Chinese Wind Farms In Bosnia Spotlight Clash Of Interests, Corruption In The Heart Of The Balkans

By: - April 2, 2024

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SARAJEVO — The wild horses meandering through the rock-strewn hills of western Bosnia-Herzegovina amid towering white windmills make for a tranquil scene.

And one of the last places one would expect to find China’s monolithic Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) embedded in the landscape. But those gentle hills near the Adriatic Sea are part of a fierce battle for land and a clash of interests as Chinese investment penetrates deep into the heart of the Balkans.

At the center of the controversy is Ivovik Hill, home to generations of villagers who say their land has been taken from them and given to Chinese companies as part of an ambitious wind-farm project.

Since the wind turbines were erected and the land fenced off, only the untamed horses can reach the pastured hills — and villagers like Ante Ivkovic say they’re now dispossessed.

Ivkovic’s family has worked the land and maintained grazing pastures for their cattle on Ivovik Hill for centuries. But he says his livelihood has been lost amid a series of opaque business deals between Chinese firms and local officials.

“That’s how we made our living, [but] suddenly it’s no longer ours,” says Ante Ivkovic standing on the land that he claims was illegally sold to a Chinese company for an expansive wind farm.

“I sweated here for decades with my grandfather and father, cutting grass and collecting hay for our cattle,” says Ivkovic, adding that they used to drink “sljivovica” (plum brandy) under a lone tree that has now been replaced by a turbine. “That’s how we made our living, [but] suddenly it’s no longer ours,” the 71-year-old, who lives in the nearby village of Zagorichani, told RFE/RL.

“The government took the land from us and gave it to the Chinese. I can’t go farther than this fence,” he claimed as he gestured toward his former grazing fields.

The BRI Comes To Bosnia

In recent years, massive Chinese investment in the Western Balkans under the umbrella of the BRI has led to grand promises of regional and national economic prosperity and new infrastructure.

As the region continues to recover from the bloody Bosnian War some 30 years ago, Chinese capital — which totaled some $32 billion in the Balkans from 2013 to the end of 2023, according to the Montenegrin think tank Digital Forensic Center — has become an influential force in shaping the investment-starved area.

The Ivovik wind-farm project that pushed Ivkovic and his family off their land is currently China’s largest investment in the country.

While ventures like Ivovik can bring jobs and development to local communities, a monthslong RFE/RL investigation found that regulatory loopholes and political complexities around Chinese investment in Bosnia are being exploited by local businessmen and politicians to foster a level of corruption that could jeopardize projects from delivering their promised benefits.

Announced during a 2021 summit in China involving Central and Eastern European countries, the $137 million Ivovik venture — which is owned and financed by a consortium of Chinese state-owned firms — was billed as “the first fruit of cooperation” between Beijing and Sarajevo.

This flagship investment has been championed by Bosnian authorities as a job-creating endeavor that will give the country a foothold in Europe’s growing green-energy space and open the door for future investments in the local economy.

But the wind farm’s lofty ambitions are now caught up in a complex saga of land disputes, questionable concessions, and murky deals that highlight where Chinese state interests and shady local business practices collide. This nexus exposes how well-connected individuals in Bosnia facilitate the influx of Chinese investment into the country and benefit from a web of newfound Chinese capital.

At the heart of the controversy around the Ivovik wind-energy project is a dispute over land ownership, with the government of the canton — the administrative units that make up roughly half of Bosnia — granting land to Chinese companies under questionable and possibly illegal circumstances.

Wild horses graze on Ivovik Hill near wind turbines.

Wild horses graze on Ivovik Hill near wind turbines.

“The owners of that land never gave consent to anyone — neither to any authority nor to the [wind-farm] company Ivovik — to use their land,” Perica Babic, Ivkovic’s lawyer, told RFE/RL, adding that a court case has been filed.

The story of the wind-energy project also exemplifies the intricacies of Bosnia as a decentralized state where authority and control — including over how to apply the law — often lies at the lowest of the various levels of government, which includes the powerful Republika Srpska and Bosniak-Croat federation entities that make up the country.

