From Thu Nov 14 07:00:06 2002
From: Le Monde diplomatique <>
To: Le Monde diplomatique <>
Subject: Balkans: the road to nowhere
Date: Thu, 14 Nov 2002 11:58:17 +0100 (CET)

EU plans trade routes across the continent

By Jean-Arnault Derens, Le Monde diplomatique, November 2002

Balkans: the road to nowhere

THE Pan-European Corridor Vc is planned to run from Budapest across Bosnia-Herzegovina and on to the Croatian port of Ploce. It looks fine on paper, but there is little sign of it on the ground. It is supposed to promote trade flows between regions that were at war only a few years ago. But only incurable optimists believe it could help to heal divisions, and few people seriously consider that it will contribute to economic development.

Several of the new European Union corridors are designed to intersect at Budapest to strengthen the city's role as an economic hub. The railway lines run through residential suburbs on its outskirts that reflect the quiet prosperity of the new Hungarian middle class. This April in Hungary Victor Orban's rightwing nationalists were ousted by the Socialist party, former communists who are now ardent advocates of a free-market economy and EU membership. A few weeks after the election, there was an uproar because of the revelation that the new prime minister, Peter Medgyessy, had been a secret police informer under the communist regime, but that will not shake the country's pro-European orientation.

Hungary sees itself as a central European state and is looking to western Europe. Southern Europe is not its priority, except as a holiday destination; while the purchasing power of Hungarian tourists is now appreciated in the resorts of Dalmatia and Montenegro, Budapest businessmen have little interest in the countries of former Yugoslavia. Even the director of the port of Ploce admits that the Hungarian market is not at all dependent on it. Hungary is relying on overland transport links for its economic development, and to a lesser extent on the Danube.

The countries to the south are interested in Hungary, but their interest is not much reciprocated. Each spring a caravan of Bosnian lorries heads north to Hungary to load up with agricultural seed, which Bosnia and Croatia are still unable to produce. The journey from northern Bosnia could be done in a couple of hours, but always takes at least 24 hours because of border delays. The lorry drivers blocked at the Croatian-Hungarian border have heard of Corridor Vc but doubt that it will ever become a reality. “For Bosnia,” says a driver from Brcko in the north of the country, “there are plans, plans and more plans, but nothing ever comes of them.”

Seed imports are vital to Bosnia, where agriculture did not recover from the war, but unimportant to Hungary. In Croatia, farming has been destroyed by reckless privatisation, and the market has been thrown open to competition from cheap European stocks. With local agriculture in ruins, the food on sale is expensive and of poor quality (1). The huge agricultural combines of the Slavonian plain, which begins at the Hungarian border, are now a shadow of their former selves. Transgenic plants are now the only viable way forward. A few kilometres from Osijek, hundreds of hectares of growing cereals are surrounded by barbed wire fences with signboards from the Agronomical Research Institute of Zagreb.

Bridge over the river Drava

IN HUNGARY, what attention is being paid to the corridor seems to be confined to the large southern city of Pecs. At the local European information office there, in an impressive mansion in the centre, an official brandishes a thick wad of documents about Hungary's accession to the EU; it takes him a long time to find a file on the corridor. Here the centre of interest is the “Danube-Drava-Sava Euroregion”, encompassing the prefecture of Pecs, the Slavonian counties of Croatia, and the Bosnian canton of Tuzla.

“The Pecs region has the same culture as Slavonia and for a long time we were part of a single historical community, the Austro-Hungarian empire. Both regions are a mixture of peoples and religions. Croats, Serbs, Ruthenians, Slovaks and Ukrainians live in the Pecs region, as they do in Slavonia,” the official explains. “Our cultural links with Bosnia are weaker,” he adds ruefully.

In Osijek, the capital of Croatian Slavonia, the Euroregion has enthusiastic supporters like Miljenko Turjaski, head of the Local Democracy Agency (LDA), who was a resolute opponent of Franjo Tudjman's nationalist regime. The LDA's purpose is to strengthen the young Croatian democracy and combat the regime's authoritarian tendencies. “Our affinities with Serbia and Bosnia are strong because we speak mutually intelligible languages,” Turjaski explains. “The Euroregion is an attempt to restore an area united by both history and geography.”

The initial impetus for the project came from local authorities that had escaped the control of nationalist regimes. The city of Osijek was always a bastion of opposition to Tudjman, and the canton of Tuzla is the stronghold of Bosnian social democrats. The director of the Osijek chamber of commerce is another fervent supporter of the Euroregion, but admits he is more interested in relations with Hungary than trade with Bosnia. In February 2001 the LDA held a round table on the Danube links proposed for corridor VII. The transition to democracy in former Yugoslavia has led to resumed relations between Slavonia and Serbian Vojvodina, but Danube river traffic is still very limited.

