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Schriftenreihe des Europa Institutes Budapest, Band 28:115–127.


The Role of Politics in the Transport of the Balkans


Historical Antecedents

A series of historical events prove that transport (from decisions related to the building of the infrastructure to the shape of traffic) is among the branches most influenced by politics. It is the history of the Balkans which seems to be the most hectic among the major European regions, for the area has been the scene of many conflicting interests. The interest-based major political factors essentially form three groups, such as:

– The political/military forces of foreign powers outside the Balkans;

– The Pan-Slav movement of the Balkans (’regional’);

– Efforts towards a nation state.

The interest of the third factor of the three is ethnic-based separation (segmentation) in the region, both in the shaping of country territories as well as of the transport network, whereas the first two are interested in union, in creating big territorial units and contiguous networks within them. This does not exclude the authority from striving for division based on the principle of divide and rule within the ’empire’.

Foreign powers participated in the building of the transport network on the Balkans to different extent and in various manners:

– In the 19th century the influence of Germany and Britain was only indirectly asserted as a sort of ’suggestion’ in the creation and partial financing of the Trans-Balkan railway lines towards the Middle East.

– In the 19th and early 20th century the temporary occupants either had no role at all in the development of the railway/road network (Russia), or they proved to be secondary actors only (the narrow gauge railway lines built by the army of the Monarchy in Bosnia-Herzegovina); and only local changes were done mostly in the interest of ensuring military supplies during the first and second world wars.

– As contrasted to the former ones, the Ottoman Empire, settling down on the Balkans for several centuries had a significant and direct role.

The growing activity of the South Slav and Romanian political forces with the co-operation of the Entente resulted in the creation of the synthetic states of medium power by the South Slavs and the Romanians after World War I. The Serb-Croat-Slovene Kingdom/Yugoslavia set for itself two basic aims in network development: to ensure international transit and to strengthen cohesion within the state composed of a large variety of regions1.

I have given detailed information on the network developments in Yugoslavia and Romania in the decades of the inter-war period and after 1944–1945 which were strongly influenced by macro-politics, as well as about the damages caused by the South Slav civil war and the 1999 NATO air strikes in transport, and their lasting consequences (manifest in the distortion of the modal split) in the February and March 2006 issues of Közlekedéstudományi Szemle (Review of Transport Science) in my article published in two parts under the title Problems of the Development and Disintegration of the Railway Network of the Synthetic State Formations in the Eastern Part of Europe2 (in Hungarian), and this time I am not going to repeat what was written there, I would only supplement it with the following.

Though formal political relations were settled among the newly independent Balkan countries on the basis of the December 1995 Dayton Accord, mistrust and suspicion brands relationships, including transport relationships between the neighbouring countries. At a large number of railway lines cut by country borders, there is still no transit traffic, and the stumps degraded to be branch lines are becoming impossible to operate, hence traffic is terminated on them one after the other. Moreover, even the removal of the track has occurred. The Italian SFOR engineering corps has restored the largely destroyed railway line in the Una valley which had been a significant cargo transport line among the eastern regions of Croatia before the war, but no transit traffic was re-launched along it, because several of its short segments loop over the territory of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Hence it is not only Croatia but also its neighbour which is divested of the profits of the use of this railway with a great past.


Political Considerations in the Latest Infrastructural Developments of Croatia

The Croatian ’miracle’ of motorway construction and its political aspects

The development of the transport network has priority over every other task of the state in Croatia. It is partly in the interest of the highly valuable transit potential of the country (and meeting its international obligations), and partly to develop contacts among its regions into a well functioning national system for strengthening internal cohesion, and with a view to moderating differences among regions (difficult to endure for the population of backward ones), and also for regional development.3

It is a sign of distinguished governmental attention oriented to road construction that eight of the 15 projects announced in the latter half of the 1990s in the scope of the state programme for infrastructural development are for road transport (five of them are of motorway construction), one is for inland navigation and two are for railway transport.

