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Ratko Knežević, Vojislav Koštunica’s tobacco insider (3)

Don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched

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Photo: Stock

Who is Ratko Knežević, a man who for several years now has captured the attention of the media all over Croatia, Serbia and Montenegro, and in recent times the attention of prosecutors, special courts, the police, politicians and ministers all over the former Yugoslav states? Behind this person is there an uncompromising campaigner for justice and adversary of criminals, a respectable and successful journalist, writer, intellectual, playboy, favourite of women, powerful and successful businessman, friend to royal families and the most powerful people in the world? Or is he a conman of provincial mentality, a man with no morals or honour, a characterless upstart, without scruples – a merciless and corrupt fop from the craggy villages of Montenegro, hungry for success and fame at any cost? In fact both of these descriptions have accompanied the person and deeds of Ratko Knežević over the last two decades

HIGH PRAISE FOR ĐUKANOVIĆ: Although Knežević was increasingly unhappy because his plans for political and business success in Montenegro were [not] coming to fruition, for which he primarily blamed Đukanović, he decided to try once again to curry favour with the Montenegrin president. Hence in 2000, just a few months before he was to launch an avalanche of the most serious accusations against Đukanović, Knežević gave an interview to the Zagreb Globus in which he had nothing but words of praise for the Montenegrin president.

In the interview with the Zagreb weekly, Knežević said of Milo Đukanović: “He is the only top politician of Orthodox provenance who keeps his word. He is brutally realistic and does not promise what he is not able to deliver. The West has found in him someone normal they can talk to, who will turn Montenegro into a parliamentary democracy. Patience is the greatest talent that he has. I was sorry that Đukanović sacrificed his position as prime minister, which gave him more room to manoeuvre and take action. But he had to, because he was the only one who could beat Momir Bulatović in the last presidential elections."

Just a few months after this interview, Knežević accused Đukanović of involvement in organised crime, murder, corruption and smuggling!

ALKA VUICA REFUTED PUKANIĆ AND KNEŽEVIĆ: Multiple times, including in his testimony before the Italian prosecutor Schelzi, Ivo Pukanić repeated the story of how the Tobacco Affair had in fact begun when he and Ratko Knežević, on a flight from Zagreb to Frankfurt, had met the singer Alka Vujica on the plane. She had told them about her time in Montenegro, her meetings with Stanko Subotić and Milo Đukanović, the prolific spending, the jeeps, the private aeroplanes… This story was also repeated by Ratko Knežević in the letter he sent to Milo Đukanović in 2001 regarding the supposed threats originating from Stanko Subotić.

Alka Vuica refuted Pukanić’s and Knežević’s claims on more than one occasion. Even the Croatian Nacional had to publish her denial in summer 2009. Regarding the meeting with the twosome (there is also a denial on her website), the famous Croatian singer said, “That stupid story, founded on untruth, jeopardises my good standing, my privacy and my whole family”. The famous Croatian singer adds that the only thing that is true out of all of the claims of Knežević and Pukanić is that she was on the same flight as they were, that Pukanić had introduced her to the kum of Milo Đukanović as he styled himself, that he had questioned her about Đukanović and Subotić and that she had replied that she had never met the president of Montenegro and that she had once sung at Subotić's birthday, which was the only time she had met him. Everything else that these two claimed had no bearing on the truth and was a common lie.

Ratko Knežević is lying as usual: Alka Vuica
Photo: Stock

KNEŽEVIĆ’S MOTIVES ARE ALWAYS FINANCIAL: By the admission of Kestner, one of the motives of Ratko Knežević for participating in the Tobacco Affair was the need to get out of some financial problems. Many times Knežević assured Kestner that Milo Đukanović’s time was at an end and that it would only be a matter of days before he was out of power. In order to butter up Kestner and convince him that the superpower America was behind the campaign, Knežević acquired Kestner a five-year US visa. In addition, Ratko Knežević abused the fact that he had participated in the procurement of bugging equipment and told Kestner – and his other contacts in Croatia – all the details relating to this procurement, and how the equipment worked, how the devices were installed and even personal information on some of the people who had taken part in the project and who ran the ‘wiretapping department’.

