The Ottomans may have long since exited the stage of history but it seems the old smuggling routes that once traversed the Ottoman empire have managed to survive. This according to Louise Shelley, founder and executive director of the Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center (TraCCC). “Turkish drug trafficking organizations, building on historical smuggling routes, worked with criminal groups in the Balkans to move heroin to Europe,” Shelley told attendees at a NATO conference recently. In her speech, Shelley identified Montenegro and its seemingly teflon-coated former premier, Milo Djukanovic, as worthy of special mention for the outsized role that this pocket-sized country has played in keeping these smuggling routes alive. It’s not the first time that Djukanovic has been “honored” in such a fashion. In 2008, He was named “The smartest man in the Balkans” by Radio Free Europe, for the political acumen that has allowed him to retain power for nearly three straight decades despite “the charges of nepotism and shady links to tycoons [that] continue to dog him.” The Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) got straight to the point when it awarded him the title of 2015’s “Man Of The Year In Organised Crime.”
A cursory look at some of the scandals he has been implicated in – and yet emerged from unscathed – is enough to see how he has earned such damning praise. In 2003 Italian police investigating the tobacco smuggling activities of the Camorra crime family said that in the course of their investigations they had recorded conversations between Djukanovic and Italian mafia bosses. Italian prosecutors alleged that between 1994 and 2000 “Montenegro [was] a haven for illegal trafficking, where criminals acted with impunity, while the ports of Bar and Kotor were used as logistic bases for motor boats, with protection which was guaranteed by the government.” These speedboats would transport cigarettes which had come from America through Dutch and Slovenian ports across the Adriatic to the port of Bari where they would be resold, untaxed on the Italian black market. Up to one billion cigarettes a month were reportedly transported in this way. But even though police had recordings of Djukanovic organising this trade with Italian mafia figures, as prime minister, he claimed diplomatic immunity until eventually the case against him was dropped in 2009.
In the OCCRP report awarding Djukanovic the Man of the Year in Organised Crime, Vanja Calovic, Director of the Network for Affirmation of NGO Sector (MANS), described Djukanovic as “the last European dictator”, who has “captured [Montenegro] for his own private interests and turned it into a safe haven for criminals. While he, his family and friends enriched themselves, ordinary people suffer from poverty, injustice and lawlessness…” There is no no finer example to illustrate Calovic’s point than that of the impunity with with Darko Saric, one of the Balkan’s most wanted drug traffickers was able to conduct his business in Montenegro, despite being wanted by the Serbian police as well as the Drug Enforcement Agency in the US. Indeed according to the Financial Times, “the ring allegedly laundered more than €1bn of its narcotics profits in Serbia alone.” Saric is also thought to have laundered millions through Prva Banka in Montenegro, which is owned by none other than the Djukanovic family.
Despite all of these brushes with the law, Djukanovic has never been pushed form power, rather he has stepped down in his own time on five occasions – four times as prime minister and once as president. His habit has been to retire gracefully after completing some crowning achievement: first following Montenegro’s independence from Serbia in 2006, then after securing its EU candidate status in 2010. Each time he come out of retirement to run again, and win every time. And just like clockwork, having brought Montenegro into NATO last year, Djukanovic dutifully resigned, only to start signalling another possible run for president in 2018. Earlier this month Jean-Claude Juncker said he hopes to see Montenegro join the EU by 2025, by which time one would hope that Djukanovic will finally have gone the way of the Ottomans.