It’s this labyrinthine administrative structure and its many loopholes that allows various foreign investors — including from China — to maneuver local intermediaries to their own advantage.

Perica Babic, the lawyer for the Ivkovic family and other villagers, sits in his office in Livno, Bosnia-Herzegovina in August 2023.

Perica Babic, the lawyer for the Ivkovic family and other villagers, sits in his office in Livno, Bosnia-Herzegovina in August 2023.

Ivica Bresic, an opposition member in the assembly of the nearby city of Livno, claims that the wind farm is one on a growing list of examples in the area that have occurred due to a law that allows cantonal governments to transfer and approve the sale of concessions from one legal entity to another.

“This law essentially grants authorities the ability to issue concession permits, subsequently enabling local businessmen to sell them for [big sums of money],” Bresic told RFE/RL.

Concessions For Chinese Companies

The story of the Ivovik wind farm begins in 2008 when three locals established a limited liability company called Ivovik Wind Park and used the new firm to buy a concession for land in Ivovik for 50,000 Bosnian marks (about $26,400).

Land concessions are typically granted for a period of up to 30 years in Bosnia, and this move set the stage for a series of disputes for the land under the wind farm that shows the subtle ways Chinese companies have been able to operate and how local businessmen and politicians have looked to profit from it.

In the case of the Ivovik wind farm, the purchase was controversial from the beginning.

Ivan Matkovic, a co-owner of the Ivovik company, had a brother named Stjepan who served as the canton’s minister of agriculture, water, and forestry from 2006 to 2012. Unsurprisingly, the land-concession deal was approved by the local government.

Matkovic then transferred ownership of the company to Stjepan, whose term as minister had just ended. After handing off the company, Matkovic told RFE/RL that he was no longer involved in the company or the land, both of which were inherited by Stjepan’s children after he died.

Stjepan Matkovic’s children declined to speak to RFE/RL, but records show they sold the company and its land concession to CNTIC Capital Co. Limited Hong Kong and Sinohydro Hong Kong in 2017 for an undisclosed amount.

According to Ivan Rimac, who co-founded the original company with Ivan Matkovic, the concession was sold for $8 million. But he said he filed a lawsuit against Ivan Matkovic and his relatives after he said he was defrauded.

Ivan Vukadin, the prime minister of Canton 10 who is also the former mayor of the nearby city of Tomislavgrad, told RFE/RL that “investors from China” took over ownership of the concession for the wind farm in Ivovik after its owners “developed the project to a certain stage and needed to find a strategic investor for this [multimillion-dollar] project.”

A Quiet Call To Reregister Land

After the Chinese firms’ acquisition of the wind-energy project in 2018, a notice was issued to property owners to reregister their land, with the last land survey conducted in 1982 when the area was part of Yugoslavia.

The city of Livno’s cadastre office, which is responsible for maintaining land registers and overseeing ownership registration, told RFE/RL that this process “was done in accordance with the law,” saying that the call for property owners to reregister their holdings was posted on the bulletin board at the town hall and advertised on local radio stations.

But many residents near Ivovik Hill say they only became aware that they no longer owned their land when Chinese excavators arrived to clear the ground and build access roads.

“Tell me who goes to read what is posted on the bulletin board at the town hall?” Ivkovic told RFE/RL. “I don’t even know where it’s located. I only visit the town hall if I need a birth or death certificate.”

Ivkovic and his cousins allege that the city of Livno took their family’s “ancestral land” that he said had belonged to his family for “generations” and “handed it to the canton,” which subsequently transferred the land to the Chinese and led to the construction of the wind farm on what had been their pastures.

Ante Ivkovic points to an old extract from the Livno cadastre office that he says shows that his family owns the land that the local government sold to a Chinese firm in 2018.

Ante Ivkovic points to an old extract from the Livno cadastre office that he says shows that his family owns the land that the local government sold to a Chinese firm in 2018.

The Ivkovics have extracts from the cadastre and records from the real-estate register from 1982 that indicate the land in question belongs to them or their parents. They filed a joint lawsuit in 2018 against the city, but the first court hearing was not held until September 2023, long after construction on the project had begun.

