movement for autonomy in Pula, Croatia
Emil Jurcan
2009-06-08 07:24:17 UTC


The main goal of this text is to sketch the political framework of the
Initiative for Muzil. Although this is a description of local
conditions in Pula, on the Adriatic coast and in Croatia, its aim is to
overcome the specifics of the situation and point to how these fit in
with some more general social tendencies. That way, a local experience
can be made comprehensible and applicable to resistances in the global

Adriatic Hegemony

Right after it gained independence, Croatia officially chose to base
the development of tourism, its main economic resource, in the free
market model. Accordingly, ownership over land is still being
transferred to private corporations in order to regulate more
efficiently the (often complex) property relations on the coast. The
development processes on the Croatian coast thus take place within the
boundaries of the real-estate market, i.e. comprise of selling and
buying of land, buildings and apartments. This is an extremely
short-term form of economy, since the space is done away with
irrecoverably while the profit is created only once, at the point of
selling. In order to subject the coast and its population to the
imperative of the development of tourism, the state needs take radical
measures and pass radical laws.

One of the first such legal decrees is the 2004 Protected Coastal Area
Act (PCA). The Act commands equal treatment of all land, urbanized or
not, within 1km from the coastline. The Act's most important provision
requires that all urbanist plans in the area covered by the PCA be
approved by the relevant ministry before they can be passed by local
authorities. This made the process of urban planning in the coastal
regions different from the rest of the country, since towns and
municipalities are normally autonomous from the state in their urban
planning. On the coast, the state determines the future of the citizens.

After the PCA Act was passed, the state started using it as an excuse
for a selective demolishing of illegal construction along the coast.
The ideology of the PCA is perhaps best summarized in a statement by
the Istrian head of county, Ivan Jakovčić: "We need to take care of the
illegal settlements problem in order to get exclusive locations" (at
the council meeting of Brijuni Rivijera Ltd. company, May 11, 2007).
The practice of demolishing houses on the coast exposed the real
purpose of the Act: to gain control over the development of local
subjects on the coast and create favorable conditions for big
investments. The control is firmly in the hands of the Croatian
Government, with no influence on the part of local populations or local
and regional moguls, who are thus effectively put into a vassal

The last legal step the state took towards total hegemony on the coast
was the passing of the Golf Terrains Law in late 2008. This law allows
for quick and efficient expropriation of private land as well as
instantaneous re-categorization of public land, all for the benefit of
what the new Law defines as national interest: the building of golf

Three Forms of Exclusion

Such political decisions created a precarious situation in which the
population of the coastal region is now facing enormous increases in
real-estate prices, a lack of affordable housing, and job deficits
outside the tourist season. Moreover, the people on the coast are also
under permanent threat of losing their property if the urbanist
plan--on which they have no influence--happens to include their land in
a future golf terrain. Such insecurity is the direct result of a state
repression that is based on three forms of exclusion.

Citizens are excluded from the political sphere because the possibility
for their participation in the decision-making process is obstructed.
They cannot influence political decisions made by the centralized
state, while the public debate on the local level remains secondary to
the Government decrees. Elections are equally inefficient because the
elected representatives do not represent the citizens who gave them the
mandate, but the nontransparent interests of various companies. All
existing political parties work against their voters and implement
similar capital-driven policies. The latest example of such a political
trend is the support that the Golf Terrains Law got from the Croatian
Peasant Party despite the fact that the Law represents a direct threat
to the peasantry, the party's traditional voters. Such uniformity of
political purpose erases differences among the political parties who
can reach consensus on all crucial issues. In this form of
parliamentary democracy, apparently no political decision has an
alternative. For example, all political parties--left, right and
regional--immediately reached an absolute consensus around the issue of
commercialization of the ex-military areas along the Pula coast.

