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Saudi Arabia, with a defense budget of around US$ 60 billion, has one of the world’s most advanced militaries featuring the latest Western technologies. In a surprising twist, it has now emerged as a buyer of Montenegro’s vast stockpiles of outdated and surplus arms and ammunition.
Since August 2015, Montenegro has exported 250 tons of ammunition and 10,000 anti-tank systems to Saudi Arabia, which has no history of buying or using second-hand Eastern European and Soviet-style equipment.
The deals were arranged through a powerful Montenegrin arms broker, Montenegro Defence Industry (MDI), which is already embroiled in controversy surrounding a questionable privatization and allegations of sanctions-busting in Libya. The arms exported match weapons and ammunition bought by MDI in 2015 from stockpiles deemed “outdated and of no future use” for Montenegro’s small army.
With some €2.7 million worth of arms and ammunition exported to Saudi Arabia since 2015, Montenegro is the latest country to join a €1.2 billion Central and Eastern European arms pipeline supplying weapons to the countries sponsoring Syria’s opposition.
Saudi Arabia is by far the largest buyer, with more than €829 million in export licenses from eight European countries including Montenegro. Other buyers since the escalation of the Middle Eastern conflict in 2012 include the United Arab Emirates, Turkey and Jordan.
But arms experts believe equipment such as that sold by MDI is not destined for Saudi Arabia and is likely being diverted to Syria and, to a lesser extent, Libya or Yemen.
Pieter Wezeman of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, a leading non-governmental organization that tracks arms exports, said, “When Saudi buys, in particular, old munition(s) in Central Europe, I would assume it is not for their own forces.”
Zoran Damjanovic, director of MDI, told reporters for the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN) and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) that his firm had the necessary paperwork in place to export to Saudi Arabia. When asked if he was worried that the weapons could have been diverted to Syria, he responded, “It’s no concern of mine what happened later.”
Countries exporting weapons are supposed to verify the shipment will not end up in the hands of terrorists or others who violate human rights, but most of the countries involved in this trade have made little effort to complete such checks. Some experts call the shipments illegal because of the well-documented diversions in this pipeline.
Formerly state-owned MDI is Montenegro’s biggest arms exporter, and it is mainly involved in the sale of the country’s military stockpiles to international buyers.
The trade database of the United Nations (UN) reveals that between August 2015 and May 2016, Saudi Arabia received 32 tons of anti-tank weapons and 250 tons of ammunition from Montenegro, including mortar shells and bullets for anti-aircraft guns.
The shipment from MDI included 10,000 Yugoslav-era Zolja anti-tank rocket launchers, 56 mortars and nearly 500,000 mortar shells and other ammunition.
The identical equipment was bought at the Montenegrin Ministry of Defense’s yearly surplus auction. Of the €4.5 million worth of equipment auctioned off in 2015, MDI bought €3.2 million.
When BIRN and OCCRP asked what checks were made to verify the weapons exported to Saudi Arabia would not be diverted to conflicts in Syria or Yemen, the Ministry of the Economy, which grants arms export licenses, responded that the Foreign Ministry checks the validity of end-user certificates “on the basis of the available diplomatic and consular ties.” Exports are also approved by the Interior Ministry.
The response said export licenses are either approved or denied based on verification and due diligence checks, but when asked they did not provide details on any assessments that were done in the 2015 exports.
Damjanovic, director of MDI, told BIRN and OCCRP that Western countries, mainly NATO and European Union members, had exported weapons worth billions to Saudi Arabia in the past six months. He said Montenegrin exports are a “statistical error” compared to other countries.
Montenegro’s Ministry of the Economy also confirmed that Nikolas, a second arms dealer based in the coastal town of Herceg Novi, obtained one license to export 2,200 mortar shells to Saudi Arabia.
Nikolas did not respond to requests for a comment.
In February of 2015, MDI was sold to a consortium of two controversial companies –Israel’s ATL Atlantic Technology and Serbia’s CPR Impex.
ATL Atlantic Technology is linked to Serge Muller, a Belgian-Israeli businessman with a history of dealing arms and diamonds in Liberia.
Muller was arrested on a Belgium-issued Interpol Red Notice just hours after leaving the MDI privatization ceremony in March 2015, in the Montenegrin capital Podgorica. He has since been extradited to Antwerp on charges of drug smuggling and money laundering. He denies the charges.
The privatization prompted MANS, a non-governmental organization based in Podgorica, to file a criminal complaint in May 2015 asking for investigation into suspected violations of laws and procedures.
As for CPR Impex, one of the region’s most important arms brokers, it has been a major player in sales to Saudi Arabia. It is owned by Serbian businessman Petar Crnogorac.
Crnogorac was arrested in July 2014 by Serbian police on charges of abuse of office over a series of military tenders for surplus military equipment his company participated in between 2011 and 2013. He was accused of getting inside information about competing bids.
The charges were subsequently dropped, but he has since been investigated by the UN for allegedly violating arms sanctions by trading with Libya.
In April of last year, the UN’s sanctions panel for Libya began probing whether Tehnoremont, a CPR Impex subsidiary, had sold weapons to Islamist fighters in Libya via MDI. The deal was allegedly brokered in December 2014 while the company was still under the auspices of the Montenegrin government. Crnogorac told BIRN that while discussions had been held on exports to Libya, no deal had been signed and as a result there had been no reason to ask permission from the UN.
In March 2016, the UN panel reported that the Montenegrin and Serbian government had received no request for exports to Libya and appears to have closed the case.
Crnogorac declined to comment on MDI’s recent exports from Montenegro to Saudi Arabia, although BIRN and OCCRP have learned that his Belgrade firm, CPR Impex, is involved in a number of deals that include selling Serbian-made arms to Saudi Arabia.
In June this year, Montenegro, a candidate for EU membership, adopted a new law to tighten restrictions on the arms trade in response to demands from Brussels. As a result, delivery certificates - documents that are supposed to prove equipment has reached its end user – will be subject to mandatory checks.
The law was passed, the government said, to prevent weapons ending up in conflict zones around the world.
It seems the new legislation will soon be put to the test by Saudi Arabia’s hunger for cheap Central and Eastern European arms.
OCCRP edited the story to correct typos and misuses of words. OCCRP regrets the errors.