PODGORICA -- Ecological concerns are piling up on a billion-dollar stretch of new highway through a picturesque river canyon at the confluence of competing influences in the Balkans.
The delayed, 42-kilometer section of Montenegro's Bar-to-Boljare motorway is already under intense scrutiny over the cash-strapped Adriatic coast nation's decision seven years ago to hire a Chinese builder and take on nearly $1 billion in debt to construct it.
This week, under public pressure, the China Road and Bridge Corporation (CRBC) requested permission to repair a damaged 500-meter section of riverbank on the UNESCO-protected Tara River traversed by the highway.
The Chinese company's proposal on May 10 reportedly included stabilizing the left bank of the waterway under the alpine Matesevo bridge, near a hub for mountain tourism in the area called Kolasin.
Its previous proposal, with the Montenegrin environmental regulator and environmental groups clamoring for remedies in August, was rejected as too modest.
Critics say the new plan is still laughable.
"Rehabilitation of 500 meters of the riverbed looks like a bad joke, since 6.7 kilometers of river flow and the floodplain's key biodiversity zone were destroyed on the loop and upstream access roads alone," Natasa Kovacevic of the Green Home environmental NGO, told RFE/RL's Balkan Service.
Green Home has fought for years for a suspension of highway and other construction work affecting the Tara River until better monitoring is in place to protect it.
The clash over damage to a UN-protected river that ecological groups and some ruling coalition loyalists blame on CRBC, which is indirectly controlled by the Chinese state, could have broader political repercussions.
The first of Montenegro's payments on nearly $1 billion in Chinese loans for the highway is due in July, and Podgorica has already pleaded unsuccessfully for EU help to come up with the funds.
Some Balkan governments are said to be watching the Montenegrin appeal on the highway debt as a test of Brussels' appetite for closer engagement and deeper connections to countries of the former Yugoslavia that are still outside the bloc.
Montenegro joined NATO in 2017 and is a candidate for European Union membership.
But many EU member states remain wary of early enlargement to include Montenegro and states like Serbia, North Macedonia, and Kosovo, as well as Albania.
The project -- part of an interstate project to link Serbia to the Adriatic -- could come up on May 17 when leaders of the Western Balkan countries gather at Brdo Castle, in Slovenia, to discuss EU accession prospects for Montenegro and its neighbors.
"Why should the EU step in...and help Montenegro in this concrete project and problem?" Jovana Marovic, executive director of the Politikon Network, a Podgorica-based think tank, asked this week.
"Because in that way the EU will show that it cares about the Western Balkans, that the enlargement process is alive, and that dealing with the most pressing issue they actually are helping Montenegro and the Western Balkans, not leaving them to the potential negative political influences from third parties, China and the rest, of course."
Beijing has made infrastructure projects a key component of its ambitious Belt And Road Initiative (BRI), tying lending and economic projects to political and cultural ties that critics fear will give the Chinese too much influence over indebted governments.
The Balkans, and particularly Serbia, have been a clear target for BRI initiatives even as the European Union contributes hundreds of millions in assistance and diplomatically regards China and Russia as interlopers in the region.
Marovic noted that a previous Montenegrin government -- dominated by President Milo Djukanovic's long-ruling Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) -- signed the deal giving CRBC lead of the highway project in 2014.
The current government, a hash of Serbian nationalists, populists, and environmental and other groups who spent decades in opposition, came to power in December and has tried to distance itself from the deal.
It has also sought to reassure the West that it will maintain pro-EU policies.
"In the end," Marovic said, "this whole project and contract and conditions and everything, which is problematic when it comes to the highway project in Montenegro, that's not the responsibility of the current government but the previous one, and if the EU wants to help the Montenegrin democratization process, they should help the new government in order to be able to focus on democratization."
The completed section of Montenegrin highway should stretch 165 kilometers from Boljare, on its northern border with Serbia, to Bar on its southernmost coast.
The 42-kilometer stretch currently being built by CRBC was originally slated for completion in 2019 but has been extended several times.
Its current deadline for completion is the end of this year.
The Tara's 80-kilometer canyon is Europe's longest, and along with the surrounding coniferous-filled basin has enjoyed UNESCO World Heritage status since 1980.
It is already under threat from microdams and other small hydropower projects that have proliferated throughout much of the Balkans under sometimes lax enforcement regimes.
Montenegro's Nature and Environmental Protection Agency (NEPA) last year accused the Chinese builders of ignoring its recommendations.
It noted last year that the highway construction had "led to turbidity" and deepened a half-kilometer of riverbed, affecting biodiversity in the nationally and internationally protected waterway.
Environmental inspectors have also warned of the danger of landslides from erosion in a loop where the Tara meanders.
In November, the NEPA gave its approval to the idea of CRBC repairing damage to the Tara River.
In its latest remediation proposal this month, CRBC was also said to have committed to an analysis of the state of biodiversity and possible restocking of the Tara after its highway work is completed.
The Tara is among the dwindling natural habitats of the huchen, or Danube salmon, a long-lived freshwater species that can grow to the size of a human. The huchen's numbers continue to plummet despite repeated warnings that the barometer species is in danger from the Bar-to-Boljare highway and other projects.
Ljiljana Jokic, from the ruling Civic Movement United Reform Action, a liberal green party, agreed that the project has created an ecological catastrophe and the Chinese offer is insufficient.
"Remediation of the problem is very necessary, but in the scope offered by CRBC it is definitely not enough," Jokic says. "We're not certain about the quality of rehabilitation in the planned area announced by CRBC, since if they'd done the job properly so far they wouldn't have put the Tara in the condition it's in now."
She says the Chinese company "should be asked for compensation for the destruction of the Tara."
An official from the Ecology Ministry, Tamara Brajovic, says they expect the Chinese company to repair any devastated areas of the Tara.