Ratko’s phone pal: Predrag Popović
Photo: Stock
KNEŽEVIĆ ORDERS AN INTERVIEW FROM THE EDITOR OF THE DAN NEWSPAPER: While the affair was in progress, Senko Čabarkapa,  editor from the newspaper Dan and later coordinator of the media self-regulatory body, phoned Ratko Knežević on +3859111550015 from the number +381690155500. The Dan editor and Knežević talked about Ratko's frequent recent appearances in the newspapers. Čabarkapa said that he would take Knežević's article to the office. The Dan editor was afraid that people would think the two of them were coming to some agreement, on account of Knežević’s recent appearances. Knežević, who was planning to stand as president of Montenegro, promised the journalist an interview that he had created himself – a ‘presidential’ one, with no accusations or stories about crime and smuggling.

INFORMAL ADVISOR OF THE MONTENEGRIN

PARLIAMENTARY COMMISSION: Ratko Knežević phoned Predrag Popović, member of  the Montenegrin parliamentary commission for the Tobacco Affair on +38169034944 from the number +385911550015.

They talked about the work of the Montenegrin parliamentary commission of which Popović was a member. Knežević asked about the work of the of the Montenegrin prime minister. Just seven days earlier, on 17th October 2001, the Nacional published an article on the supposed  formation of an EU commission charged with ‘investigating’ the secret bank accounts of Milo Đukanović which, according to Nacional, were located on Cyprus and in Switzerland. Dragan  Šoć, president of the Montegrin opposition People’s Party, phoned Ratko Knežević on +385911550015 from the number +38169015500. Ratko Knežević told Šoć that a debate was being prepared in parliament about Đinđić regarding the accusations from Nacional. In the conversation Šoć asked Knežević what his favourite saying was. Knežević replied: Don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched.

THE LONDON CONNECTION: During the time he was the chief organiser of the Tobacco Affair, Knežević made every effort to present himself to the public as an agent of the English and American secret services. Apart from wanting to leave an impression of power, to present himself as someone who enjoyed the protection of these services, his objective was to suggest that the campaign against the legally elected governments of Serbia and Montenegro was being run by the great powers, like America and Great Britain. During that period he was friendly with another obscure character from the former Yugoslavia, one Damir Fazlić, a man who sought to excuse his criminal background and problems with claims he had special tasks assigned to him by CIA or MI6 bosses. Fazlić belonged to that generation of Bosnian refugees who, fleeing from the war, and with the support of international humanitarian agencies, got the chance to live and gain an education in western Europe. Fazlić, like many of his peers, quickly adapted thanks to his knowledge of the language on the one hand and connections with local Balkan politicians on the other and quickly reached a position where he could act as middle man in deals mostly founded on bribery and corruption.

A spice for every meal: Damir Fazlić
Photo: Stock

In this way Fazlić has played a role in most of the dirty affairs of the last fifteen years, from Bosnia to Albania. For these activities he has been charged, taken in for questioning, detained, arrested and beaten up on more than one occasion. The most recent in this series of affairs was Fazlić's detention in February 2009, with the Albanian state prosecutor suspecting him of money laundering, founding non-existent companies and a corruption scandal relating to the purchase of building land near the port of Durres.