Babic, the Ivkovics’ lawyer who represents others who claim their land was unfairly taken by the government in a similarly murky process, said many landowners have died between the two land registrations and — due to the region’s high unemployment rate — many of their descendants have emigrated to various countries in Europe and other parts of the world.

“Today, one-third of the [prewar] population lives in Livno, one-third in Croatia, and one-third in Germany,” says Babic.

Navigating the intricacies of Bosnia’s legal system can be a difficult process and the Ivkovics’ lawyers say it’s unclear how long the court process will take. But if the family loses in the local court the case could still be appealed at the cantonal court, the Bosnian Constitutional Court, and even to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

Babic alleges that local officials have used the same practice to take control of land elsewhere. He says that Mt. Krug — 25 kilometers north of Livno — has had similar legal cases amid plans for the construction of more wind farms, although RFE/RL was unable to verify that claim.

According to the canton’s official gazette, which is the register of government legislation, a land concession was transferred from a local owner — presumably the Matkovics — to some Chinese companies without any amendments to the contract in October 2018.

Slaven Jukic, the lawyer representing the Ivovik wind farm, refuted those claims, telling RFE/RL that the Economy Ministry is currently registered as the owner of the disputed land, not the Ivkovic family.

“We provide compensation [to the canton] for the use of that land. If the [Ivkovic family] can demonstrate that it is their land, we will present them with a contract and compensate them instead of the canton,” said Jukic.

When contacted by RFE/RL, Livno Mayor Darko Chondric declined to comment.

“This law essentially grants authorities the ability to issue concession permits, subsequently enabling local businessmen to sell them for millions,” says Ivica Bresic, a representative in the Livno city assembly.

“This law essentially grants authorities the ability to issue concession permits, subsequently enabling local businessmen to sell them for millions,” says Ivica Bresic, a representative in the Livno city assembly.

But Bresic, the opposition Livno city councilor, alleged that the government approved the transfer of the concession to the Chinese firms without trying to get more favorable terms for the local administration, such as a higher concession fee for selling the land or requiring that the Chinese companies pay a higher percentage of their profits from selling electricity into the cantonal and municipal budgets.

That claim is further supported by the publication in the government’s official gazette that confirms the concession transfer to the new owners without changing the terms of the original contract signed back in 2008 when the Matkovics first acquired the concession.

A Question Of Compensation

The Ivovik wind-farm project also extends onto the jurisdiction of Tomislavgrad, some 38 kilometers from Livno.

Here Slavko, an Ivkovic cousin who also owns land being used by a Chinese company, says the local government has followed the correct protocol in giving the family’s land to the Chinese firms.

“The Chinese provide me with compensation [in Tomislavgrad],” he told RFE/RL. “But my land in the Livno region was seized by the [Economy Ministry of Canton 10], which now receives compensation from the Chinese.”

Tomislavgrad Mayor Ivan Buntic also told RFE/RL that his municipality has adhered to all legal norms around the expansive wind-farm project there and claims that other residents whose land is being used by Chinese firms were compensated.

Ante Ivkovic (right) and his cousins Slavko (center) and Ante stand by the Ivovik wind farm. All three relatives claim that their land was illegally taken by the local government and then sold to a Chinese company for the energy project.

Ante Ivkovic (right) and his cousins Slavko (center) and Ante stand by the Ivovik wind farm. All three relatives claim that their land was illegally taken by the local government and then sold to a Chinese company for the energy project.

Buntic, a member of the ruling party, shares the concerns of other opposition members, like Bresic, about how the concessions in Livno were awarded. He says it is important to reevaluate “existing concessions” issued by the Canton 10 government and retroactively pay fees from the start of the concession.

Buntic said such an approach would attract serious investors to Canton 10 and deter those he characterizes as “charlatans” who acquire concessions and hold onto them for extended periods of time without making any further investment, waiting to resell them to foreign investors at inflated prices — as he says was the case with Ivovik Hill near Livno.

The mayor says other municipalities in Canton 10 are also eager to construct more wind and renewable energy projects.