Had Croatia been satisfied with the speed characteristic of the early 1990s, namely by an annual achievement of 15 km, it would have needed three quarters of a century to accomplish the entire planned network. Therefore development was accelerated several times via government resolution. The Croatian leadership has recognised that the country had two eminent sources of income; the touristic potential of its extraordinary sea coast, and income from transit traffic through its ports. An indispensable precondition to the utilisation of these opportunities is rapid access to the sea coast. To this end, the transport regime focused on the completion of the full length of the motorway from the Hungarian border down to Split and Fiume, but work was also continued along the motorways linking Zagreb with Maribor (and hence with Graz), as well as the one linking Fiume to Trieste through the southern part of Slovenia, strengthening the international network. The building of motorways in Istria, a region popular among tourists, joining in Pula was also continued. From the late 1990s to 2005 Croatia developed its motorway network with a speed unprecedented in the whole of Eastern Europe compared to the size of the country as well as its economic potential (not mentioning the extremely difficult terrain). In 1990 Croatia had a motorway of 269 km, in 2001, the total length was 430 km, in 2005, already 930 km, and recently its growth has been 25 to 28% per annum.)4

The degree of completion of the different motorways in 2005 reflects the priorities defined by transport policy. Adjustment to the PEN corridors is not entirely close. Consistency can be experienced only in the building of the motorway of Fiume belonging to the Vb corridor. The highly prioritised motorway linking Karlovac-Split-Dubrovnik is not part of the Helsinki corridors, but the north-south oriented motorway linking Beli Manastir-Osijek-Svilaj and the Pali Prolog-Polče one near the sea coast (altogether 102 km) has not even been begun, though in 2003 the Croatian government promised the Hungarian government to build it as soon as possible. The building of a ’wing’ expressly serving domestic linkages and connecting the capital with Sisek, one of the largest industrial and logistics centres, is also yet to come (Figure 1). Only 6 km has been built of the 98-km A6 motorway linking the Split one with Fiume (along the Kvarner Bay) and going towards the southern region of Slovenia.

There is a 2.36-fold difference between the specific investment costs of the different motorways (calculated per unit of length). The cost is the lowest in Istria, and the highest in difficult (high) mountainous terrain, or forced through with the help of structures, conducted through the Karst Mountain and the Velebit, leading to the Dalmatian sea coast, cut into the steep coast along the Kvarner Bay, and the motorways built on the terrain of the middle mountain range leading from Zagreb to Macelj (Maribor). The cost of construction is also influenced by other factors (technical norms, business bargains, the mode and arrangement of financing).5

Already in 2005, Croatia had a motorway network centred at the capital which:

– allows for rapid progress domestically between Zagreb and the other parts of the country, further on between the western, southern, central and northern parts (Istria, Dalmatia, Slavonia, etc.);

– It is in ’live’ contact with the neighbouring countries, with Serbia towards Belgrade, with Slovenia towards Ljubljana and Koper/ Trieste;

– It has potential contacts towards Hungary at Muracsány (the motorway built up to the border is waiting for the M7 at Goričan from Letenye to join it) and with northern Slovenia (the A2 completed up to Krapina would reach the border if the 28 km distance was built).

Naturally there is no motorway connection with Bosnia-Herzegovina, where systematic motorway construction has not begun. There are, however, possibilities to join from the direction of Bosnia at several points of the motorway along the southern edge of Slavonia, running parallel to the River Sava.

The question arises in professional circles whether the almost explosive development of the motorway network of Croatia is a success story or it is an uneconomical investment. Based on facts given above technically it is clearly a success story. Its paradox is that if the Croats listened to the advisors of international organisations such as the International Road Federation and the World Bank, today they would have to be satisfied with a network shorter by several hundred km. In the autumn of 2003 the IRF expressed its concern for the indebtedness expected from the ambitious investments into motorways. According to its warnings motorways should be built in the future only where the size of traffic clearly justifies it (unfounded long-term plans have no real economic basis); Croatia would only be able to reap the full benefit of motorway investments if the border-crossing points were capable of performing their task well.

Besides criticism linked to anxiety the IFR clearly acknowledged the extraordinary effect of motorway construction on economic development. In its view motorway building was the most important factor in the ’forward leap’ of the Croatian economy in 2000.6

According to the calculations of the World Bank the Croatian motorway network was built six times as fast as the West European one, and our southern neighbour spent 2% of its GDP on it. (The countries of Eastern Europe spent 1.3–1.6% of their GDP in the average on transport, while only 0.1–0.7% on the development of the speedway network.) The experts were of the view that this proportion was prodigiously large compared to the level of economic development as well as the real transport needs of the country. They did not take into consideration that a comparison to Western Europe was not fair, for there the road network is practically complete, and only supplementary construction work is in progress.

Losing World Bank support, and not expecting the PHARE fund or other EU assistance, nor the financial aid of supranational organisations, the Croat government built the motorway to the Hungarian border by 2004 and to Split by 2005, because it expected effects generating traffic and developing the region; furthermore, it encouraged Hungary to speed up the M7 joining its network. Both considerations and arguments reflect long-term, but also pragmatic thinking.

