Observer - Damning the Danube

Neal Ascherson

Thursday November 11, 1999

Six months on, the fallen bridges still block the Danube at Novi Sad. From the old fortress at Petrovaradin, you look down on them all. A mile upstream is the delicate tracery of the suspension bridge, ending abruptly where a whole span has been chopped out. Directly below you are the mangled girders of the old railway bridge, which carried both the main line from Serbia to Hungary and the big iron pipe of Novi Sad's water supply. Downstream, beside the wrecked refinery, the concrete motorway bridge droops its roadway into the water.

It was a neat job, no denying it. Building the emergency pontoon bridge, whose approach cuts through old Turkish fortifications, did more damage to the rest of the city than the American laser-guided bombs which fell along the river that April night. But the river stays shut. Above Serbia, more than 200 vessels from Romania and Bulgaria and Ukraine and Russia are still trapped. Some, like Ukrainian and Romanian passenger boats I saw at Passau in Germany, have turned themselves into riverside restaurants and hotels. Most crews have gone home, to find the shipping company has sacked them. On the Danube wharfs, mountains of cargo destined for the Black Sea ports lie abandoned.

Whoever bombed these bridges was no European. The Danube is no Serbian moat, but the main water road of the European continent. It carries 100m tonnes of cargo a year, on more than 1,500 navigable miles connecting 10 nations. Huge Balkan river-cities like Galati, Ruse or Izmail are entirely dependent on its traffic. But in fact Serbia uses the Danube far less intensively than most of its neighbours. Blocking the great river neither damaged the Serbian economy nor affected Slobodan Milosevic's war machine, whose bases and communications for the Kosovo war lay far to the south.

Serbs who hate their own regime, which seems to mean most people you talk to in Novi Sad, clutch their heads in despair at Nato's folly. I have met nobody who can give a rational explanation. This is because two kinds of madness were needed to break the bridges: a crass, ignorant indifference to European realities and an infantile desire to make a spectacle - to use bombs to make, literally, a colossal splash.

The problem now is how to get the Danube opened again. The victims of the bridge-bombing are certainly not the Milosevic clique or even the hard-pressed Serbian population (except for the citizens of Novi Sad itself). They are the downstream states of the lower Danube, the desperately poor "transitional" economies of Romania, Bulgaria, Ukraine and even Moldova (which has been allowed a precious 800-metre stretch of Danube bank). Direct losses to river trade and shipping there may amount to at least 125m. And upstream of the bridges, a physical cataclysm threatens. Given low water levels and a sudden freeze, winter ice could rapidly stack up against the wreckage and form a huge dam. Novi Sad would drown first. But then the floods would submerge southern Hungary.

The difficulty is not practical. Serbia lacks floating cranes big enough to lift the debris, but Austria has them - and so does Serbia's neighbour, Hungary. The job means clearing the wreckage and also replacing the pontoon bridge with a high-level structure, temporary if needs be, so that shipping can get through. A lot of costings are flying about, but calculations already made in the European Commission reckon something over 16m: 9.5m for clearance and nearly 7m for the new bridge. Brussels thinks it could be done in five months.

But politics, not wreckage, is the real block.Firstly, western sanctions forbid reconstruction assistance until Milosevic has been overthrown. Britain and the United States - the main bomb-droppers - remain outwardly rigid about this, although most European states would like to make the bridges an exception. Lord George Robertson, now Nato secretary-general, says unhelpfully that "the fundamental blockage is the continued rule [in Yugoslavia] of an indicted war criminal".

Secondly, the impasse is partly Milosevic's own choice. The rules of the international Danube convention say that a state can appeal to its Danubian neighbours for help to clear the river if it cannot do the job itself. But Serbia has refused to accept outside offers of help unless Nato pays for the work and sanctions are lifted. In the British view, Milosevic deserves to be left to strangle himself for a few propaganda points. Less blithe, other European Union members know that all south-eastern Europe is choking under this mass of concrete and steel across its windpipe. And those nations are not alien "Balkans", but future members of the union family.

Now, though, come the first hints of returning sanity. The Danube Commission meets tomorrow amid rumours that the Serbs are dropping their linkage between river clearance and a total end to sanctions. If true, this could persuade the EU to pay for a Hungarian operation to lift the wreckage - and possibly for a high-level bridge to replace the Novi Sad pontoon. The sanctions ban on "reconstruction" might be held to allow wreck-clearing.

A compromise could be close. Will Britain react like an American camp-follower and veto it? Or will Britain react like a European partner and help to liberate this Danube, which is - if Mr Blair means his Europhilia seriously - our river of life as well as "theirs"?

http://www.newsunlimited.co.uk/Kosovo/Story/0,2763,102398,00.html