In August​ 2011, a Montenegrin sailor called Goran Radoman fled the scene of a late-night car crash in Havana. He was arrested three months later at José Martí International Airport and sentenced to seven years in prison for manslaughter. According to the Serbian TV channel Insajder, the highest levels of the Serbian state lobbied the Cuban government for Radoman’s extradition – Montenegro doesn’t have an embassy in Havana – and by late December 2013 he was on a plane to Belgrade, although five years remained on his prison sentence. Radoman, who may have been flipped, becoming an informant for Serbian intelligence, or may even have been one all along, soon flew to Valencia, where he owned an apartment. When he got there, he found more than 200 kg of cocaine, stashed by a group of gangsters from two neighbouring Montenegrin villages, Kavač and Škaljari. Radoman sold the drugs and pocketed the earnings. Fourteen months later, he was in an underground car park in Belgrade when an assassin armed with a Kalashnikov shot him 25 times. The killer was never found.

Radoman’s murder triggered a conflict between the Kavači and the Škaljari that has claimed more than sixty lives across eleven countries since 2015. The killings have taken place in restaurants, cafés, bars, car parks, abandoned military camps, beach villas and the exercise yard of a maximum-security prison. The weapons have included machine guns, pistols, car bombs, sniper rifles, switchblades and industrial meat grinders. Among those killed in the crossfire have been an elderly doctor, a Montenegrin former MP and the owner of an Amsterdam pizzeria.

Radoman wasn’t just a sailor. In the 2000s he became a foot soldier in the trade that shifts billions of dollars’ worth of cocaine from South America to Europe every year. Over the last two decades this business has increasingly come to be controlled by gangs from the Balkans, and is now dominated by Montenegrins. Their networks stretch from the Aegean to the Amazon, where they have diversified into door-to-door extortion and illegal timber export. They have officers and engineers from cargo ships in their pocket; since 2022, sailors from Montenegro who work for the Geneva-based Mediterranean Shipping Company, one of the world’s largest shipping firms, have been banned by the company from passing through the Panama Canal on its vessels. Since at least 2015, the Kavači – the more powerful of the two clans – have had access to the police databases designed to monitor them, using intelligence files to evade detection and track their enemies from one end of Europe to the other. And in an inversion of the historical relationship between Belgrade and Podgorica, mobsters along the Danube now answer to those from the Adriatic.

The sheer reach of Montenegro’s cartels – infiltrating multinational shipping companies and banking systems, co-ordinating transfers of drug shipments worth more than a billion dollars at a time, bypassing or bribing customs officials in Rotterdam and Barcelona, laundering the proceeds by buying property everywhere from Slovakia to Dubai – stands in stark relief to the reality of Montenegro as a state. With a population of just 600,000, Europe’s second youngest country uses the currency of a political bloc to which it does not belong, and aspires to become little more than a hotel economy. Its richest citizen, at least on paper, is the former prime minister of Thailand, Thaksin Shinawatra. But this is misleading. More than anywhere else in Europe, and in ways that may only be comparable to Central America, the cartels in Montenegro today are indistinguishable from the state.

Nobody has done more to shape modern Montenegro than Milo Đukanović. In 1989, at the age of 26, he helped conduct a putsch of the Montenegrin branch of the Yugoslav Communist Party – its leadership had been plotting a split from Belgrade – as Slobodan Milošević’s man on the ground. The coup bore the fingerprints of the Serbian secret services; students and metalworkers were bussed to Podgorica from as far away as Kosovo to give the impression of street support. In December 1990 the overhauled Communist Party won the first multiparty election in Montenegrin history. Two months later Đukanović was appointed prime minister, the youngest on the continent, by President Momir Bulatović, a fellow putschist.

As secession movements gathered momentum across Yugoslavia, Đukanović pushed Montenegro in the opposite direction. When armed rebellions against Belgrade broke out, Đukanović offered his assistance to Milošević. In October 1991 Montenegrin troops began shelling the Croatian port of Dubrovnik, destroying eight hundred buildings and killing more than eighty civilians over the next seven months, in addition to looting and torching the Dalmatian countryside. Montenegro’s military engagement in Bosnia was limited, but Đukanović also provided support by other means. In May 1992, groups of Bosnian refugees who had fled south were arrested by Montenegrin police and handed over to Bosnian Serb forces, while a Bosnian Serb officer testified in 2012 that, without the fuel provided by Montenegro, the assault on Srebrenica could never have happened. Đukanović later boasted that ‘my government helped the Serbs of Herzegovina and Republika Srpska in secret for years.’ In the decades after Yugoslavia’s collapse, Đukanović would say that Montenegro was the only one of the six republics to avoid bloodshed, but this ignores its role in the carnage beyond its borders.

It seemed unlikely that Montenegro would emerge intact from the Balkan wars of the 1990s. The pillars of its economy – mining, shipping, tourism – were particularly vulnerable to the UN sanctions levied against Yugoslavia in 1992. But Montenegro had one advantage: two hundred miles of coast facing the Mafia-infested ports of southern Italy. Đukanović’s government didn’t pioneer the smuggling of cigarettes across the Adriatic – in the 1980s Croatian sailors shipped tobacco out of the Balkans and carried jeans in the opposite direction – but under its watch a black market supplanted what remained of the formal economy. In 1992 the cigarette manufacturers R.J. Reynolds and Philip Morris began sending cargo planes from Switzerland, Cyprus, Ukraine and Russia to Podgorica. Cartons of cigarettes were transported to warehouses in the port of Bar, put in speedboats that reached Italy in under two hours, and then driven north, unstamped and untaxed. (In 2000 the EU filed a civil lawsuit in the US against the two companies, alleging that they ‘facilitated the smuggling of cigarettes illegally’ into the EU. Philip Morris agreed to pay $1.25 billion in an out-of-court settlement in 2004 but did not admit liability; R.J. Reynolds said that the allegations were baseless.)