It is without doubt that there was no alternative for Croatia but to build the motorway to promote the flourishing of the Dalmatian holiday zone. Ever since access to Northern and Central Dalmatia has improved by leaps, the value of real estates has greatly increased, and the number of visitors has grown by 15 to 30% in the sea coast ’gold mine’ of Croatia.

Foreign political and regional development aspects of drawing the line of the Zagreb-Split motorway

In the 1990s a political decision was made about the most prestigious road construction plan of the country, the tracing of the Zagreb-Split motorway. A choice had to be made out of several variants of traces. The route reaching the Central Dalmatian sea coast seemed to be the most favourable because it was the shortest (and in a sense the most economical), moving from Zagreb to east and southeast up to Sisek, from then on going south and crossing the Bosnian border and progressing via Bihač on the territory of the neighbouring country for a distance of about 40 km, which would have gone further in the Una valley and crossed the Croatian border once again (Figure 1). This variant was rejected due to national security considerations, saying that this ’main artery’ of strategic importance could be broken off any time by the anti-Croat Bosnian Muslims, whose main stronghold happens to be that very Bihač. A decision was made that the track of the motorway should be determined remaining within Croatia.

Two kinds of ideas had to be confronted to each other: one argued for a track relatively close to the Bosnian-Herzegovinian border and relatively far from the sea coast through the mountains, saying that if the motorway towards Knin is branched off from the Zagreb-Fiume line at Karlovac it can be the shortest way of reaching Split. But the frightening cost of overcoming the high mountainous terrain and the sparse population of the region and the few towns to be linked were all against this variant.

The other professional group argued for the advantages of a track near the sea coast. Their main argument was that it would ensure linkages to the network for such significant coastal cities as Zadar and Šibenik, not speaking about the interests of Dalmatian tourism. Finally the government approved of this variant.7

A further advantage of the second track is that it constitutes part of the ’Adriatic’ motorway planned for a long time between Zuta Lokva to Fiume-Dubrovnik, and also of the Peri-Balkans ’Adriatic-Ionian’ motorway (AIH) most recently advocated by the EU which would run from Trieste near the Dalmatian Montenegrin and Albanian sea coast, and then skirt the western mountainous rim of Greece to Igumentitsa. A segment of 590 km of this system of motorways touching six countries would be in Croatia. The EU even proposed Community assistance for it out of the Southeast European Stability Package approved for the economic reconstruction of South-Eastern Europe.8

Political reasons of building the Danube-Sava canal

Prior to the civil war most of the industrial estates requiring Slavonian transport inside Croatia were working at the water-rich River Sava, utilising the opportunity for cheap water transport. The routes of distance navigation continued through Belgrade on the Danube towards the Black Sea as well as (in the opposite direction) towards the Carpathian Basin and Western Europe.

Though the events of war (mines in the water, wreckages of bridges) paralysed navigation on the Sava each year and even industrial production dropped drastically, Croatia announced the programme of a dynamic development of inland transport by water already at the time of reconstruction. Accordingly the share of inland water transport was to grow from 3 to 15% maximum within fifteen years. (Today only a few Atlantic countries may pride themselves with such a high proportion.) For this purpose the main steps to be taken would include:

– To get the Sava declared as an international water route (it is a border river at length, therefore Bosnia-Herzegovina also has a right to use it);

– To build barrages from Brčko to Sisek (the end point of navigation) to ensure the necessary quantity of water;9

– Building the Danube-Sava canal in Srijem, which is already included in the AGB/ECE/TTC multilateral agreement (under No. E 80–08), listing it among the inland waterways of international significance.

The Croat government passed a resolution already in the late 1990s on building a 61.5 km canal linking the Danube and the Sava, overcoming the difficulties in the western part of Srijem by two barrages, and made suitable for 1850 ton boats, which would shorten the distance on the river towards the main markets of Austria and Germany by 417 km (48 hours in time), and by 58 km towards the east (Figure 2). In other words, it was exclusively the economic consideration promoting foreign trade which was mentioned for the justification of the planned canal. In fact political considerations have at least an equal weight. Namely, the Croats are worried about navigation on the segment of the Danube in the Vojvodina, where authorities may harass, but at least inspect the boats in transit. Though the EU regards the utilisation of rivers desirable on the basis of conciliated, common plans as particular resources (as waterways, for water supply and for other purposes), because of the relations between the two countries which cannot be called friend this day, the Croats for the time being do not see great chances of it. This is why they have chosen a technical solution that would largely eliminate dependence on Serbia for river navigation. The fault with the canal between Vukovar and Šamac is that it is not purely on Croat territory, but links common segments of the river (the Danube between Croatia and Serbia, and the Sava between Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina). Therefore even in the case of possible border skirmishes and occasional armed provocations the use of the canal alone cannot guarantee free navigation without restrictions.

