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Development & Aid

Golf Plays Against Local Democracy

BELGRADE, Feb 20 2013 (IPS) - More than 10,000 people living in the coastal Adriatic town Dubrovnik have done what many others in the region could never. They are holding a referendum on a controversial development project that they believe endangers their city.

Dubrovnik is a sough after tourist destination in Croatia, and is listed as a United Nations Science and Culture Organisation (UNESCO) World Heritage site since 1979 due to its historical beauty and charm. The medieval Adriatic town has 43,770 inhabitants, and is often dubbed the ‘Pearl of the Adriatic’.

“The number of signatures needed for the referendum has overcome our expectations,” member of the organisation Board for Call on Referendum Ivan Vidjen told IPS. Under Croatian law a referendum call is valid if organisers collect at least 20 percent of signatures of residents within a region.

The board collected more than 10,000 signatures in the past two weeks.

“Local people have recognised the idea of taking their fate into their own hands…we expected them to be interested in the issue (of a referendum), but did not expect their almost plebiscite response,” Vidjen said.

The referendum will be over a golf park being built on the 415 metres high Srdj hill overlooking Dubrovnik.

Participants in the referendum will have to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to the following question: “Are you for the adoption of the spatial plan that foresees, apart from construction of a golf course, the construction of accommodation objects (villas, apartments, and hotels) on the plateau of Srdj hill?”

Earlier referenda in the Balkans usually dealt with issues such as secession of Croatia and other former Yugoslav republics in the early 1990s, which led to 1991-95 bloody wars in the Balkans, new constitutions of some nations such as Serbia, certification of the European Union (EU) membership in Croatia and Slovenia, or joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). As a rule, they were organised by ruling elites.

“This will be the first referendum initiated by citizens, stemming “from below”; people have shown they want to have a say in their local issues,” said Igor Miosic from board. “It’s also a sign that things were not right in the past 20 years and that democracy should go into their hands.”

Croatia gained independence in the wars of the 1990s, and entered a painful transition into a market economy. This led to mass privatisations, closure of once prosperous factories, legal or illegal land sales, emergence of tycoons, and mass unemployment.

Illegal construction along the Adriatic coast has devastated some of the most beautiful spots, and the people of Dubrovnik feared this might happen to them as well under the cloak of promoting tourism.

Croatia’s economy relies heavily on tourism, which brings some 7 billion dollars a year to the tiny nation of 4.2 million, blessed with a lovely Adriatic coast and stunning islands.

Investors have promised a project in Dubrovnik which would see 18 and nine hole golf courses, a sports centre, a hotel, tennis courts, a horse-riding club, restaurants, galleries, cycling and running tracks, bars and parks.

For the time being, Srdj hill hosts only a cable car from Dubrovnik to the Napoleon-era Imperial fortress on its top, a few souvenir shops, and the small village Bosanka with 20 private homes.

The Dubrovnik golf course was listed among 100 top development priorities by the government some six years ago, but the global economic crisis has slowed down the Israeli firm Golf d.o.o registered in capital Zagreb from investing almost a billion dollars in the Srdj project.

Over the years the area for the project grew from the original and legally approved 100 hectares to 300 hectares.

“It looks like it will host 268 villas and a 1,600 apartments complex, and the equivalent of 5,600 units of 60 square metres,” Marija Kojakovic, local architect said at a January panel on the Srdj golf course project. “Is it really what Dubrovnik needs at the moment?”

Several concerns have been expressed about the effect the development would have on Srdj environment and its biodiversity. The hill is now mostly forest and agricultural land. Home owners in Bosanka village said the expanded plan does not provide for small roads leading from their property to the nearby asphalt road.

“Our law on referendum calls for all collected signatures to be sent to the Public Administration Ministry in Zagreb, which has 60 days to bring a decision on approval for the referendum, and then send it to local authorities who are obliged to call it,” Vidjen said.

“We see no problems with investments coming to Dubrovnik and development of our town,” Vidjen said. “We have a problem with functioning of local authorities.”

“The Srdj hill project is one that defines the future of the town, and we were betrayed by the corrupt administration that does not work in the interest of the public,” said Slaven Tolj, who heads the local Art Workshop Lazareti.

The Golf d.o.o. head Maja Brinar has promised 1,500 new jobs for the local population. But the referendum organisers hope the referendum will halt the building plans.

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