Between 1994 and 2000 a billion cigarettes left Montenegro every month, earning Italian syndicates hundreds of millions in undeclared cash which, according to a report compiled in 2008 by prosecutors in Rome, disappeared into Swiss banks. Two Montenegrin companies extracted a ‘transit margin’ of €20 per carton, or around €2 million a week; Montenegrin security services pocketed an additional ‘tax’ amounting to three Deutschmarks per carton. This arrangement helped pay public sector salaries and pensions; Đukanović later defended the ‘transit’ in cigarettes during this period as being ‘in line with Yugoslav and Montenegrin laws of the time’. In 2008 the Italian investigators produced transcripts of wiretapped telephone conversations between Montenegro’s trade representative in Milan and crime bosses in Brindisi in which cash transfers and the forging of import permits by the Italians were discussed. Đukanović was accused by the Italian prosecutor of having ‘promoted, run, set up and participated in a mafia-type association’, and indicted. He has always denied having links to organised crime. The Italian investigating judge eventually dropped the charges against him, citing his diplomatic immunity.

By 2008 it was no longer in the West’s interest to drag Đukanović through the courts. He was an ally. Montenegro’s pivot began in 1997, the year Đukanović fell out with Milošević. Đukanović thought Montenegro’s future was in the West, whereas Milošević saw it in Yugoslavia. (There were also financial considerations: a year earlier Milošević’s son, Marko, had demanded – and been refused – a cut of tobacco proceeds.) Đukanović, by now in close contact with American officials, criticised Milošević for having ‘obsolete political ideas’, and carried out his second coup of the decade, ousting Bulatović, his former mentor, from the presidency of the Democratic Party of Socialists of Montenegro (DPS) and getting rid of pro-Serb elements in the party. (In the presidential election later that year, Đukanović defeated Bulatović by only 5000 votes; Bulatović and his supporters alleged electoral fraud, though the OSCE said that the election had generally been ‘well conducted’.) After a visit to Washington in March 1997, Đukanović presented himself as a knight-errant willing to defend human rights against ‘ancient hatreds’. Over the coming years, he pushed a version of Montenegrin identity based on civic, not ethnic, grounds. He rolled out the Deutschmark as parallel legal tender. And, with his willingness to enter what he called ‘European and transatlantic structures’ and create a ‘new market system’ where ‘capital will be safe’, he offered the West an opportunity: isolate Belgrade and transfer full responsibility for the Yugoslav implosion to Milošević, whose days in power were numbered.

When I met Đukanović in Podgorica in January, he said that he had no option but to turn on the man who had put him in power: ‘Milošević considered us something that rightfully belonged to him.’ Đukanović now operates out of the former Yugoslav Republic Institute for Urban Planning and Design, constructed in 1969 in what was then Titograd. In 2007 his brother, Aco, purchased the institute for €2.7 million through his company – along with the state-run planning authority it housed. On my visit, Đukanović was working out of a corner office on the second floor. Red leather couches faced a desk; a wooden model galleon sat on a table. Photos of him meeting foreign dignitaries were framed on the wall: John McCain, Vladimir Putin, Jens Stoltenberg.

Đukanović stared at me intently during our conversation; a fat watch slid up and down his left wrist as he spoke. ‘Serbia always thought of us as the annoying little rock in their shoe,’ he said, explaining that it took Montenegro years to understand what Slovenia and Croatia had grasped almost immediately: that Milošević, far from trying to hold Yugoslavia together in the early 1990s, was determined to replace it with a Serb-dominated ethnostate. I asked him if this was a Western interpretation of the conflict, one that ignored the role of the IMF in Yugoslavia in the 1980s and West Germany’s premature decision to recognise Croatian independence in 1991. No, he said. Montenegro’s mistake was its failure to detach itself from Yugoslavia years earlier, getting mired instead in a ‘crossroads of civilisations’ conflict. The country’s problems – its low average salary, its shabby infrastructure – stemmed from what was essentially an identity crisis. Montenegro had oriented itself towards the Balkans when its future was in Europe. Joining Nato – ‘the most advanced alliance in the history of mankind’ – in 2017 had lifted Montenegro out of the Balkan quagmire and slotted it into the community it should always have belonged to. ‘Our democracy is criticised by autocrats, our market is criticised by the economy of oligarchs, our rule of law is criticised by those who don’t care about human rights,’ Đukanović said. ‘I think all of us who feel comfortable in our system of values should oppose that.’

The wartime record, the cigarette smuggling, the allegations of electoral fraud – all of this was forgotten. UN sanctions were dropped. Capital flowed in. By 1998, the United States was paying Montenegro’s electricity bills and funnelling $55 million in annual aid to Đukanović’s regime, turning the country – the ‘only bright spot in the former Republic of Yugoslavia’, according to the State Department – into the world’s second highest recipient of American funding per capita in 2001. ‘By providing political and material support for Montenegro, exempting Montenegro from sanctions and promoting its participation in the global economy,’ Clinton’s secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, explained, ‘we are demonstrating the welcome that awaits the rest of Yugoslavia when democracy takes hold in Serbia, as I believe it will.’ That year, with Albanians in Kosovo demanding independence, Đukanović advised Montenegrin men to defy Belgrade’s orders to report for duty, even as he assured the Serbian tabloid Blic that he was ‘an opponent of every sort of secession movement’. A former American ambassador in the Balkans told me that Đukanović was consulted by Nato over potential targets for air strikes, which began in March 1999. A month later, a CIA evacuation team and speedboat were stationed in the Croatian port of Cavtat just in case Milošević attempted to topple his erstwhile ally.

