Croatia: Bridge over troubled water

Peljesac Bridge

Connecting Croatian territory into a continuous body of land has become addled by political rumdumm from all sides (Croatian and Bosnian and Herzegovinian). The issue of Peljesac Bridge that would provide for the uninterrupted access to all Croatian districts and land, border issue, hots up as Croatia’s imminent entry into the European Union draws nearer to July 1, 2013.

As things stand now, persons wanting to travel by car from northern part of Croatia into Dubrovnik, Peljesac Peninsula, the islands of Mljet, Vis, Lastovo, Korcula etc must enter Bosnia and Herzegovina and 5 kilometers later re-enter Croatia. And vice versa!

Membership of the EU, which is supposed to lead to membership of the EU’s Schengen area of borderless travel, requires stricter checks at the border and having Croatia broken into two as is now will mean greater disruption of trade and tourism. Bosnia’s problems with organised crime and people-smuggling mean that those tougher checks cannot be relaxed or overlooked.

The idea to build Peljesac Bridge arose among Croatians in 1997 and rejected in the same year. In 1998 the idea for the bridge gained support. In 2000 the bridge was added to the spatial plan for the Dubrovnik-Neretva County of Croatia. The building works on the bridge commenced in November 2005, under Croatian Democratic Union/HDZ government. Then came concerns by eco-activists that building the bridge may cause damage to sea life in the Bay of Mali Ston (which flourishes with Oyster & Mussels farming). These concerns proved unfounded, and then came new opposition to building the bridge on economic grounds. I.e., that the bridge would cost too much money; that an undersea tunnel would cost less; that some new deal could perhaps be made with Bosnia and Herzegovina…that if the bridge was going to be built it would need to be at least 55 meters high to allow for biggest ships – as nearby seaside Bosnia & Herzegovina town of Neum might want to build an industrial port one day!

Between 2007 and 2008 tenders were called by Croatian government for the building of the bridge. Works on access terrain to future bridge started from both sides in Autumn 2008 under the Croatian Democratic Union government, with 2015 nominated as the year of completion.

In late 2011 when Social Democrat/SDP led government took over in Croatia they terminated the building contract already in progress worth about 259 Million EURO. Early 2012 Zoran Milanovic led government said that ferrying people across the Bay would be less expensive. That fell into the wastebasket as a terrible idea and one that still does not join all Croatian territory. Then the SDP led government came up with the idea that a road corridor through Bosnia and Herzegovina would perhaps be better. In the meantime Tomislav Karamarko, leader of HDZ opposition, insisted that Peljesac Bridge must be build. That coincided with EU coming into the party – suggesting EU funds could perhaps be used to build the bridge, and certainly 200,000 EURO have been put aside last month for a feasibility study (even though a feasibility study exists from before) for the bridge.

But this rumdumm ain’t over yet, and one cannot avoid the impression that someone out there doesn’t want to see the Croatian territory uninterrupted.

Along come new complications in the past few weeks. Bosnia and Herzegovina are disputing the border around the area where the bridge is to be built. I.e., a document purporting to represent an agreement between dr Franjo Tudjman (President of Croatia) and Alija Izetbegovic (Bosniak member of Bosnian-Herzegovinian Presidency) in 1999.  This is a border agreement with which Croatia reportedly transfers to Bosnia and Herzegovina the tip of the Klek peninsula and two tiny islets Mali and Veliki Skoj near the proposed Peljesac bridge site. The Milanovic government decided recently to pass the agreement for ratification in Parliament, thus causing fiery disputes in Croatia’s public domain, which grew into delicate attacks between President Ivo Josipovic and the government, stirring the spirits among experts too. The document is reportedly ratified by the lower chamber of Bosnia’s parliament and whether it will be ratified in the Croatian parliament is yet to be seen. There are new calls against possible swift ratification, including comments by Tomislav Karamarko, leader of HDZ opposition, that late President Tudjman was very ill at the time in 1999 and may not have been fully informed or aware of implications of the so-called agreement.

The political plot thickens around Peljesac Bridge and southern Croatian beauties such as Dubrovnik and Korcula, with significant population and tourism industry remain cut off from the bulk of their homeland.

While according to international law Croatia has the right to connect its territory by building a bridge, Bosnia and Herzegovina also has a right to a free access to the sea, but the madness in this is that some think that if Peljesac bridge were to be built it might need to be over 75 meters high in order to cater for the possibility (wishful thinking) that one day the largest of passenger cruisers might just pay a visit to Neum; others say that Bosnia and Herzegovina might want to build a commercial harbour in Neum which means one needs to provide for tall industrial cranes, up to 75 meters or so!

Bosnia, headed by foreign minister Zlatko Lagumdzija, says the bridge threatens its access to open seas and would prefer a closed road corridor in the hinterland above Neum.

Well, there seems to be at least one sober person in this madness: portal reports that Neum’s mayor Zivko Matusko welcomes Peljesac bridge and does not want his municipality split in two by the corridor Croatia’s SDP led government still hasn’t put to rest. Matusko urges the parties to sit down, reach an agreement and stop trading with territory. He rejected a possibility of building a cargo port in Neum, saying that the town’s strategy was to develop tourism and the terrain and sea depth around Neum are simply not suited for large commercial port. He said that a maritime port could only be in the nearby Croatian town of Ploce.

With all the idiocy Lagumdzija swivels around about big ships and cranes filling little Neum’s foreshores in some distant future the Croatian government seems to have forgotten that a great proportion of its population lives in the Dubrovnik-Neretva County and deserve, have a right to, uninterrupted access to the rest of Croatia, and vice versa – as soon as possible. It’s not just entering EU that’s important in this matter, it’s the right of Croatia to connect its territory into a united whole and a bridge is the best solution. Ina Vukic, Prof. (Zgb); B.A., M.A.Ps. (Syd)

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