Stubbing out cigarette smuggling in Montenegro?

Montenegro has been a notorious hub for cigarette smuggling, known for both producing counterfeit cigarettes and for being a transit country for ‘cheap whites’ – cigarettes legally produced in one country but illegally traded to others to avoid customs and excise taxes. The new government in Montenegro has pledged to fight organized crime and corruption. Will it be able to stub out cigarette smuggling?

Cigarette smuggling boomed in Montenegro during the embargoes against the former Yugoslavia.1 This lucrative business was allegedly enabled with the complicity of state structures; Italian prosecutors even brought a case against the former prime minister and now president, Milo Đukanović, which was eventually dropped.2 The EU’s anti-fraud office, OLAF, is also closely monitoring the situation,3 since it is estimated that the smuggling of falsely labelled cigarettes from Montenegro to Italy has cost the EU billions of euros.

A 2018 investigation by the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network uncovered that as many as hundreds of millions of illicit cigarettes have been exported from Montenegro to destinations like Libya, Egypt, North Cyprus and Lebanon.4 The European Commission’s 2020 progress report stressed that Montenegro needs to do more against tobacco smuggling, saying that the country ‘needs to increase its risk assessment capacity in the area of tobacco smuggling, to promote intelligence led policing and proactivity of law-enforcement agencies, and to remedy to the systemic deficiencies of the free zone of Bar’.5

The new government in Montenegro, which took office in December 2020, is the first in three decades not to include Đukanović’s Democratic Party of Socialists.6 The Deputy Prime Minister, Dritan Abazović, announced on 22 July that a priority of the new government will be to bring an end to cigarette smuggling, which has blemished the country’s reputation for 30 years.

Bar, Montenegro’s biggest port, is a known hub for cigarette smuggling.

Bar, Montenegro’s biggest port, is a known hub for cigarette smuggling.

Photo: Government of Montenegro

To be successful, the government will have to address the problem on at least three fronts: reducing the transit of counterfeit cigarettes produced elsewhere; cracking down on the smuggling of cheap whites and ending the domestic production of illegal cigarettes.

Counterfeit cigarettes produced in some countries of the region, like Bulgaria,7 or elsewhere in Europe are smuggled into Montenegro to be sold there or in third countries. This illicit trade is closely linked with the smuggling of cheap whites, which are legally produced in other countries, including China,8 and exported to Montenegro. They are sometimes later re-exported illegally to third countries, including in the EU. There have also been cases reported of cigarettes being legally produced in Montenegro, but with falsified documentation, and placed on the local black market.9

Proof of why such steps are urgently needed came just a few days after the Montenegrin government’s announcement that a major consignment of smuggled cigarettes from Montenegro was seized in Bosnia and Herzegovina.10 Bosnian prosecutors and the tax authorities discovered a container in Sarajevo with 247 000 cigarette boxes for which excise tax had not been paid, with a market value of more than €660 000.

The government has started to take action. As a first step, it announced a decision to ban the storage of tobacco in the free zone of the port of Bar, the country’s biggest port and a known hub for cigarette smuggling. The port is a notorious shipping point for counterfeit and cheap white cigarettes. Employees in warehouses at the port, which are in the hands of private com­panies, allegedly collude with corrupt port authorities to smuggle cigarettes.11 Currently, Montenegrin prosecutors are investigating a case in which cigarettes with a value of more than €500 000 were stolen from hangars at this port at the beginning of July 2021.12

Furthermore, Deputy Prime Minister Abazović announced intensified customs supervision in the free zone of Novi Duvanski Kombinat, a Montenegrin tobacco purchase and production company that was established by the government in 2011.13 Most of the cigarette trade takes place through these two free zones.14 In a social media post, Abazović said: ‘With these decisive actions, we are restoring the image of Montenegro and protecting the state’s best interests! Montenegro will no longer be recognized for cigarette smuggling and organized crime, but by peace and development.’ 15

On 16 August 2021, police in Mojkovac arrested the director of the private Montenegro Tobacco Company, Željko Bulatović, and charged him with forging a document.16 During a search of the factory, police found a large quantity of excise stamps.17 After the search, Abazović wrote on Twitter: ‘We entered a facility that was inaccessible to state authorities for years. Justice is the best response to crime, nationalism and mafia provocations by individuals.’18

This is not the first time that the country’s only private cigarette factory has been raided. Montenegrin police entered the Mojkovac tobacco factory in February 2011,19 when there were rumours that the factory was linked to cigarette smuggling. The Administration for the Prevention of Money Laundering publicly announced that there were millions of suspicious transactions related to the factory.20 There were also suggestions that the factory and its illicit business enjoyed protection from senior state officials. When investigating the issue, a journalist from the daily newspaper Vijesti, Olivera Lakić, was threatened and physically attacked.21

Considering that the smuggling of cigarettes through Montenegro was once described as a ‘state enterprise’, dismantling it will be difficult. There are a number of vested interests that have made good money from the trade – not only criminal groups, but state officials who protected and profited from the process, cigarette companies, security sector officials and those handling the goods in ports and free zones.