Milošević fell from power in October 2000. Đukanović told me that this didn’t change anything. ‘The West told us, “Ok, Milošević is gone, the source of misunderstanding is no longer here.” But even without Milošević, we believed it would be too difficult to function. So we started negotiating with the European Union.’ The US and the EU were opposed to Montenegrin independence, fearing that it might trigger a wave of referendums in Serb-majority enclaves elsewhere in the Balkans. But when Brussels oversaw the signing in 2002 of the Belgrade Agreement, which fused Montenegro and Serbia into a new federation, Đukanović was able to insert a provision granting Montenegro the right to call a referendum on independence, premised on a ‘self-determination’ clause that had been drafted into the Yugoslav constitution of 1990, itself never ratified. The EU succeeded only in requiring that Đukanović delay the poll by three years – he would wait four – and raise the threshold to 55 per cent of votes.

In the end, independence was secured with the help of Russian capital. This had been piling up on the Adriatic coast since at least 2003, when Đukanović made his right-hand man, Milan Roćen, ambassador to Moscow. But the crucial acquisition was in 2005 when Đukanović, making good on his promise to Washington to privatise a substantial proportion of Montenegro’s state assets, brokered the sale of an aluminium plant outside Podgorica to Oleg Deripaska, a Russian oligarch with close ties to the Kremlin, for €48.5 million. The factory accounted for 15 per cent of Montenegro’s economic output. ‘The Europeans will not stop bothering us,’ Roćen explains in a phone call to Deripaska in 2005 that was recorded by Serbian secret services. ‘They want to disrupt the referendum.’ Roćen explains that the solution is ‘the Americans’, and asks Deripaska if he could find someone in Washington to ‘explain our position’. Less than a year later, Đukanović’s regime had brought American consultants to Podgorica to co-ordinate his independence push. One of them, Paul Manafort, later stated that it wasn’t Đukanović but Deripaska who paid him $10 million to run a campaign designed to make Montenegro look polished and Western-facing. When the referendum took place, in May 2006, independence was won by fewer than 2000 votes. Close to midnight, before the last ballots had been counted, Đukanović – already the longest-serving leader in the Balkans – ordered his followers onto the streets to celebrate the birth of his state.

The smuggling networks​ that emerged in the 1990s were never dismantled. But by the early 2000s the situation had changed. The return of the Croats to the cigarette trade they had once controlled, along with increased press scrutiny, meant that the Montenegrins required a new business model. It’s unclear how the connection with cocaine suppliers in South America came about. A lawyer in Podgorica told me that one important step was shoplifting from northern Italian department stores: wearing Swiss watches and Armani suits during their early forays into Colombia, the Montenegrins looked ‘like men you could do business with’.

One figure proved particularly important in cultivating the connection with South American suppliers. Darko Šarić had briefly worked as a technician on a merchant vessel in the 1990s, in between prison stints for offences ranging from burglary to possession of illegal weapons. He moved to South America around 2001; according to one story, he bought up entire streets of cafés and restaurants on the outskirts of São Paulo to launder his earnings. He took Serbian citizenship in 2005; by the late 2000s the Serbian judiciary speculated that Šarić was earning €1 billion a year through the cocaine trade. ‘We can talk about as many suspicions as we like, but we should not deprive people of basic rights,’ Đukanović told the Serbian TV channel B92 in 2010 when asked about Šarić. ‘We are not awarding him the Nobel Prize.’ By that point Šarić’s criminal ties were beyond dispute: a few months earlier, an American-led operation seized more than two tonnes of cocaine belonging to his organisation from a yacht off the coast of Uruguay. After nearly five years on the lam, hiding out in the Dominican Republic, Šarić surrendered to Serbian authorities in 2014. That was thought to be the end of the story, until text messages emerged in 2021 showing that, from cell 117 of Belgrade’s Special Court building, and in co-ordination with Montenegrin police, Šarić had been using several mobile phones to organise criminal activity across Europe.

Drug seizures give only a partial story of the way Balkan cartels began shifting cocaine. A more accurate picture has emerged from fruit imports. Cocaine often crosses the Atlantic in banana shipments; as perishable goods, bananas arrive at ports daily and move through customs quickly. Between 2017 and 2021 the total volume of shipping containers entering Croatian, Montenegrin and Albanian ports stayed the same, but according to the Geneva-based Global Initiative against Transnational Organised Crime, annual banana imports from Colombia and Ecuador increased by nearly 25,000 tonnes in that same period – a rise of almost 60 per cent. ‘My first day in office, the chief of police brought me into a soundproof room and told me, “The cigarettes are a state business. Don’t touch it,”’ Zdravko Krivokapić, prime minister from 2020 to 2022, during Đukanović’s second term as president, said to me. ‘Later, I was made to understand something else. I was told that the average Montenegrin eats three times more bananas than the average European Union citizen.’

The cocaine that enters the continent via the Adriatic is a fraction of the roughly 200 tonnes believed to enter Western Europe each year. And it is Montenegro’s centuries-old seafaring tradition, above all, that explains the rise of its gangs over the last two decades. Montenegrins made up the bulk of Yugoslavia’s state-run merchant navy. The maritime academies at Bar and Kotor trained tens of thousands of seafarers who manned more than 350 state-owned vessels transporting everything from lumber to weapons for African anti-colonial movements. After the break-up of Yugoslavia, some of these sailors retired; some got into smuggling; others joined private shipping firms. In the 2000s Montenegrin officers and engineers offered an opportunity to Adriatic cartels looking to elbow their way into the cocaine business.

