August 6, 2018 – Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic is apparently due to visit Jelsa on Hvar next week for the Municipal Day of Jelsa, as has been the prime ministerial tradition in recent years. An open letter to the Prime Minister, a Hvar man, from a longtime foreign resident.
I hope you don’t mind me calling you Andrej. You probably don’t know who I am, but we have roots in the same community on Hvar, as I lived in Jelsa for 13 years. We have some mutual acquaintances in common. In the photo above, here you are at Tarantela Bar with Professor Frank John Dubokovich, Guardian of the Hvar Dialects. The photo was taken several years ago when life was much simpler by my friend Vivian, who runs the Eco Hvar website. You were kind enough to acknowledge her last year, even complimenting her on the Eco Hvar website. She was very happy to have such high-profile support to recognise the considerable work she does for the environmental protection of Croatia.
My name is Paul. I am a fat Brit who has been living in your beautiful country fulltime since 2003. I run a small English news website about your country called Total Croatia News, a site which is getting bigger by the day, is Google News-affiliated and is followed by lots of national and international media (we brought the New York Times to meet the Mayor of Hvar last year, for example), as well as EU institutions and the majority of the embassies in Zagreb. In fact, due to the World Cup (many congratulations on Croatia’s performance, including beating England in the semi-final), our traffic has surged and we are now ranked in the top 100,000 websites in the world, some way above the Croatian National Tourist Board. Not bad for a foreign language website of a tiny country which dared to dream. I am tremendously proud of my team.
The World Cup atmosphere was fantastic, and I can’t remember a better time in my 16 years in your country. It was wonderful to see people so happy and forgetting their daily troubles, if only for a few weeks. Even Index.hr was happy for a few days, announcing that they would only write positive stories from the Thursday to Tuesday over that World Cup Final weekend. I work a lot in the media, and that positivity from Index made a real impression on me, as well as the atmosphere all over the country. It made me ask myself a rather incredible question:
If we all pulled together, could we perhaps fix this country?
Your job is not easy and – as the most powerful person in the country (unless it comes to hugging people…) – your time is very precious and you have too many things on your plate. But then I realised that you will be coming to Jelsa again next week for our Municipal Day, and that what if you had two hours to really focus on some issues locally that you could action and begin to solve through delegation and strong central overviewing? It need not take up much more of your time than those two hours, as you have a strong team around you who can action your decisions. What if, next week, you could find 2 hours to look at some issues, decide to cut through whatever bureaucracy there might be, with the aim of fixing the problem? Fixing Hvar, then slowly starting to fix Croatia? And then, if the idea worked, to put two hours in the agenda whenever you travel around this magnificent land and focus on the local issues which – for whatever reason – are not getting solved. It would show you as a grass-roots man of the people, listening to – and hopefully fixing – local issues. The political dividend could be significant, in addition to the higher goal of helping to fix Croatia.
As you will be coming to Hvar, I thought we might concentrate your mind on Hvar-related things, some of which have national implications.
1. Foreign Investment
I don’t have to tell you how badly Croatia needs foreign investment. We have such potential here, but Croatia is earning a reputation as a graveyard for foreign investors, especially in tourism. I used to think it was an ex-Yugoslav problem until we started our Total Montenegro News website earlier this year. What is happening in tiny Montenegro is incredible. Although its coastline is miniscule compared to Croatia, and although the perception is that Croatia is far more advanced than its smaller neighbour, almost all the major foreign investment in tourism is going to Montenegro and not Croatia. And they are even managing to build a golf course, something unheard of in Croatia, despite the Ministry of Tourism’s impressive strategic plan (2013-2020) to build 30 golf courses – with two years to go, none has yet been started. Portonovi, Porto Montenegro, Lustica Bay – these are just some investments ranging from 200 million to 1.1 billion. And while the perception is that this is all Russian money in Montenegro, it has come from places as diverse as Canada, Egypt, Qatar and Azerbaijan. By contrast, in Croatia – a much larger and (on paper) developed country, the results are pitiful. I wrote an article after my first visit to Montenegro to the Lustica Bay development, whose first luxury hotel opened on schedule last month – the article was called Lessons from Montenegro: Why Lustica Bay Will Never Happen in Croatia.
