News Unlimited | Danube shipping gets the blues Danube shipping gets the blues

Fall-out from Serbian conflict is crippling firms on one of Europe's main trade routes

Paul Brown, Environment Correspondent, on the Danube

The Observer - Tuesday October 26, 1999

Shipping companies on the Danube are selling vessels and sacking workers in an effort to avoid bankruptcy. There are still no firm plans to clear bombed bridges at Novi Sad in Serbia and the debris is hitting one of Europe's leading trading routes.

Last week the European Union's council of ministers voted to allocate 25m ecus (£15m) for a temporary bridge across the river in an attempt to avoid flooding if winter ice lodges against fallen concrete and blocks the river's flow.

But so far, even if the Serbs were prepared to accept the idea, there is no way of delivering because sanctions against the Milosovich regime are still in place.

Ten countries along the river had been building up trade since 1992 with the Danube, Main, Rhine connection opening up a bright future for the Black Sea to North Sea route.

Trapped ships with strings of barges have been laid up on both sides of Serbia, and crews repatriated to save money, many of them being sacked on return to their home country. In a crisis meeting last week the shipping companies agreed to continue pressing their governments to try to get the bridges cleared, more than three months after the bombing stopped, but were not confident they would succeed.

Ukrainian Danube Shipping, the largest, has put its 11,000 staff on a three-day week and is offering one of their Black Sea passenger ships and a barge carrier for sale. The carrier lifts four of the 1,800 tonne Danube barges on to the deck to carry cargoes to Mediterranean ports and is a prestige ship.

Under the Danube Shipping Convention, companies with ships can only trade between their own country and another on the river. This means that 70 of the companies 700 barges trapped in the Upper Danube cannot trade even if they could find cargoes.

The Hungarian state shipping company just north of Serbia has 20 barges and three "pusher" ships on the lower Danube. Normally Hungary exports 300,000 tonnes of grain on barges down the river to Mediterranean countries. This year grain has had to go by rail at 70% extra cost or remains unsold.

Andras Kiss, director of logistics for the Mahart, the Hungarian company, said he had sacked 80 sailors and 80 office staff out of the 1,400 workforce. "Our main contracts were bringing iron ore up river and exporting grain. We can do neither now. We also had a contract to bring in soya for cattle feed but only the first load got through before the bridges came down."

Mr Kiss is angry that Hungary has been made to suffer because of a war that was nothing to do with his country. "We are a member of Nato but that seems to make no difference, we get no help or compensation. If the bridges were down on the Mississippi then the Americans would clear them. There is no question of equal partnership here, little Hungary is just ignored."

There is also a suspicion that the Yugoslavian regime has no interest in clearing the river. There was no river crossing at Novi Sad after the bombing until last month when the Serbs constructed a pontoon bridge on disused barges. While that remains no shipping could use the Danube anyway. Mr Kiss believes that the Serbs are using the blocked river as a bargaining chip to try and get the bridges at Novi Sad rebuilt.

In the last few weeks his company has begun exporting grain down the Tissa, a tributory of the Danube which runs from Szeged in Hungary and reaches the river east of the blockage. "We make a loss but it is better than doing nothing," he said. The company has more than half its 200,000 deadweight tonnes of barges lying idle.

Holiday trade has continued but instead of travelling from the source of the river in Germany to the Black Sea the tours turn round at Budapest. Five of these boats, three from the Ukraine, two from Romania and one Swiss-owned are trapped below Novi Sad. Two of them were pressed into service this week to carry a symposium of religious leaders, scientists and environmentalists down the river to look at the problems.

Among them was King Simeon of Bulgaria, who has lived in exile in Spain since childhood but has returned to his home country several times since the end of communist rule. He complained: "The Danube is an international waterway and Bulgaria is being directly penalised. It is an unexpected and unfortunate development just when international traffic and our exports to western Europe were picking up on this vital shipping route."