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Yugoslavia: New Leadership Could Help Speed Up Clearing Danube

With the change of political leadership in Yugoslavia, plans have crystallized for a speedy clearance of the Danube River, blocked to navigation since last year as a result of the NATO-Yugoslav conflict. The multinational Danube Commission is now hoping that the river, one of Europe's major waterways, can be cleared of rubble from destroyed bridges by the middle of 2001.

Prague, 22 November 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Along the course of the Danube -- from Germany where it rises, to Romania where it enters the Black Sea -- many boatmen have had little to do in the past year-and-a-half except shake their heads and watch barges swing at their moorings.

The river's long-distance shipping trade has been disrupted by the rubble of bridges brought down by NATO warplanes last year during the alliance's conflict with Yugoslavia over Kosovo. Ironically, the great waterway is impassible for navigation for only a few kilometers of its length, at the Serbian city of Novi Sad, where three bridges lie in ruins.

The former regime of Slobodan Milosevic in Yugoslavia showed little interest in accepting post-conflict offers to help clear the debris. It sought rather to use the river's blockage as a means to extract concessions from NATO. But last month's political changes in Belgrade, which brought reformists to power, have opened the door at last to quick action.

The Budapest-based Danube Commission, which groups 11 states, says clearance work can begin soon. Financing is available in the form of some $19 million from the European Union, plus a further $3.4 million contributed by Danube Commission member states themselves. Commission general director Daniel Nedialkov told our correspondent:

"If the [project] tender is finished by the end of March, and if the works can start by the beginning of April, we hope that by the beginning of summer, maybe in June, the works will be complete."

Nedialkov visited Novi Sad last week (Nov 14) along with Helmut Strasser, the president of the Danube Commission. Strasser said that his organization is ready to support the Novi Sad authorities' request for EU funding to rebuild the most important of the three bridges, known as the "Freedom Bridge."

But it is the Freedom Bridge that poses the biggest obstacle to hopes of having the river cleared by early summer. Nedialkov explains:

"The question is how we must tackle the clearing. The Yugoslav authorities say they need about six months to clean up all that bridge because they want to use parts of that structure, maybe [as much as] 70 percent, once again."

The time needed to sort out which sections of the old structure are suitable for incorporation into a new bridge, and which must be instead be demolished, could slow up the whole process of clearance.

Certainly the shipping companies would be glad of relief from the blockage as soon as possible. Walter Stemmlinger, a deputy manager of the German company Donau Lloyd Mat, based in the Bavarian Danube Port of Passau, says:

"We would prefer [the river to re-open] tomorrow. The quicker, the better for us."

In 1998, Donau Lloyd Mat carried some 16,000 cars and trucks between the German port of Passau and Vidin in Bulgaria. Since the closure of the Danube, its fleet has been largely tied up. Stemmlinger says crewmen have been laid off, and the company has had to pay more to move cargoes by alternative methods.

The Passau company's experience is typical of many. The Danube Commission estimates that losses to shippers and shipyard operators amounts to some $425 million among member states, with Ukraine being among the worst affected.

Of course, in a situation where some lose, usually others can gain. In this case that means that road transport and railways have been offered the possibility of increasing freight loads. But because of the generally inadequate road and rail systems in southeastern Europe, they have not been able to make full use of the opportunity.

(The 11 nations comprising the Danube Commission are Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, Germany, Hungary, Moldova, Romania, Russia, Slovakia, Ukraine, and Yugoslavia.)