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news 24 Jan 13

Serbia's Balkan Channel Ambitions Questioned

As the Serbian government mulls involving the Chinese in building a river channel from Belgrade to Thessaloniki, opposition parties and some experts have dubbed it unrealistic.

Bojana Barlovac, Darko Duridanski
BIRN
Belgrade, Skopje

Milan Bacevic, Serbia's Urban Planning Minister, has travelled to China to start preliminary talks on building a channel running from Belgrade to Thessaloniki in northern Greece.

Bacevic will discuss a draft protocol of understanding with China's state-owned Gezhouba Group Corporation.

Based on the document, a feasibility study and research will be conducted for the project, the Ministry said.

The canal would link the Danube, Morava and Vardar rivers, so connecting Serbia, Macedonia, Greece and the Danube region to Central Europe.

According to the Ministry, the project would boost Serbia's transportation and energy sectors, while an irrigation system to be built along the Morava River should advance the Serbian agriculture and the economy in general.

The project would take about eight years and cost about 12 billion euro, the ministry said.

But Serbia's biggest opposition party, the Democratic Party, has criticized the project as unrealistic, saying it would leave the country massively indebted.

"The economy is still in decline, so such unrealistic projects must be stopped at any cost," Bozidar Djelic, of the Democrats, said in parliament on Wednesday.

The opposition Liberal Democratic Party has also slated the project, saying that the country has no resources for such grand ideas.

Economist Aleksandar Stevanovic doubts anyone will get deeply involved in a project that Serbia cannot support financially.

"There is no chance that anyone will start building a channel whose cost is equal to that of Serbia's [annual] GDP," Stevanovic said.

The economist said Serbia was unable now even properly to clean the Corridor VII waterway, or build infrastructure to turn the Danube into "a development opportunity for Serbia, let alone cut into the Morava and Vardar river beds."

So far, Macedonia's government says it has not received any request for cooperation on the project from Serbia, although the Vardar runs through Macedonia.

“If we get a proposal, of course we will approach it seriously and do some analysis, consulting experts and business associations about the possibilities,” the Macedonian government spokesman Alensandar Gjorgjiev said.

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