Published in Nacional number 766, 2010-07-20

Autor: Robert Bajruši


SDP the new target of the Varsavska Street rally

The gathering of those opposed to the Horvatincic project at Ibler Square is the first protest rally staged in front of the SDP headquarters during the past ten years in which they have held the reins of government in Zagreb

HUMILIATING FOR MILANOVIC The infuriated crowd, which also included actor Vili Matula, jeered SDP president Zoran Milanovic with cries of 'liar, lair!'HUMILIATING FOR MILANOVIC The infuriated crowd, which also included actor Vili Matula, jeered SDP president Zoran Milanovic with cries of 'liar, lair!'When some one thousand irritated protesters gathered in front of the SDP headquarters on Ibler Square late in the afternoon of Friday, July 16th, it became clear that the social democrats were beginning to lose public support in Zagreb. The immediate cause is known - the SDP failed to prevent the construction of a commercial and residential building complex on Petar Preradovic Square (better known as Cvjetni trg), and the underground parking at the Varsavska Street location, and there is a growing body of people that are convinced that the social democrats are also embroiled in the corruption octopus. Zoran Milanovic felt the brunt of the ire of the gathered protesters, and had to listen to cries of "liar, liar." This was the first protest rally to be staged in front of the headquarters of the Social Democrat Party (SDP), who have held power in Zagreb for the past decade, and it shows that the perception of the party in a part of the liberal-leftist public has begun to change.

In the past it was Milan Bandic who bore the stigma of corruption, while the SDP itself has, from as far back as the time of Ivica Racan, been for the most part seen as a party whose membership is not given to corruption. Judging by the latest reactions a part of the public at large no longer holds this opinion. Because irrespective of how much the SDP is in the majority in terms of the number of city councillor seats it holds, it is evident now that an alternative is forming on the left wing, one feared by a significant number of the top people in the Social Democratic Party. It has now become a serious conflict on the political left in which a heterogeneous citizen's group, composed of until recently marginalized non-governmental organizations, wants to become a political factor and have an influence on the situation in Zagreb. How to cushion the newly emerged threat will be the chief task of Zoran Milanovic and the SDP this summer. From the viewpoint of the non-governmental organizations Green Action and A Right To The City (Pravo na grad), and of individuals such as Vili Matula and Ursa Raukar, the SDP has become their chief political opponent. And then there is Josip Kregar who wants another stab at the office of mayor, and to achieve that he needs to disqualify the chief SDP nominees, Boris Sprem and Mirando Mrsic. It is still too early to guess whether the votes of these people will be picked up by parties like the HNS (Croatian People's Party) and the HSLS (Croatian Social-Liberal Party), or if the informal Rally for Varsavska Street will in time transform itself into a new political alternative, but it is quite clear that it could do the SDP significant damage in the future. This is something many in the SDP leadership itself accept.

"One ought to be realistic, the SDP ruled in Zagreb when the changes to the general zoning plan that allowed Tomislav Horvatincic to build a boom barrier and underground parking lot at Varsavska Street, and that means that we cannot avoid our own responsibility. The strategic goal of the SDP is to provoke early elections and to oust the current national government, which is doing a poor job of leading Croatia, and instead of dedicating our efforts to a showdown with the HDZ (Croatian Democratic Union), we are forced to defend ourselves in Zagreb - our strongest bastion."

Those were the words with which one of the SDP's top politicians summed up the overall mood in the leading opposition party during an interview this weekend. The problem faced by the SDP seems like a vicious circle. On the one hand, at least a dozen of the leading members of the party leadership point out, off the record, that the "Cvjetni trg project looks very good, and Horvatincic does have all of the required permits," but are equally aware that any attempt to publicly defend the project in the current situation would cause them significant political damage. The SDP is also in an embarrassing situation because it is in power in Zagreb while the municipal authorities are financing the entrance ramp that many of Zagreb's citizens oppose.

BANDIC IN FAVOUR OF THE PROJECT Zagreb Mayor Milan Bandic made the changes to the municipal zoning plan that paved the way for Horvatincic's projectBANDIC IN FAVOUR OF THE PROJECT Zagreb Mayor Milan Bandic made the changes to the municipal zoning plan that paved the way for Horvatincic's projectAnd moreover, Tomislav Horvatincic is close with Mayor Milan Bandic, the SDP's number one enemy in the city of Zagreb. In short, almost all relevant SDP members feel that the protests will have difficult and unforeseeable repercussions on their situation in the coming period. They are aware that the Varsavska issue has opened a new front, the consequence of which is the possible loss of a part of the voters that customarily cast their ballots for the left.

"There is a lot of demagoguery in the statements made by our critics, but I am not inclined to disparage them. There are a number of opinion makers and people whose opinions enjoy public support among them, and that is why we have to give serious consideration to damage control," says Nacional's source. It looks like Milanovic is currently the only member of the party leadership convinced that the protests over the Varsavska Street issue will not hurt the SDP. Unlike his associates who feel that the thousand people who took part in the protests represent a significant greater number of Zagreb citizens, he is convinced that it is in fact a relatively small group unable to articulate its opinions in a constructive fashion.

