Trans-Balkan transport has been crippled by international embargoes against Yugoslavia and by NATO air strikes on Serbia's Danube River bridges. But an EU initiative to build a transport corridor around Yugoslavia is starting to move forward. RFE/RL's Ron Synovitz reports.
Prague, 28 March 2000 (RFE/RL) -- After nine years of bickering, Romania and Bulgaria have agreed on a site for a Danube River bridge that will allow trans-Balkan traffic to bypass Serbia. The agreement, signed in Bucharest yesterday (Monday), is one of the first concrete results of the Balkan Stability Pact.
The bridge is a key link in a European Union project known as Pan-European Transport Corridor Four. That project aims to create a major north-south transport route linking Greece and western Europe through Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary. Under Monday's agreement, the new bridge will cross the Danube about 20 kms east of Serbia at the Bulgarian town of Vidin and the Romanian river port of Calafat.
For years, Bucharest had lobbied for a bridge to be built further to the east -- a move that would have put the north-south transport corridor closer to Bucharest as well as increasing the amount of transit fees received by Romania. Romanian officials finally agreed on the Vidin-Calafat site under pressure from the EU.
Currently, the main road and rail routes between western Europe and the Balkans pass through Yugoslavia. But all of Serbia's Danube bridges were destroyed in NATO's air campaign last year. Serbia's only existing route across the Danube today is north of Belgrade (at Djerdap) -- a tiny road on the "Iron Gate" dam between Serbia and Romania.
Even before NATO's air strikes, the EU had been eager to create an alternative transport route around Serbia. Belgrade's neighbors suffered thousands of millions of dollars in lost trade when the main transport route was cut by international sanctions against Yugoslavia in the 1990s.
Those sanctions forced much of the trans-Balkan traffic to pass along inferior roads in Bulgaria to the Romanian city of Giurgiu -- the site of the only existing bridge between Romania and Bulgaria. In the mid-1990s, truck drivers typically faced a border delay of 10 days there and the crossing earned the nickname "Bottleneck Bridge."
Bulgarian Prime Minister Ivan Kostov praised the idea of a transportation route to the west that bypasses troubled Serbia.
"Trans-European Corridor 4 is an alternative way between southeastern Europe and Central Europe that does not pass through Yugoslavia. And that is why it is very important for our country."
Kostov says construction of the bridge will start later this year and will take about two-and-a-half years to complete.
Romanian Prime Minister Mugur Isarescu is also happy about the project. He noted that the new transport corridor will pass through what he called "a stable region."
Bodo Hombach, the EU's special coordinator for the Stability Pact, says the EU will do its best to complete the bridge as soon as possible. Hombach also says the EU is committed to clearing debris from destroyed bridges within Serbia to reopen the river to navigation sometime this summer.
"At the EU summit in Lisbon, we were instructed to complete the task this coming summer, because Bulgaria and Romania are lamenting the fact that they are suffering so much from the blockage."
In the meantime, Hombach says EU experts already have started evaluating and coordinating details on the finances needed to improve road and rail links near Vidin and Calafat.
Plans for the new bridge call for four lanes of road traffic and two railroad lines. The project also includes $200 million of financing through the Stability Pact to improve road and rail lines in western Romania -- particularly through the Jiu Valley and the Carpathian mountains.
The Balkan Stability Pact was established last summer by EU and Group of Eight countries to aid the political and economic reconstruction of southeast Europe in the aftermath of the Kosovo conflict. Balkan members include Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Romania and Macedonia.
A donor conference is being launched in Brussels tomorrow (Wednesday) under the auspices of the Stability Pact to support reconstruction in the signatory countries.
The European Investment Bank is in charge of the program to repair and expand the region's infrastructure -- including transport projects.
The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development is leading programs to develop the private sector, and the World Bank is responsible for the overall aid strategy.