Today seven thousand Montenegrins work on cargo ships. Almost a third are employed by the Mediterranean Shipping Company (known in certain quarters as the Montenegrin Shipping Company). In 2019, more than a hundred FBI agents boarded an MSC vessel, the Gayane, in Philadelphia harbour and discovered eighteen tonnes of cocaine – a billion-dollar haul – welded into shipping containers packed with nuts and wine. It was the largest maritime drug bust in US history. An FBI investigation revealed that the cocaine had been delivered on fourteen speedboats dispatched over four days from the Peruvian coast, then lifted into the Gayane by night while it was at sea. A third of its crew, including four Montenegrins, were involved in the transfers. Two years later, in August 2021, Spanish police conducted a raid in the Canary Islands. They seized 400 kg of cocaine from a villa, along with twelve encrypted phones, banknote-counting machines and a yacht, and arrested four suspected members of the Škaljari. It was the third bust on the Canaries in two years, giving support to a Spanish court document that had concluded that ‘an immense fleet of seamen hired from MSC ships’ had become cocaine mules for Balkan cartels.

The third engineer on a bulk carrier operated by the German company Hapag-Lloyd told me he had once seen a cocaine shipment placed inside a waterproof sack off the coast of Gibraltar, then attached to his vessel’s hull with magnets. Divers waiting in a port ‘somewhere in the western Mediterranean’ – the engineer declined to say where – later retrieved the cocaine from the hull while the ship’s legal contents were being unloaded. Montenegrin seafarers who agree to assist the cartels can expect a life-altering payday – as much as €100,000, often delivered to their apartments in bags full of cash, according to Montenegrin journalists. ‘You know of guys who get off a ship and a few months later buy a new car. They want a Jeep Wrangler? They’ll get a Jeep Wrangler,’ the engineer said, gesturing around him at the medieval port of Kotor. ‘But once you cross into that circle, you cannot get out. The clans’ – he pointed to the mountains – ‘have you on their leash.’

Half an hour north of Budva, Kotor is surrounded on three sides by towering scarps of karst. Crumbling relics of Yugoslavia – among them the graffitied headquarters of Jugooceanija, a state shipping company – are dotted around a fjord-like bay (it has three secret submarine tunnels, dug on Tito’s orders). On the late January morning when I arrived in Kotor, the feast day of Saint Sava was being celebrated outside its largest Orthodox church. Hundreds had gathered for the occasion. Towards noon, a naval band played marching songs while a priest in a yellow gown swung a silver thurible. From the Church of Saint Sava, the procession coiled through Kotor’s cobbled alleyways towards the Catholic Cathedral of Saint Tryphon, patron saint of generations of mariners and smugglers. In Agents of Empire, his history of the late medieval Adriatic, Noel Malcolm shows that seafarers from places like Kotor – which straddled the Venetian and Ottoman empires – occupied a crucial position in 16th-century Europe. The clans in and around Kotor functioned like ‘linguistic and cultural amphibians’, serving as missionaries, spies, merchants and pirates. The Adriatic clans were often exploited by the empires that encroached on their mountains and occupied their ports – enlisted into naval crews, or forced to convert – but in many ways they benefited from their borderland identity. They played off great powers against one another, leveraged strategic information for court influence, infiltrated imperial ranks and forged valuable mercantile connections.

Škaljari and Kavač sit on opposite slopes of Mount Orjen, which rises above Kotor. They look like a thousand other places in the Balkans. Škaljari is not quite its own village, but an extension of Kotor. Grubby apartment buildings crowd a road that boasts two cemeteries, several casinos, grocery stores and some shipping agencies. From the main street, a narrow road up the mountain leads to a stone house with a basketball hoop in the driveway. This is the childhood home of Jovan Vukotić, head of the Škaljari clan until September 2022, when he was shot in Istanbul by Turkish gangsters in the pay of men from Kavač. Kavač is smaller. To get there, you take a switchback road that runs up and over Mount Orjen. After a Roma scrapyard, a cement wall topped with barbed wire, satellite dishes and security cameras stands in front of a house belonging to Slobodan Kašćelan, deputy head of the Kavači clan. He was arrested in April 2021 on charges of forming a criminal organisation and is currently in Spuž prison, six miles north of Podgorica. The head of the Kavači, Radoje Zvicer, remains at large. His house is up the street.

The Škaljari and Kavači were once part of a single organisation which answered to Šarić. His arrest in March 2014 is thought to have damaged relations between them, which broke down irrevocably nine months later after a disagreement over whether Radoman should have been killed for stealing the cocaine he found in his apartment. It’s believed that the Škaljari wanted to keep him alive and use his contacts to source additional suppliers in South America; the Kavači were bent on killing him. By 2015, hits were occurring regularly. Radoman’s business partner was shot in Budva that October; there were other murders in Kotor and Podgorica. By 2016, the death toll had reached double figures, with the Kavači assuming the upper hand. That September, a Škaljari gangster was exercising in the Spuž prison yard when he was killed by a Kavači assassin, who fired from a mountain on the other side of the Zeta river, a quarter of a mile away. ‘It was easy. Like shooting a cat in the street,’ Mirko Popović, a cargo ship electrician from Kotor who was in Spuž at the time on assault charges, told me. A police search later found a sniper tripod near the burned-out remains of a Škoda, but a helicopter sweep failed to locate the culprit.