By the end of 2023, an additional 15 concessions for wind-energy projects were issued in Canton 10 — the biggest canton in Bosnia — primarily to local owners and companies registered in the region. But these firms are seeking partners interested in investing hundreds of millions of dollars into potential ventures.

Concessions for wind farms and similar projects in Bosnia are granted either by Republika Srpska, the country’s predominantly ethnic Serb entity, or one of the 10 cantonal governments in the Bosniak-Croat federation. Republika Srpska has a dedicated public database of such concessions that lists plans for 73 new power plants, including 57 mini-hydropower plants, three wind-power facilities, and 13 solar-power installations.

In the Bosniak-Croat federation, permission for wind and solar power plants are granted separately by the 10 cantons.

The city of Livno, Bosnia-Herzegovina

The city of Livno, Bosnia-Herzegovina

The southern Herzegovina-Neretva Canton, which is known for its sunny days and windy mountains, had also issued approximately 100 concessions for the construction of wind and solar power plants.

According to company registries accessed by RFE/RL, many of these companies do not have websites or phone numbers. Some are registered to residential addresses and one of them is a business mainly involved in selling toys.

“Concessions are handed out left and right. Resale follows, with individuals making huge profits,” Bresic said.

Wind-Farm Politics

Selling land concessions for wind farms is not only a one-off transaction for local cantons inside Bosnia but can also provide a regular source of income to governments and well-connected individuals.

In recent years, Chinese institutions have bankrolled green-energy projects to all corners of the globe as China — the world’s No. 2 economy and top polluter — tried to rebrand itself as an environmental champion.

It is the world’s largest producer of solar panels, wind turbines, batteries, and electric vehicles, according to a 2023 study by energy consultancy Wood Mackenzie, and Beijing is intent on improving the position of its state-owned firms to dominate the future of the burgeoning market for renewable energy.

The Balkan countries are a convenient springboard for Chinese companies to build their portfolios and fine-tune their operations so they can meet the more stringent business and environmental standards of the European Union and compete in its single market.

But the prevalent corruption and lenient approach to environmental and tax matters in the Balkans has led to various scandals involving Chinese firms, from environmental pollution in Montenegro and the alleged misuse of state funds to subsidize Chinese investments in Albania and Serbia.

Now across Bosnia a similar pattern is unfolding with projects like the one at Ivovik Hill.

While ostensibly still paying fees and taxes like VAT, Chinese-operated wind farms in the country are selling electricity to various entities — including local power companies, major operations such as the Mostar aluminum factory — or exporting it to nearby Croatia or even Western Europe. The profits made allow the Chinese companies to make further investments and expand their reach in region.

Buying Good PR

At Ivovik Hill, the Chinese owners agreed to pay 1.5 percent of their energy profits — estimated to be several hundred thousand dollars per year — with 50 percent going to the canton and the other 50 percent to be shared by the cities of Livno and Tomislavgrad.

This is stipulated by the concession contracts signed in 2008 when the Ivovik company was still owned by the Bosnian investors.

The Chinese owners of Ivovik made several donations to schools near the wind farm in 2023 and announced they would allow high school and university students to visit their operations center to learn how wind turbines produce electricity.

Such donations and invitations are a common way for Chinese companies in foreign countries to generate good relations within local communities.

Ivan Buntic, the mayor of Tomislavgrad

Ivan Buntic, the mayor of Tomislavgrad

Tomislavgrad Mayor Buntic says that when they are transparent, these business deals can be a boon to local communities, many of which are economically depressed. He says another wind-farm project run by the state-owned Elektroprivreda HZHB has allowed the municipality to build new roads and renovate its water system.

But the deals made are not always aboveboard.

Friends In High Places

Some Chinese projects in Bosnia have been connected to politicians and businessmen with strong government contacts.

One example is a memorandum of understanding reached in 2016 between the privately owned Gradina company — which is from Tomislavgrad — and the China Machinery Engineering Corporation (CMEC) and China-Africa Investment and Development Corporation. The deal was to facilitate the construction of a wind farm in Tomislavgrad estimated to cost approximately $158 million.

