No peace at the border

Whether and when will Montenegro introduce customs control at its side of the border with Serbia?


THU, 31 AUG 2000

Podgorica, August 24, 2000 - "Montenegro will probably also put up customs control points at the border with Serbia" declared recently Miodrag Radusinovic, director of Customs Administration in Podgorica. However, there will be no charging customs duties there according to Radusinovic’s words, their purpose will be pure control, and he stressed that this measure is not a reaction to the blockade of traffic between the two republics of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia which has been intensified by Belgrade in the past few weeks.

Radusinovic’s statement caused sharp reactions of the federal state. First, Srdja Bozovic, chairman of the Chamber of Republics of the Federal Assembly, accused Montenegrin authorities that by putting up customs control points they were "directly attacking the federal state, trying in an illegal way to get hold of money and claim duties which belong to the federal state". And then, units of the Army of Yugoslavia (VJ) blocked all regional roads which lead from Pljevlje towards Republika Srpska.

Obviously, VJ is "helping" redirect traffic at the north of Montenegro towards crossings with Serbia which Belgrade has managed to establish full control of in the past few years. Indeed, as in the middle of August it demonstrated in Niksic municipality when it started blocking the local roads towards Herzegovina and separated the inhabitants of the villages of Gornja and Donja Crkvica, Vrbica, Kovaci, Mirusa and Koravlica not only from their relatives on the other side of the border but also from the market which was near at hand, now VJ has applied the same tactics in Pljevlje municipality.

"We are fenced in from all sides, I have to drive a sack of flour around for 50 km", says Milutin Papic from the village of Koravlica at the border with Herzegovina, explaining true effects of the military operation at the border. Now, inhabitants of villages Bukovica, Bogovo, Sula and Povlace, who are vitally linked to Republika Srpska and Cajnice, Gorazde and Srbinje in it, are in the same position. These town are only about twenty kilometres away from these villages across the border, and to the nearest town on Montenegrin side, to Pljevlje, it is necessary to travel 70 kilometres. Now many villagers do not have a market for their goods, and the army is keeping them away from their land, schools, jobs…

Pressure exerted by Belgrade with the help of units of VJ deployed in Montenegro appear to be counter-productive at first sight, because inhabitants of isolated Montenegrin villages at the border with Republika Srpska are insisting to have free flow of people and goods established. However, the project of establishing full control over Montenegrin borders is obviously aimed at frustrating the designs of Milo Djukanovic and the so-called reformist forces in Montenegro. Maintenance of social peace and economic operation of Montenegro is becoming an increasingly complex task for Montenegrin authorities in the conditions of closed borders towards Republika Srpska and Serbia.

And that is exactly what Belgrade is insisting on. In the middle of this year Serbia expanded and modernised the control point at the border with Montenegro on Jabuka between Prijepolje and Bijelo Polje. It was equipped with light signalisation and the parking lot was broadened so that it looks as any other – interstate - border crossing. Apart from the police, there are also customs official there now, as well as market inspectors and financial police. Strict control was introduced, and since July import of even the minimum quantities of food from Serbia has been banned. Serbian customs officials have also interrupted export of coal from Pljevlje to Serbia, so freight traffic almost completely stopped. Similar is the case at Brodarevo border crossing.

The first to feel the burden of this pressure were merchants who supply their shops and stalls all around Montenegro from abroad, but bring their goods in via Serbia. One of numerous small merchants from Podgorica who supports his family by import of cheap clothes from Turkey explains: "In order to bring goods from Turkey and be sure that it will not be taken away from me on the way, I pay customs duties at the entrance into Serbia. But, as the police and customs officials in Serbia interpret it, these customs duties are valid only in Serbia, so without additional bribe at Jabuka these goods cannot enter Montenegro. This, however, is no guarantee that the goods will not be taken away from me further along the way".

Such "tariff system" has forced our interlocutor as well as his many colleagues to bring their goods via Kosovo. While importers from Turkey, Hungary and other states bordering Serbia, return to their homes via Prijepolje, the middlemen who carry their goods from Serbia - for money of course – enable transfer by sharing the profit with numerous control points all the way to Mehov krs and further on. It is claimed that police forces from both sides of the border are in this business up to their eyes. Although this itinerary is somewhat cheaper and safer, nobody guarantees that the bought goods will reach private store-rooms and Montenegrin market.

It is clear that this smuggling business has no positive effects on the federal budget, so it is trying to become even more intensively included in division of profit. The federal government has recently threatened with a new regulation pursuant which it would be compulsory to make an advance payment to accounts of the federal state – in foreign currency – part of which, about 70 per cent, would be returned to the importers after completion of the business deal.

Open racketeering immediately took place so the goods which despite everything, via Serbia or Kosovo, reach Montenegrin market, smuggled or not, are additionally burdened by official and unofficial customs duties. And the price of that is paid by the economy and the citizens of Montenegro, of course. The by-product of the whole affair is that it stimulates smuggling.

From bribing at the border only the privileged are exempt, members of Socialist People’s Party (SNP) or other relevant "pro-Yugoslav" parties. Federal import permits are reserved for them and, of course, guarantees that imported goods will not be taken away from them. And this discrimination clearly indicates what sort of jurisdiction of the federal state at the border of the two states Bozovic is all about. It is also clear why the just announced intention to establish a customs control point on the Montenegrin side of the border caused a thunderous reaction.

Bozovic’s comment could be interpreted as remaining true to the known effort of Belgrade to deny Montenegro the right to everything that is "legitimate" in Serbia. And jurisdiction of the federal state Bozovic and his colleagues often refer to is in fact the right to carry out this discrimination. And as seen from the described example – to the detriment of both itself and Montenegro. But certainly in the interest of those who have profiteered so far by supporting Milosevic’s regime.

That is how all the reasons and conditions were created to act more resolutely concerning the Serbian and the federal border plunder. That they are aware of it Montenegrin authorities showed when in the middle of the year they took over all federal foreign trade and customs duties. That is when, in order to protect economic interests of Montenegro, the government passed four decrees in the sphere of foreign trade and customs. Ljubisa Krgovic, deputy prime minister in the government of Montenegro estimated that this package was "the foundation for the decisions and regulations for liberalisation of foreign trade and reducing customs duties imposed on the economy".

After that, customs duty rates were considerably lowered in Montenegro. For most of the goods, about 90 per cent of them, were brought down to between three and five per cent, and the highest duties of 15 per cent are prescribed for luxurious products. This meant a reduction of customs duties by one third in comparison to what the federal law prescribes.

At the same time the government of Montenegro announced modernisation of facilities at border crossings in Montenegro. It was also estimated that for improved control of the borders cooperation with other countries was necessary. In this context Serbia was not explicitly mentioned. But the attempt to establish such cooperation between Montenegro and Albania immediately encountered with "internal" obstacles. With the help of military police at Bozaj border crossing the federal state once again showed that it could actually control every crossing if it wanted to!

And prevention of free traffic at the border between Serbia and Montenegro is not only an obstacle to liberalisation of trade which would win honours to Montenegrin authorities both in the eyes of international community and Montenegrin economy. Troublesome Montenegrin borders are increasingly and more and more obviously becoming an insurmountable barrier for a peaceful solution of political controversies between Belgrade and Podgorica.

Original article