THU, 27 JAN 1994 21:49:22 GMT
Oil smuggling in Montenegro
Summary: Long after the introduction of the sanctions, citizens of Montengro could more or less regularly satisfy their needs for petrol. The main channel of supply went from Albania via Tuzi, a town near Podgorica mostly inhabited by the Albanians. But last fall, inhabitants of the rich river Zeta valley joined the "oil circle". Each day about 200 boats cross the lake of Skadar from Montenegro to Albania, from Zeta to Vraka, and bring barrels with the much demanded oil. In Albania, a 210 litre barrel, depending on its quality, costs 160 to 190 German marks, and in Montenegro, in "retail trade", it is sold for 300 to 340 DM. Manufacturing and reconstruction of boats have become the most common occupation, and metal plugs for barrels the most popular item. It is assessed that there is not a single household in Zeta which has not made at least 10 thousand DM on oil so far. The profit of the skilled is measured by millions of German marks.
Text: "May God make these sanctions last!" is the most common saying of everyone we talked to about oil smuggling across the Lake of Skadar. The story about an enormous fortune people made almost overnight thanks to oil smuggling explains the background of this strange prayer.
"Every day the (imaginary) border line between Montenegro and Albania is crossed illegally by about two hundred boats", claims a well-informed "connoisseur" of the smuggling business between the Zeta, a fertile agricultural region on Montenegrin bank of the Skadar lake, and Vraka, the Albanian part of the Skadar region which is mostly inhabited by Serbs and Montenegrins.
The southern Yugoslav Republic managed to resist the isolation for a full year longer than Serbia, and regularly supplied its citizens with certain quantities of oil and oil products. But, since the adoption of Resolution 820, foreign, mainly Greek, tankers found it harder and harder to penetrate the blockade of the NATO ships positioned in front of the Bar port. This caused the Government to state, just before the New Year's, that the reserves are reduced to such an extent "that we are forced to cease issuing coupons for petrol to physical persons", so the citizens were compelled to turn to the black market.
Numerous private and state firms entered the oil smuggling business right after the implementation of the sanctions against the FRY. And not long afterwards, individuals who quickly understood what it was all about on both sides of the Montenegrin-Albanian border. The first to react were the traditionally quick-witted tradesmen from Skadar. They installed double petrol tanks into their cars and carried petrol across the Bozzaj border crossing and sold it in Tuzi and Podgorica, which is only some twenty kilometres from the border with Albania. That is how Tuzi, a small town halfway between Podgorica and the Albanian border restored the long-forgotten ancient meaning of its name. (The name of the settlement mostly inhabited by the Albanians and the Muslims originates in the times when caravans carrying salt passed along this road, and the town got its name Tuzi which means "salt station".) Re-establishment of family and friendly ties soon proved to be worthwhile. Almost every house in the town became a petrol station. Podgorica car-owners whose demand for fuel could not be satisfied by the limited quantities of petrol (30 litres a month at first, and later only 15), frequented Tuzi like a nearest petrol station. The reason for this was the price, of course. Considering its quality which is measured by colour (yellow is the worst, while red and green are the best), the price of fuel in Tuzi is constantly by 20 to 30 per cent lower than in market-places in Podgorica.
But, last fall, the inhabitants of Zeta joined the game. They began penetrating the blockade by boats, and what is the most interesting thing, they did not even need visas to do it, which, due to restrictions of the Albanian Embassy in Belgrade is the major obstacle for crossing the border in Bozzaj, the only border-crossing between Albania and Montenegro. They simply cross the Skadar lake in their boats and, with no border or customs control whatsoever, reach the Albanian bank, usually in the town Kamenica where their "business partners" from the until recently most isolated country in the world wait for them with barrels full of oil. All kinds of things are smuggled by boats, from cigarettes to satellite antennas, but oil and petrol the most. The following data provide evidence on how profitable this operation is. Each barrel of oil, which usually takes 210 litres, is bought for 160 to 190 German marks from the Albanians, depending on the quality, while in Zeta the same barrel "brings 210 to 240 marks in wholesale, and as much as 300 to 340 in retail trade."