THE CONNECTION WITH LAZAREVIĆ During Knežević's ‘London period’ a relationship was forged between Knežević and Fazlić when their common masters gave them the opportunity of working on the same business ventures. Thus Fazlić opened a company in 2001 with Hrvoje Petrač, the protector and employer of Ratko Knežević. The two of them began work on disseminating the lies that had been devised during the creation of the Tobacco Affair. When Petrač’s transcripts were published, the gang briefly scattered and separated, however they quickly consolidated and continued their criminal dealings across the

Balkans. During 2007 Fazlić established close ties and business relations with another Montenegrin, an opponent of Milo Đukanović, Vojin Lazarević. Lazarević was at that time a financial backer of Koštuniča’s religious-nationalist party, the DSS. Via Serbia Fazlić i Lazarević moved on to Bosnia and quickly after that to Albania, where they took part in several scandalous affairs with the authorities there, which ultimately even led to the fall of the government and

months of parliamentary debate centred on corruption and the roles of Fazlić and Lazarević in it. Common business dealings led to a close relationship between Knežević and Lazarević, as confirmed by Knežević  himself during the 2009 campaign.

The extent of the organisation of the Tobacco Affair could also be seen in the fact that the pronationalist Serbian and Montenegrin media continually republished the articles from the Croatian Nacional on a daily basis over a period of almost two years. Despite the fact that these same media had hitherto been xenophobic, ignoring everything that came from Croatia, with the launch of the Tobacco Affair – which had political promoters both in Croatia and in Serbia and Montenegro – Ivo Pukanić and Ratko Knežević became indispensable pundits in the Serbian and Montenegro media.

HEADQUARTERS FOR THE DISSEMINATION OF THE TOBACCO AFFAIR In Montenegro a parliamentary committee was even formed, the so-called Committee to Determine the Facts, Circumstances and Key Elements of the Claims in the Article Published in

the Zagreb Nacional. The chairman of this committee, member of the opposition Socialist People’s Party, Vuksan Simonović and several other politicians, members of the Montenegrin opposition, visited Nacional, talked to  Pukanić and his journalists and finally, without a shred of evidence, based purely on what they had read in Nacional or heard from

Pukanić himself, came to the conclusion that in the previous ten years, and especially since 1996, “massive smuggling of tobacco” had gone on in Montenegro.  Knežević's and Pukanić's accusations were the topic of the day in Serbia too. Koštunica’s DSS protested vehemently when the editor-in-chief of Studio B radio and television company, Slobodan Arežina, tookthe decision not to broadcast a recorded interview with Ivo Pukanić. According to Arežina, the editor of Nacional had not provided a shred of evidence for his claims, but had engaged in manipulation, revealing unsavoury details from the private lives of public figures. Just how well organised the ‘headquarters’ for the dissemination of the Tobacco Affair were can be seen in the fact that the author of the Pukanić interview, Ivana Miljuš, on her own initiative, sent the interview to the Montenegrin opposition newspaper Glas Crnogoraca, they published it, and the Montenegrin opposition television station Elmag was already prepared to broadcast the whole interview.

Ratko was my adviser: Velja Ilić, naive

The Montenegro daily Dan, pronationalist in orientation, founded by the KOS for use by Milošević’s regime, literally became the mouthpiece of Ivo Pukanić and Ratko Knežević during the Tobacco Affair. A daily selection was made of Serbian politicians who would give statements to Dan accusing the Serbian and Montenegrin leaderships of involvement in crime. In Belgrade there was a whole circle of politicians whose task it was to disseminate the lies published in Pukanić’s Nacional in every way possible. One of the key political promoters, besides Vojislav Koštunica and his DSS, was the Serbian opposition politician Velimir Ilić. Vladimir Popović, who during the time of Đinđić’s government was head of the Serbian government's Communications Bureau, testified before the Special Court for Organised Crime, in the case relating to the assassination of the prime minister, that Ilić had admitted in the presence of three witnesses – Popović, former justice minister Vladan Batić and Serbian prime minister Đinđić – that he had nothing to do with the claims published in the Montenegro Dan newspaper and that he had been put up to all of it by Ratko Knežević. Ilić said, "Ratko Knežević calls me from London and says: ‘Velja, tomorrow you’re on the front page of Dan, that’s great for your party, for you, for your image. One thing, I attacked the government people, you just keep quiet if they call you, if they ask, you say it’s alright’.”

