The World Today for November 16, 2021

NEED TO KNOW

The Marlboro Men

MONTENEGRO

The US and other international observers have turned a blind eye over the years to cigarette smuggling in Montenegro, a small former Yugoslav republic on the Adriatic that achieved independence from Serbia in 2006 and joined NATO nine years later.

Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic, who has led his country since 1991 when he was prime minister, was a rival of Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic, who died in a jail cell in the Hague in 2006 while facing genocide charges. The cigarette smuggling helped fortify Djukanovic’s position domestically and in the region, the New York Times reported, citing a Croatian newspaper’s interview with a former US ambassador to Serbia and Montenegro.

Illegal cigarettes also rob governments of tax revenues that they would otherwise collect from tobacco. Revenues from the trade also fuel other corrupt activities and violence. Journalists, investigators, criminals, innocents and others connected to the illicit cigarette trade have come to untimely ends, for example.

The locus of the business has been in Bar, a seaport and free-trade zone. The zone was originally designed to cut down on shipping delays but had become a nest of smugglers who use fake documents to move cigarettes into other countries. As Investigative Journalism for Europe also noted, illicit cigarettes were part of a network that extended into Bulgaria and other nearby countries.

Now Montenegrin politicians are trying to reform Bar and end the illegal cigarette racket. As Balkan Insight explained, the government has launched a campaign to end cigarette storage in Bar with the aim of eliminating the trade. They have also cracked down on individual smuggling rings, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project wrote.

Officials also recently proposed amending the country’s laws to classify journalists as a profession of “public importance,” a designation that stiffens penalties against anyone doing them harm in the same way police officers and soldiers enjoy extra protections from violence.

Djukanovic now only holds a ceremonial position because his political party, the Democratic Socialists, lost in parliamentary elections last year. As Euronews reported, many Montenegrins want to see him and his family investigated to determine how much of the nation’s wealth they might have stolen over the past 30 years.

The president, meanwhile, has admitted to allowing the cigarette trade to flourish in the 1990s, EU Reporter wrote. His people were facing sanctions due to their affiliation with Serbia, where Milosevic was perpetrating his horrors, in addition to the violent breakdown of their former country, Yugoslavia. Cigarette smuggling was vital, he argued.

That logic might have worked a few years ago. Now it seems many people in and outside Montenegro are ready to turn the page.

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