Some of the people in the SDP leadership use the term "noisemakers" to describe the protestors spearheaded by the Green Action and A Right To The City. From the SDP's point of view they are putting on a "smoke and mirror show," while Vili Matula and Ursa Raukar are described as persons with private interests in the entire affair. Off the record Milanovic often points out that in early 2008 it was his people in city council who did not support Bandic when he changed the zoning plan and made it possible for Horvatincic to build the garage at the Varsavska Street location. Milanovic is now taking the heat for spending two years rejecting proposals to chuck Bandic out of the SDP, which is why criticism to the effect that he too is responsible for Varsavska are not without grounds. Likewise, the question that is posed is why seven of his people in city council did not vote against the Bandic amendments to the zoning plan, but chose rather to abstain. From the outside abstaining from voting seems like political demagoguery and bartering based on the "don't touch me and I won't touch you" principle.

This is the reasoning of the hundreds of protestors shouting at the SDP president, calling him a liar, and the growing number of people who are disgusted by the behaviour of Croatian politicians. At the SDP they defend themselves saying that, while they did "cook up" the Varsavska Street problems several years ago, as of 2007 no parallels of any kind can be drawn between them and the Bandic-Horvatincic duo. It all started in 2006 when the general urban zoning plan was adopted - with many compromises, and based on a three-year deliberation that involved experts from various professions, political parties, associations and individual citizens, it was concluded that only very careful and limited interventions could be made in the city blocks. When Horvatincic's attempt to purchase the building of the School of Dental Medicine fell through, where the exit to Gunduliceva Street was to have been located, Bandic decided to open the way for the construction of a large underground parking facility at the Varsavska Street location, and that was the launching point for a conflict between the Milanovic and Bandic factions within the SDP. In January of 2008 it was Bandic who won the day, but those who oppose the construction ongoing at Varsavska Street blame it all on Zoran Milanovic. At a session of city government held a few days ahead of the vote in city council, an amendment put forward by SDP councillor Jurica Meic was accepted in part. The amendment required that the construction be made conditional for investor Tomislav Horvatincic on his securing a sufficient number of parking spaces for the entire project. Previously Milan Bandic had argued that the garage was in the public interest, and said that Zagreb was following other European capitals that had in fact resolved their traffic issues with underground garages in the city cores.

And while he did not succeed in carrying out the amendments to the zoning plan in 2007, on 31 January 2008 Bandic finally won and pushed through the construction of an underground parking facility at the Varsavska Street location. There were 39 councillors present at the session of city council at which the vote on the amendments to the zoning plan was cast, and it is remembered by a division among the SDP councillors, in which one group of deputies backed Milan Bandic, while the other sided with Zoran Milanovic. Seven Milanovic councillors decided to remain in their seats for the vote, and in the political sense, the SDP suffered enormous damage. Had they left the council hall they would have demonstrated that they had parted ways with Bandic, and probably have provoked a rift within the SDP. But at the time Milanovic was gearing up for the party convention, and having lost the elections for Parliament three months prior to these events, was unwilling to engage in an open conflict with Bandic. Milanovic's opponents are now using the tactical game of wits he engaged in with Bandic against him, all in an attempt to show that he, in fact, is no different than the Mayor of Zagreb. 23 city councillors voted in favour of the amendments to the zoning plan in January of 2008. Ivo Josipovic, Mirando Mrsic, Igor Dragovan, Jurica Meic, Neven Mimica, Ivana Mlinar and Iva Prpic abstained. Bandic needed any kind of majority, which is why he personally persuaded HDZ councillors Mario Zubovic and Asja Bebic to not be present for the vote, and then city council secretary and close Bandic aide Greta Augustincic-Vukicevic suggested to Josipovic and Mrsic that they take a washroom break during the vote. They rejected the idea, but the zoning plan amendments went through thanks to votes from the HDZ's Davor Suker and Ivica Perkovic, and those cast by councillors from the HSU (Croatian Pensioner's Party), HSS (Croatian Peasant Party) and the Independent Slate of Tatjana Holjevac. And while Prime Minister Jadranka Kosor said last week that the SDP alone bore the responsibility for the Varsavska affair, as then head of the Zagreb chapter of the HDZ she had no issues with Suker and Perkovic's support of the amendments to the zoning plan. The current situation is however, much more dire for the SDP, which holds power in Zagreb, than it is for the HDZ - in the opposition and quite impotent in the capital.

ACTRESS URSA RAUKAR, one of the protesters with the highest press exposure, sharply opposed Zoran MilanovicACTRESS URSA RAUKAR, one of the protesters with the highest press exposure, sharply opposed Zoran MilanovicThe SDP will once again call on national institutions to reassess the entire affair, but it is also clear to them that Horvatincic does have all of the required permits and can continue construction work. Besides, in February of this year, Zoran Milanovic supported construction on Petar Preradovic Square, explaining that it could all have been resolved differently. "The debate on the Cvjetni Passage project has been going on for years, a lot of commotion was raised ahead of the elections, but it should be said that the decision on it was made with a different set of city councillors. I am not questioning the construction, but there ought to have been a greater sense of proportion, that is to say that the aim ought not to be extreme profits, just good profits. The fact is that there was pandering to the investor, but it is all in the hands of the competent ministry, controlled by the HDZ, and we shall see whether it will favour the investor," Milanovic said five months ago. Last Friday he was personally subjected to the irritated reactions of protestors, who feel that the SDP has abandoned them and taken up with the advocates of construction on Petar Preradovic Square and Varsavska Street. That is in fact the case, but the SDP lacks the courage to say so publicly, just as in early 2008 they lacked the strength to oppose Horvatincic and Bandic, but chose instead to abstain from voting. The problem is that abstaining in Croatian politics is analogous to what is known on the streets as talking baloney.

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