Politics Thwarts Balkan Transport Revolution

Polina Slavcheva Sofia, Thessaloniki, Komotini, Xanthi, Pristina, Skopje, Tirana, Paris and Brussels

Thanks to regional rivalries and European inconsistency, the dream of a modern transport system for the Balkans is going nowhere fast.

Over five years since the last military conflict in the Balkans ended, the region’s countries remain poorly connected to one another. Many border crossings are neglected bottlenecks and once-bustling trade routes are quiet, while it takes more than 20 hours by road, and almost 36 hours by train, to cross the approximately 1,000 km between the Adriatic coast on the western side of the semi-peninsula and the Black Sea in the east.

There is no dispute among all nine governments of the region, the European Union and major international organisations that improvement of Balkan transport is a burning priority for economic development, as well as the free movement of people. Yet years of conflict and isolation have taken their toll, meaning land disputes, national rivalries and competing economic interests get in the way of progress time and time again.

Countless agreements made over the past decade remain little more than words, and not just because of mismanagement and nationalistic suspicion in the countries concerned. The international community, the source of many such plans to connect the Balkans and Europe, has also shown, at times, that it is prepared to put politics above development, echoing the Great Power meddling of the 19th century.

The state of three main arteries makes this plain: the road through Kosovo, connecting it with Albania to the west and Serbia to the east; the border-crossing between Macedonia and Bulgaria at Gueshevo; and the highway south from Bulgaria into neighbouring Greece. Each has suffered because of prevailing nationalism, to the detriment of ordinary people and businesses.

Even the EU, the main proponent of ambitious trans-continental transport plans, has disappointed them, its own troubles and cash shortages allowing its commitment to Balkan development to wane. Now, as it is about to hand over responsibility for infrastructure to the countries of the region, the road ahead for Balkan transport is by no means clear.

Going down the same old road

The crisis in regional transport in the Balkans has its origins back in the 19th century, when newly independent states began emerging out of the Ottoman Empire. Old trade routes had criss-crossed the region since ancient times, functioning more or less smoothly when it was part of a single empire. According to Bozhidar Dimitrov, a Bulgarian historian: “Problems began as nation states started popping up one by one”.

Their competitive instincts led them to block roads to one another in favour of road and rail routes linked with their allies or Great Power sponsors. Nations turned their backs on their intermixed lives under the Turks and started forming more exclusive societies.

Links in the Balkans were similarly affected by developments after the end of the Second World War, when countries chose different political paths and Josip Broz Tito’s Yugoslavia left the Soviet camp. The north-south route running through Serbia to Thessaloniki in northern Greece expanded at the expense of the east-west Sofia-Skopje connection, while Albania’s almost complete international isolation had obvious ramifications on its transport development.

In Western Europe, the concept of highly-politicised road-building was abandoned after the war, in order to concentrate on more economic and trade-based criteria. Following its rapprochement with the East in the early 1990s, moves were made to challenge the dearth of trans-continental links. In 1994, the EU launched a plan to integrate Balkan states’ transport networks into the “Pan-European corridors”, and thus improve access to Central and Eastern European – and ultimately Asian - markets.

According to Francois Begeot, from the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Transport and Energy, “What is important [in transport] is traffic, not politics.” But infrastructure development since then has not always borne this out.

Numerous Balkan routes still suffer from the legacy of war, both recent and long-passed. Even countries with no recent history of conflict remain abysmally connected to one another. A single bridge spans the 400-km Danube river border between EU newcomers Bulgaria and Romania, for example. In most cases, Balkan states are better connected with EU countries than with each other.

Don’t expect a smooth ride in Kosovo

On the Albanian side of the Prokletija mountains, one of the most dramatic landscapes in the Balkans, the winding road is no more than a narrow asphalt track. Vehicles heading in opposite directions barely manage to pass one another without coming off the road, one side of which is carved into the rock, while the other drops down into an abyss several hundred metres deep. There are almost no protective railings, no signs and no speed limits.

