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Insane £787m motorway in Europe funded by China that currently leads to nowhere

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In the middle of Europe lies a motorway to nowhere. Despite construction beginning in 2015, there are still more than 100 miles left to be built – but it may never be completed.

Montenegro is in the process of building its first-ever motorway and one of the most expensive in the world.

However, the project has been burdened with a huge loan scandal, corruption allegations, construction delays and environmental concerns, earning it the nickname as the “highway to hell”.

Due to the lack of funds to start construction in 2015, the motorway was financed by a loan from China.

This has resulted in long-term economic risks as Montenegro has been saddled with debts totalling more than one-third of the annual budget statement.

The A-1, locally known as the Bar-Boljare highway, requires the construction of around 40 bridges and 90 tunnels and should eventually link Bar Harbour in the south to the border with Serbia in the north.

It was scheduled to be completed in 2020, but as of July 2022, only 27 miles were opened, in an opening ceremony attended by representatives from the China Road and Bridge Corporation (CRBC) and the Chinese Embassy in Podgorica. The section currently connects Smokovac, near the capital Podgorica, to the village of Mateševo and has turned the previously perilous journey through mountain roads into a quick trip of about 25 minutes.

Maria Kovijanic, who runs a shop in Mateševo, told Radio Free Europe when asked about the A-1: “Before we were going the long way through the canyon of Morača. A lot of people died on that road, so we are very happy with this highway.”

The 2014 loan agreement with the Export-Import Bank of China was made public, but nearly all other documents relating to the highway have been classified as secret by Podgorica, which many experts believe is due to binding clauses in the Chinese contracts. When signing, Montenegro agreed to some strange terms, including giving up sovereignty of certain parts of the land in the case of financial problems.

Bojan Rajković, a local lorry driver, had part of his property expropriated for the project but was not fully compensated, he claimed in an interview with Euronews. He was also promised a job, but this did not materialise. Instead, he knew of subcontractors hiring illegal workers from neighbouring countries, with no contracts or social security contributions. He also believed that £85million was stolen from the project.

In 2021, the road leading to the CRBC building was extensively embellished with graffiti, one which read: “Milo – you are a thief,” in reference to the former Montenegrin President, Milo Đukanović’s, alleged links to local subcontractors. Of the huge Chinese loan, £341million is said to have been given to subcontractors. 

Dejan Milovac, part of the team that investigated the project in 2021 said that there “was no public procurement procedure for the subcontractors. Most of the project was declared as a state secret. All the benefits that CRBC receives, such as not paying VAT, or no taxes on labour, or no customs on imported goods, was also applied to the subcontractors with absolutely no control,” when he spoke to Euronews.

The project was designed to boost trade in the small Balkan country but instead has been saddled with environmental issues, including cutting through the UNESCO protected valleys of the Tara River. Sediment from the construction site is said to be trickling into the water, preventing fish from spawning, with fears that they will not return for at least 20 years, if ever again.

During the opening ceremony in 2022, the then Prime Minister, Dritan Abazovic, spoke highly of the projects potential, saying that “this investment will undoubtedly open up new directions of development and give the strongest impetus to the domestic economy,” and that the highway was “ the beginning of the permanent connection of Montenegro with the world.”

The project has been divided into three sections and there are current hopes to finish, with Montenegro reportedly exploring funding options with European lenders. Current estimates suggest that the second section, at around 14 miles long, would cost a staggering £463 million.

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