Originally published on Berlin Policy Journal
Eating hot pot in the North Macedonian mountains, a group of Sinohydro workers is roughing it. They are waiting to restart work on the Kicevo-Ohrid highway. For how long is anybody’s guess.
Chinese New Year banners are not common in rural Macedonia, but there, fluttering against the doorframe of a dilapidated breezeblock house, are the Chinese characters for “New Year, New―.” The last character is cut off.
Like the construction site I’ve just come from, the building looks abandoned. Chickens scratch the ground in lonely silence and aluminium dumpsters overflow with plastic detritus and discarded clothes. But this building isn’t empty―hanging on a washing line I spot a pair of still-damp overalls, and from somewhere deep in the concrete interior, I hear a cough.
Mr. Li is from Chengdu. He’s been living in this building, along with 40 other Sinohydro workers, for over two years. They’re working on the Kicevo-Ohrid highway project, one of two big highways being built and financed by China in North Macedonia. The other highway, Miladinovci to Stip, has recently opened to traffic, but the Kicevo-Ohrid project feels thoroughly forgotten. As he stirs a simmering pot of chicken legs and Sichuan peppers, Li tells me that he and his colleagues have been “off-work” for months.
The project is a hodgepodge of near-completed and under-construction works. Some sections are only missing a top layer of tarmac, while others are mostly gravel and half-poured concrete. The highway’s original price tag was €374 million but prices have since increased―though it’s difficult to say by exactly how much.
No one really knows what’s going on with the Kicevo-Ohrid highway. In 2015, a series of salacious audio recordings released by then opposition leader Zoran Zaev precipitated years of political crisis. In one of these wiretapped conversations, the former transport minister and prime minister can be heard discussing how best to extort €25 million from Sinohydro. Both highways have also been plagued by ambiguous “technical difficulties,” resulting in delays, price increases, and reopened negotiations.
Zaev is now in power (the former prime minister, Nikola Gruevski, is in hiding in Hungary) and his government has signed a third annex on the highway. On paper, the highway is under construction. In reality, it is in limbo, and, somewhere in the mountains of Macedonia, a lost tribe of Sinohydro workers is waiting patiently.