I met Montenegro’s Prime Minister Dritan Abazovic at the Dupont Circle Hotel, a swanky establishment frequented by the Washington political elite. Our historic interview was to happen against a backdrop of political uncertainty in Montenegro where negotiations for the formation of the new government is taking place. The stakes are high as is the uncertainty, as no one really knows which direction the talks will go in the next forty-eight hours. One option is that PM Abazovic remains as the Prime Minister, another is that he takes another position in the Government, where he would be able to continue his fight against organized crime and corruption. Snap elections are also on the table.
I asked PM Dritan Abazovic about his expectations for his US visit and what his hopes are for his upcoming conversations with the Biden administration.
“The United States is our most important partner in foreign affairs,” began Abazovic. He came, he said, to Washington DC “because we wished, due to the newly created political situation and the plans the Government of Montenegro wants to execute going forward, to discuss with our partners.”
The first item on the agenda with the Biden administration, according to the Prime Minister, is the fight against organized crime and corruption. “I’d like to emphasize that my government completed perhaps one of the biggest anti-cigarette smuggling operations in Europe, where we seized 140,000 packages of cigarettes. We are fighting the smuggling of tobacco, which has been thriving in Montenegro for the past thirty years and was making a profit of 500 million euros per year.” Montenegro’s PM revealed that 20% of the illegal cigarette market went through Montenegro during the rule of Milo Djukanovic. “The results my government achieved in the last four months are enormous,” Abazovic said, but added that “in order to continue, we have to have steady support—and I feel we have it—from our international partners to fight high-level corruption.”
At the same time, the Prime Minister said that he is not losing his focus from the path Montenegro has been walking toward Euro-Atlantic integration. Due to current political events in his country which Abazovic finds “problematic”, it is important, he said, “not to allow the foreign influence of bad political actors” to take fertile ground.
Montenegro’s political system according to PM Abazovic was, for past thirty years, “rooted in organized crime and high corruption” and is “facing danger,” because political forces from the past, such as President Milo Djukanovic, may “use a period of political destabilization” in the world to “create instability inside of Montenegro to return to power and go back to shady business as usual.”
When he speaks of his political opponent Milo Djukanovic, Abazovic does not hesitate to call a spade a spade. “I want to be precise that I name Milo Djukanovic, who was in power for thirty years and was holding the role of the President and Prime Minister interchangeably, and his legacy is one of the lack of the rule of law. We are trying to change that legacy and build and implement the rule of law in Montenegro.”
The other component of Abazovic’s US visit is that of regional cooperation in the Western Balkans. “There was some speculation whether or not Montenegro should join the Open Balkans Initiative or not. I would like to say that I take an affirmative stance on this issue, and my argument is that any form of regional cooperation should focus on economic issues and not getting stuck in the past. Then, it can be productive for all countries of the Western Balkans, including Montenegro” said Abazovic.
At the Open Balkans Summit, which took place on September 2, in Belgrade, PM Abazovic said although Montenegro is not a full member of the Open Balkans Initiative, he would like for his country to join the group on the energy crisis. Currently, Montenegro is paying slightly less than 2 million EUR per day to import electricity. The Prime Minister revealed that he expects Montenegro to join the Open Balkans energy group immediately upon his return from Washington DC.
“I am expecting at the next, or one of the next sessions, of the government to name our member of the energy crisis group.” The group will not only be concerned with energy security but also with food security, Abazovic revealed, stressing that “a food shortage is less of a problem,” as it looks like there is “enough food on the market.”
For preventive reasons, Abazovic believes “it is a good idea” to have a group of regional leaders who regularly touch base and communicate with each other. “The European Union created a strategy to support their member states to limit the electricity price. We are not in the EU–we strive toward the EU–but even if we can’t help each other financially, we can at least sit down at the table with the EU and find a common strategy.”
The PM of Albania Edi Rama, bounced recently around an idea for a joint letter to the EU, which the Western Balkans countries would be signatories of. When I raised the idea of the letter with Abazovic, he said, “I have not got the draft letter from my colleague Edi Rama yet. I am hoping to see him at UNGA in New York, and we will see what progress has been made on that. If this is compatible with Montenegro’s national interests, and the way it has been presented to us, it definitely is, then we will sign the letter. If the energy crisis is something that brings us together at the moment, or food security, it is something that we should all use as an opportunity to improve our regional relations. I am not for the politics of going to Washington DC to bash our neighbors.”