At the signing ceremony in Mostar — about 100 kilometers southeast of Tomislavgrad — cantonal Prime Minister Ivan Vukadin, Livno Mayor Ivan Chondrich, and former Bosniak-Croat federation President Marinko Cavara were in attendance.

Reminiscent of the practice of concessions and the Ivovik Hill project, Gradina Director Mate Dukic bought the land concession where the wind farm would be developed a decade earlier.

Dragan Covic -- leader of Bosnia’s Croatian Democratic Union -- meets with Chinese leader Xi Jinping in Beijing in 2015 while he served as a member of Bosnia’s three-member presidency.

Dragan Covic — leader of Bosnia’s Croatian Democratic Union — meets with Chinese leader Xi Jinping in Beijing in 2015 while he served as a member of Bosnia’s three-member presidency.

During a 2015 visit to China, Mostar native Dragan Covic — leader of Bosnia’s powerful Croatian Democratic Union and a former member of Bosnia’s three-member presidency — met with Chinese leader Xi Jinping to discuss bilateral ties and to court investment by Beijing.

While there, Covic held talks with a host of Chinese companies, including CMEC, one of the firms that signed the deal to construct the wind farm for Gradina. That project is still in the process of securing the more than 100 permits needed to break ground, highlighting the complex and convoluted bureaucracy in the country that can often take years to navigate.

Damir Miljevic, an energy consultant who has worked on projects in the Balkans financed by the World Bank, the EU, and the United Nations, says that deals like Gradina’s and Ivovik Hill involving Chinese firms are of particular concern as many of the agreements made between Bosnian officials and Chinese companies are labeled “secret” and not publicized. He says the lack of transparency creates fertile ground for corruption and mismanagement.

For concession contracts needed to build wind farms, Chinese companies are required by law to pay an annual tax of 10 percent on their profits. But Miljevic says there are limited safeguards in place to ensure accurate tax reporting and to follow up on any discrepancies or possible corruption.

“What if they report no profit, which is likely to occur in the initial years following construction?” he told RFE/RL.

The Unusable Bridge

Miljevic says another example that highlights transparency concerns is the contract for the Banja Luka-Prijedor highway, which is being built by the Chinese company Shandong Hi-Speed International through a concession agreement in 2018.

According to official statements, the Chinese firm agreed to build the highway under the condition that it would generate a certain profit. But if the project does not make the profit cited then the government of Republika Srpska — the governing authority where the highway is located — will have to cover the shortfall up to a certain amount.

Such a deal — with no details disclosed — could be quite costly to taxpayers.

In another case involving Sinohydro, the Chinese corporation building the Ivovik wind farm, the firm signed a $30 million deal through a subsidiary with the state-owned highway company to construct the Pocitelj Bridge in southern Bosnia with a consortium of investors.

The bridge is part of the huge European transport corridor known as Vc that would help connect Bosnia and Croatia to Hungary and is one of the tallest bridges in the region.

Builders work on the construction of the Pocitelj Bridge in southern Bosnia-Herzegovina. (file photo)

Builders work on the construction of the Pocitelj Bridge in southern Bosnia-Herzegovina. (file photo)

In May 2023, the four companies involved in the project — including Sinohydro and another Chinese company — were blacklisted by the Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina Motorways “due to a negative experience with them.” The consortium had missed its March 2022 construction deadline because of “the COVID-19 pandemic and numerous obstacles” and they announced in August that the Pocitelj Bridge was cracked, which would result in further delays.

In the case of the wind-energy project, recent shifts in the ownership structure have raised troubling questions around transparency and tax fraud.

In September 2022, Sinohydro’s Bosnian holding company transferred its 51 percent stake in the wind farm to a newly formed company called Ivovik Wind Power based in Luxembourg.

This transfer was preceded by a series of Luxembourg-based asset transfers between shell companies connected to the Bosnian wind farm and Chinese state-owned companies. In October 2021, a Luxembourg-based company named PCR Energy established Ivovik Wind Power. Two months prior, PCR Energy was set up by Sinohydro’s Hong Kong-based holding company.

