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China's Influence On The Balkan Countries - Mihael Gubas

News from Montenegro these days is attracting the public's attention throughout the Balkans and in Europe, both because of the potential debt "slavery" to China and because of environmental damage throughout and across protected natural areas. From construction in national parks, which does not seem to diminish, through the pollution of rivers in nature parks, and thus the strictly protected Tara River, on whose route the Chinese have been building a highway for so long that it is questionable whether they want to build it at all. Until the latest news about the discharge of industrial wastewater into the Zeta River, which was only recently protected (December 2019) precisely with the aim of preventing its further pollution, but also reports of environmental fears about the consequences of wells for gas and oil exploitation.

But let's go in order. Montenegro asked the European Commission for help in repaying its debt to China, which was used to build 44 kilometers of the promised 170 highways for an $820 million loan. The European Commission then refused to repay Montenegro's debt to China, saying it can't be held responsible for debts to third countries, but is ready to help with building the rest of the highway. The Chinese investment in the Balkans - they are usually reduced to the international connection of neighbors by highways, while the local countries need highways that connect the interior, as all estimates of the cost-effectiveness of highway construction in the Balkans even poorer citizens by traffic alone will not make the maintenance of these roads financially efficient.

China never had it as a goal to improve local infrastructure but to decrease the journey of its goods from China to Europe as much as humanly possible. In addition to excessive loans, which small countries generally cannot repay, China then also imposed its own labor force, cheap and obedient, on the countries to which it has lent. Despite great warnings from independent analysts, several Balkan countries have handed over a number of their infrastructure projects to China. But, it was done with the blessing of both the EU and local political elites. China has invested heavily in Juncker's former plan to recover the EU from the 2007-2009 crisis, and some countries have already suffered in the inability to repay the generous Chinese loans. Some of them are Greece (Piraeus), Sri Lanka, Ecuador, etc.… and now Montenegro.

The situation with natural resources, on which this country is economically dependent, also testifies to how badly Montenegro is managed, more than desperate strategic decisions. The best example is the concession for oil and gas exploitation, sold in 2016 to foreign investors for 30 years. On that occasion, no care was taken for the protection of the sea in the event of an oil or gas spill, which would set back Montenegrin tourism, on which the country is economically too dependent. However, they may not even have to worry about pollution in a short time, as the media writes that China could "take over most of the Montenegrin coast" if the country cannot repay its debts for the highway. Montenegro's environmental problems do not end there, as Chinese construction of the highway damages the Tara River and its canyon, which are heavily protected (UNESCO).

Even without Chinese help, Montenegro is doing a lot on its own to pollute the environment. BIRN has published a report on the pollution of the Zeta River with industrial waste. From the concrete plant, through the sewer to the slaughterhouse, the river, known for its emerald color in which it used to be possible to bathe, is today so polluted that the fish caught in it and stink with a familiar waste smell. However, as is usually the case, polluters claim that all is in accordance with the law, inspectors in the field determine that polluters are telling the truth, and then environmentalists photograph improvised pipes that discharge waste into the river without any purifiers. Montenegro, it seems, does not lack laws that would disable or protect something. It is no wonder since they copy a lot of it from Croatian laws, which are often blindly translated from German ones. However, Montenegro, just like Croatia itself, lacks strict control and implementation of these laws. Otherwise, the situation will get worse, and it is to be expected that no one will budge until either great public pressure occurs or an ecological catastrophe that would leave Podgorica and the wider area with no drinking water.

The traditionally corrupt political elite is not currently in power, and it remains to be seen whether the recent political change at the state top will be enough to enforce the laws. However, judging by the practice in neighboring countries, we should not have high expectations.


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