A Story from our Program on the Vijesti Cover Page
A Story from our Program on the Vijesti Cover Page
A six-month investigation conducted by the journalist Slavko Radulović in the framework of a Mediacentar Sarajevo education program revealed a deal that went sour between the top police officer in Radovan Karadžić’s wartime government and the state of Montenegro, becoming the central issue for the Montenegrin public. The story was featured as the lead issue on the cover page of the weekly edition of the Podgorica-based daily Vijesti on 2 March 2008.
Slavko Radulović’s investigative story, made in the framework of the education program “Investigative Reporting and Accountability of Institutions,” was published in the Vijesti in the following form:
Superscript headline: Last Hope Disappears that Grahovo will Experience Agricultural Boom Promised by State and Well-Known Businessman
Headline: Kovač Only Plants Promises
Signed by: Slavko Radulović
When the controversial businessman Tomislav Kovač took a lease on land in Grahovo from the Montenegrin government less than two years ago, both parties promised flourishing agriculture, investments worth millions and new jobs.
Today, due to noncompliance with contractual obligations, the government is thinking of terminating the contract, citizens of Grahovo are not allowing Kovač to even take a peep at some land lots, and the remains of cabbage that was not picked last summer reveal the “successfulness” of the project.
Upon signing the contract, Minister of Agriculture Milutin Simović said that “Montenegro is ambitiously starting the realization of its agricultural potentials” and promised that Kovač “will invest two million Euro and initially hire 45 people” in agricultural production, which is just one part of the obligations stipulated by the contract that remain unfulfilled to this day.
Simović, however, failed to inform the public that Kovač, who in the meantime found himself placed on the list of people who are assisting fugitives wanted by The Hague Tribunal, received 51 hectares of state-owned and 11 hectares of private, ecologically purest land in Montenegro, at a price at least five times lower than the market price. The lessee was also allowed to use 400,000 cubic meters of water from a nearby storage reservoir in order to protect crops from summer droughts, which are not rare in this area.
The concession contract was formalized on 6 April two years ago, when Simović shook hands with Karadžić’s former top police officer and successful businessman in the last 10 or so years and owner of the company Daž – Aleksandrija. On that same day in 1992 war had officially started in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Pleased with the deal he made, Kovač said that “such favorable land exists nowhere else” and that “Grahovo enables produce to be offered for the 21st century.”
Kovač pledged to produce tens of tons of vegetables a year, but promises are all that is left of the promised agricultural boom.
According to Ministry of Agriculture data, as well as what can be seen and heard in Grahovo, Kovač is not cultivating even one-fourth of the leased land, his investments are far below the plan, there is no talk of employment or purchase of agricultural produce from the local population… In a country that exports everything but air, the biggest stretch of agricultural land is practically unused. Responsible officials at the Ministry of Agriculture did remember this important fact, but only after the Vreme investigation.
Assistant Minister of Agriculture Branko Bulatović reluctantly declared what Grahovo residents have known for at least a year – that the deal had practically gone down the drain.
- Kovač is not adhering to the undertaken obligations and we will have to do something. If we don’t reach an agreement and make an annex to the contract, we will see if we can terminate it. We are in a dilemma, whether this kind of conduct should be cut through right away or we should be a little more flexible – said Bulatović.
The sun-tanned Grahovo resident Veselin Bošković, however, has no dilemmas.
- This has all been frivolous from the start. Kovač is cultivating only some 10 or so hectares of land. They transported all lettuce produced last summer in two or three trips in a ‘Golf’ to the coast – said Bošković.
Kovač, however, has not always kneaded bread (he owns one of the biggest baking establishments in Montenegro, copy-editor’s note) and cultivated land in Montenegro and Vojvodina. This man, for whom the Montenegrin authorities have such fancy, is a tycoon who accumulated huge assets during the bloody disintegration of the former SFRY. His dizzy career rise, from pre-war Chief of Police in Sarajevo’s Ilidža settlement to Minister of Police of the Republika Srpska, was accompanied by extra profit. Like in the proverb, “to some war is war; to others it’s a brother.”