Sinohydro is a state-owned overseas subsidiary of Power China, a massive wholly state-owned Chinese company that is administered by a state-owned firm responsible for managing Chinese state-owned enterprises and is directly under the State Council, China’s highest administrative organ and the executive branch of the National People’s Congress.

Ivovik Wind Power now owns 51 percent of the wind energy project in Bosnia, while China National Technical Import and Export Corporation (CNTIC) owns a 39 percent share. CNTIC is a state-owned engineering firm with alleged links to China’s State Security Ministry, the country’s principal civilian foreign intelligence agency.

The remaining 10 percent is owned by Ekrem Nanic, a Bosnian businessman who relocated to Austria during the war in the 1990s. Little is known about his private businesses and Nanic did not reply to RFE/RL’s request for comment.

“The citizens of Bosnia-Herzegovina have the right to know how their tax money is being spent and what obligations the state is entering into on their behalf,” Miljevic said.

Srpska Leaning Heavily On China

The Ivovik wind farm was to be completed by December but currently remains unfinished with no information about a timeline for completion.

In other parts of Bosnia there is a growing list of Chinese projects on the books that could encounter similar problems related to land disputes and murky dealings.

Future deals with Chinese firms are a particular goal for Republika Srpska, whose anti-Western President Milorad Dodik and other top officials are sanctioned by the United States.

Largely cut off from western financing, Dodik has said he will turn to China to “provide the necessary support” and added that “his people in the state government will apply for Bosnia’s membership in BRICS,” the Beijing-led bloc for emerging economies that also includes Brazil, Russia, India, and South Africa.

In 2012, China’s EXIM Bank financed the construction of a massive thermal power plant in Republika Srpska called Stanari, valued at some $580 million and due to have a massive power-generating capacity of 300 MW.

That project was made possible due to favorable changes for the Chinese bank made a year before by top-level Srpska officials that altered previous bylaws that prevented the financier of a project from also holding the land concession.

This change made Republika Srpska more attractive to Chinese lenders and companies, and one year later, the local Concessions Commission signed a subcontract between the privately owned Stanari and the Republika Srpska government with the China Development Bank that provided new safeguards to the Chinese bank. Under this contract, should the Stanari thermal plant, which was eventually commissioned in 2016, be unable to repay the borrowed money, the bank would take over ownership of the plant along with a concession for a local coal mine.

Six other projects — including two coal-fired thermal power plants and two hydroelectric power plants that have been agreed on by China and Republika Srpska and one by China and the Bosniak-Croat federation — are currently at a standstill.

Wind turbines from the Chinese-owned Ivovik project dot a hill in Livno, Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Wind turbines from the Chinese-owned Ivovik project dot a hill in Livno, Bosnia-Herzegovina.

The thermal plants face an uncertain future after a 2021 announcement by President Xi that China would no longer build coal-fired power projects abroad. Prior to that announcement, the federation government had agreed to a $700 million loan from the Export-Import Bank of China for the project.

But despite the lack of success with those deals, Republika Srpska officials are also still courting deals with Chinese firms.

In April 2023, Srpska Prime Minister Radovan Viskovic visited China and met with the director of PowerChina, Sinohydro’s parent company, to discuss a solar-power plant project that the entity’s electric company intends to undertake.

Open Door For More Deals

Meanwhile, China’s Communist Party has been actively cultivating connections with Bosnia’s leading political parties.

Asim Mujkic, a professor at the University of Sarajevo, suggests China seeks to realize strategic investment in the region with “authoritarian political groups in power.”

“This approach is in line with China’s strategy of advancing its interests in Central and Eastern Europe,” he told RFE/RL.

He noted that China’s focus on countries like Bosnia, often referred to as a “gray zone,” underscores its determination to establish a significant presence in parts of Europe that are not yet part of the European Union.

And Bosnian political parties across the spectrum seem equally anxious for collaboration.

Halid Genjac, secretary-general of the Party of Democratic Action, told RFE/RL that his leading Bosniak party is mostly focused on China as a way to boost growth and create jobs for the struggling economy.

