'Not A Crook'
by Julia Geshakova
Montenegrin Prime Minister Milo Đukanović has strongly denied media reports focusing on his alleged involvement in a cigarette-smuggling ring run by the Italian Mafia through Montenegro. The story, raised most recently by the Italian news agency ANSA, was picked up by the media in Montenegro, where it has stirred up a political storm.
Montenegro's prime minister has called allegations about his involvement in criminal smuggling rings ‘political insinuations’ aimed at casting him, his government, and all of Montenegro in a criminal light. Speaking at a Podgorica news conference on 9 July, Đukanović said there was no evidence to back up the allegations and that he was not worried about possible fallout. ‘For me this is the same old talk in new packaging - made, as previously, of untruths, from the same sources and probably with the same aims,’ he said. ‘Only this time they are considerably sleazier and more impudent. But knowing the players and their motives, nothing is surprising. These accusations resurface without even half-proof, with the ambition only to influence the political scene by interfering with my privacy using methods worthy of Orwell. I can tell you that this not only does not surprise me, it does not concern me at all.’
Italy's ANSA news agency recently reported that the prosecutor's office in Naples had requested that a warrant be issued for Đukanović’s arrest in connection with a Balkan cigarette-smuggling ring run by the Italian Mafia. According to the ANSA report, Đukanović and several associates had received payments from the Mafia for allowing and facilitating the transportation of contraband cigarettes through Montenegro. The report said an investigating judge had dismissed the warrant request on the grounds that Đukanović, as a political official, has immunity from prosecution.
Đukanović stresses that he is innocent, but that has not kept the Montenegrin press from running with the story. The Podgorica daily Vijesti published what it said were excerpts from telephone conversations between Italian Mafiosi and close associates of Đukanović. The prime minister said at his press conference there was nothing in the conversations to prove the smuggling allegations. He added that he is prepared to send a team of legal experts to Naples to clear his name should he be formally accused of a crime.
These were Đukanović’s first public comments on the affair. Similar accusations, however, have been levelled against him in the past, including during the years before and after his falling out with former Serbian and FRY President Slobodan Milošević and his Montenegrin lieutenant, Momir Bulatović. A prosecutor in the southern Italian city of Bari last year opened an investigation into Đukanović, then Montenegro's president, also accusing him of links to Mafia groups involved in cigarette smuggling.
Đukanović has always denied any personal involvement in such illicit businesses, but it has long been believed that cigarette smuggling was a major source of revenue for the Montenegrin economy when international sanctions were imposed on rump Yugoslavia in the 1990s. However, analysts note that the current concrete accusations stem from 2000 and 2001, when Milošević was no longer in power and the sanctions were no longer in place.
In any case, Đukanović told the 9 July press conference there had been no smuggling. He said cigarettes had been in transit in Montenegro as a way to circumvent the oppressive sanctions aimed at Milošević. But he insisted everything was done in accordance with the law and said such deals are common among countries in the region linked by transit routes. He said: ‘For the sake of the people of Montenegro, for the sake of the friends of Montenegro beyond its borders, I just want once again to recall some key arguments which demonstrate the baselessness of those accusations and the real motives of those who make them. So this is not a question of smuggling. We are talking about transit deals which have been agreed upon in line with Montenegro's legislation and in line with the legislation of the common state [Federal Republic of Yugoslavia] that Montenegro was part of at that time.’ He said that all the money from the transit deals had gone into state coffers to pay for social programmes and civil servants. He added the deals were monitored several times by European Union representatives and that no irregularities were found.
Although Italy has yet to press charges, Montenegro's political opposition recently called on Đukanović to resign and give up his political immunity. The prime minister has rejected the calls. Some observers say the latest accusations against Đukanović bear the appearance of orchestrated political pressure. They say that even the way information about the Italian investigation was leaked to the Montenegrin public raises questions about the legitimacy of the allegations. In a recent interview with RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service, Nebojša Vučinić, a professor of international law in Podgorica, noted that the accusations come at a time when the question of Montenegro's independence has again resurfaced. He too called the allegations part of a ‘political game.’
This article appeared in RFE/RL Balkan Report, Vol. 7, No. 22, 18 July 2003