For every member of the Kavači killed, there were at least two Škaljari. Mobsters wanted by Interpol for years were located with apparent ease, ambushed in their cars or bumped off in steakhouses. Most Škaljari fled the country, but the Kavači pursued them. There were assassinations in Vienna, Berlin and on the Croatian island of Pag. The clans, each comprising around a hundred men, enlisted allies: smugglers from up and down the Adriatic, Serbian football hooligans, Albanians, Kurdish gangsters. In January 2018 a Serbian police officer was caught on a surveillance camera disposing of the handgun of a Škaljari soldier moments after he shot a Kavači gangster in a Belgrade car park; two years later the Kavači paid Serbian enforcers to torture two Škaljari soldiers in a village east of Belgrade, crush their bones in a meat grinder, then toss the bagged remains into the Danube. ‘These guys went to school together. They were best men at one another’s weddings. They are godparents to one another’s children,’ Vladimir Jokić, the mayor of Kotor, told me in his office. ‘Now the obituaries come in from all these different countries and it’s like, “Oh, we know him!”’

On a Sunday afternoon in January 2020, four Kavači clad in black jumpsuits fired more than twenty bullets at two Škaljari bosses having lunch at a seaside taverna outside Athens. Five months later, a member of the Škaljari was on holiday in Corfu when two Kavači headed south using fake passports, paid a smuggler €1500 to transport them across the Greek border by motorbike, hired a boat and crossed to Corfu where they staked out their target for three days before shooting him and his partner as they returned from the beach. They then fled the scene on quad bikes. In 2022, a Turkish hitman was paid €1.5 million to kill Vukotić, the new Škaljari leader, as he was driving his wife and daughter to a shopping centre in Istanbul. News of the latest murder came in just before I arrived in Montenegro: a Škaljari had been shot three times in the back while on a bike ride with his wife and son in the suburbs of São Paulo.

Over the last nine years, it has become clear that the Kavači possess two advantages over the Škaljari. The first is a willingness to dispense with the Balkan honour code. The Kavači sometimes take photos of their executions. They run torture chambers. Assassins – known as ‘engineers’ – are told to shoot Škaljari members no fewer than five times, according to testimony from a trial in 2016, in order to ‘send a message to everyone in Montenegro who is in the business of selling drugs’. The second advantage is that the Kavači weren’t just being protected by the government. They were working for it.

Đukanovićhas served as prime minister or president for eleven of the eighteen years since independence. He has been prime minister six times, after parliamentary elections in which the DPS won a majority or emerged as the largest party; he has twice held the office of president, a more ceremonial position elected separately. As he tacked between these positions, Đukanović blurred the differences between them; Montenegro looked much the same whichever title he had.

The praise he received in the 2000s and 2010s was lavish, even by the standards of Western autocrat-clients. To Berlin Đukanović was a ‘a role model for others’. To Brussels he was a ‘champion of regional co-operation’. ‘There is a strong feeling in the United States,’ said Robert Gelbard, Clinton’s envoy to the Balkans, who first mooted bombing Yugoslavia, ‘that Milo Đukanović has done an extraordinary job, has been a real hero, in terms of his role in building Montenegro as an independent democratic state, a country that is founded on strong democratic and free market principles, and one that has a clear vision of the future.’

That he owed his sovereignty in no small part to a Putin loyalist was one irony of the Western embrace of Đukanović. Another was the way he ran the state. The closest equivalent to Montenegro’s post-communist political trajectory is Azerbaijan, a mountain republic where a tight clan-based elite also outlasted the collapse of communism and honed extensive networks of surveillance and control for another generation. Once independence was secured, Đukanović proceeded to turn Montenegro into something resembling a family firm. His sister, Ana Kolarević, is a lawyer. In 2005, Montenegro Telekom was purchased by the Hungarian firm Magyar Telekom. A 2011 filing by the US Securities and Exchange Commission claimed that Magyar Telekom paid €7.35 million to ‘third-party consultants under four sham contracts’, on the understanding that ‘all or a portion of the payments’ would then be forwarded to Montenegrin government officials who helped facilitate the sale on terms favourable to Magyar Telekom. (The company agreed to a settlement with the SEC without admitting or denying the allegations.) The SEC filing alleged that payments were made to at least two government officials and to the ‘sister of a top Montenegrin official’, who ‘was a lawyer in Montenegro’, disguised as a payment to her law firm; Kolarević has denied involvement. In 2007, Đukanović’s brother, Aco, oversaw the privatisation of Nikšić Saving Bank and purchased a stake that made him its biggest shareholder. It was renamed First Bank and became Montenegro’s central bank in all but name, a financial clearing house through which state companies, ministries and charities transferred and held capital.

With mining largely in the hands of Deripaska – collapsing commodity prices meant that by 2008 the arrangement was costing Montenegrin taxpayers 2 per cent of GDP a year in subsidies – and a state shipping sector that never recovered from Yugoslavia’s collapse, what remained was tourism. In 2008, parliament passed a law declaring the construction of five-star hotels to be in the ‘national interest’, as part of an effort to triple tourism’s contribution to GDP to 60 per cent by 2017 (it’s currently around 25 per cent).

