Montenegro's Chinese-funded highway to replace 'death road'

SMOKOVAC, Montenegro, June 1 (Reuters) - Montenegro’s new Chinese-funded highway has become a huge financial burden and political football but it is also a long overdue replacement of what Montenegrans have nicknamed “death road”.

A NATO member and a European Union membership candidate, Montenegro borrowed 809 million euros ($990 million) from China’s Export-Import Bank in 2014 to pay for 85% of the first section of the road, which eventually will link the Adriatic port of Bar and Montenegro’s landlocked neighbour Serbia.

The loan sent Montenegro’s debt soaring to 97% of economic output. Last week, finance minister Milojko Spajic called it the most expensive highway in the world although he said the country had the funds to repay the debt.

Financial concerns aside, once completed the new highway means people will no longer need to use the old, narrow road along the River Moraca gorge that is lined with memorial plaques, flowers and wreaths for the hundreds killed in traffic accidents there. Between 1976 and 2016, around 1,200 people died on the stretch between Podgorica and Serbian border, according to official data.

“I would gladly pay whatever they would charge for road toll (for the highway) than to risk my life along the old road,” said Vukan, 47, a schoolteacher from Podgorica. “Just..look at memorial plaques and it’s enough.”

In 2013, 15 people were killed and 31 injured when a passenger bus fell into a river gorge along that same road.

Finance Minister Spajic last week dismissed fears Montenegro could default because of the loan, saying the country has enough funds to finance it. The tender for the remaining two, cheaper and easier to build sections of the highway would be called by the end of the year, he said.

In March, Montenegro’s deputy prime minister Dritan Abazovic asked the EU to help the country repay the loan. EU officials said the bloc was ready to offer a mix of grants and loans for development projects, but not to repay it.

“We need to be wise and to ... start using the highway,” said Igor Popovic, 67, from Podgorica. (Reporting by Aleksandar Vasovic; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)