The dismal condition of what must be one of the most dangerous stretches of road in Europe – aptly crossing the “Accursed” mountains - is unfortunately typical of what many travellers have to contend with, when making use of the Balkans’ transport corridors.

Albania’s and Kosovo’s governments are strongly interested in the development of this highway from the Albanian port of Durres to Merdare, at Kosovo’s administrative border with Serbia, but they have so far struggled to secure all the funds they need to do the job. As far as international financiers are concerned, it seems decisions on which projects to invest in remain subject to politics as much as economic considerations.

The European Commission, World Bank and IMF have all seen the logic of developing the Niš-Pristina-Durres link. The Commission acknowledged its development as an integral part of the Southeast European regional network in its 2001 Transport Project Preparation Facility report for the Western Balkans. The World Bank has given Albania a 25-million-dollar loan for construction, and the IMF has recently also endorsed the project.

Some analysts believe that other sources have failed to make up the difference required, for fear of supporting a road that may well be needed to improve regional transport, but has strong connotations with the political goal of an independent Albanian-led state in Kosovo.

“It is a controversial project that some critics believe has more to do with dreams of a ‘Greater Albania’ than the economic benefits touted by its backers,” wrote Tirana journalist Benet Koleka, in an article on the highway published by Reuters this June. “As a result of the controversy, potential donors have stayed away.”

Kosovo, a land-locked territory that lies between Niš and Durres, depends on development of the route to revitalise its economy. The latter provides the only chance of highway access to Corridor VIII, running east-west from the Black Sea to Durres, and Corridor X, from Niš in the north to Thessaloniki in the south. Currently, the Serbian part of the road is among the worst in the Western Balkans, even though trade between Kosovo and Serbia has increased since a low point in 1999, when the area broke away from the latter’s control.

In spite of the political logjam between Belgrade and Pristina over Kosovo’s independence, business ties are relatively healthy and Kosovo is one of Serbia’s most important export markets. 15 per cent of Kosovo’s total imports are from Serbia, reaching a turnover of some 190 million euros, while 16 per cent of the territory’s total exports are to Serbia, a turnover of some 11 million euros, says the 2006 annual foreign trade report of Kosovo’s Ministry of Trade and Industry.

Moreover, the development of the road would be of obvious long-term benefit to Serbia, allowing faster access for Serbian goods travelling by sea to other parts of Europe. Currently, Serbia exports most goods by sea from Thessaloniki, which is some 100 km further from Belgrade than Durres.

Kosovo’s government has numerous times asked Serbia to put it on the list of joint projects to be chosen for international financing, but Belgrade has ignored the requests. According to Henry Perritt, an American law professor who in 2003 conducted a study of Kosovo’s economy, Serbia’s reasons are political. “Some people [in Serbia] don’t want Kosovo to succeed economically because they think that would lead to a stronger Kosovo and to independence,” he says. The breakaway region’s economic failure, therefore, remains a goal for Belgrade, even at its own expense.

Serbia’s Ministry of Capital Investments, which is responsible for transport, was not available for comment on its plans. But analysts predict that Belgrade will continue to shun the development of the route in favour of upgrading the north-south road to friendly Greece, bypassing Kosovo.

And according to Perritt, it is not only Serbia that has political problems with the road to Durres. “European diplomats opposed to Kosovo becoming independent ...[also]... fear it would increase commerce through Kosovo and tie Kosovo more closely to Albania,” he contends.

Ylli Gjoni, director of the Projects Implementation Team at Albania’s General Roads Directorate, dismisses such interpretations: “Political sensitivity has not been one of the factors considered by international financial institutions.

The reason for not being able to easily secure more favourable funding is the insufficient, according to the donors’ statements, economic viability of the proposed motorway scheme.”

Political problems notwithstanding, low traffic levels on both the proposed Serbian and the Albanian sections of the road have also got in the way. According to the South East European Transport Observatory, SEETO, no more than 1,000 to 2,000 cars pass along them daily, while at least 10,000 are necessary to attract favourable international loans.

