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10 Jan 2023

Reid Standish, Amos Chappl, RFE/RL

Montenegro: Chinese-built highway hoped to bring economic boost despite delay, scandal and env't controversies

“A Journey Along Montenegro's $1 Billion Chinese-Built Highway”


Valued as one of the world's most expensive roads, the first 41 kilometers opened in July 2022 and cuts through Montenegro's soaring mountains and over its deep gorges, with an estimated 60 percent of the highway made up only of tunnels and bridges. For a toll fee of 3.50 euros ($3.75), a previously arduous journey north has been turned into a roughly 25-minute trip along freshly paved asphalt until the stretch of road peters out at [the village] Matesevo [...]

[T]he new, modern road is a game changer for [...] residents that live and own businesses along the highway, with the new section dramatically cutting down travel times and providing an alternative to previously congested and treacherous mountain roads [...]

Under the original plan inked in 2014, the initial 41 kilometers -- which was funded by a loan from the Export-Import Bank of China and built by the China Road and Bridge Corporation (CRBC) -- was to be part of a 163-kilometer highway to link the Montenegrin port city of Bar with neighboring Serbia. The project promised to transform the country into a transport hub for the wider region and bolster economic activity in the process.

But the highway has found itself marred in scandal and still faces lingering questions about whether the remaining 122 kilometers of road will ever be completed.

The road project has also brought long-term economic risk by saddling Montenegro with debts to China that totaled more than one-third of the annual state budget, with the controversial venture being a prime example of what critics say are cursory Chinese lending practices fused with local corruption.

Despite this controversy, polls have shown that only a minority in Montenegro see China or the financial risk brought by the highway as a concern, with many instead hoping that both will provide an economic boost to the country.


Environmental concerns also followed its construction, with CRBC accused of damaging sections of the riverbank along the UNESCO-protected Tara River traversed by the highway, which Montenegro's Nature and Environmental Protection Agency (NEPA) said was raised with the Chinese builders, but ignored.


The 2014 loan agreement with the Export-Import Bank of China has been 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.