North Macedonia’s opposition leader criticises "scandalous" €1.3bn motorway contract

North Macedonia’s opposition leader criticises
Government officials and company executives at the foundation laying ceremony for the Corridor VIII sections on April 4. /
By Valentina Dimitrievska in Skopje April 20, 2023

The leader of North Macedonia’s main opposition party VMRO-DPMNE, Hristijan Mickoski, raised serious concerns on April 19 about the government's costly contract with the Bechtel Enka consortium for the construction of four motorway sections in the country.

The government selected the tie-up of US Bechtel and Turkish contractor Enka to build two motorways with a total length of 110km, part of Corridor VIII and X-D, under a €1.3bn deal. The contract has been kept secret, leading to suspicions of corruption and controversy surrounding the project.

Mickoski said that the contract was “scandalous” on a hundred grounds and cited parts of the agreement which stated that Anglo-Saxon legislation would apply in the event of a dispute, adding that this was incompatible with North Macedonia's legal system.

“There is an element in the contract that says that legislation to which this contract is subject is the legislation of England and Wales,” Mickoski said.

Mickoski also stated that his party received the agreement from whistleblowers. He highlighted that there were no prices in the contract itself for at least 30 items, and if there is a dispute, North Macedonia would have to appear before the Arbitration Court in Paris. However, the lawyers from North Macedonia would be inapplicable as the domestic legislation would be not valid, but that of England and Wales.

In the meantime nine MPs from VMRO-DPMNE sent a written request to Prime Minister Dimitar Kovacevski asking to obtain the contract with Bechtel Enka, after Kovacevski stated that the contract is confidential.

While the government has defended the 400-page contract as a necessary step to improve infrastructure and promote economic growth, critics have pointed to the lack of transparency in the selection process and the potential for corruption.

One of the main issues of contention is the confidentiality clause in the contract, which has prevented its full publication. While the government has cited commercial sensitivity as the reason for this clause, critics argue that it undermines transparency and accountability.

Bechtel said that its priority is to use North Macedonia’s labour and suppliers. However, another concern is the working conditions for the workers who will be employed on the motorways. The consortium's requirement for workers to work 60 hours a week instead of the legally mandated 40 has raised alarm bells.

In addition, archaeologists have raised concerns about the potential impact of the motorways on important archaeological sites along the proposed route.

Amendments to at least eight existing laws are being proposed in the parliament in order to enable the implementation of the contract by Bechtel and Enka. These include the laws on agricultural land, expropriation, protection of cultural heritage, urban planning, mineral resources, labor relations, forests and construction.

The proposed amendments have been controversial and criticised by the opposition, with concerns about the impact on labour rights and protection of cultural heritage, and the potential for corruption.

On April 4, the foundation stone was already laid for the construction of six-lane highway sections with a total length of 68 kilometers: Tetovo - Gostivar, Gostivar - Bukojchani and Trebenishte - Struga - Qafasan that leads to the Albanian border.

“This is the beginning of a serious strategic and statesmanship endeavor, the benefit of which will be seen by the current and future generations of our country, but also by our two neighbouring countries to the east and to the west, which are connected by Corridor VIII,” Kovacevski said at the ceremony.

Corridor VIII connects the Bulgarian and Albanian coasts via North Macedonia and Corridor X runs between Austria and Greece via Serbia and North Macedonia.

Corridor X-D is a six-lane motorway with a length of 40 kilometres that will connect the cities of Prilep and Bitola.