Crews working on the tunnel of the new highway connecting Albania and Kosovo completed work on Sunday, inaugurating the breakthrough with a celebration ceremony attended by Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaci and Albanian Prime Minister Sali Berisha.
The 5.6-kilometre tunnel is part of the Rreshen-Kalimash road – one of the segments of the Albania-Kosovo highway.
The milestone, which was transformed into an electoral rally by the Albanian leader, saw deputies from both countries and hundreds of supporters congregate in the tunnel in a show of unity between the two sister nations.
“We lived today one of our wildest dreams,” Berisha said, addressing the gathered crowd. “We did not tear down a wall today, rather a mountain that separated us,” he added.
Thaci also depicted the highway as a symbol of unity between the two countries, as well as a symbol of Kosovo’s new independence.
“The central element of this physical and spiritual connection is the freedom and independence of Kosovo, the Kosovar state,” Thaci told the crowd.
Albania’s largest public works project in decades, the four-lane highway is expected to strengthen the already deep ties between Albania and Kosovo, where more than 90 per cent of the population of 2 million is of Albanian descent.
It will make travel for hundreds of thousands of Kosovars who cross the border to take their summer holidays in Albania each year much easier.
The road has been dubbed the “patriotic highway,” reflecting the widely perceived geopolitical motives behind the project – and the fact that no feasibility study was ever undertaken into the possible return on investment for the massive undertaking. Corruption allegations and cost overruns have led many to question the ultimate value of the highway’s construction.
Last November, following a 17-month investigation, Albanian Prosecutor General Ina Rama indicted Foreign Minister Lulzim Basha on charges of abuse of office in connection with the tender for the highway.
Rama said the deal with Bechtel-Enka to build the most challenging portion of the road, the 61-kilometre stretch from Rreshen to Kalimash, had cost the country hundreds of millions of euros more than originally necessary.
The charge related to Basha’s tenure as transport minister from 2005 to 2007. The prosecutor maintained that Basha and his then-chief legal aide, Andi Toma, illegally favoured Bechtel-Enka.
The minister allegedly allowed construction to begin before the blueprint for the work was finished and in breach of Albanian law on open public tenders. He allegedly accepted a much higher price per work unit than was charged for similar projects elsewhere.
The price tag for Bechtel-Enka’s work, which covers a little more than one-third of the highway’s full length, has leaped from 416 million euros in the initial contract to more than 1 billion euros, according to prosecution charges.
Prosecution experts and the state auditing office say the Transport Ministry’s wrongful action cost Albanian taxpayers between 114 and 232 million euros, depending on the method used to calculate the cost.
However, on April 10, the Supreme Court dismissed the charges on a series of technicalities, arguing that Basha had not been indicted properly last November.
“This is the end of a political process and the end of the plot against the highway,” a relieved Basha told reporters outside the courthouse.
The ruling has been harshly criticised by legal experts, however. And despite the ruling, the case against the minister is not over. Prosecutors are expected to file new charges after yet another investigation.
While the Rreshen-Kalimash section of the highway has cost Albania over one billion euros, according to the charges filed against Basha, this is not, of course, the total cost of the highway to Kosovo.
The Rreshen-Kalimash section is only a part of the 170-kilometre route. The Albanian government refuses to give an exact estimate of the total cost of the project.