The project appears to be caught in a vicious circle: it needs higher traffic to become eligible for investment and upgrading – but in order to attract higher traffic it needs to be upgraded. As Oswald Hutter, a transport expert with the Stability Pact for South Eastern Europe, puts it: “This is the typical chicken and egg problem.”

To escape from the vicious circle, the Albanian government has had to finance most of the project itself via commercial loans, whose future payment will be difficult to manage, most of the Albanian media believe.

Meantime, in Kosovo, where traffic on the route can reach up to 50,000 cars a day, there are no illusions about the likelihood of investment. “No one will invest in Pristina without having security,” Shefki Ukaj, spokesperson of the Kosovo Ministry of Transport, admits. “Everything is connected to status.”

The only hope is that common interest will sooner or later prevail. “When Serbia accepts the reality of an independent Kosovo, stability will be established in the region and this will no doubt create [the conditions for] economic integration,” says Ukaj.

Macedonia dithers at the crossroads

Historians see earlier echoes of this stalemate in 19th-century quarrels over the construction of railway lines in Macedonia – along with Albania and Kosovo, the last significant piece of Ottoman-held territory in Europe before the 1912-1913 Balkan Wars.

Bulgaria’s ambitions to annex Macedonia were unwelcome to several Great Powers, which explains their reluctance to allow a railway running from the Bulgarian capital, Sofia, to Skopje, in Macedonia. Instead, they insisted on a line running from Sofia to Niš in southern Serbia, a line that nowadays forms part of Europe’s transport Corridor X.

Construction of the line resumed in the 1940s, when the pro-German wartime regime in Sofia briefly annexed Macedonia. But the railway remained unfinished and largely forgotten until the former Yugoslav republic’s independence in the early 1990s revived interest and, in 1994, it was listed as part of the planned Corridor VIII.

But, once again, politics has reared its head and stalled progress. A 1992 decision of the Bulgarian authorities to recognise the independence of the Macedonian state “but not the Macedonian language” revived suspicions that Bulgaria still aspired to incorporate the country. The tension led to yet another interruption in work on the railway. The two countries buried the hatchet in the late 1990s but by then the 1999 conflict in Kosovo was diverting attention.

Bulgaria has now almost completed its own section of the line, apart from 2 km, and, with EU funding, has constructed a new customs building at the railway station on the border. But Macedonia has failed to match this progress, and about 89 km of track in Macedonia remain missing. “This construction will go on forever,” one railway official on the spot predicted.

Macedonian politicians appear lost for words when they try to account for the lack of progress. “It is a phenomenon we cannot explain to ourselves,” says Biljana Zdraveva, head of the Macedonian Department for Railways. “It is as if we work and there is no result.”

But Bulgarians tend to ascribe the delay to Macedonia’s indecision about its priorities. “Since the creation of Macedonia there have been only two or three years when the state was interested in working on this axis”, Marin Lessenski, of the Sofia Institute for Regional and International Studies, IRIS, says. “Although a relic of the past, the thinking of part of the Macedonian elite is still that the country can develop either along the Serbia-Greece [Corridor X] or Albania-Bulgaria axis [Corridor VIII].”

Whether these two strategic alliances are complimentary to one another, however, is doubtful, according to Lessenski: “If you have Serbia and Greece as friends, Albania and Bulgaria are your enemies.”

There are, though, sound economic reasons behind Macedonia’s decision to pay more attention to the north-south Corridor X: Serbia and Greece are far more important to it as trading partners than Bulgaria or Albania, and Corridor X improves its access to both.

Zdraveva says Macedonia will be limiting its options if it forgets Corridor VIII, however. She predicts that if the Sofia-Skopje-Durres rail link were to be completed, “the huge amounts of ores, gas and other goods expected to flow from the Caucasus region [to Western Europe] will use the railroad through Bulgaria, Macedonia and Albania, as this would be by far more viable than using motorways”. She fears, on the other hand, that if construction stalls further, these goods will be diverted to other corridors going to Austria through Serbia.

