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East: Danube Closure Squeezes Businesses

The Danube River, one of Europe's great waterways, remains closed to transit navigation because of the damage resulting from the conflict between Yugoslavia and NATO. The economic losses for shipping and trade along the river are escalating, and as winter approaches, the risk of flooding is growing. Correspondent Breffni O'Rourke reports on the situation and on prospects for a solution.

Prague, 27 October 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Many of the massive barges and river boats that used to travel from Germany and Austria to the Black Sea and back are idle now, swaying quietly at their moorings. The Danube, their route for thousands of kilometers through the heart of Central and East Europe, remains blocked to transit traffic. And prospects for a resumption of navigation along its full length anytime soon look bleak.

The great river is impassable for only a few kilometers of its length, at the city of Novi Sad in Serbia, where NATO warplanes brought down three bridges earlier this year during the conflict with Yugoslavia over Kosovo. The technical difficulties of clearing debris are not so great. Instead, it is the politics that is the problem. The riddle is how can the international community join in clearing the river when Yugoslavia would set terms which contravene the international embargo imposed on it.

The Danube Commission, a Budapest-based organization which groups 11 Danube region states, estimates economic losses alone to river shipping from the closure at some $250 million since March. Commission General-Director Daniel Nedialkov tells RFE/RL that Romania estimates losses of over $53 million to riverboat operators, plus $11 million losses to the port of Constanza. Slovakia estimates losses to its cargo companies and shipbuilders at $15 million. Bulgaria, less hard hit, has lost some $2.5 million. But Ukraine says it has lost $60 million. Moldova also has losses, of some $11,000.

The German shipper Donau Lloyd Mat is typical of the companies hit. Its fleet has been tied up since the start of the NATO-Yugoslavia conflict in March. Last year the company's roll-on roll-off service between Passau in Bavaria and Vidin in Bulgaria carried some 4,000 trucks and 12,000 cars. Now the ships are idle. Company business manager Bojan Stoyanov is not much interested in the politics of the issue. He tells RFE/RL the river must be reopened -- soon:

"Through the Danube Commission the Danube region states should agree how the clearance of the river must be financed, so that it can be made navigable again. The Danube is one of the biggest Pan-European transport corridors, and it can't be that the project [to reopen it] is put on hold, that this international waterway stays closed, just because people are not clear about the consequences to the states of the region." Danube Commission director Nedialkov is himself a former river captain, and he understands the anxiety of the shippers. He tells RFE/RL that the commission is doing what it can:

"The next step which the commission is planning is to organize a meeting of technical and financial experts of the Danube countries... [They] will decide on necessary measures to be taken on the basis of a report which we will receive from Yugoslavia at the end of this week and which will contain detailed information of the work to be done."

Nedialkov says the actual clearance of the river can be done in a matter of only three weeks. But he emphasizes that the Danube Commission is only a body of technical experts, with no political role to play. Only decisions at the political level can set the stage for re-opening the river. Nedialkov says his organization has stressed the urgency of the matter to Western politicians:

"A representative of the commission, the Austrian head of the expert group for the Danube in Yugoslavia (Mr. Vorderwinkler) attended a recent meeting of the South-East Europe Stability Pact in Bari, Italy, and addressed the participating European Union member states on the importance of clearing the waterway in Yugoslavia."

Political officials from the United States and EU countries are reported discussing how to solve the problem, which has the potential to cause cracks within the broad alliance of countries which took part against Yugoslavia in the Kosovo conflict.

Politicians in recent contact with Belgrade, like Hungarian parliamentary deputy and environment expert Zoltan Illes, are quoted as saying the Serbs are still refusing to clear the river unless they are given help in rebuilding war damage. That is what the alliance has vowed it will not give while President Slobodan Milosevic stays in power.

Hungary is particularly worried that winter ice could bank up against the wrecked bridges at Novi Sad, causing serious flooding in southern Hungary. Illes said Belgrade is declining to cooperate with a Hungarian offer to send cranes to clear a passage through the present debris.

So the situation remains unresolved, with no solution yet on the horizon.

There are however some bright spots in the affair. One is that traders have had to find alternative transport routes. As Krassen Stanchev, director of a Sofia-based 'think-tank' called the Institute of Market Economy, says, that means gains for other sectors of the economy. For instance in Bulgaria, traders have redirected much of their transport eastwards, through Black Sea routes. He spoke with RFE/RL by telephone from the Bulgarian capital:

"Any crisis has different potentials in itself, and in these terms the Kosovo crisis has been very good for container services, port services and logistics of the Bulgarian sea transport."

The railways in Bulgaria and Romania have benefited too. But their limited network and inflexibility in freight handling have remained big drawbacks. Road transport in the region has also received a boost, although this has meant the further overloading of inadequate local highway networks.