The plan to link the Sava-Kulpa water system with the sea and making the River Kulpa navigable in the framework of this project is even more daring than the Danube-Sava canal. As a result, a waterway for transport would be created exclusively on Croat territory, independent of foreign lands, leading to their own sea ports.10 Though the plans of several locks designed in the 18th and 19th centuries and leading towards the Adriatic were not given up even by the EU, there is no real chance for its realisation for it would have to be conducted through a watershed more than 700 m above the sea level. The required cost of this grandiose plan is so huge that about 400 km motorway could be built out of it. Losses of its operation can be forecast because of the expected modest traffic and the high cost of maintaining and operating the locks.

The effect of political changes on air transport

Air transport has been articulated into much smaller units (tiny and small airways companies) in the Yugoslav successor states than earlier, which have been able to offer far more limited services in terms of destination, and are forced to face even graver problems related to economies of scale than the big companies in a globalising branch of rapid concentration. In Romania and Bulgaria, some smaller airways companies were founded (mostly specialising in charter services) yet it is still the ’national’ companies (Tarom, Balkan) looking back to a past of more than half a century that lead in the market. Their privatisation has begun but the share of the state in ownership is usually much above that of the other owners.

At the same time there has been significant progress in the quality, technical level and capacity of the stock of planes. The Soviet-made aircraft were partly or totally replaced by more modern Western ones.

An increasing number of Croatian and Slovenian areas in the country have been included in air traffic by partly converting former military airfields and by building new public airports.

All in all, the infrastructural and service offers of air transport have improved a great deal. The exceptions are Serbia-Montenegro and Bosnia-Herzegovina, where the aftermath of the civil war is still visible.

Changes in the political conditions and opening towards the market economy have rearranged the demand structure of air transport. In state socialism demand for international travel was strongly restricted by the limitations permitting travel abroad; therefore, there were more foreign passengers than domestic ones. From the 1990s onwards demand for travel has no administrative obstacle, but the high cost of air tickets compared to incomes and the strong differentiation that has taken place in the incomes of potential passengers have a joint (negative) effect on the structure of demand.

During the state socialist period extensive domestic air travel networks were maintained with a high proportion of state subsidy which to some extent counter-balanced the poor interregional rail and road transport,11 but which today serve only a few cities in Romania, Bulgaria and Croatia.

It is revealed by the changes of passenger and cargo traffic which can be monitored since 1990–1991 that air transport has become a successful branch in Croatia and partly even in Slovenia early in this century. Promising results have been achieved by Bulgaria and Romania, and even by Macedonia in reorganisation, but the air transport sector has a very poor output in the other countries. The greatest fallback in this field took place in Serbia.

The networking of air traffic, the servicing of areas and accessibility by potential passengers by ground infrastructure is determined by the quantitative and qualitative supply of airports. The public airports were formerly owned by the national airways companies; in the 1990s, they were transferred in many places to autonomous, but state-owned airport operating and servicing companies. The initial steps towards their partial and full privatisation have been taken.

The stock of public airports of the former state socialist Balkan countries is numerically the richest in Romania. Croatia hardly lags behind Romania in this respect, but the other smaller states have only 2–6 functioning public airports, although all of them have solid runways. This is a favourable potential for transport with more modern passenger flights. Specific data, however, calculated per unit of population or territory are more expressive of the actual condition of supply. Accordingly the number of (public) airports per one million inhabitants as well as per ten thousand km2 is outstandingly the largest in Croatia, which is expressly due to the regional airports built in Dalmatia and Istria in the interest of international tourism in a country only as big as the Great Hungarian Plain, but a horizontally extremely segmented one. The second place of Slovenia may be related to its belonging to the ’Alpine cultural sphere’, to its general level of development. Otherwise there is no close correlation between the economic/cultural development of the various countries and the density of public airports. For instance, Macedonia is the third if the number of airports is projected to territory, and Bosnia-Herzegovina is the third if that number is related to the number of inhabitants. The last place of Albania in every respect is a foreseeable one (Table 1).

