China-funded Montenegro highway to replace ‘death lane’
SMOKOVAC, Montenegro, June 1 (Reuters) – Montenegro’s new Chinese-funded highway has become a huge financial burden and political football, but it’s also a long-awaited replacement for what Montenegrans have dubbed “the road of death”.
A NATO member and candidate for EU membership, Montenegro borrowed 809 million euros ($ 990 million) from the Chinese Import-Export Bank in 2014 to pay 85% of the first section of the road, which will eventually connect the Adriatic port of Bar and Montenegro’s landlocked neighbor, Serbia.
The loan boosted Montenegro’s debt to 97% of economic output. Last week, Finance Minister Milojko Spajic called it the most expensive highway in the world, although he said the country has the funds to pay down debt.
Financial problems aside, once the new highway is completed, people will no longer need to use the old narrow road along the gorges of the Moraca River, lined with commemorative plaques, flowers and wreaths for them. hundreds of people killed in traffic accidents. Between 1976 and 2016, around 1,200 people died on the section between Podgorica and the Serbian border, according to official data.
“I would gladly pay whatever they charge for the road toll (for the highway) rather than risking my life along the old road,” said Vukan, 47, a teacher from Podgorica. “Just .. look at the commemorative plaques and that’s enough.”
In 2013, 15 people were killed and 31 injured when a passenger bus fell into a river gorge along the same route.
Finance Minister Spajic last week dismissed fears that Montenegro might default on the loan, saying the country has enough funds to finance it. The tender for the remaining two sections, which are cheaper and easier to build, will go out by the end of the year, he said.
In March, Montenegro’s Deputy Prime Minister Dritan Abazovic called on the EU to help the country repay the loan. EU officials said the bloc was prepared to offer a mix of grants and loans for development projects, but not repay it.
“We have to be wise and… start using the highway,” said Igor Popovic, 67, from Podgorica. (Report by Aleksandar Vasovic, edited by Raissa Kasolowsky)