According to Western Balkans pundits, PM Abazovic is a head of state who does not just give lip service to his commitment to democracy. One of the principles of President Biden’s presidency is that democracy is vulnerable and we must fight for it. I asked him if he agrees with President Biden and in what way he sees his role as Prime Minister in standing up for democracy in Montenegro.
“We must fight for democracy on a daily basis,” Abazovic echoed Biden’s message. “Even in the countries which are considered to have highly developed democracies we cannot take democracy for granted. We have to fight for democracy in action and continue to bring the message home why it is so important,” said Abazovic.
“How do I feel about my role in the fight for democracy in Montenegro?” Abazovic repeated my question. He paused for a moment. “Sometimes, I feel like it’s a Sisyphean task,“ he said candidly. “It’s frustrating, at times,” he shared. “The politics of the Balkans over the last thirty years has been unsustainable. We have to eradicate nationalism and strengthen democracy. My thesis is that corruption is the generator of nationalism. I believe that people who are rooted in corruption want to maintain the status quo, keep the whole region lagging behind and prevent it from moving forward.”
–When you say “they” do you mean Djukanovic? I asked PM Dritan Abazovic to clarify.
“I definitely mean Djukanovic,” responded Abazovic, “but look at what’s going on in the region at large.” Speaking about the root cause of the politics of nationalism in the Western Balkans, he said that “some people say that they fight for European integration but are not allowing for the country to step forward. People who are involved in corruption generate conflicts. They shut down media freedoms to keep the conflict alive and draw all their political power from the conflict itself.”
Fight against corruption and organized crime
The core of Abazovic’s mandate was his promise to turn the page from corruption in Montenegro. Since DPS was removed from power, Abazovic’s government has seized two tons of smuggled cocaine during two operations. Speaking about that period of swift action against organized crime, Abazovic walked me through the timeline.
“On December 4, 2020, I became the Vice President of the Government of Montenegro. I made a pledge to the citizens that I believe I have fulfilled, that I would fight against the organized crime gangs and the corruption in Montenegro even at the cost of putting my life on the line. I took on the most complicated job in the new government because no other task, no matter how daunting, had such a level of personal danger that comes with the fight against organized crime in a country where the government, before I came into power, did not change for 30 years and where the two biggest organized crime groups almost overtook the state,” PM Abazovic revealed.
The organized groups Abazovic referred to are the “Kavac clan” and “Skaljari clan.” Both clans come from the small areas “Kavac” and “Skaljari” in the Montengrian seaside town of Kotor. While the gangs started in Kotor, their network expanded to other places in the region. “They became big,” Abazovic told me.
“I am proud of what we accomplished, as international experts back then told us that it would take anything from 18 to 24 months to prepare the police agency and the prosecutor for national security and to put the system against organized crime in place. However, within 4 months of starting we arrested 20 members of the Kavac clan. Every single policeman in the region congratulated us, they could not believe that we took action so quickly,” he said.
The reason why no one did anything for the past thirty years before that is that “there was no political will” to stop organized crime, according to PM Abazovic. The obstacles Abazovic encountered were not small. A lesser known fact is that the 20 criminals who were initially arrested were first released by the country judge, who said that there was “not enough evidence” for them to be kept in custody. Once they were released, the police had to arrest the clan members again and were only able to find six of them. “That is what we were facing,” PM Abazovic revealed.
My message for Biden is simple. President Biden should use executive orders to sanction people who are involved in high-level corruption in the Western Balkans. That is the best, and the simplest way for President Biden to save the Western Balkans.PM of Montenegro Dritan Abazovic
Before he knew it, PM Dritan Abazovic started getting death threats and his security detail had to be ramped up. Abazovic was accused by his political opponents that he was putting pressure on the courts to prosecute the criminals, when in fact, he says, “if you have a corrupt legal system, everything that police does is for nothing. Especially if you have a judge who releases people who are indicted for high crimes.”
