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The billion-dollar motorway leading Montenegro to nowhere

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.


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. Is Montenegro now stuck in Chinese debt?



The story starts with Montenegro's former Prime Minister and current President, Milo Đukanović. 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 highway to nowhere


The motorway should link Bar harbour 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.


We talked to Bojan. He and his family have lived in Montenegro for generations. Part of his property was expropriated for the motorway project, but he was not fully compensated.



Politicians promised lorry drivers, like him, that the motorway would create thousands of jobs, but Bojan got nothing. The Chinese contractor brought in its own workers. Bojan also knows of subcontractors hiring illegal workers from neighboring countries, workers with no contracts or social security contributions. 


Bojan tells us that he would have preferred Montenegro to choose Europe for this loan instead of China. He believes that choosing Europe would have meant more checks would have been done "and the construction would be done by now". It is his belief that 100 million euros have been stolen from the project. 


The deputy project manager of the State-run China Road and Bridge Corporation, CRBC, in charge of construction took us on a lengthy car rid, but refused to comment about the project. On this journey we noticed the road to CRBC's headquarters was covered in graffiti. Some of it says: “Milo – you are a thief”. This refers to the Montenegrin President's alleged links to local subcontractors. Clearly many Montenegrins are upset by what's happening.



An NGO backed by the EU is investigating corruption allegations involving subcontractors. Dejan Milovac is part of the team digging the dirt on the motorway project. Out of the huge loan from China, 400 million euros were given to subcontractors. Milovac says some are linked to the President.


He tells us that "there was no public procurement procedure for the subcontractors. Most of the project was declared as a state secret. All the benefits that CRBC receives, such as not paying VAT, or no taxes on labor, or no customs on imported goods, was also applied to the subcontractors with absolutely no control". According to him, this creates "a huge opportunity for corruption".


More and more citizens are fed up with corruption in Montenegro. Last year they voted in a new government. Today’s Deputy Prime Minister, Dritan Abazović, has a solid reputation as a fighter for transparency, a precondition to bring Montenegro closer to the European Union.



Read More: Euronews 

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