The second form of exclusion of citizens is the exclusion from the
economic sphere: the decisions about investments on the coast are made
by the central government through the urbanist plans, and not at the
local level (see above). Economic pressure on the political sphere is
most obvious in those urbanist plans that entice investments in the
real-estate market. The urbanist plan of Pula illustrates the
contradictions brought about by such economic development. In the
narrative part of the plan, the statistical data show that the small
industry sector is the most dynamic segment of the city's economy.
However, the graphical part of the plan does not offer any locations
for small industry. To the contrary, it allows for an increase in the
number of beds in the tourist zones and the number of moorings in
nautical marinas. Tourism and real estate became the main pillars of
economy not through its independent development, but through political
decrees. The citizens who don't have the means or are not interested in
speculation must choose low-wage jobs in construction or temporary work
during the tourist season. However, even the local speculators are
excluded from the plans for the ex-military areas in Pula. The
government decided to give a 66-year lease for 180 hectares (445 acres)
of such land to only one private corporation. If this idea becomes
reality, only one company will manage an area that is the size of a
quarter of the town!

The third form of exclusion is the exclusion from the coastal zones.
The prices of real estate on the seaside correspond to the prices on
the global market, since the coastal areas are treated as "attractive
locations." For the people who live on the coast, however, the place
they live in is not "attractive," but simply their living environment.
Real-estate prices that aim at global buyers exclude the impoverished
local population and force it to relocate inland. Another method of
exclusion is physical--erecting wire fences. The newly built "resorts"
around towns enclose large tracts of land by the sea and charge for
access to what used to be common land. The Muzil peninsula in Pula
offers a dramatic example of this trend: after the military left Muzil,
the state, cooperating with regional and local authorities, put two
dozens of armed soldiers in charge of protecting the area from the
citizens of Pula, until the peninsula is taken over by the corporation
that plans to build golf terrains there.

What We Need is Autonomy, Not Just Inclusion

Because of these three forms of exclusion, the Initiative for Muzil was
formed with the goal of ending the repression described above. However,
it is too late for integration of this Initiative in the institutional
structures of the state. The state hegemony has already proved capable
of absorbing similar movements without radically reconsidering and
reforming the modalities of its functioning. The Muzil Initiative
demands that the conditions of exclusion be transformed into conditions
for autonomy, i.e. that three forms of exclusion become three forms of
autonomy--political, economic and spatial. The Initiative starts with
the assumption that autonomy is a necessary condition for production,
but it is a condition that won't be given to us--it must be created.

The Initiative is an informal group of individuals that are engaged
directly, independently from various associations and institutions they
might belong to. The purpose of this form of collective action is
political autonomy, i.e. political action removed from political
parties, government and the state funded model of non-governmental
organizations. In my opinion, a situation in which NGOs depend on
public funding leads to the abolition of their autonomy, because their
existence depends on the source of their funding, mostly the city or
the state. A description of the Initiative as a form of pressure on the
decision-making process of the executive branches of government is thus
insufficient. The Initiative creates its own politics, develops it
parallel with the ruling one, and makes decisions without contacting
executive powers. The opening of the Muzil peninsula was not a decision
proposed or accepted by the executive power; it was a decision made by
an initiative with no instrumental power. But, it will be impossible to
avoid putting this decision into practice. By creating political
autonomy, politics is removed from the parliament, currently an
instance with an absolute monopoly on politics. Through the form of
autonomy, politics appears in the town, in the street, among the
people. Thus, a direct democracy is founded, that will allow the
citizens to make decisions without the mediation of delegates. A
micro-politics is hence created, a politics of concrete local problems.

In its work, the Initiative produces value independently from the
market. In the current economic relations, this value cannot be
recognized. The Initiative practices an autonomous economy. The
production of knowledge, communication, social relations, but also
newspapers, video and audio material, music events, public discussions
and urbanist studies does not possess value that could be described in
the terms offered by the hegemonic economy. All these products are free
and available to all. A network of different individuals, with
different kinds of knowledge and means of production, creates value
based solely on the investment of one's free time. The basis for the
creation of an autonomous economy is trust, solidarity, and the desire
for the establishment of a common goal--autonomous politics.

