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‘There is no support for decoupling’ - Albanian and North Macedonian EU membership

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EU High Representative Josep Borrell met with North Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev today (11 May) and reassured him, despite recent comments by Enlargement Commissioner Olivér Várhelyi, that there has never been any intention of decoupling North Macedonia and Albania in the accession process. 

Foreign ministers had a long discussion about the Western Balkans at yesterday’s foreign affairs council and it was agreed that the region has a key geostrategic role for the European Union. Borrell said: “Our commitment to the Western Balkans needs to be very visible and we should leave no doubt in this respect.” Borrell added that co-operation needed to be wide ranging from the COVID-19 pandemic and vaccines, economic co-operation, connectivity, and how to tackle external influence and disinformation.

Zaev described discussions as fruitful - he said Macedonians “breathe, live and grow with European ideas and values. We know there is no other way but the European way. We are committed to our common values and on the implementation of European Union standards and criteria. And we don't want to stand and wait anymore.”

Zaev said that North Macedonia had fulfilled its obligations and that now it's time for the European Union to deliver. 

Following today’s General Affairs Council of Europe ministers, Secretary of State for European Affairs of Portugal Ana Paula Zacarias said that ministers had discussed how they could organize an intergovernmental conference during their presidency which ends in June. She also said that she was in discussions with Bulgaria, which is threatening to block accession.  

Commission Vice President Maroš Šefčovič said that North Macedonia had met all the requirements, but that there would be a strong emphasis on the rule of law, with the new methodology for accession. He also said that European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen had applauded North Macedonia’s progress and her hope that the EU could move forward as quickly as possible. 

China

The billion-dollar disaster - China's influence in Montenegro

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Montenegro is building its first-ever motorway. Due to a huge loan scandal, it’s now become the country’s highway to hell. 40 bridges and 90 tunnels are expected to be built and financed by the Chinese. However, the project has been hit by corruption allegations, construction delays and environmental tragedies. Today, out of the planned 170 kilometres, just 40 have been completed, writes Juris Paiders.

The motorway is one of the most expensive in the world. It's financed by a loan from China loan. Paying back this money is creating problems. The story starts with Montenegro's former Prime Minister and current President, Milo Dukanović. He conceived the motorway to boost trade in the small Balkan country.

However, lacking funds to start construction, he accepted a billion-dollar loan from China in 2014. Other investors didn't want to get involved. Prior to this, French and American feasibility studies highlighted the risks of such an oversized project. The European Investment Bank and the IMF also announced that it was a bad idea.

Now, with the pandemic crushing Montenegro’s tourism-dependent economy, the country is struggling to find a way to finance the missing stretches of road.

The motorway should link Bar Harbor in the south to the border with Serbia in the north. The first section was scheduled to be finished in 2020, but it still isn't.

Politicians promised that the motorway contraction will boost employment in Montenegro. However, the Chinese contractor brought in its own workers, with no contracts or social security contributions.

An NGO backed by the EU is investigating corruption allegations involving subcontractors. Out of the huge loan from China, 400 million Euros were given to subcontractors, which some of them are linked with President.

In Montenegro people are hoping that there will be justice and someone should pay for this ambitious constructions plan. However, some fear that China has its eyes on Bar's deep-water harbor. When signing the billion-dollar-loan with China, Montenegro agreed to some strange terms, like giving up sovereignty of certain parts of the land in the case of financial problems. Arbitration in this scenario would take place in China using Chinese laws.

A long-term harbor concession would fit nicely into China’s “Belt-and-Road-Initiative”, a global infrastructure project to access markets. Harbor authorities in Bar are already hoping for an economic upturn and have plans for two new terminals.

The Chinese-managed motorway isn’t just mired in cronyism allegations; it’s also accused of damaging the protected Tara river valley. The ecology group 'Green Home', after several monitoring of Tara River, has concluded that impact of incompetent construction on river is disastrous. Sediment from the construction site is trickling into the water, preventing the fish from spawning.

Chinese managers have been accused of ignoring basic EU standards and Montenegro is criticized for failing to supervise construction correctly. Rubble has changed the Tara riverbed, perhaps irreparably.

Environmental experts proposed alternative layouts of the motorway that would have avoided the Tara valley, but they were ignored.

The river Tara is UNESCO protected and it should be forbidden to gravel the soil and sand, but this is happening there because of the construction work.

All over the Western Balkans, Chinese investment has slowed down EU compatible reforms. China’s silk road ambitions are not always in line with EU standards of good governance, environmental protection, rule of law and transparency. Their influence is creating a wedge between the EU and the Balkan states.

The opinions expressed in the above article are those of the author alone, and do not reflect any opinion on the part of EU Reporter.