Damir Juric, founder of the Osijek LDA, is now a member of the Croatian parliament, the only elected representative of the regionalist Croatian Party of Slavonia-Baranja (SBHS). He thinks the region's multi-ethnic character is among its greatest assets. Austro-Hungarian forces took Slavonia from the Turks in the 18th century, and within its borders there developed a mixed population of agricultural colonists of all ethnic origins, and Serbian military colonists introduced by the Vienna court.

The Croatian regionalists, particularly influential in Istria (another multi-ethnic region), clearly distinguish between nationalism, which pursues the interests of a single ethnic group, and regionalism, which aspires to unite all the inhabitants of a region in a drive for development and democratisation.

This approach to regionalism is shared by the autonomy movement in neighbouring Serbian Vojvodina, and a similar trend is also emerging in Romanian Transylvania. Is it a specific reaction in multi-ethnic regions strongly influenced by the historical and cultural heritage of the Austro-Hungarian empire? Or is it a case of the better-off regions pursuing their own path to development despite accusations of selfishness from the less-favoured regions in the same nations?

Slavonia may be relatively well off, but it is still suffering from the effects of war. Just on the Croatian side of the border with Hungary, the little town of Beli Manastir was part of the Serbian autonomous district of Slavonia, Baranja and Western Srem (SAO SBWS). Croatian rule here was not restored until January 1998, following the Erdut accords. In a square here, with a monument to the glory of the Red Army, which liberated the region before Tito's partisans could get a foothold, Marija, a middle-aged Croatian, is looking after her granddaughter. She was able to return to her hometown only in 1999, after eight years' exile on the coast. “There, as refugees, we received a minimum of social assistance,” she says. “Here there's nothing: no work and no humanitarian aid.”

The marks of war are particularly visible in Vukovar, the former capital of the SAO SBWS. Reconstruction programmes did not get properly under way until two years ago, and the city is still mostly deserted. Before the war the city had about 60,000 inhabitants; 10,000 Serbs still live there, but only a few thousand of its Croats have returned.

Many houses in Slavonian villages still have for sale signs. The Serbian exodus is clearly not yet over. Miljenko Turjaski has chosen to live in one of these villages, Tenja, because property there is cheap. During the war Tenja was an important Serbian strategic position, from which the Serbs were able to shell Osijek. Turjaski's nearest neighbour, though, is a Serb who has no intention of leaving his native region. Over a glass of the fruit-flavoured vodka they make together, they discuss their dreams for a peaceful Slavonia.

Darko Vargas is a long-time, Hungarian-descended, member of the Croatian nationalist party (HDZ). He became mayor of the small municipality of Bilje after Croatian rule was restored in 1998. Bilje lies opposite Osijek on the far bank of the Drava, the border between the regions of Slavonia to the south and Baranja to the north. Most of its inhabitants are Hungarian. It is famous for the Kopacki Rit nature reserve, a vast stretch of marshland that Vargas would like to develop as a tourist attraction. But the war has left its mark here, too. Much of the reserve has yet to be cleared of mines. A few kilometres from Bilje is the hunting lodge at Tikves, where Milosevic and Tudjman met several times in 1991. The lodge is said to have been a rest house for Serbian paramilitary forces. Corridor Vc may bring foreign tourists to Bilje, but in Croatia ecotourism is only just at its beginning.

To get from Croatia to Bosnia-Herzegovina, the locals tend to avoid the large border crossing at Zupanija, which involves a long detour. They prefer to catch a barge across the Sava, a tributary of the Danube that runs along the border. One of the barges links Croatia with the little town of Odjak, a small Croatian enclave in the Republika Srpska (the Serbian entity in Bosnia-Herzegovina). Odjak was devastated in the war. Its Croatian and Muslim inhabitants were expelled by Serbian forces, before the Serbs fled in turn. It is being quickly rebuilt with the help of international donations but, as so often in Bosnia, there is almost no economic activity except for cross-border trafficking.

A new bridge across the Sava is due to be opened soon. The planned route of Corridor Vc passes through Samac, a small town in the Republika Srpska, with the potential to become a major communication point. The mayor shows me round the river port. “The largest in Bosnia,” he explains, “but all activity here has been at a standstill since the beginning of the war.” All I can see are a few Croatian dredgers scouring the river bed for sand and gravel. The railway station looks abandoned.

“Once, the main lines from Sarajevo and Banja Luka met at Samac and continued to Croatia. Shortly after the frontier, the line branched into three, leading to Belgrade, Zagreb and Budapest,” says the mayor. Now the only the train from Banja Luka stops, twice a day, in Samac, which has become the terminus for the Republika Srpska.

