Interview: Montenegro official says China-funded highway is no debt burden

Source: Xinhua| 2018-10-04 09:29:54|Editor: ZX
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PODGORICA, Oct. 4 (Xinhua) -- Montenegro's public finances are sustainable thanks to the government's fiscal changes, an official told Xinhua in an interview, adding that the country will continue to build its first highway.

Vatroslav Belan, Adviser to the Deputy Prime Minister on economic policy and the financial system, sounded confident and upbeat when asked about the government's debt level.

The Balkan country is building the first phase -- 41 km in length at a cost of 809 million euros (about 937 million U.S. dollars) -- of a 180-km highway. It is the country's biggest infrastructure project, designed to link the southern port of Bar to its northern, landlocked neighbor Serbia.

A Chinese bank has loaned Montenegro 85 percent of the cost with a 2-percent interest rate, 6-year grace period and 20-year repayment schedule. Despite the generous concessional loan, there are concerns - particularly in Europe - over whether the funds will strain the finances of Montenegro, a country of roughly 620,000 citizens and five percent the land size of the United Kingdom.

"In the IMF's reports on Montenegro, you can find that our economy is currently performing well and that the financial sector is improving," Belan said, referring to the International Monetary Fund.

"In 2017, our economy achieved strong growth, despite the fact that the authorities carried out a mid-term fiscal adjustment strategy. Measures taken in the context of the fiscal adjustment strategy have stabilized macroeconomic prospects," he said.

Belan said the IMF Mission has welcomed the country's efforts to improve the sustainability of its debt, saying that it will be reduced to a more reasonable level of 56 percent of GDP in 2023, Belan said.

"This is confirmed in the latest IMF reports, at the moment when we are completing the demanding construction of the first section of the highway and creating plans for the construction of the next sections," he said.

He vowed that "there is no doubt about the continuation of the highway construction," adding that "this is a good opportunity to remind everyone that our plan for the next year, together with our Chinese partners, is to successfully complete the construction of the most demanding and the most important section, from our capital city Podgorica to the city of Kolasin, an important winter tourism center, in the country's north."

Belan acknowledged that there was initial suspicion toward the construction of the highway, saying "when we announced this project, part of the domestic and international public claimed that it was an 'empty story' and political marketing. The government was under pressure to prove that the highway will be built."

But as impressive bridges emerged with tunnels and passages, he said the government is now "under a different kind of pressure from our citizens, to build the highway as soon as possible. Today's pressure proves we were right at first."

Belan calls the highway a "support, basis, means of development" because "as the backbone of the future modern traffic network in Montenegro, it will help us reduce traffic accidents and increase the safety and comfort of trips."

He also dismissed concerns that China could somehow gain undue influence over the country via the project, saying "Montenegro is a modern, stable, democratic and responsible state, with institutions that strengthen their capacities day by day."

"The confirmation of this ... is in our NATO membership and the phases that we are successfully passing through (to join) the European Union," he said.

The highway will bring Montenegro closer to Europe, Belan said, as it "will connect us with the key European transport corridors ... key European markets and outbound tourism zones."

"A comprehensive strategic partnership is being developed between the EU and China," Belan said, "and as a future EU member we want to contribute to the further boosting of these relations."