Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Romania's Danube River Protest

Romanian shippers blockaded the Danube last week in protest against trade losses incurred as a result of the war in Kosovo.
By Marian Chiriac

Last week the Danube attracted the attention of the world's media after Romanian shippers blockaded the river.


Four tugs and several barges were moored across the Danube near Calarasi, a port opposite Bulgaria, and river traffic brought to a halt in protest against at trade losses incurred as a result of the war in Kosovo.


"This is a fight for survival", said Nicolae Tutuianu, unshaven and bleary-eyed after three days of protest. Tutuianu is the manager of the Romanian Shippers' Association which is demanding the resumption of international traffic on the Danube. "We have lost up to $50 million in trade and from the oil embargo against Yugoslavia, "he says. "More than 3,500 people working on the river have lost their jobs this year."


Romanian shipping companies also want the government to help repatriate some 174 vessels marooned in Austrian and Hungarian ports.


The shippers, who were later joined by their Bulgarian colleagues, also demand that the Yugoslav authorities remove all obstacles to traffic on the Danube. At present, Belgrade only allows Russian and Ukrainian ships to use the river in its territory, navigating around the wreckage of bombed bridges, via an old canal that, before the war, had not been used for many years.


Yugoslavia is insisting that neighbouring states with an interest in the reopening of the Danube help pay an estimated $100 million bill required for clearing debris, caused by the NATO bombing campaign, out of the river. Some of the planes that bombed and destroyed the Danube bridges entered Yugoslavia from Bulgarian and Romanian airspace.


In retaliation for Belgrade's restrictions on Danube shipping, Bucharest decided to ban Yugoslav ships from Romanian rivers and maritime waters, the day after the shippers' protests.


However, Bucharest also feels let down by the West and is almost as resentful of NATO and the European Union as it is of Belgrade.


"Romania fulfilled its obligations 100 per cent, in terms of the oil embargo as well as other factors, including the list of undesirable persons, established by the European Union," Prime Minister Radu Vasile says. "Despite this, Romania has not yet experienced any benefits."


The Transport and Trade and Industry Ministers also lent their weight to the shippers' protest, insisting that the international community must ensure resumption of traffic on the Danube and lift the oil embargo against Yugoslavia.


Although the bombing campaign has ended, the Romanian economy remains dazed by the war in Yugoslavia. According to official estimates, direct losses from the Kosovo conflict will amount to $915 million by the end of the year.


Hence Romania's dilemma. Although the country aspires to membership of NATO and the European Union, it is disappointed that it has nothing to show for its pro-Western stance, and fears that unless it can come to some sort of rapprochement with Belgrade it faces further economic and political losses.


* The World Wide Fund for Nature, which sent a six-strong team to Yugoslavia for three days at the end of July called reported on September 14 that toxic pollutants released close to places hit by NATO bombing may now be spreading into surrounding areas via the Danube.


Soil and water samples it took "showed the presence of notable quantities of mercury, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), ethylene dichloride (EDC), and other highly toxic substances, including dioxins". The WWF says the pollution is now "threatening groundwater drinking supplies and natural resources in several countries of the area".


And Pekka Haavisto, the chairman of the United Nations Balkan Task Force, said this week that there was a possibility that rising water levels could push mercury, dioxins and petrochemical waste into the Danube.


Marian Chiriac is news editor of the MediaFax News Agency in Bucharest and editor of Foreign Policy, a quarterly published by the Romanian Academic Society.