CROATIAN COUNTERINTELLIGENCE AGENCY ILLEGALLY PROTECTEDKNEŽEVIĆ: The Croatian weekly Globus published the content of the MUP and POA (Counterintelligence

Agency) charges brought against Franjo Turek (former head of the POA) after the discovery of the secret surveillance measures used against six Croatian journalists and the former top policeman, Ranko Ostojić, under suspicion that this was a group of Croatian citizens paid by foreign intelligence services to misdirect the public and Hague prosecutor Carla del Ponte with the news that then-Hague fugitive Ante Gotovina was living in Croatia. The charge sheet had four items. One of the items stated, as quoted by Globus, that Turek had protected Ratko Knežević without authorization, that agents of the POA, on the basis of Turek’s decisions, had watched over and physically protected Knežević on the territory of Zagreb and the Republic of Croatia. It was claimed that Knežević  had, with the help of this intelligence agency, become a Croatian citizen, registered in Croatia at the Zagreb address of Hrvoje Petrač. The explanation of who Ratko Knežević was said among other things that he had become active in the US as the authorised lobbyist of some tobacco and car companies and that after his parting with Milo Đukanović had found refuge with the cigarette trader Hrvoje Petrač. It is thought that Knežević in fact obtained Croatian citizenship and protection from the POA with the help of Petrač.

Partnership with Knežević: Vojin Lazarević
Photo: Dragan Kujundžić
PETRAČ’S TRANSCRIPTS REVEALED THE CRIMINAL ACTIVITIES OF RATKO

KNEŽEVIĆ: The Tobacco Affair lasted more than 40 weeks. The Serbian and Montenegrin media constantly vied to be first to publish the accusations launched in Nacional. A turning-point in this affair came about when the Belgrade weekly Nedeljni Telegraf published transcripts of the wire-tapped conversations of mafia boss Hrvoje Petrač, gathered in the course of their crime investigations by the Croatian state authorities by order of the special prosecutor Radovan Ortynski. The ‘Petrač Affair’ illustrated how Croatia, via its mafia, established contact with Serbian organised crime in order to make huge profits and cause political damage to the legally elected government in Serbia and Montenegro. The transcript showed that Hrvoje Petrač had been smuggling drugs, weapons and tobacco.

The published transcripts revealed the close ties between Knežević and the mafia boss Petrač (currently

serving a jail sentence). It was established that Ratko Knežević and his wife were living in the apartment of the criminal Petrač and that they were properly registered at that address (Pantovčak 196, Zagreb). The transcripts showed that Knežević had directly participated in Petrač’s tobacco smuggling negotiations. The Croatian prosecutor’s document stated:

“At 8pm Petrač called Ratko. Ratko said he was coming tomorrow evening but that he had not talked to Puki about

Č ačić (Radimir, government minister). On another line Petrač spoke to Puki and passed the conversation on to Ratko. Puki said that there was a government session yesterday and that Čačić had wanted to leave the meeting because he hadn't got any money from the budget. Petrač wanted to meet with Čačić as maybe they could get hold of money for building roads. Ratko  said he was sitting with a friend from Nikšić who lived in Lugan and that they were talking about the product that they worked with too.  Petrač asked if he had ‘original red’ (probably Marlboro). Petrač said that he had buyers for that and asked if delivery could be Antwerp. Person Unknown said it could”.

The published transcripts show how the Croatian mafia boss ordered a beating via Ratko Knežević: “At 11:07 p.m., Hrvoje called Ratko Knežević on 0038169015500 and asked him if little Josip Selendič was with him and his company.  Ratko replied that he was not, that he was with Tomo and Pajo. Petrač then told him that supposedly Selendič was mouthing off about Petrač and Puki (Ivo Pukanić), and about how Ratko would now also be appearing in the newspapers. Petrač finished by telling Ratko to tell Pajo, that if little Selendič appeared, to give him a bit of a slapping.

