Milo Djukanovic, the former prime minister of Montenegro, has been hinting recently that he might be eyeing up a presidential run in 2018. Few would be surprised if he did. In his thirty-year career he has twice stood down from office, like he did last October after leading his Democratic Party of Socialists to victory, only to run again. Whether for the office of prime minister or president, he has never lost a race: since 1991 he has served as either one or the other for all but four years – and during those two two-year stints out of power he is widely acknowledged to have been pulling the strings backstage. His possible return in 2018 should give the EU, which Montenegro hopes to join, pause for thought. Throughout his time at the helm of power in the small Balkan country accusations of corruption, cronyism and organised-crime connections have surrounded Djukanovic. And when investigative journalists get too close to revealing those connections, there can be a price to pay. Jovo Martinović is a Montenegrin freelance journalist who has covered stories about organised crime and war criminals for major international outlets. In 2015, while he was working on two documentaries, one on an international group of jewel thieves known as the Pink Panthers, and the other on weapons smuggling from the Balkans into France, he was arrested on charges of drug trafficking and participation in a criminal organisation. The prosecution built their case on correspondence between Martinović and known criminals, and even though he could readily explain those contacts as forming part of his investigative work, he was held for five months before being officially indicted and then another six months in pretrial detention.
Martinović was released earlier this year, but despite the flimsy charges and his prolonged detention being roundly condemned by human rights groups, the trial continues and he still faces the possibility of ten years in prison. He is not the only journalist in Montenegro to come under pressure after crossing the government. In September, the opposition newspaper Dan released a recording of a phone call received by one of its journalists from a man who identified himself as Velizar Markovic, Prime Minister Dusko Markovic’s brother, threatening the journalist and making reference to the fate of Dusko Jovanovic, the newspaper’s former editor who was shot dead in the capital Podgorica in 2004.
It is perhaps unsurprising that Jovo Martinović was arrested while making a documentary about weapons smuggling given that Montenegro has established itself as a source of arms exports to some of the world’s most unstable regions. An investigation by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project found that in 2015 Montenegro exported 250 tons of ammunition and 10,000 anti-tank systems to Saudi Arabia, which raised questions as to what an advanced and well-equipped military like Saudi Arabia’s would want with the kind of second hand, outdated Soviet weapons that Montenegro had to offer. What the researchers discovered was that arms were merely passing through the Gulf kingdom en route to Syria where they were fuelling the country’s hellish civil war.
Closer to home, on the streets of Podgorica and other towns, especially the idyllic coastal resort of Kotor, another bloody war is raging, this time between rival drug gangs. The alarmingly low conviction rate for the more than two dozen suspected gangland killings in Montenegro in the past five years can be explained by the “links between organized crime and police structures, prosecution and security institutions,” according to crime expert Dobrivoje Radovanovic. “In some cases the impotence of the state is intentional,” he says. A state that is intentionally impotent when it comes to fighting crime or weapons smuggling, but all too trigger happy when it comes to prosecuting journalists who investigate these issues, is hardly a standard-bearer for European values. Given that this system flourished under the reign of Milo Djukanovic, his likely return to the presidency next year should be a cause for concern in Brussels.