Montenegro’s PM says organised crime used influence to oust him over raids

<span>Photograph: Andrej Čukić/EPA</span>
Photograph: Andrej Čukić/EPA

Montenegro’s outgoing prime minister, Dritan Abazović, has said he is being ousted by the political influence of organised crime after he took on cocaine and cigarette smugglers.

Abazović was overwhelmingly defeated in a vote of no confidence on 20 August. However, he said the real reason for his defeat was that he broke with decades of Montenegrin government indulgence of criminal gangs by overseeing huge seizures of cocaine and contraband cigarettes.

So far, no new governing coalition has emerged and so Abazović remains the caretaker prime minister. He took part in the UN general assembly this week, cutting an unusual figure by arriving by bicycle at the assembly in New York as a gesture towards addressing the climate crisis. Abazović also stands out as being young, 36, and a member of Montenegro’s ethnic Albanian minority.

It is unclear how much longer he will continue in his position on his return to Podgorica, but he said the pro-western orientation of Montenegro would not change.

“There is a little bit of political confusion in Montenegro, but I think there is no solution [that leaves] us outside government,” Abazović told the Guardian. He said that could either be new elections or a new coalition agreement, but either way his green liberal party, Civic Movement United Reform Action (URA), and its allies would retain a controlling stake in government.

“What we promised our partners in the state department is that we will definitely … have the control package of the government and to keep the security sector and foreign policy,” he said.

Abazović has only been prime minister since April but was deputy prime minister for more than a year before that, following the 2020 elections that broke the three-decade hold on power of the Democratic party of Socialists, led by the president, Milo Đukanović.

In August 2021, through cooperation with Europol and western intelligence agencies, Abazović oversaw the seizure of 1.4 tonnes of cocaine hidden in a banana shipment, the biggest ever seizure in the Balkans. Another half tonne was seized in January this year.

“All this cocaine was going to western Europe and was coming from Ecuador,” he said.

In May, after he became prime minister, Montenegrin security services seized 148,000 packets of smuggled cigarettes, in what he described as the biggest such haul in European history. After losing the vote of no confidence in August, Abazović handed over a dossier on the cigarette smuggling industry to the state prosecutor.

Vesna Medenica, who was the head of Montenegro’s supreme court for 17 years, was arrested in April and charged with covering up her son’s alleged cocaine and cigarette smuggling operations. She denies any wrongdoing.

However, Abazović believes it is President Đukanović himself who sits atop the coexistence between organised crime and Montenegrin politics. “He is the problem,” Abazović said. “My personal opinion is, because he is deeply involved in corruption.”

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Đukanović has denied repeated claims of corruption during his long political career and has never been formally charged. He was the subject of an Italian investigation into cigarette smuggling, but it was dropped in 2009.

Đukanović has also defended offshore trusts in the British Virgin Islands of which he and his son are the beneficiaries, saying he set them up when he was in private business, not in public office. He told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty earlier this month that Montenegro’s record against organised crime “should not be underestimated”.

While not illegal, such secret accounts are sometimes used to hide illicit funds and avoid taxation at home.

Ostensibly, Abazović was ousted for signing an agreement with the Serbian Orthodox church, settling longstanding property disputes, a move that was deeply unpopular in Montenegro because the church does not fully recognise the country’s independence from Serbia. It gave his political enemies an opening, but Abazović is unrepentant.

“I think that like the new politicians who don’t have the baggage from the 90s, I’m divorced from nationalism. I want to promote reconciliation in my country, but also in the region, so we can move on,” he said. “I’m optimistic about our country.”