Completion of the rail link would also benefit an increasing number of Macedonian visitors to Bulgaria, who numbered almost 550,000 in 2006, according to the Bulgarian Tourism Agency. The introduction of visas for Macedonian citizens after Bulgaria joined the EU was expected to lead to a sharp drop, but this has not been the case, with a year-on-year fall of only 7 per cent so far. Trade between the two countries has also more than doubled since the 1990s – from 130 million dollars in 1999, it reached 320 million dollars in 2005, according to the Bulgarian Ministry of Economy and Energy.

The current infrastructure between Sofia and Skopje - 236 km of road that takes up to five hours by car and seven by bus, or the incomplete railway line served by a 1973 locomotive, at one point taking two hours to cross 20 km – clearly does not correspond to the current importance of economic and human relationships between the two countries. “You can get off, pick mushrooms, and then catch up with the train again,” a railway worker says, commenting on its speed.

Greece has other plans

One more obstacle to development of the route, according to Bulgarian and Macedonian transport specialists, is opposition from Greece.

The EU’s 1994 transport plan had designated the still unfinished Sofia-Skopje railway line part of Corridor VIII, in a move to connect Bulgaria’s Black Sea to Albania’s Adriatic via Macedonia. During the wars of the 1990s in former Yugoslavia, both the EU and the US supported the development of Corridor VIII, in a bid to boost trade among these states and off-set their war-related losses, while allowing NATO valuable access to their territories and airspace.

However, once peace was restored, Balkan rivalries re-emerged, as Greece sought to protect the Via Egnatia, its prized 6-billion-euro motorway, running east-west from the Turkish border in Thrace through northern Greece to the port of Igoumenitsa, opposite Corfu, from unwelcome competition.

Filip Nelkovski, a Macedonian analyst at the Centre for Strategic Research, says Greek objections were predictable: “In the last few years the Via Egnatia became a priority for Greece and lots of money has been invested in it. Hence, one could understand the open and obvious pressure by the Greek authorities, obstructing projects related to Corridor VIII.”

With Greece wielding regional clout as a longstanding EU and NATO member, Corridor VIII has been allowed to lag behind the other Pan-European corridors that the EU envisaged as links to Southeast Europe.

Greek officials deny any such rivalry with Corridor VIII, however. Nikolaos Vlahakis, of the Greek embassy in Sofia, dismisses such talk as “old stereotypes,” adding: “Nobody thinks like that in a united Europe.”

While freely admitting that Athens views Via Egnatia as “a national priority” he insists the region will benefit as a whole from its completion. “It is also of strategic importance for the Balkans. Asian traffic can now reach northern Italy without crossing Serbia – a very long road,” Vlahakis maintains.

Boiko Borisov, a Bulgarian correspondent for the Athens News Agency, ANA, supports this view. “Greece is not just building a national road,” he explains. The completed Via Egnatia will offer connections to Bulgaria, Macedonia and Albania, so once Greece attracts Middle East traffic, freight vehicles will be able to choose between Corridor X going through Skopje and Belgrade into Central Europe-- and the ferry from Igoumenitsa to Italy.

Some transport analysts say Greece’s decision to prioritise its own east-west route, as well as Corridor X, running north to Serbia, has also delayed the construction of Corridor IX, connecting Bulgaria and Greece over the Rhodope mountains.

But while Bulgarians complain their neighbour is indifferent to their drive to develop links, the Greeks blame the appalling state of infrastructure within Bulgaria. Improving access on the Greek side alone is not the point, says Vlahakis. “The most important thing is not to hurry to open many further roads and border points, but to have an overall concept for infrastructure development,” he retorts.

This explanation rings hollow, however, when it emerges that Bulgaria has already improved the road from Sofia to the main check-point with Greece at Petko Voivoda far more than any other, while its only high speed train-link has connected Sofia and Athens since June 2005. Bulgarian media write regularly of missed deadlines for the opening of Corridor IX highway sections, all down to Greek foot-dragging.

