On 30th May, an article from Balkan Insight saying that, synonymous with cigarette smuggling in the 1990s, Montenegro is again the hub of a global tobacco smuggling scam funnelling millions of copycat cigarettes into the EU through the use of ‘ghost’ ships, shell companies and fake paperwork. As an example, it relates the story of a fishing boat – the Zahra sailed under Sao Tome and Principe flag and it crew was Ukrainian and its cargo – 34 million cigarettes – had likely been produced in Bosnia and Greece for companies based in Kosovo before being sold to a Liberian offshore firm based in the Montenegrin port of Bar. The cargo’s final destination was, on paper, Libya, but it was to offloaded in Crete, before fanning out across the EU. It is said that the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN) has uncovered that up to 840 million so-called ‘cheap white’ cigarettes have been exported from Montenegro by a clutch of mostly offshore firms using similar routes and often the same ‘ghost’ fishing boats or small cargo ships, sailing the Mediterranean without transmitting their positions. Most shipments listed Libya as their final destination, but Egypt, North Cyprus and Lebanon also featured. It explains that cheap white cigarettes are imitations of well-known brands but which do not breach trademarks; they are produced legally in one country, but then smuggled and sold elsewhere. They represent the fastest growing sector of the illicit tobacco trade in the EU.
The article says that dozens of sailors have been thrown in jail, or are facing prison sentences, for their part in smuggling cigarettes into the EU from ships travelling between Montenegro and Libya – but it names 4 companies it says are involved, as well saying that there are intermediaries, factories, customs officials and others in the wider logistical operation have not been accused of any offence nor faced any sanctions. It details one of the companies, which it says has links to a wealthy Kosovo family – who also own a bank called Banka Për Biznes, and to the fishing vessel Zahra.
In its 2018 progress report, the European Commission said there remains “persistent concerns” relating to the fight against the illicit tobacco trade through Montenegro, especially the port of Bar. Montenegro was said to have stepped up its co-operation with European customs authorities, but more needed to be done in terms of systematic cargo checks, proactive investigations and more frequent use of financial probes to go after “the organised criminal set-up” behind the smuggling. However, concerns are now being raised about the opening of a new free economic zone centred on a cigarette factory in Podgorica and owned by a UAE company.