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Montenegro: Prime Minister Denies Allegations of Cigarette Smuggling

Montenegrin Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic has strongly denied a media report focusing on his alleged involvement in a cigarette-smuggling ring run by the Italian Mafia through Montenegro. The report, by the Italian news agency ANSA, was picked up by the media in Montenegro, where it has stirred a political storm.

Prague, 10 July 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Montenegrin Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic has called allegations about his involvement in criminal smuggling rings "political insinuations" aimed at casting him, his government, and all of Montenegro in a criminal light.

Speaking at a Podgorica news conference yesterday, Djukanovic said there was no evidence to back up the allegations and that he was not worried about possible fallout.

"For me, this is the same old talk in new packaging -- made, as previously, of untruths, from the same sources and probably with the same aims," Djukanovic said. "Only this time they are considerably sleazier and more impudent. But knowing the players and their motives, nothing is surprising. These accusations resurface without even half-proof, with the ambition only to influence the political scene by interfering with my privacy using methods worthy of [George] Orwell. I can tell you that this not only does not surprise me, it does not concern me at all."

Italy's ANSA news agency last week reported that the prosecutor's office in Naples had requested that a warrant be issued for Djukanovic's arrest in connection with a Balkan cigarette-smuggling ring run by the Italian Mafia.

According to the ANSA report, Djukanovic and several associates had received payments from the Mafia for allowing and facilitating the transportation of contraband cigarettes through Montenegro.

The report said an investigating judge had dismissed the warrant request on the grounds that Djukanovic, as a political official, has immunity from prosecution.

Djukanovic yesterday stressed there has been no official confirmation of the ANSA reports.

But that hasn't kept the Montenegrin press from running with the story. The Podgorica daily "Vijesti" last weekend published what it said were excerpts from telephone conversations between Italian mafiosi and close associates of Djukanovic.

The prime minister said yesterday there was nothing in the conversations to prove the smuggling allegations. He added that he was prepared to send a team of legal experts to Naples to clear his name should he be formally accused of a crime.

The remarks yesterday were Djukanovic's first public comments on the affair. Similar accusations, however, have been leveled against him in the past.

A prosecutor in the southern Italian city of Bari last year opened an investigation into Djukanovic, then Montenegro's president, also accusing him of links to Mafia groups involved in cigarette smuggling.

Djukanovic has always denied any personal involvement in such illicit businesses, but it has long been believed that cigarette smuggling was a major source of revenue for the Montenegrin economy when international sanctions were imposed on Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

But analysts note the current accusations stem from 2000 and 2001, when Milosevic was no longer in power and the sanctions were no longer in place.

In any case, Djukanovic yesterday said there had been no smuggling. He said cigarettes had been in transit in Montenegro as a way to circumvent the smothering sanctions aimed at former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. But he insisted everything was done in accordance with the law and said such deals are common among countries in the region linked by transit routes.

"For the sake of the people of Montenegro, for the sake of the friends of Montenegro beyond its borders, I just want once again to recall some key arguments which demonstrate the uselessness of those accusations and about the real motives of those who make them," Djukanovic said. "So, this is not a question of smuggling. We are talking about transit deals which have been agreed upon in line with Montenegro's legislation and in line with the legislation of the common state [Federal Republic of Yugoslavia] that Montenegro was part of at that time."

Djukanovic said all the money from the transit deals had gone into state coffers to pay social programs and civil servants. He added the deals were monitored several times by European Union representatives and that no irregularities were found.

Although Italy has yet to press charges, Montenegro's political opposition last week called on Djukanovic to resign and give up his political immunity. The prime minister yesterday rejected the calls.

Some observers say the latest accusations against Djukanovic bear the appearance of orchestrated political pressure. They say even the way information about the Italian investigation was leaked to the Montenegrin public raises questions about the legitimacy of the allegations.

In an interview with RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service earlier this week, Nebojsa Vucinic, a professor of international law in Podgorica, noted the accusations come at a time when the question of Montenegro's independence has again resurfaced. He also called the allegations part of a "political game."