Published in Nacional number 523, 2005-11-21



‘The Government needs to issue a public tender for the Peljesac Bridge'

President Stjepan Mesic speaks exclusively for Nacional on the government’s decision to build the Peljesac Bridge without a public tender and without agreement from BiH, the government’s economic policies and claims by the government spokesman that the state’s security situation is satisfactory

“I agree that the bridge needs to be built, as was the highway. But when you launch a project, you need to be well prepared. When that is done, the people in both countries will be satisfied. Whenever we face an issue which either directly or indirectly affects our neighbours, common courtesy says that we need to discuss it with them first”“I agree that the bridge needs to be built, as was the highway. But when you launch a project, you need to be well prepared. When that is done, the people in both countries will be satisfied. Whenever we face an issue which either directly or indirectly affects our neighbours, common courtesy says that we need to discuss it with them first”Ten days ago, Premier Ivo Sanader officially opened works on the project to build the Peljesac Bridge, one of the largest construction projects since the establishment of this state. However, this event aroused serious polemics in neighbouring Bosnia Herzegovina, where politicians claim that Croatia had belittled and ignored them in the process. In their opinion, the Croatian government will have to invest higher quality discussions into the issue, particularly since the BiH side holds that the bridge as planned will hinder the entrance of ships into their sea port.

On Monday morning, Croatian President Stjepan Mesic spoke with Nacional and criticized the government for its conduct in the case, thereby directly confirming that the criticisms of the BiH government are founded.

In his interview with Nacional, he revealed his criticisms of the government on the Peljesac Bridge project in detail. He announced that the government should have better prepared the project and discussed the issue at length with BiH, and requested that an international tender for the construction of the bridge be issued. In this interview, Mesic also outlined his vision of Croatia’s economic priorities for 2006, explained some aspects of reforms to the intelligence community and commented on the government’s claims that even after an increase in violent burglaries, the security situation in the state is satisfactory.

NACIONAL: How do you comment on the criticisms of the BiH government that the Croatian government has allegedly acted arbitrarily in deciding to construct the Peljesac bridge?

- I have always said that we need to discuss issues of mutual interest with our neighbours. At the very least, we need to inform them of what we are doing and why, and what the consequences will be in those issues that also affect them. When we expanded the free economic zone, we should have discussed the issue with the Italians, Slovenians and Bosnians. We needed to discuss the issue of oil transport with BiH. You always need to find a common solution with your neighbours. If we are constructing a highway which passes over parts of BiH, that also needs to be discussed. If we have not yet resolved the issue of the Port of Ploce, and we’ve already begun to build the Peljesac Bridge, then such a reaction from BiH could be expected.

NACIONAL: The representatives of the Croatian government and the BiH Council of Ministers have discussed the Peljesac Bridge project several times however, despite this, the BiH side claims that the Croatian government did not deliver the complete project documentation. Then the government opened the start of works on the project. Do you hold the conduct of the government to be irresponsible?

- Considering that I don’t have all the information in this case, I wouldn’t want to comment. This is primarily an issue of principle, particularly if it concerns the construction of a bridge for which we still do not have any precise cost assessments. This is one of the largest construction projects in Croatia, and the cost assessments made to date have varied by more than one hundred million euro. It is impermissible to enter into such a project based only on an agreement with the designers. The Peljesac Bridge project needs to realized based on an international tender.

The bridge needs to satisfy all the terms of international conventions, the geomechanics need to be established and its architecture needs to be acceptable. It will also be metaphoric in the fact that it will connect Croatia and it will present the possibilities of Croatian construction and not simply be a structure that will connect two geographical points. Therefore, we must not allow for the need to build an alternative in several years time, just because someone perhaps forgot to establish how the winds blow there.

NACIONAL: How is it possible that Premier Sanader open the start of works, while the public tenders for the contractors have not yet been issued?

- The works were likely opened in order to show that the government is serious and dedicated to this project. However, when this bridge is completed, works will need to be started on a highway stretching all the way to Dubrovnik. Regardless of when the road is built, the highway needs to be built. Therefore, in that sense, I can understand the need to open these works. If we are to build a highway which will pass through BiH territory over a small area, then certain outstanding issues which would arise could also be resolved simply, though in practice and life such solutions are a rarity. The section passing through BiH could be opened normally for transport, with the possibility of having BiH controls at the exit points, particularly at Neum. With this option, the highway could pass through BiH without the creation of administrative problems. The issue would then remain only for those individuals wanting to leave the highway there and enter into BiH, but that is something to be resolved with our neighbours. The Croatian public also needs an explanation on how this bridge will be financed and whether we can handle the costs in such a difficult situation of already being overindebted. If we opt for such an ambitious project, then we need to complete a series of preparation works in order to ensure that it will be successfully completed. We need to avoid those situations that occurred with the construction of the Maslinicka Bridge. Had we previously considered the cost of reconstructing the old bridge, we likely would have avoided the costs of building a new one. Now we have two bridges and it is questionable whether we really need them both or not.