I am sure you have not read the article, but some of your colleagues did, including one Deputy Minister who apparently verbally abused one of my writers at the British Embassy reception for the Royal Wedding a couple of months ago. Not very nice behaviour and something I would like to chat to you about, should we ever meet. I was curious to find out the biggest foreign investments on the Croatian coast and I was rather shocked by the findings. Tiny Montenegro has several developments happening now in excess of 200 million euro – the largest investments on the Croatian coast this century were Falkensteiner Punta Skala (2011 – 160 million euro) and Sun Gardens Dubrovnik (2009 – 150 million euro). In the last 7 years, I think I am correct in saying – nothing over 100 million euro. Meanwhile in Montenegro…
And so we come to Hvar. Earlier this year, at the Hotel Adria Forum in Zagreb, there was a presentation on investments in tourism in 2018, an impressive 940 million. Nobody seemed to quite know what was included in the 940 million, and it took a little time for me to get some info. It included 140 million for Four Seasons on Hvar and 160 million for Hotel Belvedere near Dubrovnik, neither of which will happen this year, so that impressive number is already down to 640 million.
Your colleague, Minister of Tourism Gary Cappelli publicly endorsed the Four Seasons project at Brizenica Bay near Stari Grad, over a year ago at a very nice event in Sesvete. I was there and there is a report on the event. Construction was due to start at the end of 2017, with the first guests arriving in 2019. By publicly endorsing the project and timeframe, presumably Minister Capelli was very confident and informed about the project. The thing is, construction did not start in 2017 as announced, in fact it still hasn’t begun. There is no building permit yet and – last time a checked a few days ago – even the contract for the access road is unsigned. Meanwhile in Montenegro…
This is the Four Seasons, probably the biggest name ever to come to the Croatian hotel sector. The world is watching, as are those foreign investors. And let’s not forget about those precious jobs – some 350 – in this time of mass emigration.
But this is not even the biggest planned investment on Hvar. ELEVEN years ago, some Norwegians bought (or thought they bought) land near Sucuraj, to build a 270-million-euro luxury resort. A further 500 jobs and the development of the poorer eastern part of our beloved island. Back in 2014, when a similar Greek project opened on time, I wrote an article for Google News in Canada, asking how it is possible for Greece (not renowned for its seamless bureaucracy) to be able to do what Croatia could not. You can read Jutarnji List’s piece about my article here. That was in 2014. Four years later, the Norwegian investors in Sucuraj are still very far away from even dreaming of construction.
410 million euro investment on one island. 850 jobs. A raising of Croatia’s luxury tourism profile. Lots more tax revenue. An important small rehabilitation of Croatia’s foreign investment reputation.
And the emigration continues…
We both know that things can happen a little quicker if the right people are paying attention to it, and there is nobody more powerful than you in your role as Prime Minister. There is some debate in Jelsa at the moment, for example, about how some government-owned and protected land allegedly got split into two parcels and rezoned and entered into the books in just 8 days. So things ARE possible.
Jobs, tax revenue, huge foreign investment, enhancing Croatia’s luxury tourism industry. A win, win, win, win, win.
If you have those two hours in your busy schedule, can you take a look?
2. The use of pesticides not authorised by the EU
I don’t need to tell you that Hvar is a natural paradise, one of the truly great islands in the world. It is also one whose nature Eco Hvar is very committed to trying to preserve. Vivian has been writing about the dangers of pesticides used for some time now, and she has been trying to engage local authorities on the issue, and with some success.
Jelsa Mayor Niksa Peronja co-signed a statement with Eco Hvar on pesticide awareness back in 2016. While such initiatives are welcome, it seems that the use of harmful pesticides – including several not authorised by the EU, according to Eco Hvar – continue to be used, with very harmful consequences. This is not a Jelsa, or Hvar-specific issue, but a national one. Apart from the health implications of using such pesticides, there is – I assume – the possibility of legal action from the EU for use of such products. Eco Hvar has written VERY detailed information about it all, and why the issue of insect spraying needs an urgent rethink. Perhaps you or one of your advisers could find 15 minutes of that 2 hours to meet with Eco Hvar so they could explain in greater detail, as it is not my field. But for some background information, here is that detailed article.
This, of course, is a national issue, and one that can perhaps be solved very quickly, to the benefit of all, and without any potential lawsuits.
3. Press freedom
Speaking of lawsuits, I apparently have one coming my way. Your host next week, Mayor of Jelsa Niksa Peronja, announced as much during a public meeting in Vrboska – you can see the moment in the video of the meeting, above.
You are probably not aware of the fact that our little TCN website writes about you quite a lot (and not always positive stuff – sorry, Prime Minister…), but this is the first time in my life I am being sued. Obviously, until I see detail of the lawsuit, I don’t know what the exact reason is, but Mayor Peronja mentioned something about ugly things I had written about him, with regard to some aspects of a recent concession granted for Jelsa’s Gradska Kavana (where you will undoubtedly enjoy some refreshment next week) and the rezoning of some land on Zecevo. I did a full round-up of the meeting in Vrboska, including video, which you can see here.