There’s no better place to behold Montenegro’s disfigurement over the last two decades than the bay of Budva. Above ranks of squat grey Yugoslav housing blocks, high-rises crowd the coast. There’s the Splendid Hotel, built in 2006 by Viktor Ivanenko, a former chairman of the KGB. There’s the island of Sveti Stefan, where Tito’s government built a luxury hotel, leased out in a thirty-year deal in 2009 to the Piraeus shipping magnate Victor Restis. There’s the Maestral Resort, built in 2017 by the Malaysian gambling tycoon Paul Phua, whose company soon began flying in high rollers for six-figure buy-in poker tournaments. For anyone wanting to flip dirty cash into euroised assets, this was a country where no questions were asked. Montenegrin passports could also be purchased, hawked in a scheme that, by 2015, saw everyone from the former Fatah leader Mohammad Dahlan to Thaksin Shinawatra receive citizenship in exchange for deposits in First Bank or promises of future investment along the Adriatic.

Periodic but cosmetic anti-corruption drives bought good will from Brussels, which began EU accession talks in 2012. Washington’s preferred strategy was to ignore criminality while funding those who exposed it. The tawdriness of Đukanović’s regime was exposed by the State Department-financed Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, which made him its Person of the Year in Organised Crime in 2015. ‘Nobody outside of Putin,’ it said, ‘has run a state that relies so heavily on corruption, organised crime and dirty politics. It is truly and thoroughly rotten to the core.’

His most ambitious project has so far cost almost €1 billion. Feasibility studies financed by the European Investment Bank in 2008 and 2012 found that the only affordable way to upgrade Montenegro’s dilapidated road network was to spend €500 million repaving and expanding it. Đukanović rejected this, and instead agreed in 2014 to a new motorway proposed by Beijing, which loaned $944 million for the project. The price tag seems to have been the point: the Chinese brought in much of their own labour, but the contract stipulated that 30 per cent of the budget be directed to local construction companies. More than half of these contracts were secured by Bemax, whose owner – according to screenshots of decrypted text messages sent by Petar Lazović, a police officer whose father was the head of Montenegro’s anti-mafia police unit, and published in the Montenegrin newspaper Vijesti – ‘burn[ed] a couple of million’ on Đukanović’s DPS ‘for the elections’. Lazović, whom Europol has accused of being a member of the Kavači, had keys to two safes in a building owned by Bemax in Podgorica, in which police officers found two guns.

The motorway is eventually meant to be 445 km long, connecting Bar to Belgrade. The project has now dragged on for more than nine years, delayed by the pandemic but also by financial difficulties and political upheaval. So far only a 41 km section has been constructed, running from just east of Podgorica to the village of Mateševo. In February, I drove along it to one of the workcamps slapped together to house the hundreds of Chinese labourers. When they left Montenegro in 2021, they didn’t bother to dismantle them. Behind a perimeter of chain-link fence, dozens of dormitories had been taken over by local shepherds. Livestock dozed in the bedrooms; the floors were littered with mouldering suitcases. The doorways still had placards bearing the names of their former occupants.

By 2016, Đukanović was the longest-serving head of state in Europe. In October that year, shortly before the DPS won its sixth consecutive parliamentary majority, he found himself at the centre of another geopolitical incident. On election day, reports circulated of a coup on the streets of Podgorica. Putschists dressed as police officers were said to be preparing to storm the parliament building and assassinate him. Twenty Montenegrin and Serbian citizens were arrested, and within days Montenegro was blaming Moscow, accusing ‘organs of the Russian state’ of attempting to derail its Nato accession. Western capitals repeated the claims. Over the next months, however, this narrative began to unravel. A retired Serbian general accused of helping to plan the coup claimed that Montenegrin police planted evidence in his car, including keys to a warehouse said to be full of weapons. One witness claimed that assault rifles had been dumped by the conspirators in Lake Gazivoda in Kosovo, but no attempt was made to find them. For Đukanović, broadcasting that a coup had been attempted seemed more important than clarifying what had actually occurred. ‘If Russia wanted to launch a coup in Montenegro, it would have succeeded,’ Milan Knežević, the president of the pro-Moscow Democratic People’s Party, who is fighting a five-year prison sentence for helping to organise the coup, told me.

Polls conducted over the next six months showed that only 40 per cent of Montenegrins were in favour of Nato membership. But they didn’t get a say. The accession vote held in April 2017 was confined to the Montenegrin parliament, where Đukanović commanded a majority. ‘It would have been very risky for us to call a public referendum on the matter,’ Igor Lukšić, Đukanović’s minister of foreign affairs from 2012 to 2016, told me. ‘I don’t want to say that we would lose, but it would have been a repetition of the independence campaign, and we wanted to avoid that. I think it was the wisest decision. I don’t see how society would have benefited from a referendum.’

Within months of Montenegro’s accession to Nato, Europol officials were attempting to access text messages sent through an encrypted application known as Sky ECC, long suspected of being the preferred messaging service of international cocaine cartels. By early 2021, they had succeeded, retrieving millions of messages exchanged over the previous thirteen years. The trove, which a Belgian state prosecutor estimated would take a team of forty police officers 685 years to read in its entirety, gave an unprecedented glimpse into the inner workings of organised crime. Europol compiled a report detailing its findings and, in 2021, it was sent to all the countries where Sky messages had been exchanged.

It arrived in Montenegro as the war between the Kavači and the Škaljari was entering its sixth year. Đukanović’s grip on the state was starting to slip: in parliamentary elections in August 2020 the DPS was booted out of office and a new coalition government came to power, with Zdravko Krivokapić as prime minister. Montenegro’s opposition was finally in a position to range the powers of the state against its progenitor. And now that he had helped deliver Nato its newest member, Western embassies were ready to round on Đukanović. They helped organise the political opposition in late 2019 after he attempted to pass legislation effectively annulling the Serbian Orthodox Church’s ownership of properties built before 1918, in an effort to strengthen the Montenegrin Orthodox Church. Some Montenegrins saw this as an attempt to close off one of the last remaining valves of Serbian influence in Montenegro, whose recognition of Kosovo remains a major point of contention with Belgrade. There was also the matter of the Church properties themselves, sprawling holdings of real estate situated along the valuable coastline. Either way, the move angered voters across the political spectrum, driving as many as 70,000 people – more than a tenth of the country’s population – onto the streets of Podgorica. By April 2020, the weekly demonstrations had turned into broader expressions of rage against two decades of Đukanović rule: ‘No more corruption!’ ‘Milo thief!’

