Normalization highway

Marko Savković

04. April 2019

Normalization highway

The idea of ​​building the so-called “peace highway” between Niš and Pristina originated within the framework of the Berlin Process, in part on the initiative of Germany. It follows one of the approaches to reconciliation: by fostering economic exchange, far from the sensitive policy field, more sustainable and tighter relationships can be built that will help overcome both old and future tensions. It is not without importance that we will be closer to each other, even if in terms of the duration of the road – from the existing 5, the highway will shorten the trip between Belgrade and Pristina to 3 hours, and between Nis and Prishtina to an hour (with the optimization of the regime of crossing, of course). Citizens from Kosovo who live and work abroad will get a secure connection to their homeland, and Serbia will “tie in” Toplica, a disadvantaged and poor region to the most important corridors. The latter is also stated in the spatial plan (in the part «Regional significance of the highway corridor and functional connection»), which the Government of Serbia adopted in October 2017. It also emphasizes the importance of connecting two international airports (in Niš and Prishtina), Prokuplje as a future regional center, further development of medical and spa tourism, and access to tourist and natural sights (Kopaonik via Blace, Prolom Spa and Devil’s Town-Đavolja varoš through newly built exits just before the administrative line).

The money will come from European funds, more specifically the Western Balkans Investment Framework (WBIF). Under the “connectivity agenda”, Serbia will receive 41.4 million euros in the form of an EU grant, 100 million euros will be loaned by the European Investment Bank (EIB), and 52.3 million euros by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development development (EBRD). Government of Serbia will finance works worth 10.2 million from its own funds. Thus, the value of construction of the first section (Niš-Merošina-Prokuplje-Belojin-Pločnik, 35 kilometers long) will reach 212.6 million euros. The deadline for its construction is set for 2023; and as it is the first of six sections (divided into two sectors), it is clear that at least a decade will pass before Niš and Pristina are connected by a modern highway.

On the other side of the administrative line, Kosovo Government will receive a grant under the technical assistance in the amount of 4.4 million. It is, however, already working on its part (certainly not a highway, taking into account the observed characteristics, it passing through populated areas), considering it integral to the R7 road, the “Ibrahim Rugova highway”. Plus, the part Kosovo needs to build is much shorter: it is only 23 kilometers, as dozen more have already been built as bypass around Prishtina. On April 15, 2018, the Government of Kosovo opened works in one more direction, Pristina-Bela zemlja, with the aim of establishing a connection to Bujanovac.

The “Highway of Peace” project is being criticized on several grounds. First of all, for this money, a good magistral road could be made, similar to the one that already exists from the exit from the E-75 (A1, Corridor 10) to the entrance to Merošina, where the speeds of 100 kilometers per hour are easily achieved. There is also criticism that there are “more urgent”, more heavily traversed routes, such as the so-called «Fruska Gora» corridor (Novi Sad-Ruma-Sabac and extension to Zrenjanin); «Morava» corridor (Preljina-Pojate, or Čačak-Kruševac); «Banat» corridor (Belgrade-Zrenjanin); with, taking the number of vehicles passing daily, directions of Šabac-Loznica and Lajkovac-Valjevo (in the context of joining “Corridor 11”, ie motorway A 2) being close. Individuals also say that it is more important to connect with “our” people; which Albanians, we suppose, are not. Criticism aside, while if judged by the announcements of politicians, the reconstruction or construction of these corridors is being planned (Behtel-Enka consortium is earmarked to take on Morava corridor, for instance); funding for Niš-Pristina direction is secured.

However, the construction of the corridor does not only connect settlements, but also economic spaces. The tariffs imposed by Pristina will be abolished once (or suspended). Small and medium-sized enterprises, which had a significant benefit from the “normalization” initiated by technical dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina, will seek to return to the market they now have no access to; and their owners and employees are “silent promoters” of that same normalization. For 340 companies that produce something in Kosovo, 80% of raw materials came from Serbia; and among exporters (Serbia and Kosovo are treated as two customs areas) there are multinational companies operating both here and there. Among the trucks that the drivers waited for when the fees were imposed, there were, for instance those full of “knauf” products for the needs of the Kosovo fast growing construction industry. “Big” exporters quickly found their ground, by reverting to practice of re-exporting through Montenegro and Macedonia; while others (Slovenia above all, a jump of 191% in exports) tried to exploit the empty space created by the introduction of tariffs. In the meantime, Kosovo, in order to facilitate communication with other markets, opened a customs terminal in the port of Durres.

The construction of the highway Niš-Pristina should therefore not be seen as a “white elephant”, but a project that may not tomorrow, but in five or ten years open some new prospects, development chances – a welcome change from the “zero sum game” currently played. Goods, but also people, and ideas will move through this corridor; it is safe to assume that at least some of them will be positive.

The text was first published in Novi Magazin no. 414, 4 April 2019