriatic and Ionian. The most recent events in Crimea may further complicate the maritime map of the Black Sea.

The spectrum of discussions, negotiations, agreements and adjudications currently underway from Trieste in the Adriatic to Constanta in Romania represents a fascinating new development for international law in general and for international law of the sea in particular in this historical part of the Mediterranean.

An international lawyer and senior fellow at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, Agron Alibali has researched and written in the past on issues related to the maritime delimitations in the Adriatic and Ionian Seas. He is a scholar in residence at the Global Europe Program at the Wilson Center and is also a recipient of an award from the Center of Excellence at the University of Sofia in Bulgaria.