At the same time, Montenegro lost its Minister of Justice. “Unwillingly, but as that was of fundamental issue, I took on myself to coordinate the new legislation on the State Prosecutor’s Office. Without the Special State Prosecutor, we could not do anything. The previous prosecutor we removed was the protector of the mafia in Montenegro. We could not remove him unless we changed the law. We had a long dialogue with the EU, as they did not want to let us change the law, their fear was political interference in the judicial system. However, after we managed to change the law and the new Special State Prosecutor was in position, we delivered results, all the critics of that new legislation eventually came to congratulate me.”
Where PM Dritan Abazovic found his impressive courage to challenge the status quo at risk to his personal safety is something even he can’t tell. “I sometimes wonder about that myself,” he said. “Everyone comes to me in the end to hail the good results but when something needs to be done, whether they are politicians or colleagues, I see their indecisiveness or they say ‘Now it’s not a good moment. We need to wait and see then.’ I lead in politics by the rule that everything that I can do today, I will do today. We don’t have time to waste as new problems keep arriving, as is the case now with the energy crisis. This is our moment, this is our time. Better times may never arrive. We must act now,” he said.
Abazovic’s bill to install a new state prosecutor passed in July, 2021. It took seven months to be implemented, but on August 29, 2021, “we confiscated 1.6 tons of cocaine, the largest amount of confiscated cocaine in the history of the Balkans, one of the largest operations in Europe.” That was the first operation. “Cocaine came from South America, specifically from Ecuador,” PM Abazovic revealed. “This had been happening for decades, but people in power turned a blind eye, because the system kept the same people in charge, in the customs service and in the police. There was no political will to change anything.” In January 2022, a second operation took place, where 0.4 tons of cocaine was confiscated, which took the total to 2 tons.
Then came another fight. The “important date is July 2021 when we implemented a ban on the storage of cigarettes at the Port of Bar. That was the first big blow to the tobacco smugglers as Bar was their hub.”
PM Abazovic says that “it was no secret” that the Port of Bar was the hub for cigarette smuggling, a fact which is evidenced in reports by the European Commission going back to 2014. The tobacco that came into Montenegro, Abazovic revealed, was smuggled in from places like Dubai, Egypt, Tunis and elsewhere. The smuggling of cigarettes was accomplished through so-called “washing of containers.” What happens, Abazovic explained, is that the ship comes with the cargo of cigarettes but then pretends that they took the cigarettes away. In reality, the ship would show fake papers, and the cigarettes would then be taken out of the ship and end up in the black market.
In May 2022, Abazovic moved further in his fight against cigarette and tobacco smuggling. Montenegrin authorities seized, in the Port of Bar, 148,000 packages of illegal cigarettes worth over 100 million EUR. “We confiscated it and it’s in our possession now, and we have to destroy it, which is a long process, as this is a large amount of illegal goods.”
Abazovic said that this was the turning moment, when “the DPS and the circle of around Milo Djukanovic and a few other people who were in positions and were political guardians of the cigarette and tobacco smuggling ring entered a panic mode. They realized that I was determined to fight organized crime. They likely believed that I would bend and be happy to be just a Prime Minister and let go of the fight against corruption and organized crime. After ten days, they started to attack my government in an attempt to take it down. They attacked me for everything, they attacked me for the Open Balkans initiative, for anything that came to their mind. In the end, they used the agreement I made with the Serbian Orthodox Church as an excuse to bring a vote of no confidence in my government.”
Prime Minister Abazovic wanted to be clear that “the only reason” why the so-called Basic Agreement was signed is because he wanted to “remove a big historic issue” from the agenda. “I am happy that any Prime Minister that comes after me won’t have this issue to deal with.”
That issue, however, according to PM Abazovic was weaponized by Milo Djukanovic and other political opponents to “spread disinformation” in Washington that the Prime Minister does not want to prioritize European integration on his agenda.
“To such accusations, I say that in order to give European integration a priority, I wanted to resolve a question that creates conflict among the people, an issue that has been manipulated to create social tensions,” he said. “In order to focus on European integration, we had to reduce social tensions and focus on the rule of law. DPS said that if the agreement with the Basic Agreement gets signed, then conflict and civil war will start. My prediction was the opposite. I said that once the agreement was reached, we won’t have protests and tensions, and it turned out right. In Montenegro today, there is no tension around the Serbian Orthodox Church anymore. I was right.”
Abazovic’s Message to Biden
As Montenegro finds itself at a crossroad, the question I put in front of PM Abazovic is how President Biden could help Montenegro on its path to democracy. “Biden’s role is crucial,” responded PM Abazovic.