A forgotten outpost

IN SAMAC, mayor shows me the excellent new bridge over the Sava, which was built with EU funds. Work was completed in February, but it is still closed. A bored policeman stands guard at the Bosnian end. The Croatian authorities are keen to open this new border crossing, which is only a few kilometres from the Zagreb-Belgrade motorway, but the Bosnians are holding things up.

“The borders of Bosnia-Herzegovina are guarded by the federal police, a force run jointly by the country's two political entities,” the mayor explains. “But the customs are run separately, and each entity derives a large part of its budget from duties. A 200-metre-wide strip of land along the Sava belongs to the Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina, which would like to have exclusive control of the customs. This border crossing will become one of the most important in the country, so a large customs terminal will have to be built on the territory of the Republika Srpska. Our authorities are willing to discuss sharing revenue with the Federation, but the Federation wants to keep it all for itself.”

Samac is prosperous by Bosnian standards. A pedestrian square has just been opened, with a monument to Serbs who fought in the 1992-1995 war. Prices in the Republika Srpska are much lower than in Croatia and the Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina, so customers from “hostile territories” come to shop in Samac. The mayor has no illusions about Corridor Vc: “Reconciliation through economic development? When it comes to business, people can always reach an understanding. But Europe isn’t interested in pumping money into our region. We are a forgotten outpost.”

The road from here to Sarajevo runs through a dreary landscape dotted with the ruins of burnt-out houses. The Posavina plain that stretches along the banks of the Sava gradually gives way to hillier country. Zenica, the former capital of the Bosnian metallurgical industry, is a large modern city that, being a long way from the front, came through the war unscathed, although it was a stronghold of the mujahedin, those foreign Islamic volunteers who came to Bosnia in search of a new venue for a holy war. For several years after the end of hostilities, they managed to maintain tiny Islamic emirates in a few surrounding villages. Under international pressure, the Bosnian authorities stopped tolerating this, and those still in Zenica keep a much lower profile.

Near the offices of the local Islamic community, a boutique displays the latest models of wraps and coats for women, but the external signs of militant Islamism are increasingly rare in Zenica, as they are throughout Bosnia. At the entrance to the city market, a few bearded young men sell CD-roms and DVDs. They admit to having fought in the Bosnian army's Islamic brigade. Now they are peddling pirated computer software and American films.

Muhamed Efendi Lugavic, the former mufti of Tuzla and a leading Bosnian progressive Islamist, claims that the radicals are biding their time. “They are gradually taking over all the institutions and educational facilities of the Islamic community,” says Lugavic, who was stripped of his official duties because he opposed the now-dominant fundamentalist trends.

The most visible signs of Corridor Vc are in the Zenica-Sarajevo section. A motorway is under construction, though work is proceeding very slowly, like everything else in Bosnia. Money for the rest of the work has already run out. In March, an international seminar on the motorway route for Corridor Vc was held in Sarajevo. The route, from Samac via Doboj, Zenica, Sarajevo and Mostar to the Croatian border, is 328 km long and will cost 2,461,280,000 euros. So far, the Stability Pact for South Eastern Europe has paid for improvements to 10 km of road southeast of Sarajevo, and the replacement of a bridge linking the city of Capljina with European highway E73, at a cost of 57m euros.

On the outskirts of Sarajevo, highway E73, constantly under repair, passes through districts of enthusiastic economic development. A little further out, on the road to Sarajevo airport, a large Interex supermarket has opened. Interex is the international branch of the French Intermarché chain and now has three supermarkets in Bosnia. The opening of the Interex in Banja Luka was hyped by the media as the largest foreign investment in the Republika Srpska. But it offers only the same low-quality imports found through the country, and prices are still too high for most Bosnians.

On the wide avenue leading to the centre of Sarajevo once known as Sniper Alley, almost all evidence of the war has disappeared, except for the impressive shell of the high-rise block that housed the daily newspaper Oslobodjenje, which was bombarded for months. The city now has refurbished apartment blocks, hoardings, new trams (many of which carry the sign “a gift from the people of Japan”), and a huge mosque built to the architectural standards that the Gulf-state Islamists are trying to impose on the Balkans.

Many people from Sarajevo think the present situation is the worst they have known. A group of youngsters in a city-centre cafe claimed that the war years were a nightmare, but the worst nightmare came to an end. Immediately after the war, the country was convalescing, and convalescence was always difficult. “But now, we have lost all hope.” Political bickering and economic stagnation have led to a new exodus. While the war refugees continue to return slowly from exile, many Bosnians, especially the young, dream only of a new life abroad. It is hard to keep track of these movements.

