Project uses loans, expertise under Belt and Road Initiative
PODGORICA, Montenegro — When news broke that construction of Montenegro’s first highway would begin near his house, Vukasin Petrovic, a villager in Jelin Dub, about 14 kilometers north of the capital Podgorica, was so excited that he joked he would jump off a planned bridge.
The dream of safe and fast travels was too distant to realize in this small and underdeveloped corner of the Balkans, until impressive piers, some as high as 160 meters, emerged on the horizon.
The highway is part of the project that cut through the country’s undulating mountains.
Now, 69-year-old Petrovic often sits on a big, wooden chair in front of his house just to observe the progress of construction, and vows he would be one of the first to drive on the highway, once it’s completed.
Initial suspicion toward the highway wasn’t limited to Petrovic. When the Montenegrin government first floated the project, it was criticized domestically and internationally as “empty talk” and political marketing, said Vatroslav Belan, a government adviser.
“Now we are under a different kind of pressure from our citizens, to build the highway as soon as possible,” Belan said.
The 41-km-long road under construction, supported with Chinese loans and engineering expertise under the Belt and Road Initiative, is the first phase of a 180-km-long highway, which will link the Adriatic port of Bar to landlocked Serbia. It is the biggest infrastructure in Montenegro, a terrain-challenged country that nevertheless has been drawing an increasing number of international tourists.
Despite its popularity and importance in Montenegro, the highway has drawn the ire of the Western media, which has dubbed the project a “debt trap”, alleging that the Chinese-aided project would bankrupt the Balkan country.
A Reuters report said that the Chinese loan for the highway “sent Montenegro’s debt soaring”.
A widely-cited policy paper by the Washington-based Center for Global Development said: “Montenegro’s debt problem is enormous,” quoting a study — released in February 2017 — by the World Bank that estimates the country’s public debt “as a share of GDP will climb to 83 percent in 2018 in the absence of fiscal adjustment.”
Yet, investigations and interviews by Xinhua found otherwise.
The terms of the Chinese