The government announced in July that it was banning the storage of cigarettes in the Bar “free zone,” an area exempt from customs duties and inspections. While it is too early to tell if the anti-smuggling drive will be successful, Britain last month applauded the effort, saying that “tackling cigarette smuggling will save taxpayers’ money in both the U.K. and Montenegro.”
Bar’s free zone, like similar areas in Dubai and other ports, was originally meant to help it become a transshipment center by avoiding lengthy customs procedures for goods destined for transport onward. Instead, it became a smugglers’ haven.
Last week, in the northern town of Mojkovac, police officers raided a tobacco factory long suspected of ties to smugglers and arrested its director. In a message on Twitter, Mr. Abazovic said, “We entered a facility that had been inaccessible to state authorities for years.”
One reason cigarette smuggling survived untouched for so long was that it was protected and even controlled by the country’s longtime leader Milo Djukanovic, who first became prime minister in 1991 as Yugoslavia, of which Montenegro was part, unraveled into war.
Mr. Djukanovic, who acknowledges the government’s past role in smuggling but says there has been a “lot of exaggeration,” led Montenegro until last year, when his party lost parliamentary elections. He now holds the largely ceremonial post of president.
Initially an ally of Serbia’s nationalist leader Slobodan Milosevic — who was later charged with genocide and died in a cell in The Hague in 2006 — Mr. Djukanovic turned against Mr. Milosevic in the early 1990s, becoming a favorite of the West. He was particularly close to the United States, which tolerated smuggling activities because they earned money that helped fortify the Montenegrin leader’s position against Serbia.
“We turned our heads and decided not to see the smuggling,” William D. Montgomery, the former American ambassador to Serbia and Montenegro, when the countries were still united, said in a recent interview with Vecernji List, a Croatian newspaper. “Everyone knew what was happening, but we allowed it because it brought the money that Djukanovic needed against Milosevic.”
The United States was also more focused on drug trafficking, another big problem in Montenegro, than cigarette smuggling. And the lost tax revenue hit Europe, not the United States.
“The Americans care only about drugs. They don’t care about cigarettes,” said Vanja Calovic, the executive director of MANS, a Montenegrin anticorruption group. Mr. Djukanovic, who took Montenegro into NATO in 2017, “bought support from the West for a very long time with his foreign policy,” she said. “Everybody always turns a blind eye in the Balkans. It is always stability over democracy and the rule of law.”
Mr. Montgomery declined an interview request from The New York Times, and many, including members of the new government, question whether smuggling really helped Montenegro break free from Serbia.
“They convinced people that this was a state business. They pushed this story that the money from smuggling was for pensions and things,” Mr. Abazovic said. “This is not true. They were stealing this money from the country.”
Mr. Djukanovic, in an interview in Podgorica, disputed this, insisting that profits from smuggling went only to help build Montenegro as it struggled under sanctions imposed on it and Serbia by the United Nations in the early 1990s. “It was absolutely legitimate to try and ensure that the country and people survived,” he said.
All Montenegro did, he added, was allow companies to store their cigarettes in Bar.
“The whole business,” he said, “was in line with laws that were in force at the time,” and all the proceeds it generated “went into the budget of Montenegro,” and to the Bar port.
He noted that Italian prosecutors who had investigated him and others in Montenegro for involvement in smuggling had dropped the case. The Naples prosecutor handling the case said in 2008 that the Montenegrin leader had been indicted but would not be put on trial because he had diplomatic immunity.
An investigative weekly in neighboring Croatia, Nacional, reported in 2001 that Mr. Djukanovic had amassed $65 million from cigarette smuggling and ordered contract killings of associates. The weekly’s editor, Ivo Pukanic, and its marketing director were both later killed by a bomb planted near the editor’s car in Zagreb, the Croatian capital.
In his recent newspaper interview, Mr. Montgomery, the former ambassador, said he “firmly” believed that the murders, which were never credibly solved, were the work of “the tobacco mafia.”
Dusko Jovanovic, the editor of Dan, a Montenegrin newspaper that published similar reports to the Croatian weekly, was also assassinated.
Two Italian law-enforcement officers investigating contraband cigarettes for Guardia di Finanza were killed in 2000 by smugglers near the Adriatic port of Brindisi. A host of suspected gangsters, both Italian and Montenegrin, have also died over the years in vicious turf wars over smuggling routes across the Adriatic.
Mr. Abazovic said the new government would try to identify those responsible for unsolved past crimes but added, “People connected with smuggling are extremely strong.” He now has seven bodyguards working in shifts.
The defeat of Mr. Djukanovic’s party in elections last year, Mr. Abazovic said, had opened a real chance to end the culture of impunity that has long gripped Montenegro.
The illicit traffic, he said, “has created an incredibly bad image for the country” and must stop if Montenegro wants to be admitted to the European Union, something it has been trying to achieve since 2008 with little progress.
The cigarette smuggling was initially focused on Italy, with gangsters there joining forces with Montenegrin smugglers to sneak cigarettes across the Adriatic in speedboats. But, after an Italian crackdown, it has shifted in recent years to other destinations across Europe and also the Middle East.
A 2019 investigation by Balkan Insight detailed how Montenegro had again become a global smuggling hub, funneling millions of counterfeit cigarettes into the European Union.
The block has repeatedly complained about the volume of cigarettes entering Europe illegally through Montenegro. The European Union’s 2020 Montenegro progress report noted that 1.7 million cigarettes had been seized by the government in the previous year, but that this was “insufficient” and urged more robust action “to remedy the systemic deficiencies of the free zone of Bar.”
A recent visit to Bar found the free zone barely monitored, with no cameras and only a rusty fence. A handful of guards checked the movement of goods in and out. A big warehouse containing cigarettes was locked with heavy padlocks, and port officials said they could not enter it because the keys were held by a private company over which they had no control. A Times photographer was threatened by a man loading pallets outside the warehouse and was told her camera would be smashed if she took photographs.
Mr. Abazovic said 40 companies, some of them legitimate but others tainted by crime, rented warehouse space in the port to store cigarettes. None of the contracts, he said, will be renewed.
“Everybody talked about smuggling, but nobody did anything, including the international community,” Mr. Abazovic said, complaining about the United States’ support for Mr. Djukanovic. “When you don’t want to do something, you always say there is no alternative.”