KUKES, Albania (Reuters) - The shortest route from Kosovo to Albania’s sparkling Adriatic coast makes a big dog-leg through the long, deep glens of neighboring Macedonia.
The direct route from Serbia’s breakaway province is a 234- km (145-mile) drive of seven hours over mountains 1,000 meters (3,300 feet) above sea level.
At 35 kph (20 mph), it takes travelers through a seemingly endless coil of dizzying hairpin bends.
“Traveling on that road has been a real trip through hell for me,” says Rexhep Shahu, a poet who often makes the journey to his home town Kukes, near the Kosovo border.
“It is a symbol of impossibility.”
That will all change in 2009 when a new highway links Kosovo to Albania. But it is a controversial project that some critics believe has more to do with dreams of a “Greater Albania” than the economic benefits touted by its backers.
Ethnic Albanians make up 90 percent of Kosovo’s 2 million population.
Since the end of the 1998-99 Kosovo conflict, hundreds of thousands of them have braved the old mountain road to get to Albania’s beaches, bringing in some 350 million tourist euros ($470 million) every year.
Many plied the tortuous route this month to witness the Albania visit of U.S. President George W. Bush, whose country led the NATO intervention in 1999 to expel Serb troops from Kosovo and end the killing of Kosovo Albanian civilians.
Bush was cheered for pledging that Kosovo Albanians will get their independence “sooner rather than later”, despite Russia’s strong backing for Serbia, which adamantly opposes it.
When Bush meets Russia’s President Vladimir Putin at his family’s Maine coast estate in the United States this weekend, the two leaders may reach agreement on Kosovo, or they may not.
No one is betting, but Albania has already set to work on the new road — a 180-km four-lane highway that will cut travel time between the two sister nations to two and a half hours or less.
“The road goes through the poorest region of Europe and it will definitely revive it,” Albanian Prime Minister Sali Berisha says of the 600 million euro highway, Albania’s biggest infrastructure project to date.
“It will bring new life to the port of Durres and give access to the sea to Kosovo, Macedonia and southern Serbia.”
But others say the project is really a step towards the nationalist dream of a “Greater Albania” that would unite all ethnic Albanians in the region in defiance of the West.
As a result of the controversy, potential donors have stayed away. Albania is financing the road on its own from commercial loans, which critics say it cannot afford.
“Donors saw it more as a political than an economic project,” said Pandeli Majko, a former Socialist prime minister in Albania who started pushing for the project in the late 1990s.
But he believes the road would “crystallize a year-round tourism industry and double the size of the Albanian market”, while allowing both communities to rationalize agriculture.
“Kosovo will probably start planting wheat while Albania deals with livestock and vegetable-growing,” Majko said.
Analyst Mentor Nazarko said money would be better spent on a project such as European Corridor Eight, crossing Albania and Macedonia, or on domestic and regional roads.
But Majko and Berisha wanted “a place in history”, he said.
“The political dimension of this project looks bigger than the economic dimension,” said Nazarko. “Spending 600 million euros is a rather pharaonic project for Albania right now.”
Regardless of cost worries, construction is moving along. Albania contracted the U.S.-Turkish Bechtel-Enka group to build a two-bore tunnel, Albania’s first, along the most difficult section, and bulldozers are at work daily near Kukes.
“I would have worked for free just to see this road unite our people,” said Nasuf Bimbashi, a Kosovo contractor.
Still trying to repair the wounds of the decade of war triggered by the break-up of Yugoslavia, the West opposes any “Greater Albania” ambitions, just as it opposes any dreams of a mono-ethnic “Greater Serbia” or “Greater Croatia”.
The pro-Western leaders of Kosovo and Albania have dismissed any such plan. But for some, the road alone will do the trick.
“We need not talk too much about a union,” said Kosovo truck driver Refki Morina. “The road itself effectively unites us. When the Berlin Wall fell, they didn’t need to do anything else. Here, we simply have to build a highway.”
Additional reporting by Shaban Buza in Pristina