“My message for Biden is simple. President Biden should use executive orders to sanction people who are involved in high-level corruption in the Western Balkans. That is the best, and the simplest way for President Biden to save the Western Balkans,” said Abazovic.
“If the region falls in the direction of nationalism and conflict, we will become an easy target for foreign influence. Whether it’s Russian or Chinese influence, if Biden thinks that this foreign influence needs to be prevented, he needs to sanction people. That would be enough to stop political actors taking Montenegro and the region down that road.”
Abazovic said that he would like to see President Biden make a state visit to Montenegro. “I am thrilled that President Biden has made the Western Balkans his priority. Gabriel Escobar is pretty active in the region, and the Ambassadors who came to the region are quality Ambassadors with experience, who truly understand the region.”
Abazovic also revealed during the interview that Montenegro is open for the US investors and would welcome an American company to create a Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) Terminal in Bar that could potentially evolve into a gas power plant.
“We had a meeting the other day in Washington about this and an invitation to go on Saturday after UNGA to Houston to visit a big LNG terminal of a company which could do the same thing in Montenegro. We are open to having American companies enter the region with a big energy project. That would assure energy diversification and would be geopolitically relevant.”
PM Dritan Abazovic on cyber attack
Montenegro was under heavy cyber attack recently. I asked Dritan Abazovic whether the cyber attack coinciding with the political events in his country happened by chance or someone was testing his state.
“I personally do not believe in anything happening by accident when it comes to serious political events—I cannot rule it out. Destabilization favors those who do not want to see the rule of law, those who still want to see instability in the Western Balkans,” said Dritan Abazovic.
“The cyber attack happened the night after the vote of no confidence took place. This is the biggest attack on our infrastructure that we ever had. We cannot say at this very moment that Russia is behind this attack, nor do we want to claim that, but the experts from the FBI, from the UK and France are investigating.We are waiting for the final report.”
PM Dritan Abazovic Meeting Zelenskyy in Kyiv
PM Dritan Abazovic recently paid a visit to Kyiv in the midst of the war in Ukraine to show their support for Zelenskyy. “My initial idea was for three Prime Ministers of NATO member states to visit Ukraine,” revealed Abazovic. “In the phone call with Zelenskyy, a week before we went to Kyiv, I told him that I had an idea to invite PM Edi Rama and PM Kovachevski. Zelenskyy liked the idea very much, and he asked if we could come quickly because they were awaiting the June 24, 2022 opinion from the European Council regarding Ukraine’s candidacy for EU membership. Zelenskyy said that it would mean a lot to Ukraine if we, the countries who are in the process of the EU accession, came to Kyiv and gave our support,” revealed Dritan Abazovic.
“It’s a sad story,” Abazovic shared his impressions from Kyiv. “I used to go to Ukraine and see the capital in a totally different time and situation. Now it’s covered with barbed wire and soldiers on the streets and with the President of Ukraine secluded and not easy to reach for obvious reasons,” he revealed. “We went to visit locations where big war crimes have been committed. It was heartbreaking. We promised Zelenskyy our support and proposed to him that every country of the Western Balkans would rebuild a building in areas that were burnt to the ground and name them after our respective countries.”
Abazovic said that he was “not afraid” for his safety. “I went with great pleasure to congratulate Zelenskyy on everything he is doing and would do it again without any hesitation.” Abazovic said that he came to Ukraine with only one message. To show that the countries of the Western Balkans are not “politically selfish” and to give full support to Ukraine’s candidacy to join the EU.”
Abazovic agrees with Secretary Blinken that the UN Security Council needs reform to “better reflect global realities.” Should Russia be in the Security Council? I asked Abazovic. Looking at the issue from the perspective of the superpower, the Prime Minister believes that Russia has a place on the Security Council but that from the perspective of values and the UN Charter, when countries break peace that there should be some sort of mechanism to suspend them, at least temporarily.
As Dritan Abazovic gets ready to deliver his speech at UNGA, on world peace and the “need for the creation of multicultural societies,” he hopes his country and the Western Balkans can become examples of exactly that. Abazovic told me that he wants to leave a lasting legacy. Despite all the challenges, the maverick Prime Minister of Montenegro remains optimistic.