Both Bulgarian and Greek experts believe Greece will have to meet its latest 2009 deadline to complete its section of Corridor IX, especially as Bulgaria is now a fellow EU member. But by then, it will have taken Greece 14 years to build only 24 km of highway – a fact that frustrates many Bulgarians. “The Greeks instinctively do not aim at having contacts with Bulgaria, just as the Romanians don’t want bridges over the Danube,” Anton Antov, a Bulgarian railways expert, complains.

At grassroots, at least, it’s a very different story. In the municipalities on both sides of the border, there is no sign of historic animosities between ordinary Greeks and Bulgarians. In fact, they have been on increasingly good terms since 1991. EU funds for cross-border initiatives have allowed them to collaborate on a variety of business and cultural initiatives, so that, now, the buses they lay on to transport people to one another’s festivals are packed, as are the courses where they learn each other’s languages.

The problem is that local governments are not eligible for larger EU grants that can be invested in infrastructure. And central governments are not always understanding of border communities’ needs and wishes. “We feel things differently,” says Konstantinos Tatsis, prefect of the Drama–Kavala–Xanthi region in northern Greece, complaining that Athens and Sofia view these matters “from a bird’s eye”.

The local authorities are at least keeping up the pressure. “It is as a result of our deep collaboration that we managed to help governments complete some trans-border projects faster,” Tatsis maintains.

Let’s learn from the Alsatians

Delays in expanding the Balkan transport network are a historical reflex, says IRIS’s Lessenski. “The infrastructure of border regions throughout the Balkans has always been neglected in order to stop the advance of armies,” he explains. It was only a few decades ago, after all, that Greece constructed a chain of fortifications along its Bulgarian border in order to protect it from a Soviet-backed invasion.

Overcoming such divisions is evidently difficult no matter which part of Europe you look at. It took 17 years to break down the mutual isolation of Vienna from Bratislava, which had begun during the Cold War, and build a 55-km highway linking the continent’s two closest capital cities. Even still, Austria and Slovakia have not completely integrated their infrastructures: there are just two rail lines connecting Vienna and Bratislava, while a third local connection stops right at the border.

Alsace-Lorraine, on the other hand, provides a good example of how cross-border animosities and historical divisions can be overcome. The French region that for centuries passed between France and Germany like a ping pong ball, became a source of constant ill-feeling between the two states, with the lack of an adequate transportation network one of the results. This only changed after the Second World War, when people on both sides of the border began making informal cultural and economic ties, much as Bulgarians and Greeks are starting to do now.

The process was later assisted by the decision of the traditionally centralising French government in the 1980s to give regions decision-making powers, as well as the financial resources to carry out common trans-border actions themselves. In terms of public transport, “Alsace is now a model region compared to others in France,” says Olivier Denert, project director at MOT, a Paris-based organisation facilitating cross-border cooperation.

Experts warn that it would be premature to expect such progress in the short term between countries like Greece and Bulgaria. They say the Balkans cannot be expected to compress the several decades of experience that Germany and France have invested into a few months or years. “Our starting position was completely different,” Hutter says. “The economies in Western Europe have grown since the Industrial Revolution. Southeast Europe is coming out of a completely different situation.”

Potholes on the road to Europe

Regardless of this handicap, it looks as though the Balkans will not be able to count wholeheartedly on the EU to galvanise the development of its transport networks. Budgetary constraints and ever more complex politics within the expanded bloc mean those states yet to join will not receive anything like the support earlier “poor cousins” did.

According to a report published in 2005 by the Berlin-based European Stability Initiative, a think-tank, declining levels of aid for countries preparing to join the EU mean Balkan hopefuls should not expect the same level of help that Greece, Spain, Ireland and Portugal received when it came to updating their infrastructure. The amount for future candidate countries will be less than that given to the most recent EU Balkan members – Bulgaria and Romania. Kosovo, standing at the end of the queue, its status still disputed, will be especially hard hit, it warns.

To make matters worse, the EU has decreased support for the Southeast European transport network, following a row over how much member states would contribute to the bloc’s 2007-2013 budget. “In the past there have been grants [that don’t need to be repaid], but in 2005 they mainly stopped because the major contributors in the EU said: “It’s enough,” transport expert Hutter says.