I don’t think I am giving away any State secrets if I say that the Croatian media does not have the best reputation in the world, and very little of it is independent. I can imagine you are not very fond of that Bulgarian-owned portal Index.hr after events earlier this year, but I hope you will agree that its independence is an essential part of the Croatian media scene. I, too, am totally independent, although much smaller than the mighty Matija Babic, and I am beginning to understand why there is not so much independent journalism in this country. Apart from being sued by the most powerful person in the town, the reaction of other media to the issues I have been writing about has been very revealing indeed. It is something I would like to discuss with you, should we ever meet.
But I was wondering if I could ask you a favour, as you will be chatting to Mayor Peronja when you come. In my report from the meeting in Vrboska, I asked a few questions, which I didn’t expect him to answer (why would you engage with someone you were suing?), but I was hoping that some other media might ask those questions. A little naive of me, I hear you say – what were we just saying about the independent media? So if you, or perhaps better, one of your aides, could kindly ask the mayor the same questions in that article and send them to me, it would be much appreciated. Copied from my article:
There was one question I was planning to ask at the meeting, but I decided against, as it might have put the mayor on the spot. And much as it might sound strange to say about the first person ever to sue me, I am actually quite fond of Mayor Peronja, as he was once of me (at least I got that impression) – we used to have some great chats.
But perhaps it would be fairer to give Mayor Peronja a little time to think about the question(s) by placing them here. I don’t expect Mayor Peronja will answer me, but it would be interesting to know the answers if someone else wants to ask the questions. In the interests of transparentnost…
1. You claim you have no knowledge of any connection between Luksar Solutions and Carpe Diem, and we take you at your word. Have you ever met any of the Carpe Diem owners or management?
2. If yes, when was the last time you had contact – either by SMS, WhatsApp, Viber, Facebook, Email, Phone, Meeting or any other means of communication?
3. If yes, what was the topic of conversation and reason for the meeting?
4. If yes, how often do you have contact of any kind with Carpe Diem owners or management – once in a blue moon, several times a day, once a week, once a month? What are the reasons for those conversations? I think some of the people who voted for you would like to know about that.
If you or your colleague was able to do that, I would be very grateful. There is a large (silent) group looking for answers. You can email to [email protected]
4. The biggest protest in Croatia today – the protest of emigration
I would very much like to come and hear you speak when you come to Jelsa, but I don’t think I will make it. Mayor Peronja gave me a lifetime invitation to all such meetings a few years ago but I don’t think it would be appropriate of me to come with the impending lawsuit. Besides, there would be seating issues. You see, since I wrote these articles, three things have happened:
1. I have had so many private messages of support and additional information about alleged irregularities in my adopted hometown. I even set up a Donation fund for independent journalism in Croatia and for my legal defence fund (here it is). I have been humbled by the generosity, support and encouraging words from complete strangers.
2. I have been given various documents about other things that people say I should write about. More alleged irregularities.
3. Nobody will sit with me on the pjaca anymore, and nobody wants to say hello. I don’t mind, as I am very busy with work and am only here for a short time, and this will be my last full summer in Jelsa. And it is not like everyone hates me (although I am not popular in some quarters), it is just that nobody can be SEEN to be supporting me in public, as it might be noted and put their status in the town in jeopardy. It is a very curious feeling, to sit alone on the square with no friends, and yet to see friends who are messaging you in every cafe. I wrote something about it called Instead of Being Counted as Sheep, Will Croatians Ever Stand Up and Be Counted? It is one of the main reasons why the biggest protest in Croatia today is a silent one – the protest of emigration.
It is a slightly weird – and actually not unpleasant – feeling, to be an independent journalist in a small town in a foreign country, where the most powerful person in the town has publicly stated he is going to sue you. And where hardly anybody will talk to you publicly, but they can’t stop messaging privately with messages of support.
Would you sit with me when you come to Jelsa, Andrej, for perhaps 15 minutes of those two hours? Apart from the reassurance that the most powerful man in Croatia is ok to sit with an insignificant foreign independent journalist who has lived for 16 years in your country, I don’t know what to do with all these documents. As an independent reporter in somewhere like the UK, I would publish them no problem, but I can’t risk getting sued again. I willl be at Cafe Splendid, opposite Tarantela. I will be easy to spot – the fat, pink Brit with a laptop and no friends. At least publicly.
Do you understand my position?
Enough from me, and sorry for the lengthy mail. Specific foreign investments, pesticides, press freedom and looking at ways to address the protest of emigration – those would be my four topics if you did have the time to look. I am sure there are other things too. I hope you like the idea of the 2-hour focus on local issues on your travels – it could get you lots of support, I think. If you are too busy, or if all of this is not interesting for you, I totally understand.
Enjoy your time in Jelsa. You should feel at home as a Zagreb man these days – I hear there will be a new fountain.