In Romania the geographic distribution of airports is quite even; therefore, from 80% of the territory of the country one of them may be accessed within a distance of 100 km. The overwhelming majority of the 17 public airports continue to offer regular domestic (though low intensity) services, and one or two of peripheral location (Timişoara, Constanţa) is even the target destination of international flights. Though a number of airports have international status, currently they are unable to generate foreign traffic. The average length of runways is almost 2500 m. Among them the airports of Bucharest, Constanţa and Timişoara are outstanding with their runways of approximately 3500 metres or more, capable of receiving giant American or Soviet planes. Even the shortest runways are almost two thousand metres; thus, Baia Mare, Cluj, Iaşi, Oradea and Suceava are also capable of receiving ’regional flights’ (usually turboprop ones) of 60 to 80 passengers (and in a more favourable case medium category jets of 100 to 120 seats).

The Basic Issues of the Future Transport in the Balkans

There are few macro regions on our continent comparable to the Balkans where the inhabitants are filled with national sentiment to that extent, and where thinking within an ethnic framework is so strongly asserted daily in every field of life, and as a result, the intentions to assert national interests are largely manifest in economic and infrastructural policy. Currently it is not yet known which governing party will be in office at the time of EU accession in the different countries, but it is surely going to strongly defend the interests of its country in the face of other Balkan countries as well as the EU. Therefore, one of the major issues is whether the Pan-European interests represented by the Union would be able to overwrite and harmonise the national interests which are mostly counter-productive from the perspective of the Union and also of becoming united and at times even of intra-operability at the development of magistral (trans-Balkan) networks.

Another significant question is whether the disjointed territorial (local, regional and national) interests of rather violently manifested ethnic basis could be harmonised among the regions, and also when the regional and small area networks are to be developed in the Balkans with its ethnically mixed population, where the ethnic composition of the inhabitants often changes by village, microregion, or at least by region.

The role of China in supplying industrial products (and increasingly of some agricultural ones) to Europe, as part of the globalisation process, has been continuously growing along the Suez Canal which has become navigable by ever bigger ships due to its enlargement (15 thousand TEU containers), which leads to a sizeable reduction of specific transport costs. The main distribution centres of the Chinese dumping goods are the Atlantic ports (in Hamburg the proportion of Chinese goods unloaded was 41% in 2005 as against the 1.5% in the year 1980) for the time being. As the largest market of Chinese consumer goods is Southern and Eastern Europe, the Mediterranean ports much closer to the Suez Canal would be more rational depots of their distribution. Up to the most recent times the South European and Balkan ports have been able to join this activity to a moderate extent (due to their equipment, the development of their logistics systems, the quality of their services, their reliability, etc.).

During the past one or two years the Mediterranean region has been trying to reduce its backwardness compared to the ’Range’ mega-port family of Western Europe. The new head of government of Italy, Romano Prodi expects the new boom of Italian economy from joining the logistics of Chinese foreign trade and hopes to replace stagnation by an upturn. No doubt South Italy could also profit from the reception and further handling of Chinese goods besides Greece (the island of Crete). In this respect the chances of the Adriatic and the Black Sea are quite contradictory:

– on the one hand the (mostly former socialist) countries closer to the coast of the inner seas can be physically approached along the cheaper sea and inland water (Danube) routes;

– on the other hand the equipment and quality of the services of their ports lag far behind even the Italian, Greek and Spanish ports; therefore, no breakthrough can be expected in this field, but it can be expected that they are going to take a growing share in the face of ports like La Valletta, Giaio Tauro, Tarragena or the ports of Crete. Particularly Constanţa, Burgas, Thessaloniki, Fiume and Koper may take up a bigger gateway role in the goods traffic between the Far East and the Balkans. Ultimately the future situation may be assessed that as contrasted to Southern Europe, the Balkans would be able to increase its competitiveness in the logistics business related to the Chinese/Far East goods dumping only moderately in the foreseeable future.



Erdősi F.: A Balkán közlekedésének főbb földrajzi jellemzői. (The Main Geographic Features of Transport in the Balkans.) Balkán Füzetek No. 3. PTE TTK FI K–MBTK Pécs, 2005.


Közlekedéstudományi Szemle, February 2006: 42–52; March 2006: 94–103.


Kalmeta, B.: Pan-European Traffic Corridor V. in the Republic of Croatia. Zagreb, January 2004. [Meeting of Transport Ministers of Transport of the Members of Quadrilateral.] Brdo pri Kranju, January 26. 2004.


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Motorways of Croatia. Zagreb, 2005.


Road policy… i. m.


Büschenfeld, H.: Wirtschaftliche transformation Prozesse in den Nachfolgestaaten Jugoslawiens. Europa Regional, 1999. 7. 23–38.; Transport Development Strategy of the Republic of Croatia. [Republic of Croatia, Ministry of Maritime Affairs, Transport and Communications.] Zagreb, 1999. November.


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