One of Karadžić’s closest collaborators is remembered, among other things, by the task to sell 10 tons of cigarettes to the “enemy side” during the fierce clashes in B-H. The deal was approved by then RS leaders – Prime Minister Vladimir Lukić and President Radovan Karadžić, and the decision was made on 4 August 1994. The public does not know to this day if the trade really took place. The fact is that Lukić and Kovač came into conflict after the (un)finished business, and on that occasion the details of a bigger scandal from 1993 surfaced, when RS police confiscated 300 tons of food dispatched from Macedonia to the Children’s Embassy in Međaši and people in both parts of then divided Sarajevo…
However, Kovač was not involved in just business during the war. When he was appointed RS Minister of Police in 1995, with the rank of general, he focused a little on Srebrenica, too.
The Sarajevo Dani, as well as other media, wrote that Kovač was one of those most responsible for the Srebrenica massacre, because as Minister of Police his task had been to coordinate paramilitary units and police forces of the RS and Serbia. Although he was not indicted for the massacre, it is hard to believe that the Minister of Police did not at least know what happened in Srebrenica and kept silent, like others from the RS government.
Kovač’s past evidently did not bother the government; the controversial businessman is the only farmer in Montenegro who got state-owned land under a 20 year lease at the price of only 100 Euro a year per hectare. The contract specifies that Kovač pays the lease on 11 hectares of privately-owned land at a price that is three times higher, but still cheaper than the real price, which is 500 to 800 Euro per hectare in Montenegro. Vijesti had insight into land lease contracts at these prices. The exceptionally low price, valid only for Kovač, is best illustrated by the fact that a renowned company from Podgorica pays the municipal authorities a fee of a little over 100 Euro a year per hectare just for use of land previously leased from its owner.
Extraordinary climate, good road network, storage reservoir for irrigation and almost free land, as well as obligations undertaken under the contract, failed to motivate Kovač to dedicate himself more seriously to production of organic food. Deflated tires on tractors parked in Grahovo speak about his two-year results more than the bare and contradictory answers of Assistant Minister of Agriculture Branko Bulatović. For example, Bulatović states that Kovač “has launched a project which is useful in the long run for development of agriculture in Montenegro,” but that the results of the operation and the “scope of the contractual investments” are not in accordance with the contract.
He explains that Kovač by 6 November 2007 had invested 452,650 Euro in processing capacities, but he does not say where the Ministry got this information from. Even if it is true that Kovač had invested almost half a million, this is considerably less than the investments specified by the contract. Namely, Article 12 of the Contract on Concession, which Vijesti is in possession of, clearly states that Kovač, during three-year preparatory works, was supposed to invest a total of 1.43 million Euro in 2006 and 2007, and another 670,000 this year. For failing to abide by this article, the Ministry was obliged to terminate the contract with Kovač, at his expense.
Bulatović, who also heads a body charged with monitoring whether Kovač adhered to the contractual obligations, which was formed a year and a half upon the signing of the contract, believes that neither Kovač, nor the Ministry of Agriculture, are to blame for the poor results. He says property relations are to blame. He states that Kovač, due to problems related to restitution, can use unhindered only 38 of the total 51 hectares of state-owned land, a reason to alter or terminate the contract.
- Due to unplanned circumstances…for which the parties to the contract are not responsible, as well as other circumstances, conditions have been created to establish all relevant facts for reexamining the contract. Depending on the established situation, the contract will be altered or terminated - Bulatović told the Vijesti on 5 February.
Although Grahovo residents allege that Kovač is not cultivating even one-third of the 38 hectares of state-owned land, this does not diminish the responsibility of the Ministry which leased out land lots claimed by descendants of former owners before the matter was settled.
To this day Bulatović has not answered most of the Vijesti questions. He has not declared when Kovač made the payment to the state for the land lease for 2006 and 2007, which the contract obliges him to do in December of the current year. Also, Bulatović has not announced whether and when the body he heads monitored Kovač’s results in Grahovo, or numerous other details. All this indicates that the Ministry of Agriculture’s story about the alleged termination of the contact is very questionable, which Kovač himself confirmed for the Vijesti. He claims that the Ministry of Agriculture even apologized to him in a meeting held right after Bulatović announced that the contract would be altered or terminated.
- They apologized to the Aleksandrija Executive Director, Momir Tomčić, because we cannot operate normally, i.e. we cannot cultivate all of the land – said Kovač.
In a telephone interview, he stated his opinion about the organic food production project in Grahovo, but refused to answer the Vijesti questions.
