The leaders of Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Turkey attended a ceremony to mark the start of construction work on the new Belgrade-Sarajevo highway that is intended to boost economic connections between the neighbour states.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the three members of the Bosnian tripartite presidency attended a ceremony on Tuesday in Sremska Raca in north-west Serbia to mark the official start of construction work on the highway that will link Belgrade and Sarajevo.
The 1.3-kilometre bridge being constructed in Sremska Raca will physically link the two countries over the Sava river.
“We see the bridge we are building is a bridge of friendship that is important to the whole region,” Erdogan told media at the ceremony.
The Serbian part of the highway is being built by a Turkish company and its 250-million-euro cost is being partially funded by a loan from Turkey’s Exim Bank, with Serbia funding the rest from its state budget.
Erdogan said earlier in the day in Belgrade that the new highway “will move Serbia and Bosnia closer”.
“A road is a synonym for civilisation, life. If we manage to make this, this road linking two nations, we will have an even stronger impact on people. It will make the region a place that attracts people. That means they won’t be leaving,” he added.
Milorad Dodik, the Serb member of Bosnia’s tripartite presidency, described the start of construction as a “historic day for the region”.
It has not yet been made clear how the Bosnian stretch of the highway will be funded, although Turkey has suggested that it will provide the money, in another extension of Ankara’s soft power in the Balkans.
The key question is whether Turkey will provide a soft loan, with terms favourable to the borrower, or seek a concession for Turkish companies to build and manage the highway, sections of which may not be financially feasible based only on the collection of road tolls.
Initial estimates have suggested that the Bosnian stretch could cost three billion euros.
The fate of the highway was in deadlock for a long time because Bosnia’s two entities, the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Republika Srpska, could not agree on its exact route.
The highway is expected to reduce the time needed to make the 290-kilometre drive between Sarajevo and Belgrade, which currently takes roughly five hours by car and much more by bus or lorry.
Tuesday was the last day of Erdogan’s two-day official visit to Serbia, during which he signed a series of agreements including a pledge to increase defence cooperation, with Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic expressing interest in buying Turkish weapons.