It was never realistic to believe the EU would be able to finance all its transport plans for East and Southeast Europe out of its own budget. At a recent seminar held in Brussels, a figure of 160 billion euros was mentioned as the 2007-2013 cost of all Trans-European projects. Even in an optimistic scenario, it is not likely to find more than one-third of that figure from its own purse. “We must be very ingenious from a financial point of view,” admitted Jacques Barrot, Vice President of the European Commission for Transport, speaking at the event.

As for other sources of practical support for Southeast Europe’s transport networks, the EU seems to stop at pointing the way towards other international loans, as opposed to directly shaping the changes. “The European Commission barely goes beyond building governments’ capacity to attract investments,” says Artan Collaku, a researcher on EU and Southeast Europe governance at the University of Leuven, Belgium.

In 1999, the EU set up a Joint European Commission/World Bank Office to facilitate Western Balkan countries in bidding for donor money. The Joint Office says it encourages international donors to prefer multi-country projects over national ones. But, confusingly, it also insists that it is the responsibility of countries themselves to establish a sound prioritisation of their public investments.

A memorandum signed in 2004 by Southeast European countries and the European Commission, pledging to develop regional, not national transport priorities, was moreover not legally binding and only 3 per cent of the 4.97 billion euros, which they got from international financial institutions, went to cross-border projects. Alexander Rowland, a Joint Office spokesman, insists the document nevertheless represents “a very clear declaration of intent, designed to provide effective means for cooperation”.

The problem is that the traffic flows that make a major highway viable for investment and upgrading only exist on roads leading from Balkan countries to the EU – a reflection of trade patterns. Ironically, therefore, EU declarations promoting regional cooperation collide head-on with credit terms. For example, under the 2007-2011 list of Core Network priority projects, some 747.5 million euros will go to reconstruct Corridor X, already the best road in the Balkans and the most frequently used for EU-bound transport, as SEETO maps and data show. On the other hand, Corridor V linking Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia to Central Europe –will receive less than half of this amount – 298.1 million euros. Corridor VIII and all other Core Network priorities, will get even less than Corridor V.

Europe admits the situation is far from perfect. “This is a process we are trying to improve because it is not like everybody loves everybody… We are still at the beginning,” says the European Commission’s Begeot.

Experts concede that the EU has done much to improve the situation in the region. “At every moment they [the EU] have done their best to create the preconditions for an infrastructure that will contribute to political and economic cooperation,” says Anton Antov.

But it cannot afford to lose sight of the Balkan’s transport problems. The Union’s major goal, outlined in the March 2000 Lisbon Agenda, is to become the most competitive market in the world, partly by invigorating its east-west axis and facilitating access to booming Asian economies.

By 2020, the volume of trade and freight traffic between the EU and Southeast Europe is expected to rise by 100 per cent, says a 2005 report of the Italian government on Corridor VIII. But this will not happen if adequate infrastructure is still not in place. Thus, Karel Van Miert, chair of the EU High Level Group on Trans-European Transport Networks, warns Europe needs to apply real energy to push for progress on cross-border transport in the Balkans and elsewhere. “Cross-border sections always come last [on countries’ agendas],” he said, attending the recent Brussels transport forum.

But will Brussels continue to push?

By 2008, the EU will cut finances for joint meetings and discussions on infrastructure, as part of the process to hand over the work of SEETO to Southeast European countries. “The governments of the region will finance it [the SEETO secretariat] from their own budgets,” Alexander Rowland, of the Joint Office, explains.

That may be asking too much of a region that has little historical experience of cooperating to manage any common issues, let alone transport. And if the perception grows that Brussels is starting to distance itself from the Balkans, the advances made so far could be reversed, leaving transport once again an instrument of countries’ destructive national rivalries.

Fellow Bio


Polina Slavcheva

Polina Slavcheva from Sofia, Bulgaria, has worked for the Sofia Echo, Bulgaria’s English-language weekly and lifestyle magazine Edno, and done internships with political weekly Capital and Bulgarian national television