The mere demonstration of the political will necessary to take on the issue is a courageous step. Foreign governments and organizations that have complained about cigarette smuggling in Montenegro in the past should now throw their weight behind the government’s efforts, as the UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, did in July 2021.22

A key step will be to track down and close illegal factories across the country that are believed to produce counterfeit cigarettes. The prosecution service and law enforcement agencies will need domestic and foreign backing to also improve security and integrity in the free zones and ports and to enhance intelligence-led policing. The creation of special legal initiatives and task forces, again with foreign assistance, could also increase the chances of success, not least for convictions of those involved behind the scenes in the business.

Tackling the transnational crime of cigarette smuggling will necessitate strengthening partnerships among law enforcement agencies in the region as well as with counterparts in Western Europe, Africa and Asia. It will also require stronger ties to agencies like OLAF and others that can identify and dismantle the illicit financial flows associated with this big business. In addition, closer cooperation will be needed with the private sector, including cigarette companies, tobacco distributors and transportation and logistics companies, as well as private security companies and companies involved in public–private partnerships.

A public information campaign involving civil society and the media should explain the dangers of cigarette smuggling, and lay out more broadly the benefits of strengthening integrity.

A more open Balkans, stimulating trade and connectivity, will create new opportunities for Montenegro’s Adriatic ports. The Montenegrin government has a tough fight on its hands if it is to kick the habit of cigarette smuggling. But in the process, it has an opportunity to demonstrate its resolve to enhance the integrity and security of its ports and the professionalism of its justice system. This is an initiative that deserves support in order to reduce the impact of organized crime and corruption.

The GI-TOC does not accept funding or contributions from the tobacco or cigarette industry.


  1. Walter Kemp, Crooked kaleidoscope: organized crime in the Balkans, GI-TOC, June 2017,

  2. Beth, Djukanovic Indicted; Avoids Trial, OCCRP, 9 October 2008,

  3. European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF), The OLAF report 2017, EU, 2018,

  4. Visar Prebreza et al., Cigarette Smugglers Find Safe Harbour in Montenegro, Again, Balkan Insight, 30 May 2019,

  5. European Commission, Montenegro 2020 report, Commission staff working document, SWD(2020) 353 Final, 6 October 2020,

  6. Samir Kajosevic, Montenegro Elects First Government Without Djukanovic Party, Balkan Insight, 4 December 2020,

  7. Cigarette Smuggling Bulgaria – Montenegro, LUPA, 23 April 2021,

  8. European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF), Illicit tobacco trade: nearly 370 million cigarettes seized in 2020, European Commission, Press release 01/2021, 14 January 2021,

  9. Procjena opasnosti od teškog i organizovanog kriminala u Crnoj Gori – SOCTA 2017, Ministarstvo unutrašnjih poslova Crne Gore, November 2017, 26-27. 

  10. Jedna od najvećih zapljena u BiH: Cigarete vrijedne 1,3 miliona KM pronašli u cisterni, Depo Portal, 22 July 2021,

  11. Samir Kajosevic, Montenegro Mulls Banning Tobacco Storage in Bar to Counter Smuggling, Balkan Insight, 2 July 2021,

  12. Samir Kajosevic, Montenegrin Prosecution Investigates Tobacco Theft in Port of Bar, Balkan Insight, 12 July 2021,

  13. Došao kraj švercu cigareta, Radio Televizija Crne Gore, 22 July 2021,

  14. Marko Vešović, Vladimir Otašević and Atanas Tchobanov, Black tobacco market: Bulgarian mafia, with the help of the state, smuggles cigarettes through Montenegro, LUPA, 23 April 2021,

  15. Tweet from Dritan Abazović (@DritanAbazovic), Twitter, 22 July 2021,

  16. Uhapšen direktor fabrike duvana u Mojkovcu, Radio Televizija Crne Gore, 16 August 2021,

  17. Jelena Jovanović, Zloglasna mojkovačka fabrika konačno na meti države, Vijesti, 17 August 2021,

  18. Tweet from Dritan Abazović (@DritanAbazovic), Twitter, 16 August 2021,

  19. Crnogorska policija ušla u mojkovačku fabriku Duvana, Blic, 5 February 2011,

  20. Olivera Lakić, “Vijesti” u fabrici za koju tvrde da pravi lažne cigarete radi šverca, Vijesti, 3 February 2011,

  21. Mirjana Radović and Teo Gorjanc Prelević, Prijetnje i napad na novinarku Vijesti Oliveru Lakić: Januar 2011 – maj 2014, Human Rights Action, 15 September 2016,

  22. PM meeting with Prime Minister of Montenegro: 7 July 2021, UK Prime Minister’s Office, Press release, 8 July 2021,