Pale Mayor Bosko Jugovic — a member of the presidency of the leading ethnic Serb political party, the Alliance of Independent Social Democrats — says it is looking to engage more broadly, citing “the importance of cultural exchanges…trade, tourism and, most significantly, economic and financial assistance from China.”

This creeping Chinese expansion is something that Jugovic told RFE/RL “began somewhat shyly” in Bosnia “but has steadily increased over time.”

Pale is currently negotiating with Chinese companies for the construction of a tunnel from Pale to Sarajevo worth an estimated $105 million. Jugovic says he expects the project to be “financed by Chinese banks.”

Until now, state-owned Chinese companies have primarily served as contractors for infrastructure projects that were funded through the national budget or through Western loans. According to data given to RFE/RL by Bosnia’s Finance and Treasury ministries, the country does not owe Chinese banks any money.

Wind turbines from the Chinese energy project overlook Busko Blato, an artificial lake some 30 kilometers south from Livno.

Wind turbines from the Chinese energy project overlook Busko Blato, an artificial lake some 30 kilometers south from Livno.

But there are signs that could be changing as Bosnian authorities at various level chase more Chinese capital.

Fadil Novalic — the Bosniak-Croat federation’s prime minister from 2015-22 — told RFE/RL that his government made a list of some 100 projects and gave it to potential investors. (Found guilty in January of corruption related to the purchase and import of Chinese ventilators during the COVID-19 pandemic, Novalic began serving a four-year prison term on March 22.)

He says that could lead to a greater Chinese presence in the country, but that “among foreign investors, Serbia, Croatia, and Austria [still] take the lead.”

Nermin Dzindic, the former energy, mining, and industry minister in the Bosniak-Croat federation under Novalic, told RFE/RL that “more than 100 Bosnian and foreign entities have applied for energy permits and are currently awaiting approval.” Most of them are not Chinese.

At the end of 2023, there were at least 10 projects in Bosnia at various stages of completion involving either Bosnian governments or private companies in partnership with Chinese firms — with a combined value of approximately $2.75 billion.

But current and former Bosnian officials have also expressed frustration that there hasn’t been more Chinese capital coming into the country.

Apart from owning the Ivovik wind farm, Chinese direct investment in Bosnia has been limited to the construction of the Stanari power plant backed by a Chinese loan and a section of highway in Republika Srpska between Banja Luka and Prijedor.

Almost exclusively focused on infrastructure projects, Chinese capital has largely bypassed other sectors of the Bosnian economy.

Mirko Sarovic, Bosnia’s former foreign trade and economic relations minister who signed a cooperation agreement with China in 2017, told RFE/RL that cooperation between Bosnia and China “has stagnated from 2018 until today” and many of the projects have been halted.

“For example, the process of aligning with China’s health, veterinary, phytosanitary, and technical standards — which would have enabled domestic companies to export food to the vast Chinese market — [has been stalled],” said Sarovic, who previously headed the government’s coordination team for cooperation with China.

From January 2022 to the end of 2023, Bosnia did not even have an ambassador in China. Sinisa Berjan, a member of Dodik’s party, was appointed to that position in January.

“We are not doing enough to attract investors from China and other countries, as relations are often viewed through the lens of political dynamics between Europe and China,” Anton Rill, a former Bosnian ambassador to China, told RFE/RL. “Instead, we should focus on pursuing our interests in the development and implementation of new projects.”

This leaves the Ivovik wind farm as one of the few remaining flagships for Bosnian officials to deepen China’s economic footprint in the country.

For Ante Ivkovic, his family, and other villagers in the area, they plan to keep pressing the local government through their lawyers and at court. Standing underneath a large cross built as a war memorial near the wind farm, Ivkovic says the land had managed to stay in his family’s control despite wars, occupations, and changing governments — from the Ottomans to the Austro-Hungarians and the Yugoslav communists.

“Instead, it was taken away by the elected, democratic ‘people’s government,’ which then gave it to the Chinese,” he said.

Ivkovic says that the main goal for him and his relatives is to reclaim their property and then sue the government for their actions.

“If it is God’s will,” he said, “someone will be held accountable. In this world or the next.”


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