In a story in yesterday’s Belgrade daily Glas Javnosti, Italian Minister of Finance Ottaviano Del Turco charges the secession-minded leadership of Montenegro, the smaller of Yugoslavia’s two federal units, with maintaining close ties with the Italian mafia and accuses U.S. tobacco giants R.J. Reynolds and Phillip Morris of complicity.

In discussing an Italian government investigation of a major Mediterranean smuggling ring, Del Turco predicted an “earthquake” in Montenegro once mafia boss Francesco Prudentino started talking to the investigators.

Asked to specify what that meant, Del Turco said, “the government will be removed, and the president of Montenegro, Milo Djukanovic, will fare very badly.”

Del Turco continued, “Without Djukanovic, there would be no Prudentino and without Prudentino, no Djukanovic. Had Francesco Prudentino not enjoyed the protection of President Djukanovic, he could not have become the most powerful, the wealthiest and the most dangerous trading boss in the Mediterranean.

“This is not just a matter of cigarette smuggling, but also the smuggling of weapons, drugs and people, especially women and children. … Without the guarantees and the protection of the Montenegrin government, Prudentino would not have been able to hide in that state for so long, under protection. The truth is that his secret stay was approved by President Djukanovic.”

Furthermore, charged Del Turco, “the Montenegrin government protected the flow of cigarettes into the state and President Djukanovic was absolutely familiar with the formation of the network of warehouses and hangars for the storage of the goods.”

Del Turco’s statements throw a new light on the Montenegrin leadership’s drive to secede from Yugoslavia.

Even before the dust settled after the dramatic events that swept former president Slobodan Milosevic from power Oct. 5, the new Yugoslav leadership was faced with a newly brewing internal crisis — the threatened secession of the Republic of Montenegro, the smaller of the country’s two federal units.

Many were mystified by this demand in light of the democratic changes that had taken place. During the previous three years, the Montenegrin leadership had been, at least verbally, at the forefront of the opposition to the Milosevic regime in Belgrade, gaining the support of the U.S. and its NATO allies and being hailed as the champions of democracy in the Balkans. Their reputation won them not only accolades but also Western aid. One would expect that Milosevic’s fall would have brought equal rejoicing to the Montenegrin capital as it did to Belgrade.

Instead, the new Yugoslav president, Vojislav Kostunica, was almost immediately faced with a demand from Djukanovic’s camp to “redefine the relationship between Serbia and Montenegro.” The “redefinition” actually implied a breakup of the federation — Djukanovic’s proposal called for Serbia and Montenegro to be recognized as two independent countries that would then enter into negotiations over some form of new association.

While Djukanovic’s earlier hints at secession were met by the sympathies of many during the time of Milosevic’s rule in Serbia, the sharpening of his tone since Oct. 5 has mystified many. Belgrade’s democratic counter-revolution, after all, was also a fulfillment of Djukanovic’s stated democratic ideals.

Del Turco’s statements echo, albeit in a more official manner, what has been informally charged for years — that Montenegro had become a smuggling and organized-crime haven since Djukanovic’s accession in 1997. Critics believe that Montenegrin leadership’s drive for secession is not founded in lofty democratic or independence-minded ideals, but in an attempt to preserve the power base that brings them alleged illicit profits and to avoid the possibility of being answerable to a higher — federal — authority.

Del Turco also added that, besides Djukanovic, U.S. tobacco firms R.J. Reynolds and Phillip Morris, among others, would also suffer blows to their reputation.

“These gentlemen were aware that Prudentino was a mobster but, in spite of that, they worked with him as a lawful representative, the legal concessionaire for the Mediterranean region. Multinational companies from Virginia supplied a small state like Montenegro with a quantity of cigarettes sufficient to satisfy the needs of Italy or Germany. … If Prudentino and the investigation around him establish a tie between him and multinational companies, Europe can only benefit from this,” concluded Del Turco.

Aleksandar Pavic in Belgrade has covered Yugoslavia’s historic election and its dramatic aftermath for

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