Montenegro: Djukanovic Threatened by Alleged Mafia Links

Reports of an official Italian investigation into the president's alleged cigarette smuggling activities may terminate the political career of this canny survivor.

Montenegro: Djukanovic Threatened by Alleged Mafia Links

Reports of an official Italian investigation into the president's alleged cigarette smuggling activities may terminate the political career of this canny survivor.

The Italian judiciary's reported investigation into claims that Montenegrin president Milo Djukanovic has been involved in illegal tobacco trafficking poses a serious threat to his hold on office.

The Italian media says the anti-Mafia bureau of the prosecution office in the port of Bari has put Djukanovic and some of his associates under investigation over an alleged "mafia conspiracy aimed at international cigarette smuggling".

Pro-independence circles in Podgorica fear the reports are part of an international plot to force the Montenegrin president from office, on account of his support for independence, which Europe opposes.

They believe it is no coincidence that the report was leaked at precisely this time, given that Djukanovic's name has apparently been on the investigators' list since 1999, judging by the statements of one Italian public prosecutor, Cataldo Motta.

Italy is viewed as the European Union state most strongly opposed to Montenegrin independence. Sources close to Djukanovic say international emissaries sent to "persuade" him to support the creation of a new Serbian-Montenegrin state deliberately reminded him of the existence of the police file being assembled on the other side of the Adriatic.

This pressure may have been a key factor in prodding him to sign the agreement in March 2002 on establishing a joint state to replace the current Yugoslav federation, and giving up the planned referendum on independence.

Marko Nicovic, Belgrade's former representative at Interpol, told the Serbian media that rumours of alleged Montenegrin connections with the Italian mafia from the Bari area "have been circulating for years, but this time the EU took advantage of it to force Djukanovic into implementing the Belgrade agreement".

Western diplomatic circles in Belgrade say Europe has already selected a more acceptable figure to replace Djukanovic. They want to see Svetozar Marovic, vice-president of the Djukanovic's ruling Democratic Socialist Party, as he backs the union with Serbia.

The Montenegrin independence camp says the reports of Djukanovic's alleged links with the mafia have been put about to create a perception of the republic as a potential "little Columbia", or a "rogue state", whose ambitions must be curbed.

The reports of the Djukanovic investigation were broken last week by the state Italian news agency, ANSA. Djukanovic said it was "just another prank… to destabilise Montenegro".

The public prosecutor in Bari, Giuseppe Scelsi, the man at the centre of the affair, has refused to comment on the reports, telling the press he was angry that information about the case was leaked from the prosecutor's office.

Reuters news agency and the American cable network CNN said Djukanovic's file was part of a case concerning Montenegro that the Bari prosecution office had been working on for two years.

The allegations against him and his associates are mostly based on testimonies by former mafia members, collected in the course of an investigative operation code-named "Montenegro", covering the period from 1992 to 2000.

The newspaper La Stampa said Andriano Benedetto was the first mafia man to testify about the Montenegrin government's connections with smuggling clans in Italy. In the 1990s, Stanno had his own residence in Montenegro. The newspaper, which labelled him a "big cigarette smuggler", said he made his testimony to Cataldo Motta, public prosecutor in Lecce, south-east Italy.

Motta, said Stanno told him the cigarettes were stored in warehouses in Montenegro under government auspices and that the Montenegrin transport company, Zetatrans, which is close to the government, was in charge of securing the warehouses.

Motta said the anti-mafia directorate of the Lecce prosecution office entered Djukanovic's name into a register of suspects under investigation in 1999, along with the Montenegrin foreign minister, Branko Perovic, the former Yugoslav president, Slobodan Milosevic, and his wife, Mirjana Markovic.

La Stampa claims the key witness in the Djukanovic case could be Srecko Kestner, who earlier told the Zagreb newspaper Nacional of Djukanovic's connections with tobacco smugglers.

Gherardo Como, another former mafia member, is also a potential witness. He told the Italian media that Djukanovic had called him, "my mafioso friend ". Italian prosecutors hope Francesco Prudentino, a mobster from Naples operating in the Puglia region, will also testify.

Prudentino hid from the Italian police in Montenegro in 1999 before his arrest in Greece the next year. "If smugglers like Prudentino confess everything, my prediction is that his testimony will shake up Montenegro. The government will fall, and the President won't enjoy it either," warned Ottavio del Turco, the then Italian finance minister, at the time of Prudentino's arrest in 2000.

Del Turco's statement came at a delicate time, on the eve of the Montenegrin 2001 parliamentary elections, in which Djukanovic's bloc beat a pro-Yugoslav coalition by only 2 per cent.

The Italian media reports that the Bari prosecution office is trying to trace Djukanovic's money, which he has allegedly put in a safe place. He is rumoured to have made billions of dollars through illegal tobacco trafficking. The Montenegrin authorities allegedly received 55 to 70 US dollars for each box of cigarettes transported on motorboats via Bar towards the Italian Puglia region.

The Rome daily La Repubblica said 100,000 boxes of cigarettes were being transported each month from to Italy, earning the Montenegrins 5.5 to 7 million dollars a month. Some of the money was transferred to the state budget. The rest, it said, went to the president and his associates in this "business", which intensified between 1996 and 2000.

"Montenegro is a country difficult to control and it represents a danger for Italy," the Italian senate chairman Mario Greco said. Greco told the Rome newspaper Il Tempo few days ago that he would ask Romano Prodi, the European Commission president, to suspend EU aid to Podgorica and even sever economic ties entirely.

Djukanovic insists there are no grounds for investigating tobacco smuggling in Montenegro. "I am perfectly at ease. These allegations will not destabilise my position. This is only a false alarm," he said last week in London.

But it may be significant that when the news reached him, on a visit to Britain, the British foreign minister, Jack Straw, declined to meet him. Officials in London cited previous engagements and the Pakistani-Indian crisis. But the Montenegrin media speculated that the British foreign office cancelled the meeting because of the reports from Bari.

Montenegro's president has survived many bruising challenges to his hold on power since he took office in November 1997. He survived a crisis in 1997, which pitted him against his pro-Milosevic rival, Momir Bulatovic. Djukanovic also emerged victorious from a long-lasting conflict with Milosevic himself.

Whether he will emerge victorious from a confrontation with his own past and with the Italian prosecutors is less certain. Ominously, his potential coalition partners, the Liberal Alliance, have already said he must resign if it turns out that the Italian prosecutors have, indeed, launched an investigation against him.

Milka Tadic Mijovic is editor-in-chief of the Podgorica weekly Monitor

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