Peace crushes Sarajevo

THE population of Sarajevo is estimated at about half a million, the same as it was before the war. But the pre-war figure included 150,000 Serbs, nearly all of whom have left the city. “Many Serbs stayed in Sarajevo during the siege, in the Muslim quarter, and took part in the defence of the city and in the civil administration,” a local journalist points out. “They left only after peace was restored, when they were sacked from their jobs and told their apartments were needed for Muslim refugees.”

As an estimate, no more than 20,000 Serbs now remain in Sarajevo. Many Croats and Muslims also left during the war, and the exodus continued after peace was restored, because of economic stagnation. Of the city's 500,000 inhabitants, it is estimated that only 100,000 to 150,000 lived there before the war. The rest are refugees from other areas. “The spirit of Sarajevo was strong enough to survive the war, but peace has killed it,” pre-war citizens complain bitterly.

The highway from Sarajevo to Mostar claims to be a motorway, but it peters out after only 10 km to become a quiet country road even before you get to Pasalic, a small town on the slopes of the Igman mountains where there was fierce fighting during the siege of Sarajevo. Nearer Mostar the road twists through the countryside, where vegetation has almost concealed the ruins of houses destroyed during the war. From Tarcin to Konjic it is lined with makeshift honey and fruit stalls. Not many drivers stop, so the peddlers gossip or play chess. Further south, on the other side of Mostar, the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina is only an illusion. Wires stretched across the road carry the flag of the Croatian Republic of Herceg Bosna, the entity established by Croatian secessionists, which has been officially dissolved.

Mostar is still strictly divided into an eastern Muslim sector and a Croatian sector in the west. As proof of their hold on Mostar, the Croats have erected a large cross on a hill overlooking the city, which is also dominated by the cathedral's huge bell-tower. Work on rebuilding the 16th-century Ottoman bridge destroyed by Croatian artillery in 1993 has only just begun.

The ravages of war are evident in Pocitelj, a town on a hillside a few kilometres south of Mostar. In the days when tourists flocked to Yugoslavia, the Sisman Ibrahim Pasa medresa (theological school), surmounted by five small cupolas, was a restaurant. The building is now being restored, but all the doors are padlocked. A group of local youths, already drunk at three in the afternoon, are the only customers at Pocitelj's sole café, which is overlooked by the fortified portico. “This is Croatia,” one says aggressively. The slightest disagreement means trouble.

Caplijna, only a few kilometres from Pocitelj, used to have many Serbian and Muslim inhabitants. After ruthless ethnic cleansing by Croatian nationalists, no Muslim refugees have returned. The local railway station, where trains from Croatia are coupled to Bosnian locomotives, is important for trade between Ploce and Bosnia. I find a few railwaymen chatting in a decrepit building. “We are still part of the rail network of the Croatian Republic of Herceg Bosna,” the stationmaster explains. “Now we are also linked to the railway system of the Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Co-operation is good, even though we are much more competitive than the Bosnians because we have drastically cut our workforce. But we have no links at all with the railways of the Republika Srpska.” Bosnia's three former railway companies ran barely 1,000km of track between them. On the outskirts of Mostar, the situation is absurd. Responsibility for track maintenance alternates every few kilometres between the Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina and the Croatian Republic of Herceg Bosna. “That's Bosnia,” says the Caplijna stationmaster. “But don’t worry, there's never been an accident.”

Metkovic is the main border crossing between Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia. On both sides the police are Croatians, from either Bosnia or Croatia. You can generally cross without any police or customs checks. Lorries use a small crossing-point in the mountains further west. If Corridor Vc generates appreciable trade flows, these arrangements will have to be revised. But in Herzegovina most customs revenue still finds its way into the illegal coffers of the Croatian nationalists rather than the Federation budget.

Corridor Vc ends at Ploce, where the bug-ridden apartment blocks along the seafront would put off any tourists. According to Svemir Zekulic, the assistant director, 5,000 people used to work for the port. Now there are barely 2,000. I watch a ship being loaded with planks of wood, one of Bosnia's few exports, mainly to Arab countries. In 1989 the volume of port traffic was 4,495,000 tonnes. In 2001 it was 921,000. Despite ambitious enlargement projects, no appreciable increase in traffic is anticipated in the next few years. Zekulic still begins each day by scanning the Croatian, Bosnian and Serbian press on the internet. He is convinced the development of regional trade is the best chance for the future.


(1) See Drago Hedl, “The Collapse of Croatian Agriculture”, Alternative Information Network (AIM), 9 December 2001.