The fascinating speed of the profit, although quite risky, became attractive for a large number of people so that in the past several months new boats are constructed and the old are rennovated. The traditional flat-bottomed boats whuch in times passed were used for fishing by the people from Zeta, can take only five barrels of oil and exceed the permissible load, increasing the danger of overturning or sinking of the boat in windy weather. So the new boats in Zeta are now broader and instead of three, they are now made of five or more planks, so they can carry a much larger load. The demand for barrels has increased rapidly, and metal plugs for barrels are sold like hot cakes. The price of each is 10 marks, and the only one that fares badly in the deal is the Podgorical Aluminium Plant because its workers are stealing these plugs from it in large numbers.
The greatest danger for the men in the boats are the wind and the waves. Small boats take one to one and a half hour to cross from the Montenegrin to the Albanian bank of the lake, and on the way back, with the barrels on board, about two and a half hours. There is a part of the high waters which must be crossed, and although it takes only about fifteen minutes, the waves are the highest there and there is constant danger of sudden blasts of wind. The loading of boats with the barrels in Albania is carried our manually, so most frequently the partners just exchange the empty for loaded boats. The level of reloading technology on the Montenegrin bank is higher. By means of a tractor crane accessories, the barrels are pulled out of the boats, loaded into trucks or trailers and stored in village yards. From the barrels, the oil is quickly decanted into truck tanks which transport the oil to other parts of Montenegro, to Serbia and the Serbian Krajinas, by means of compressors or common water pumps. Even the Montenegrin Government is involved in the business, our interlocutors explain, by issuing special permits to persons who are thereby given the right to buy and transport the smuggled oil.
Quick profit and the spirit of adventure which accompany smuggling of oil across the largest lake in the Balkans, give rise to numerous tall stories about the undertakings of the new "businessmen". Stories say that there is not a single house in Zeta which has not made at least 10 thousand German marks on oil. The profit of a journalist employed in Montenegrin television who was among the first to get involved in the purchase and transportation of smuggled oil, is assessed to two million marks. Albanian soldiers, who allegedly, in quite a friendly manner, occasionally intercept the smugglers, "fine" 10 marks a person, etc, etc. How much of all this is true, it is difficult to say, but in order to be convincing one of our interlocutors proudly shows a brand new "Mercedez" tank truck he had just purchased for 130 thousand German marks. He made in on oil, he claims.
New acquaintances accompany the new deals. The partners from Albania, according to what we have heard, are quite fair. Montenegrin and Albanian smugglers assist one another and not rarely they stay at each other's (illegally, of course) for several days. The business is illegal in Albania as well. It is not permitted to decant oil into barrels at petrol stations, so it is sold by truck drivers whose only job is to circle between petrol stations. The oil is usually of very poor quality. A lot of lamp oil is poured into it (from 30 to 50 per cent), because it is cheap in Albania -it costs only 10 pfennigs a litre. In order to make the engines run on such a fuel mixture, and in order to make it greasy enough, any kind of motor oil, most often already used, is added to it.
Therefore, before it reaches its final consumer, the oil passess through five pairs of hands. Starting from the oil station in Albania, first the truck drivers take their share of the profit, then the smugglers who bring the barrels to the bank of the lake, then the citizens of Zeta who transport the fuel by boats across the lake and most frequently sell it in wholesale, and finally the oil dealers in market places of Podgorica and other towns in Montenegro. The risk of their part of the business is that police patrols may stop them and take away the oil while they are transporting it in canisters from Zeta, and they claim that this is happening more and more often lately. It is a long chain, and a large number of people are involved, from the important businessmen who make orders by telephone, to the until recently praiseworthy high-school yongsters who stand waiting for potential buyers at market-places with plastic containers. Even many enterprises depend on this newly opened "oil pipeline", whose trucks and buses instead of the official "Jugopetrol" gas stations, frequent village yards in Zeta.
The smell of oil can be felt all around Zeta. The yards are full of barrels, and often one can see half-buried old truck tanks in them. The Gostinjska River, a tributary of the Lake of Skadar, down which the inhabitants of villages near Golubac, the largest settlement in the region of Zeta, leave towards the lake in their boats, once was a favourite meeting place of fishermen, and nowadays it has turned into a large oil stain. At the entrance to Zeta, a sign reading "Smoking Forbidden" should be placed, just like at gas stations, our interlocutors complain. And yet, they are not concerned about ruining of fertile land and spilling of large quantities of oil. Noone is interested in agriculture anymore, and it was the major mainstay of the entire region until recently - oil is big business now.