NACIONAL: Does this remind you of the Bechtel affair?

- I think that it will not come to that because the money had not been spent. The Bechtel affair is still not over. Those who persisted and invested their authority into awarding the construction of a section of the highway to Bechtel have yet to explain to the public the issues on the costs of that project.

The BiH side is considering requesting international arbitration over the Peljesac Bridge, if so required. Doesn’t that say that Croatia’s foreign policy towards BiH is not very wise?

- It is too early to seek international arbitration. Both sides need to sit down together and discuss their stance with solid arguments.

NACIONAL: Experts have already offered their alternatives to the announced Peljesac project through the media, and some are allegedly much cheaper and better solutions. Do you think that the profession needs to be included in the preparation of this project?

- The profession should certainly be included in the preparation of this project. This project, so far, has been inadequately prepared and someone should be held accountable. Fortunately, no damage has been done. But the damage can be in the millions if we do not issue an international tender which will show the best solution. We need to first find an agreement with BiH, to ensure that the bridge will not hinder ship entry into the Neum port, and then open an international public tender. If the Port of Ploce issue can be resolved, then the issue of the Port of Neum takes a less important role. The Port of Ploce is important for Croatia, BiH and Hungary and therefore needs to be adequately resolved.

NACIONAL: Why has the government so rashly and clumsily entered into a project which could give rise to numerous undesirable consequences?

- I don’t know. I agree that the bridge needs to be built, like the highway needed to be built. But in order to launch a project, solid preparations are required. Only then will the people in both our countries be satisfied. Whenever an issue of mutual interest with our neighbours is at hand, common courtesy says that we need to discuss it with them first.

NACIONAL: After your comments that the security status in the state is alarming following an increase of armed robberies, government spokesman Ratko Macek stated that the government holds the security status to be satisfactory. How do you comment on that?

- Then let them be satisfied. But I am not satisfied. That is where we differ.

NACIONAL: Many believe that this next year will be a key challenge for the government to implement their announced economic reforms. Do you think the government is up to this challenge?

- It would be best for the government to give an answer to that question. I think we need to focus on the use of the EU pre-accession funds, which will generate Croatian development. These funds are prepared, but we need to be prepared to use them. Also, you see the praise for some of the free zones we’ve opened. Unfortunately, we still do not have an adequate and attractive law to attract capital and technology to those zones. Which is why I propose we begin drafting such a law. I requested that during the mandate of the former government, but I have to admit that I failed. I’m still not succeeding for the time being. However, I am pleased to see that the public knows I am asking for an attractive law for the development of free zones, which will allow for tens of thousands of jobs to be created. That is what needs. In these zones, there will be no PDV, but the employee salaries, and in their activities they will create new jobs.

NACIONAL: Last week in Opatija, the Premier held an optimistic speech stating that Croatia has achieved excellent progress in the economic field and that the situation in the country is virtually idyllic. Do you agree with his claims?

- It is hard to say how good it is for whom. The way it is now, some people can upgrade their Porsche every year for a new one or upgrade their villa for a larger one. They find things are great. If we add that to the average, then we have made fantastic progress. However, I’m not sure that we are doing enough to activate Croatia’s potential, primarily because there are too many people still listed with the employment bureau. I think we need to be a little more self-critical in such situations.

NACIONAL: When your advisor Dubravko Radosevic criticized the government last week in Opatija, the unofficial comment for Nacional from the government was that they did not want to comment on those attacks because you, as president, are clueless and that you are only trying to soften the drop in your popularity ratings with such attacks. The government experienced these criticisms as praise, and they were regretful that you did not have any concrete proposals, and therefore view your criticisms as frivolous and transparent. How do you comment?

- Let them then enjoy themselves in the government. On the other hand, my popularity is not the government’s problem. I am perfectly satisfied with my popularity. I have never done anything in an attempt to increase my own popularity. All the measures I take are aimed at helping Croatia function as a law-abiding state, one in which its citizens can be satisfied. Those are my constitutional obligations. I am not interested in popularity. I have made many decisions which have caused my popularity to drop rapidly, but in the end it was proven that I was right. Now those who criticized me the most are doing that which I asked many years ago.

NACIONAL: Why did you permit the establishment of a new monitoring service?
This is a part of the existing service which was functioning only in one segment of the intelligence sector. Now it has been separated so that it can offer its services to all the intelligence services. This will make operations more transparent and it will no longer be possible for someone exert their will outside the rules. Such a system functions in many other democratic countries.

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