Guy Norton in Zagreb -
If there's one subject guaranteed to provoke impassioned debate in Croatia, it's golf. Yes, that's right, golf. While for millions of people around the world the game of golf is considered to be Scotland's greatest gift to humanity after single-malt whisky and deep-fried Mars bars, in Croatia it's more often than not seen as one of the greatest ills of global capitalism.
According to former New York Times correspondent James Barrett Reston, golf is a "plague invented by the Calvinistic Scots as a punishment for man's sins". In fiercely Catholic Croatia the game is often viewed in much the same light, with opponents of the 90 or so proposed golf course developments in the country keen to characterise golf as the sport of choice for global property speculators willing to wreak long-term environmental damage on Croatia in pursuit of short-term profit.
Supporters of the game, however, see it as a potential source of billions of euros of much-needed foreign direct investment and a welcome addition to the limited menu of Croatian tourism, which currently is largely restricted to so-called "sea and sun" holidays in the high season months of July and August. Given the sharply divided opinions about the merits/demerits of the sport in Croatia, it's no surprise that golf has become the subject of such fevered discussions.
In October 2011, after a three-year campaign, environmental groups led by Friends of the Earth Croatia and Zelena Akcija (Green Action) emerged victorious in their fight for the abolition of legislation, popularly dubbed the Golf Course Law, which they successfully argued was unconstitutional, effectively encouraged corruption and was environmentally damaging. The environmental campaigners enjoyed widespread public support, with opinion polls showing that more than two-thirds of the population was opposed to widespread gold development.
But less than three years later and the latest round in the battle over golf is again in full swing, with environmentalists and politicians debating the pros and cons of a new forestry law, which if it receives parliamentary approval later this year, will contain provisions that will facilitate the development of golf courses on land previously protected from any form of non-forestry activity.
According to Jagoda Munic, head of nature protection at Zelena Akcija in Zagreb, the draft forestry law is an ill-disguised rehash of the Golf Course Law. "It represents an attempt to push the provisions of the unconstitutional and repealed Golf Course Law through the back door," she says. "Zelena Akcija believes [the proposed legislation] is extremely detrimental to the preservation of forests, but also for the rule of law as we are again dealing with unconstitutional provisions."
In March, Zelena Akcija held a demonstration outside the Sabor, the Croatian parliament, complete with banners proclaiming "Sume nisu golf igralista!" (Forests are not golf courses!)
Meanwhile, inside the Sabor Agriculture Minister Tihomir Jakovina, whose department oversees the nation's state-owned forests, told lawmakers that the proposed law is "primarily intended to accelerate administrative procedures to dispose of land owned by Croatia to attract new investors with high-quality investment projects, which would imply increased economic activity and new jobs."
There were plenty of dissenting voices to that opinion, with Josip Boric, a member of the leading opposition party, the HDZ, claiming: "It is amazing that the strategic interest of Croatia lies in building golf courses, not creating jobs. The adoption of such laws is the worst form of corruption because it represents legalized robbery."
Meanwhile, Mirela Holy, a former environment minister, who recently established Orah, a green issues-oriented party, said that proposed legislation was ill conceived and would inevitably be subject to legal challenges. "If this law is passed, I'm sure that it will be submitted for a review of its constitutionality, as was the case with the Golf Course Law," says Holy. "This proposal is a dangerous risk - it's not in the public interest and I appeal to the government to withdraw it from parliamentary procedure, so as not to shoot itself in the foot."
In the face of the fierce opposition both inside and outside parliament, Jakovina agreed that rather than forcing through the proposed legislation on an expedited basis, the government would hold a further parliamentary debate later this year to enable the opposition to table amendments to the law.
Among the most controversial of the proposed golf course developments in Croatia is Golf Park Dubrovnik. The €1bn-plus project, which is Croatia's largest greenfield investment to date, was first unveiled back in 2006 but has since been delayed by legal wrangling. Alongside a golf course and golf academy designed by the famous Australian golfer Greg Norman, the project will include a giant complex of 400 apartments, 240 villas and two five-star hotels on the Srdj plateau overlooking the famous walled port city of Dubrovnik, a Unesco World Heritage site since 1979 and the leading tourist destination in Croatia.
Last April, protesters against the development, gathered under the campaign group, "Srdj je nas!" (Srdj is Ours!), failed in their attempt to derail the development when not enough of Dubrovnik's 40,000 inhabitants turned out in a local referendum on the project. While roughly 80% of those who actually voted were against Golf Park Dubrovnik, total participation was just 31.3% of eligible voters - less than the 50% participation rate required for any decision made in local referenda to be legally binding. Srdj is Ours leader Djuro Capor has vowed to continue to mount legal challenges against the development, which he claims would be both environmentally destructive and imperil Dubrovnik's Unesco World Heritage site status, as well as rob the city's citizens of access to the Srdj plateau. The site of the proposed golf course has a particular resonance for Croatia, as it was the scene of fierce fighting in 1991 against a combined Serbian-Montenegrin force during Croatia's 1991-1995 war on independence from Yugoslavia.
As Enes Cerimagic, legal adviser to Zelena Akcija, told TV broadcaster Euronews, the Golf Park Dubrovnik project will see an area comprising of one-third of Dubrovnik's public landholdings turned into a private sector resort that will have little financial benefit for Dubrovnikans. "This is not at all a golf project as it is referred to... [The promoters] are trying to push a real estate development."
The project has its local supporters. Dubrovnik's mayor Andro Vlahusic is firmly in favour of Golf Park Dubrovnik, claiming the project will create much-needed new jobs for the city's citizens. "This project will mean new employees, around 500 permament and 500 seasonal."
Another supporter is Nikola Dobroslavic, prefect of Dunrovnik-Neretva county, who believes it will help to extend the city's tourist season beyond the peak season of July and August. "The project will help Dubrovnik tourism, especially in the winter months."
Maja Frenkel, a former deputy economy minister in Croatia and wife of Israeli businessman Aaron Frenkel who is bankrolling the Golf Park Dubdrovnik project, claims the proposed development will help Dubrovnik to achieve its full tourism potential, telling Euronews: "Today Dubrovnik has an [annual] income from tourism of around €300m, Florence has €4bn, so the potential [for Dubrovnik] is obvious."
Barring any last-minute legal challenges preliminary construction work is scheduled to begin later this year. So while unemployed building workers will clearly look on the Israeli-led project as an opportunity, opponents will no doubt continue to curse Scottish Calvinists for their endorsement of golf.
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