The Montenegrin government, however, is not receptive to Kovač only with regard to agricultural production, or lack thereof, in Grahovo. For the wartime RS Minister of Interior, the government is ready to not apply Council of Europe recommendations on restricted movement of people who are assisting fugitives indicted by The Hague Tribunal. Namely, Kovač does not have Montenegrin citizenship and he visited Grahovo on 25 July last year, exactly two months after The Hague Tribunal delivered a list of undesired people to Montenegro. Most Montenegrin media reported about the first harvest in Grahovo. Along with harvesters and sheaves of wheat, cameras in Grahovo showed the Aleksandrija owner, as well as several representatives of local and republic authorities.
The Minister of Foreign Affairs, Milan Roćen, however, was not informed by anyone about the visit of the ‘undesirable’ guest and he said several days later that Kovač had not tried to enter Montenegro since 24 May, when the list of undesirable people arrived from The Hague.
The Director of the Police Administration, Veselin Veljović, soon reacted and told the public that Kovač was not a Montenegrin citizen. Veljović said that Kovač was currently not in Montenegro and promised that the police would ‘act in line with regulations’ if Kovač tried to cross the border.
However, for Kovač the Montenegrin border is as porous as cheese. Two reliable Vijesti sources claim that a couple of weeks later he again stayed in Montenegro, in Herceg Novi, a town just several kilometers from Bijela – the seat of Kovač’s baking establishment. On that occasion he had a verbal conflict with a Novi man, claims the Vijesti source, who initially wanted to tell the media the details of the close encounter with Kovač, but then changed his mind, not wanting to go into a deeper conflict with the powerful baker.
Meanwhile, the authorities banned entry into the country and service in Montenegrin territory to Episcope of the Serbian Orthodox Church Filaret, who is also on the list of those who are assisting fugitives wanted by The Hague. After a several-day hunger strike on the Serbian-Montenegrin border, with tacit blessing of the international community, Filaret was allowed to enter Montenegro, but with police escort.
By consent of the government, the door of Montenegro has always been open to Kovač. Such as, after all, after the end of the war in BiH, when he did not find it hard with the money he gained to start up a baking business in Bijela, where back on 17 January 1995 he founded the company Daz and soon established close relations with the strongmen. Kovač had no dilemma that business was more important than ideology or nation and in the years that followed, skillfully keeping a balance, he established excellent cooperation both with the pro-Serbian local government in Herceg Novi and the devout Montenegrins in Podgorica.
A meeting with the Prime Ministers of the RS (Republika Srpska) and RCG (Republic of Montenegro), Milorad Dodik and Milo Đukanović, which most Novi businessmen originating from B-H attended in spring 2006, convinced Kovač that he was on the right path. A number of confidential sources confirmed for Vijesti that Dodik told those gathered that Montenegro is their country and they do not have a reserve one and that, essentially, Montenegrin independence is not an anti-Serb project.
Hence, it is no surprise that the door was opened wide for Kovač, that in 2005 he received the Herceg Novi October Award for “Economic Results,” and that several months later, at the height of the referendum campaign, he also got the state-owned land in Grahovo – a historic spot where the Montenegrin army defeated the Turkish army 200 years ago. Today, by consent of the government, it looks as if war had recently taken place there, with use of guns that are much more devastating than sabers and daggers.
Construction Lobby Eyes Grahovo
Although he refused to answer Vijesti questions, Kovač did mention a story about which there has been a lot of speculation in Montenegro lately – that land in Grahovo, after the Risan – Žabljak highway passes through the town, might become very interesting for investors who would not plow the land, but build tourist facilities instead.
- The story of termination of the contract is an attack on the agricultural land compound.
There is a lobby in Montenegro that wants very much to carve up the land and then sell it – said Kovač and warned that “Russians are coming.”
He claims that he is not interested in investing in the building of tourist facilities in Grahovo, although from organic food production, for now, he “only has losses.”
With the building of the new road, Grahovo would only be half an hour’s car drive at the most from the coastal town of Risan. It has been whispered in Montenegro lately that many people are interested in building hotels and sports grounds in Grahovo, even a golf course. Also, one should not neglect the fact that Grahovo, unlike the coastal region, does not lack water and that Kovač is practically the boss of the existing storage reservoir.
The future will show if this story has ground, but it would not be the first time that agricultural land overnight became building land.
Pipe of Peace with Enemies
During fierce clashes in B-H, in August 1994, the RS Government entrusted Kovač and then Acting Director of the company Centroteks Žika Rakić with selling 10 tons of cigarettes to the ‘enemy side.’
- Payment for merchandise sold pursuant to this decision can only be collected in foreign currency – cash, or in diesel fuel – states an RS Government document published by the weekly Monitor.
