St. Nikola Island as a Base
According to Guardia di Finanza, the Italian finance police, the tiny beach island of St. Nikola across from the tourist hub of Budva served as a logistical base and “home” during the smuggling operations in at least 2012 and 2013 and possibly longer. The smugglers who transported the cigarettes to the Italian coast of Apulia would remain on the island during their stay in Montenegro.
The island was owned from 2007 to 2010 by companies owned by Serbian businessman Stanko Subotic. Subotic is a name popularly connected to Montenegrin cigarette smuggling in the media. He, along with his friend (and Montenegro’s Prime Minister) Milo Djukanovic, were indicted for smuggling cigarettes to Italy through Italian organized crime groups. Djukanovic avoided prosecution due to immunity as head of state, while charges against Subotic were dropped in 2013. However, Subotic still faces cigarette smuggling-related charges by Serbia.
Subotic once planned an opulent resort and marina for St. Nikola but instead his companies defaulted on loans provided by First Bank, which was owned by Djukanovic’s family.
The island is privately owned and its previous owners, including Subotic, kept a tight lid on who was allowed to visit. From Budva, a kilometer away across the water, it was hard to see what was going on.
Although it is largely uninhabited, it was not totally deserted. A Montenegrin company, Yachtmaster, operates a boat repair service there. A previous owner left behind a partially constructed hotel with an underground basement.
Italian police say that the area in the harbor around the business and the hotel area were used for smuggling based on tracking data they collected from the boats. It is not clear how long it had gone on but the prosecutors think it may have been for years.
Yachtmaster was registered as a company in March 2007, the same month Subotic bought the island. Yachtmaster’s owner is Zeljko Perovic, a Budva marine mechanic. According to Italian investigators, a man named Zeljko was the vital Montenegrin link in the smuggling operation and evidence suggests they are the same man. Calls that police tapped from cigarette smugglers often went to Zeljko Perovic’s mobile phone number and his name showed up in the wallet of one of the arrested men.
OCCRP reporters called the number from the Italian arrest warrant and Perovic answered but would not comment.
Unlike Italian police, Montenegrin police have made no arrests or charges and there is no evidence that they are investigating. Italian police did not cooperate with Montenegrin police during the recent operation.
The island later changed hands after Subotic’s companies defaulted on loans to First Bank. Ownership changed to a British Virgin Islands company and then a Panamanian company. Both are secretive jurisdictions which allow businesses to conceal the real identity of their owners.
However, one man may know who owns the island at present: Montenegro’s Minister of Agriculture, Petar Ivanovic.
The current owners instructed a Panamanian company to mail important company documents to Ivanovic’s home address in Montenegro. OCCRP has also uncovered links between arrested drug lord Darko Saric and a trusted employee of Ivanovic who serves as a director for a company owned by Saric.
Ivanovic is also close to the prime minister and was recently appointed by Djukanovic’s government to a foreign investment body chaired by Djukanovic himself. In 2009, Saric helped Subotic by guaranteeing his loans at the First Bank. Saric also deposited large amounts of money in low-interest loans to First Bank that helped the bank at a critical time when it could not give customers their money.