Yet Đukanović was still president, and he remained close to the most powerful figures in Montenegro’s intelligence agency, police and judiciary. It was to them that Europol’s Sky report was delivered. Among those indicted on the basis of the Sky communications were the assistant chief of the police unit Đukanović had tasked with fighting organised crime; the former head of Montenegro’s supreme court who, for thirteen years, appointed the judges who prosecute organised crime; a special prosecutor responsible for bringing cases against organised criminals; the mayor of Budva; ‘two police officers who “provided protection to the Kavač clan and informed them about sensitive operational data from the police”, three who, according to information provided by “international partners” to the Montenegrin government, had more than €50 million in their bank accounts’; more than a dozen other officers; and their boss, Montenegro’s police chief. Those indicted deny the charges, and claim that the messages aren’t admissible as evidence, having been obtained illegally and by Europol rather than Montenegrin authorities.

Rather than instigating a confrontation with the cartel system, the Europol report instead sparked a proxy conflict within Montenegro, or between competing versions of the country. There is, on the one hand, the emerging new Montenegro, comprised of a young generation of politicians who have limited experience of governing and who scarcely control certain parts of the state they have been elected to run. ‘One evening in April 2021 we arrested eighteen members of the Kavači clan, most of them in Kotor,’ Dritan Abazović, who succeeded Krivokapić as prime minister, told me. ‘By noon the next day the judges had let them out of prison. Known killers – and they let them all out!’ This Montenegro is determined to bring an end to the Đukanović system. But strategies differ. Some, like Abazović, have visited Spuž prison in search of convicts with incriminating information about Đukanović. Others prefer to co-ordinate with the Western embassies that once worked with Đukanović. Another major player in Montenegro’s mafia war is the FBI, which flies Montenegrin prosecutors to the US for training and then directs them to root out government corruption.

Against this new Montenegro is the old guard. It understands how the state works because it spent thirty years running it. It has deep ties to intelligence and deeper ties to the judiciary. The batches of Sky communications that continue to be leaked to journalists roughly once a week, by politicians or prosecutors determined to destroy Đukanović’s system or muddy the evidence against it, provide insight into the way the old Montenegro operates. The text messages have been heavily redacted. Some show possible signs of editing. Plucked from millions of exchanges conducted over at least seven years, full of code words and inscrutable gang language, their context isn’t always clear. But some of the messages are easy to understand. There are texts in which police discuss giving weapons to the Kavači and send photos of Škaljari members being tortured in police stations or police vehicles. ‘In one Kavači group chat which included 21 members, twelve were discovered to be active-duty policemen,’ Jelena Jovanović, the Vijesti journalist who has been at the forefront of publishing the Sky communications, told me. ‘Most of their contracts were never terminated. They still work the streets.’ In the texts, the gangsters consult Šarić, in prison in Belgrade, about how to organise the Corfu hit, which is nearly called off when a Kavači member realises that he crossed the North Macedonian border using his real passport.

In text messages exchanged in July 2020, an officer asks the Kavači not to target the Škaljari in the run-up to elections the following month. ‘Don’t do it unless it really has to be done,’ the officer says, relaying what he says are orders from a police chief. ‘When the elections are done, then you can go and rip their skin off.’ The messages make you wonder whether factions of the police were orchestrating the mafia war all along. Indeed, the more closely one examines the Kavači-Škaljari conflict, the stranger certain murders appear. Take the killing of Vukotić in September 2022. He had been charged with murder in Montenegro in February 2020 before being released that July. At some point after his release he was red-flagged in Interpol’s tracking system. By the summer of 2022 the Kavači had tracked him down to the Şişli neighbourhood of Istanbul. ‘I don’t believe the police were sharing the exact location of Škaljari members with the Kavači,’ Damir Lekic, a lawyer for the Škaljari clan who has spent the last four years flying around Europe to collect the bodies of murdered clients, told me. ‘But they would give the Kavači a rough area – a neighbourhood in Athens – and say: “You have ten days to do what you need to do.”’ I asked Lekic why the state decided to co-operate with the Kavači instead of the Škaljari. There were many reasons, he believed, but the most important was the willingness of the Kavači leadership to let the authorities occasionally arrest its members in order to keep up appearances. The Škaljari wouldn’t agree to this.

There is no evidence that Đukanović used the Sky app. But he is a recurring topic of conversation. Police officers and Kavači members call him ‘the Boss’. ‘Everyone will vote how I tell them to,’ Radoje Zvicer, the Kavači clan leader, writes to police ahead of the 2020 elections. In October 2020 Petar Lazović tells the Kavači gangsters that ‘the Boss had a grandson,’ and sends them a photo of Đukanović celebrating at a dinner party. The mobsters ask for their congratulations to be extended. ‘The Boss is talking about you,’ Lazović tells Zvicer. In an exchange dated two months earlier, Lazović discusses delivering cash to the Boss. ‘Don’t mention that we’ve been working for thirty years and handing money to Milo personally,’ he advises an associate. ‘Don’t say that we bring money to Milo; 300,000 [euros] to Milo Đukanović personally every month.’ (Đukanović denies this ever took place.) It’s a proposition so shocking – the son of the man who leads the country’s anti-mafia task force openly discussing six-figure monthly kickbacks to its president – that many Montenegrin journalists I met were caught between two theories about what it meant. Perhaps Lazović was aware that his messages were being decrypted by Europol and deliberately wrote something so outlandish that it would cast doubt on the veracity of all the Sky exchanges. That – or corruption under Đukanović was so pedestrian, nobody thought twice about putting such things in writing.