In order to practice this sort of economy, however, space is
required--that is the third level of autonomy. An autonomous space is
one that eludes the dominant logic of property as well as the dominant
logic of defining the purpose of space. If the real estate market
presents the dominant form of economy, and if property is the
fundamental ideal of the capitalist state, then the right to autonomous
space represents the most radical kind of resistance to such economy
and such state.

Demilitarization alla Polesana

Pula already has several autonomous spaces. This fact made the creation
of this initiative and an autonomous politics possible. After the
demilitarization of the city, a number of spaces remained empty,
waiting to be included in the real estate market. But this never
happened. One of the first autonomous spaces was the Cassoni Vecchi
fort in the Vidikovac neighborhood, where the Monte Paradiso festival
started taking place in the early 1990s. From a music venue for punk
concerts, this space turned into a meeting point for all generations of
people from Vidikovac. The fort is located near the neighborhood
municipal offices and functions as its informal extension.

Much bigger than the Cassoni Vecchi fort is the social center Karlo
Rojc. This ex-military barrack was squatted in 1997, after its
temporary residents, the refugees of the Croatian war of independence,
left the building. After unsuccessful attempts at expulsion of the
squatters, the City finally legalized their stay there and decided to
let the space free of charge to local non-profit organizations. It took
10 years for the tenants to occupy the building. Today, Rojc is a home
to over 100 different organizations dealing with culture, music, and
social issues. Although this heterogeneity resulted in very weak links
between the organizations, they all have one thing in common: Rojc
became the central space for the organization of free time in the city
and is often referred to as a "third home."

Another, even larger attempt to create autonomous space took place in
the Katarina-Monumenti area on the northern part of the Pula bay. This
is a big ex-military complex with several abandoned barracks,
magazines, and different army buildings. After the military left,
people started using the space for music and arts festivals. First such
event took place in 2005, after which the number of festivals
constantly grew, in order for the festival schedule of
Katarina-Monumenti to be now fully booked during the whole summer.
Along with this development, the area started to be used for
marginalized economic activities that could not find adequate locations
elsewhere. The Katarina island was thus occupied by the fishermen who
spent years and years waiting for the local authorities to act on their
promise and build them a fishing harbor. After years of patient
waiting, they decided to create their own harbor in the abandoned
military complex. Car mechanics and shepherds also use the area. The
local population started using it for sports and recreational
activities, and some of the buildings are permanently inhabited. The
examples of Katarina and Monumenti differ from the previously created
autonomous spaces, because the autonomous economy in these locations
outgrew the production of social relations and culture and, for the
first time, moved into the material sphere. The working name given to
this model of autonomous space is "komunal," a term which in the local
Istrian dialect describes common property, i.e. property that is
neither state- or city-owned, nor private.

Muzil - the Last Stronghold

If we compare the experience and the results of the transformation of
ex-military areas into autonomous spaces to the "official"
transformation of abandoned military buildings, we come to surprising
insights. Informal initiatives created 900m2 of autonomous space in
Cassoni Vecchi, 25.000m2 in Karlo Rojc, and 30ha in Katarina-Monumenti.
On the other hand, the city authorities managed to turn the 30.000m2 of
the Vladimir Gortan barracks into the bus station and office spaces.
The ratio between the autonomous and official action is thereby 10:1,
and speaks clearly in favor of autonomy.

This kind of statistics is a great motivation for the future actions of
the Initiative, but also a great responsibility. The actors of autonomy
in Pula are aware of the fact that their actions surpass the limits of
traditional squatting. Comprehensive, long-term activities of the
marginal squatter culture can develop into a movement capable of
transforming the urban environment. The political, economic and
urbanist models employed in this transformation expand outside the
autonomous spaces and ultimately transform society.

The next important action of the Initiative is the opening to the
public all of the 180 hectares of Muzil, currently still under military
control. The aim of the Initiative is to open the last military zone in
town to common use, and create the conditions for its autonomous
development. In my view, spaces like Muzil are an ideal laboratory for
the creation of new social and economic relations. Only through this
kind of practice, and a direct application of theoretical principles,
we can create models that could replace the current capitalist one.
These are experiments in post-capitalism!

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