Outdated and underdeveloped road infrastructure is a problem that plagues almost all Balkan countries and is particularly pronounced in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where due to the hilly configuration of the terrain and lack of funds, the total length of highways is only 232.5 km. Efficient road infrastructure is the key to the development of many branches of the economy, as well as an opportunity for many BiH citizens to increase their standard of living, and the Government of the Republic of Srpska (RS) has decided to get it at any cost.
Chinese investors have been carefully watching the Balkans for years and making numerous efforts to establish business contracts. They saw the potential in the corrupt region, where large infrastructure projects are necessary, but also a tool of the ruling structures for making secret deals and money laundering. In such an environment, it is easy for a large and powerful player like China to establish a favorable environment for their business, so it is not surprising that the planned outcome of these projects is a safe investment that brings significant profits to the investors and handsome bribes to local officials. After Serbia and Montenegro, the time has come to look into the pockets of the citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
The path of corruption
In the summer of 2018, the Government of RS signed a concession agreement with the Chinese company Shandong Hi-Speed International (SDHS) worth 297 million Euros, planning to build a bit more than 40 km of highway between Banja Luka and Prijedor. The project should bring about 975 million Euros of profit to Chinese investors over 30 years through toll collection, and the missing funds would be settled from the budget of RS. The public call for this project was not announced, but the contract was concluded through a negotiation process – a practice that often drains and impoverishes public resources and fills the pockets of foreign investors, local government officials, and their cliques.
Apart from information about the length of the highway and its price, little was known after the announcement of the project and the start of construction in 2021. Requests to publish the details of the contract were rejected by the Ministry of Transport and Communications of the Republic of Srpska with the explanation that the Chinese investor does not want to make the contract public. The construction of the Banja Luka-Prijedor highway is a project of public interest, and it should be available for inspection by RS citizens, so the question arises as to how a foreign company may be allowed to collect public revenues for 30 years without the public knowing almost nothing about it? Such actions show that RS government officials put Chinese investors and their interests above the laws and the interests of its citizens.
Where is this road leading?
In addition to the terms of the contract, the route of the highway is also disputed. The current plan envisages the demolition of 237 buildings, 80 of which are in the Banja Luka area and 157 in the Prijedor area. Some sections of the planned highway go directly through villages near Prijedor, where a certain number of villagers would be left without their homes and parts of their fields. In mid-November 2022, the citizens of Sekulići village near Prijedor took to the streets and protested the construction of the highway through their properties, and the residents of 3 nearby local communities (Lamovita, Omarska, Bistrica) also expressed dissatisfaction to local authorities. They asked if the plan had been revised by experts and referred to previous announcements by officials about the route change. Since they did not get answers to their questions, the citizens came to the local officials with the slogan “Highway YES, through our estates NO”, presenting proposals for an alternative route. However, their demands remain unheeded to this day.
Law is a dead letter
With justified suspicion that the construction of the highway under the proposed conditions is harmful to the citizens of the Republic of Srpska, the Center for the Environment initiated a dispute in 2022 with the District Court in Banja Luka against the Ministry of Transport and Communications. The court proceedings established that the premises on which the details of the contract were hidden were unfounded and that the Ministry did not act in accordance with the public interest. The court ruled in favor of the Center for the Environment, ordering the Ministry to conduct the procedure again. The message was clear – the public interest is above the commercial interest of private companies.
Unfortunately, legal victory means little in a country where laws are sporadically enforced. Despite the verdict, the Ministry of Transport and Communications has still not released details of the disputed contract, and construction works continue.