The public, however, still does not know how the deal ended and who took the cream.
Anyway, Kovač came into conflict with the RS Prime Minister Lukić. After the war ended, Kovač accused Lukić of smuggling cigarettes together with the Secretary of the Children’s Embassy Duško Tomić. Kovač claimed that a humanitarian convoy sent to the Children’s Embassy had included 50 tons of cigarettes.
Tomić, however, told an entirely different version at the time, most of it supported by documentation. Tomić claimed that the 20 trucks going from Macedonia to Sarajevo contained 300 tons of food – one-third of which was sent to the Serb part of the then divided city. He told the Monitor that an order to confiscate the convoy was given by Kovač and the State Security Service Chief Dragan Kijac, after which the RS leadership organized a “humanitarian convoy” for Tuzla – a city controlled from the beginning of the war by the enemy side, the B-H Army. In that convoy, according to Tomić, there were 60 tons of coffee and 82 tons of cigarettes. Tomić claimed that this convoy did not reach its destination either because it was seized by the RS army.
He Offered 50 Euro per Hectare
Only Kovač’s company Daž applied for the concession tender, announced in the Pobjeda on 5 November 2004, and the Ministry of Agriculture signed a contract with it. This is not in contravention of the law, but earlier privatization cases in Montenegro indicate that not everything is clean with tenders for which only one interested company applies. At the time the contract was signed, the Executive Director of Aleksandrija was Đorđije Blažić, former Assistant Minister of Justice.
The Ministry of Agriculture stresses that it had expected more bids, but they were all interested in buying the land. They claim the state’s goal was not to make profit, but to start up agricultural production in Grahovo.
- Kovač wanted to take a lease on the land for a period of 30 years. He offered 50 Euro per hectare and later accepted the price of 100 Euro which the Ministry proposed. Private owners were offered three times that amount in order to agree to lease out the land. This price was agreed and not imposed – said a Ministry lawyer, Dobrinka Gligorović.
The Grahovo resident Veselin Bošković, however, claims they were presented with an ‘accomplished fact.’
- When he finished everything with the government, Kovač offered us 300 Euro per hectare. I didn’t sign anything, nor will I; everything was agreed on faith – says Bošković.
Responding to the observation that the private owners even fared well because they received a price three times higher than the state, Bošković laughed tartly and said no one was cheated, but everyone lost.
- There would be no damage if the land was given for free to a hard-working man. Kovač promised the beginning of agricultural production and development of the town, but he didn’t do anything. If he fulfilled 10 percent of the promises he made, Grahovo would be like Switzerland, but I don’t see anything like that – says Bošković.
Several Grahovo residents have already asked for the return of land seized by the state from their ancestors after World War II.
- Some of the land lots have already been returned and the new owners are using them. I will return my land sooner or later. If they can privatize factories, I can do that with my ancestral heritage.
Kovač, however, claims that former owners were compensated fairly and that most of them had colonized Vojvodina and received land there.
Kovač’s Role in the Srebrenica Massacre
Before the start of the Srebrenica cleansing operation, Kovač had been tasked with coordinating the operation of police and paramilitary forces from the RS and Serbia. What testifies to this is his order issued on 10 July 1995 on the transfer of police troops to the surrounds of Srebrenica “with the goal of crushing the enemy’s offensive from the protected zone” of the United Nations.
In the order, which the Hague Tribunal’s prosecutor Geoffrey Nice incorporated in evidence in the trial of Slobodan Milošević, Kovač also mentions Serbian MUP (Ministry of Interior) forces.
Kovač appointed Ljubiša Borovčanin commander of that unit and ordered him to establish contact with VRS (Republika Srpska Army) General Radoslav Krstić. Krstić was sentenced by The Hague Tribunal to 46 years in prison for genocide in Srebrenica and Borovčanin is suspected of complicity in genocide.
Kovač was not indicted, but he did appear in court in Belgrade as a witness in the trial of the Scorpions paramilitary unit for the murder of six Muslim civilians from Srebrenica in July 1995.
Still, “he made it to the black list,” among other things because former EU High Representative to BiH Paddy Ashdown accused him publicly several times of remaining faithful to his former boss and of being one of the key people in the net that is helping Karadžić hide. Kovač denied the accusations several times, claiming he “politically parted with these people a long time ago, back in 1995.”
Translation: Kanita Halilović