The Sky messages confirm that Montenegro isn’t an example of state capture by organised crime. Rather, the cartels are an extension of the state. They are in contact with the state, they are shielded by it and they enrich the people who run it. Dejan Milovac, an investigator for MANS, an NGO that exposes corruption in Montenegro, told me that it will be harder to overcome the problem of organised crime there than anywhere else in the region. ‘The first line of defence against organised crime – police officers, security officials, customs officers – all turned out to be working for it.’ Or as Abazović, the former prime minister, said to me: ‘The Kavači are a state project. And while you can try to reduce their power – and I tried to do that – here’s the biggest problem: they possess much more money than Montenegro.’

Đukanović’s 32 years in power came to an end last April, when a 36-year-old economist called Jakov Milatović defeated him by nearly 70,000 votes in the presidential election run-off. ‘Other countries in Eastern Europe were able to start their democratic development decades ago,’ Milatović told me in his office. ‘We are only starting the process now. This is our 1989.’ I asked him what he thought Montenegro might look like in five years. ‘Slovenia,’ he answered.

Đukanović’s successors have, on the face of it, little in common. Milatović is an Oxford-educated former employee of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. Krivokapić is a former informatics professor and devout follower of the Serbian Orthodox Church who speaks little English. Abazović is an ethnic Albanian who taught history at a secondary school in Ulcinj. His successor, Milojko Spajić, the current prime minister, worked for Goldman Sachs in Singapore. Each of these three prime ministers belongs to a different party; Milatović, who was elected as the Europe Now! candidate, is now an independent. Yet they seem to have few ideological differences. None criticises the Western record in Montenegro. Their talking points – ‘institutional trust’, ‘value-based systems’, ‘European future’ – resemble the Euro-Atlanticist jargon Đukanović perfected in the 1990s. Indeed, the country envisioned by the post-Đukanović generation – one where EU accession is accelerated, the Kavači are broken by a US-orchestrated anti-corruption drive, and a burgeoning tech sector helps obscure the fact that a land of miners and seafarers has been turned into a country of hoteliers – is familiar enough. When they herald a ‘new Montenegro’, what they largely mean is Đukanović’s state without the corruption.

The mood in Podgorica today is grim. Jubilation over last summer’s election has hardened into frustration that membership of Nato has arrived, but EU accession – which a majority supports – still seems hopelessly remote. Montenegro’s sole advantage, its balancing act between Washington and Moscow, is gone. The Europol report may have led to a small number of police officers and prosecutors being relieved of their duties, but others are still working from house arrest or jail: the mayor of Budva, arrested last year and charged with drug trafficking and creating a criminal organisation, continued signing bills from his cell in Spuž prison, where he denies the charges for which he awaits trial, until March when he was suspended on half-pay. The great unanswered question is whether there is any likelihood that Đukanović will be prosecuted. It is easiest to imagine a future in which Montenegro brokers an amnesty with cartel capital rather than one in which it attempts to confiscate it.

But it has more immediate concerns. British intelligence agents have started monitoring the port of Bar for contraband tobacco. In 2021, the US embassy funded the installation of telephone jammers in Spuž prison to prevent inmates from ordering murders from their cells. South of Kotor, Bemax has begun surfacing a new portion of highway, even as Brussels rebuffs Podgorica’s requests for help in repaying Beijing, which holds a quarter of Montenegrin debt. Russian and Ukrainian émigrés, concentrated in Adriatic towns like Herceg Novi, now account for a tenth of Montenegro’s population, and are pricing its citizens out of a coast already blighted by criminal investment. For one group, though, it’s still business as usual. On any evening you can find the men from Kavač at the Podgorica Hotel, clustered in a dark corner of the lobby, handguns bulging beneath their black bum bags.

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Vol. 46 No. 12 · 20 June 2024

Alexander Clapp’s article about Montenegro and its former president, Milo Đukanović, contains untruthful statements and wrong interpretations of events (LRB, 25 April). He also pays scant attention to the reputations of the witnesses he quotes. To take one example, Clapp presents a person he calls ‘a Bosnian Serb officer’ as a credible witness, even though it is generally known that this person has been pursuing revenge on former president Đukanović for years. He was arrested in Montenegro in 2005 and then deported to Bosnia and Herzegovina based on a warrant against him for fraud and embezzlement. Clapp does not mention that this person was proclaimed by the State Department to have been the key source of financing for Radovan Karadžić, that he has been a close associate of convicted war criminals and that he has in the last ten years circulated untrue statements about Montenegro and Mr Đukanović based on the instructions of the Serbian intelligence services, with which he is closely connected.

Clapp had the opportunity to ask Mr Đukanović about the matters he was interested in. Had he done so, at least some of his factual errors might have been avoided. But he did not. Montenegro is not a mobster state, as Clapp presents it. It restored its independence in 2006, became a candidate for membership of the EU in 2010 and joined Nato in 2017. Montenegro has made enormous progress, both in terms of the inflow of foreign direct investment from credible partners and in its development of a democratic society with respect for the heritage of the Euro-Atlantic partnership. All of this was achieved while Mr Đukanović was in office.

Office of the Former President of Montenegro

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