Croatia’s Explosive Business Plan

Saving money on clearing land-mines left over from the war may cost the country dearly

Mladen Jukicic loves his job – even if it could kill him. To go to work in the morning, he needs a special suit, a metal detector and a whole lot of nerve. Jukicic, 48, is a land mine clearance expert in Croatia.

There should be plenty of work for Jukicic: As Croatia prepares to join the European Union (EU) next year, it is in a hurry to remove some 83,000 land-mines thought to be left over from the Yugoslav War in the early 1990s.

But instead, Jukicic is struggling: the privatisation of mine clearance has resulted in tough competition between companies that is costing experts like Jukicic their jobs – and their safety.

Competition has brought mine clearance rates down to 3 kunas (€0.40) per square metre, from 10 or 12 kunas (€1.3 or €1.5) that were paid some years ago, Jukicic says. This means experts feel pressured to do more in less time – something people in this line of work could pay for with their lives.

“Not only is the safety of the mine clearance expert put into question, but also that of the people who will return to the cleared areas. It is possible we will overlook something,” Jukicic stresses.

Safety “guaranteed”

Mladen Crnkovic from the Croatian Mine Action Centre (CROMAC), the government body overseeing de-mining activities, disagrees, saying that his agency carries out a thorough survey of cleared areas before residents can return. Their safety, he maintains, is guaranteed.

The safety of the mine experts, however, is another matter. “If their employers want to do more square metres in the shortest possible time, that is up to them.”

Seventeen years after the war in Croatia ended, the mines are still taking a human toll. Their latest victim – the clearance worker Renato Spahija, aged 49 – was killed on 11 Jan. His death brought the death count on the job in the past 14 years to 26.

The market model, whereby private companies compete for public contracts for de-mining projects, was introduced in 1998 in order to make the process faster and safer, and to comply with EU recommendations to privatise the sector.

But Igor Vukorepa, president of the Humanitarian De-mining Union, says that the market model is problematic for his industry: companies competing for scarce funds are forced to offer increasingly low prices to stay in business. The union, therefore, wants a minimum price to be set.

Meanwhile, funds are scarce indeed, given the work that needs to be done, Vukorepa says. Croatia still has some 754 square kilometres
believed to contain about 83,000 mines and other explosive devices. Some 800,000 people, or about 18 per cent of the population, live in the 100 affected municipalities.

Idle resources

Most of the areas thought to contain mines are forests, followed by agricultural land, meadows, and pastures. So, the continued presence of mines imposes a high economic burden on communities, deterring investment into their regions.

Swift clearance is hence high on the government’s list. Its National Mine Action Strategy wants the country to be mine-free by 2019.

“The biggest activities should take place between 2012 and 2015, and they will require the biggest financial means, HRK 2,060 million [€272 million],” the strategy paper reports. But to reach the schedule, the number of active clearance experts needs to be doubled over the next three years, from the current 620. Yet clearance workers took to the streets last summer to protest being left sitting at home while hundreds of square kilometres remained mined.

In a statement ahead of Croatia’s parliamentary elections last December, the Association of Humanitarian De-mining Employers said that their companies were operating at half of their capacity “due to lack of funds and projects, which is in direct conflict with the national programme.”

At the current rate, Vukorepa says, Croatia would not be mine-free until 2032 – over a decade after the deadline set by the Ottawa Treaty, an international mine-banning agreement. Croatia has the expertise, the workforce and the technology to meet the 2019 deadline, says Vukorepa, but it lacks money.

The largest share of the de-mining funds – about 60% – comes directly out of the state budget. Another 22% comes from state-owned firms with a stake in the clearing of the mines. Foreign donors pay for the remaining 18%.

Last year Croatia received €3 million from the EU’s pre-accession fund to de-mine its border with Hungary. Vukorepa is hopeful the EU will give more as Croatia’s accession approaches.

“If the EU wants to accept Croatia, it won’t accept it with mines,” Vukorepa says.

Djurdja Adlesic, the head of the Humanitarian De-mining Trust, said the country’s goals cannot be met solely by state funding. “We cannot do it alone,” he told the Croatian news portal Vjesnik last May.

While the newly elected government, a centre-left coalition, has announced spending cuts to balance the state budget, CROMAC assures that mine-clearance funds won’t be affected. The agency expects to receive the HRK 320 million (€46 million) that it requested for this year.

“We’ve received a verbal promise that they will not cut our funding,” says Crnkovic. “It would be an own-goal to withdraw our funds, since we affect the growth of the economy.”

But even if they get all they are hoping for, they will still fall short of the funds called for by the national mine strategy by some HRK 200 million (€26.5 million).

“The deadline is realistic,” Crnkovic insists, before adding elliptically: “I can tell you better in 2015 what the deadline is.”

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