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coronavirus

Commission and Austria secure COVID-19 vaccines for the Western Balkans

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The Commission and Austria have announced the conclusion of agreements for the delivery of COVID-19 vaccines for the Western Balkans. The 651,000 doses are funded through the €70 million package adopted by the Commission in December 2020 and will be shared with the facilitation of Austria. The first delivery to all the partners in the region is due in May, with regular tranches to continue until August.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said: “It is crucial to speed up the vaccination campaigns everywhere. I am happy to announce that we have secured doses to help vaccinate health care workers and other vulnerable groups in the Western Balkans. The European Union stands by our partners in the region, who have been looking to us for support. I want to thank Austria for facilitating this transfer, showing its firm commitment and solidarity with the Western Balkans.”

Enlargement and Neighbourhood Commissioner Olivér Várhelyi added: “Despite the current global shortage, the EU will deliver life-saving vaccines for the Western Balkans. We have provided support from the start of the COVID-19 pandemic: First, with emergency medical equipment like masks, ventilators, intensive care units and ambulance vehicles; second, by strengthening the resilience. Now, we will help ensure the vaccination of all frontline medical workers across the region, as well as some of the other vulnerable groups. We care about the Western Balkans whose future is in the European Union.”

For more information see a press release and a press point held by Commissioner Várhelyi.

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Energy

Turkish Stream extended to the Balkans

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While the passions around the Nord Stream-2 are not subsiding, and Washington is looking for new ways to stop the project, Russia has launched the second part of the Turkish Stream (TurkStream) in the Southern Balkans. Thus, this large-scale project takes its final shape, writes Alex Ivanov, Moscow correspondent.

On 1 January, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic launched the Serbian section of the Turkish Stream - an interconnector gas pipeline that expanded the Serbian national gas transportation system.

In the new year, 2021, Serbia joined a number of Balkan countries that use one of the main Russian energy resources, overcame dependence on Ukrainian gas transit and ensured energy stability.

“The number of European countries that receive Russian gas with the help of Turkish Stream has grown to six. Now, along with Bulgaria, Greece, Northern Macedonia and Romania, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina have provided themselves with such an opportunity, said Alexey Miller, Chairman of the Gazprom Management Board. From Russia, gas is supplied via the Turkish Stream offshore gas pipeline to Turkey, from there to Bulgaria, and through the national gas transportation system of Bulgaria, it enters Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Two lines of the Turkish Stream will supply 15.75 billion cubic metres of gas per year, about 3 of them will be received by Serbia. Russian gas will allow the Serbs to attract foreign investors, help improve the environmental situation in the country and raise the standard of living of citizens. The festive launch of gas went like clockwork, but Russia and Serbia took a long time to reach this strategically important moment.

According to the initial plan, the entire volume of gas from the second line was planned to serve by transit through Turkey to the border with Bulgaria, where it would be done in the upgraded Bulgarian gas transport system, which is capable of transmitting 12 billion cubic meters of gas on border with Serbia. After the distribution of gas through its territory, the rest of the gas was to be supplied to the border with Hungary. By 2019, it was planned to synchronize all work on the construction of the Turkish Stream branches and simultaneously modernize the Bulgarian and Serbian gas transmission systems.

However, when the gas pipeline was already built by the Russian company Gazprom in 2019, work had only just begun in Serbia, while in Bulgaria it was not carried out at all. Gazprom, as a reliable supplier, booked additional capacities for gas transportation through the Ukrainian corridor for gas supplies to Serbia in 2020, although this was not profitable for Russia either in terms of the economy, or even more so in the political aspect.

In 2020, work on connecting Serbia and Bulgaria to the Turkish Stream was intensified, but in the fall of 2020 it turned out that Serbia (for various reasons) does not have time to fulfill its obligations before March-April 2021. This meant that in order to organize Russian gas supplies to Serbia in 2021, Gazprom would again have to ask Ukraine, contrary to its political and reputational interests, to sell additional transit capacity to deliver gas to Serbia. President Aleksandar Vucic personally had to solve the problem.

Already in November 2020, a Russian-Serbian working group was established, working under the direct control of the Serbian leader. After President Vucic took the situation into his own hands, the construction of the gas pipeline in the country began at a new pace. The round-the-clock work of specialists and builders of the two countries has brought a corresponding result.

In total, about 6 billion cubic metres of gas will be supplied to the domestic markets of these countries. The corresponding amount of fuel can be excluded from the alternative flow in transit through Ukraine. For the Serbian consumer, the launch of the "Balkan Stream" is especially important because the price of a cubic meter of gas will now drop from $ 240 to $ 155 at the exit from Bulgaria (the cost of internal transit will be added to them, about $ 12-14). This also means a revision of the cost of connecting households to gas. Alexander Vucic called this event "great and important for Serbia" and sincerely thanked the Russian leadership. "This is an important day for our country. I would like to thank our Russian friends who participated in the construction of the gas pipeline together with us. I congratulate you on your great work, it is of great importance for the industry, the development of the Serbian economy, as well as all the inhabitants of Serbia," he said at the launch ceremony of the gas pipeline.

Russia is completing its ambitious project in the Balkans. All the countries that wanted to get gas already have it. Turkish Stream is there in the Balkans. At the time, it was not possible to implement the South Stream, but now there is another route and it works.

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