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BIRN Fact-Check: Could Montenegro’s Army Protect Rivers From Illegal Exploitation?

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Montenegro’s outgoing Prime Minister, Dritan Abazovic, on Wednesday announced plans to engage the army in protecting the river Moraca from illegal gravel extraction.

After a National Council for Fighting against Corruption session, Abazovic said the authorities need help in protecting the Bolje sestre, an important water spring on the Moraca near the capital, Podgorica.

“The government will propose engaging the Montenegrin Army to protect the Bolje sestre water spring and the Moraca riverbed. There is currently no more endangered state interest than the water source of the Bolje sestre, and we should protect it,” Abazovic told the media.

“Business involved in the illegal exploitation of gravel in the last decade was worth close to one billion euros. We should start repressive measures,” he added.

The Bolje sestre water source is endangered by the long-term uncontrolled extraction of sand and gravel through concession works. According to government data from last June, these concessions were held by the companies Bemax, Cijevna komerc and Beton gradnja.

Meanwhile, the Regional Water Supply System and civic organizations warned that deepening the Moraca riverbed could impact the capacity of the Bolje sestre, which supplies the majority of municipalities on the Montenegrin coast with water.

In December, authorities suspended excavation works on the Moraca riverbed due to a drastic drop in yield of 80 per cent, but environmental activists reported that exploitation had continued despite the ban.

On January 14, outgoing Interior Minister and interim Minister of Defence Filip Adzic said that army could be engaged in protecting the Moraca riverbed from illegal exploitation.

But, according to the constitution and the Army Law, the government must seek higher authorities’ permission to implement such plans.

National Defence and Security Council decides on Army’s engagement

According to the constitution, the state president commands the army based on the National Defence and Security Council’s decisions.

The National Council’s members are the state president, the parliament speaker and the prime minister. Army and Defence Ministry representatives can participate in sessions.

“The council makes decisions on commanding the Army of Montenegro. It also analyzes and evaluates the security situation in Montenegro and makes decisions to take appropriate measures,” the constitution says.

According to the Army Law, the Defence Minister can make decisions on the use of the army in other activities in the country, but these must be confirmed by the government and the Defence and Security Council.

The army can exceptionally be used in civil affairs in cases of a state of emergency such as natural disasters or severe disturbances of public order and peace, but the such measures have to be confirmed by the council.

On March 18, 2020. the Council for Defence and Security confirmed the government’s decision to engage army members at protection facilities where COVID quarantine measures were implemented. Montenegro had just ordered two weeks of quarantine for all citizens who entered the country after the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak.

In June 2022, the council alaso confirmed the government’s decision to form joint army and police patrols in protecting state borders, to prevent migrant smuggling.

Opposition and civic activists have criticized the outgoing Prime Minister’s plans to engage the army in protecting rivers, saying that is the task of the state authorities and the police.

On January 25, the prominent watchdog MANS called on the government to engage police officers in protecting the rivers instead, stressing that their task is to sanction violations of laws.

In past years the authorities have filed charges against several private companies for illegal exploitation of gravel and sand from riverbeds.

On January 14, police arrested the owner of company Technoput, Sasa Acimic, for illegally building an asphalt base by the river Cijevna.

On January 22, the government ordered the dislocation of Cijevna komerc and Montenegro petrol facilities from the river Moraca, but civic activists said that despite this they had both continued with gravel exploitation.

Source : Balkan Insight