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Half a century later, conflict over hydropower plants could still damage Balkan rivers

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In the early 1970s, the former Yugoslavia abandoned the Buk Bijela hydroelectric project on the Drina due to lack of agreement between its three republics. Today, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia and Montenegro are separate and independent states, and disagreements on this issue persist half a century later. However, the stone foundations for the construction of a hydroelectric power station were laid earlier this year.

With Serbia, Republika Srpska (the Serbian-dominated part of Bosnia), Montenegro, and Bosnia’s state institutions firmly opposed, the asymmetrical solution is on the table, and it undoubtedly leads to a plethora of problems.

Indeed, Serbia and Republika Srpska have reached an agreement according to which Serbia will purchase 51 percent of Republika Srpska’s shares. HES Gornja Drina and thus obtain the majority stake in the company that operates within the public electricity service Elektroprivreda Republike Srpske (ERS).

This joint venture now plans to invest some 220 million euros in the construction of Buk Bijela over five years, as well as two other hydroelectric power stations on the Drina – Foča and Paunci – which would represent a total of around 520 million ‘euros.

“What they all have in common is that they would destroy the most important remaining habitat of the globally threatened Danube salmon (Hucho Hucho) and wipe out outdoor sports tourism booming in the region,” wrote Pippa Gallop, energy advisor for South East Europe. Blog on the day of the groundbreaking ceremony.


On many levels, this story shows that there is no hope for the rule of law as long as business is conducted outside the (already damaged) procedural framework. First, there is no cross-border consensus, even though all three countries are parties to the agreement. Espoo and Aarhus Convention.

Second, there is no internal agreement in Bosnia, where the project is about to be implemented. Third, and this applies to all countries concerned, environmentalists are campaigning vigorously against the construction of dams on rivers. According to riverwatch.euthe Balkan Peninsula’s rivers are home to some 1,500 plants and are seriously threatened by more than 3,400 planned dams, which would result in irreversible devastation of biodiversity.

Bosnia objects to the assertion that no one except the state can make decisions on state property, such as rivers located at international borders. On the other hand, its entity Republika Srpska asserts that energy falls within its competence. At the same time, he carried out a kind of legislative maneuver to allow the Serbian state to act as a foreign direct investor. Bosnia also complained that construction had started before the Constitutional Court decides if the hierarchy had been violated.

Montenegro, for its part, insists on the obligation of its neighbors to regulate the application of environmental impact assessment in the cross-border context. She is not against the project in general, but she wants to ensure that there is no ecological risk to the ecosystem of the Tara River canyon. Durmitor National Parklisted as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Mechtild Rössler, director of the UNESCO Cultural Heritage Center called The Bosnian authorities must respect the international convention “and not take any measures likely to endanger the cultural or natural heritage of the signatory states of the convention”.

Meanwhile, environmental advocates are fighting on two fronts, through activism and legal action. They are trying to stop construction of what would be the largest energy project since the breakup of the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s.

They certainly support the transition of the energy sector towards renewable sources, but not at any price. They took the government of Republika Srpska to court and proved that the project did not have a proper environmental permit. However, the government simply published a new document, based on the findings of the previous one from 2013. It seems that nothing could have changed in a decade, and the document is just another formality to complete.


In 2012, this project was organized with the German investor RWE. However, shortly after, the RWE subsidiary Innogy ceased operations. the contractclaiming that the government of Republika Srpska and the ERS did not fulfill the conditions on time.

Five years later, the government signed a memorandum with the National Aero-Technological Engineering Company of China International (AVIC-ENG), with the intention that Chinese state banks would finance the project.

China is already the largest foreign investor after a massive increase in economic activity in recent years. With numerous projects to its credit, mainly in road infrastructure, this would be another expanding China’s financial reach further into the region.

Along with other arrangements from the East, with entities from countries like Russia and Turkey, Western influence is waning in the Western Balkans – where the Go green initiative could quickly become the become profitable even if it’s illegal business.

Picture: Mika Korhonen.

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