Ratko Knežević was so close to Petrač that he even used his mobile phone to arrange a meeting with Žare YU San, Petrač’s Serbian connection. At 6:54 p.m., Ratko Knežević  phoned an unknown male person from Petrač’s phone whom he referred to as Bajica (Žare Yu San, Petrač’s Serbian connection) on +38169012483. He was bringing him some cassettes and other things sent to him by Olja, and Ratko asked him to bring over a couple of bottles of wine because he and Hrvoje needed them for some people. Ratko and another person would meet him at the airport.

The publication of Petrač’s transcripts caused uproar in Croatia. The main players in the 'Petrač Affair’ tried to deny their connection with the criminal dealings of the mafia boss. The Belgrade Nedeljni Telegraf wrote that Knežević had called journalists in the Serbian media and asked them to ignore Petrač’s transcripts and not publish them. Within the space of a few days, as the Petrač Affair was gathering pace, Knežević gave several interviews in which he tried to deny the claims from the Croatian police transcripts. He claimed that he was not involved in cigarette smuggling and that he did not live in Petrač’s apartment but had his own apartment in Zagreb. Nevertheless, Knežević admitted that he had known Petrač for a very long time, as “a very dear and talented, multidisciplinary businessman”. When asked during an interview for Vijesti radio and television station in October 2009 about his relationship with Hrvoje Petrač, the Lepoglava Prison convict who was serving a jail sentence for the kidnapping of the young son of General Zagorec, Knežević said that he had not done any business with Petrač and reduced his relationship with him to shared skiing trips!

That Knežević and Petrač did not just ski together, bu that there was also a definite interest that connected the controversial 'businessman' and the Croatian mafia boss, was shown by documents obtained by the Serbian intelligence agency. Among other things, the information shows that there was a business connection between Ratko Knežević and Hrvoje Petrač.

It states that Ivo Pukanić (whom Ratko Knežević  had lent a lot of money ), connected Knežević with the then-Croatian Army general Vladimir Zagorec, and that with the help of Vjekoslav Brajević from the Croatian MUP and Hrvoje Petrač they had organised the import of S-300 missiles, key components of which ended up in Israel.

THE DOMESTIC VIOLENCE OF RATKO

KNEŽEVIĆ: In Feburary 1998, Ratko Knežević was married in Milan to Olja Raičević. From day one their marriage was accompanied by incidents, often physical conflict. The police often had to get involved as a result. The violence in their relationship continued in Croatia, and even in London. Although almost all the clashes ended in nothing more than a police visit, in May 2007,Olja publicly accused her husband of violence.

After one of the frequent arguments with her husband, Olja Knežević took the children and took refuge from her husband in Montenegro with her mother. Ratko Knežević accused his wife of kidnapping the children and reported her to police. In the Podgorica Vijesti of 26th May 2007, Knežević's wife testified to the violence she had experienced at the hands of her husband. She claimed that she had agreed with Knežević on a divorce by mutual consent, but that after that he had begun to send her threatening messages, filed criminal charges against her and that out of fear she had initiated court proceedings in Podgorica. The police acted on a court decision and deported Knežević’s two children to the border with Croatia, where Knežević took them. His wife Olja went with the children and, as she told Vijesti, after crossing the border, Ratko Knežević took her passport from her.

Knežević’s mother-in-law Ljiljana Raičević accused her son-in-law's lawyer of "organising and paying for everything, which is why the family is almost certain that there was corruption involved in the case". Yesterday her daughter, she said, “had suffered a nervous breakdown, and the state had not protected her from a violent man". The friends of Ljiljana Raičević believe that the main reason why she founded the Women’s Safe House in Podogorica, which helps female victims of abuse, was the fact that her daughter had for years also been a victim of domestic violence.

RUNNING FOR PRESIDENT - ANOTHER OF KNEŽEVIĆEV’S SWINDLES: The character of Ratko Knežević can perhaps best be illustrated by a sentence he uttered, when asked to describe himself, to a journalist from NIN in an interview (28th February 1997): “It’s bad taste to talk about yourself, especially when you have to do it in superlatives – and I am a man of taste!”

I'm so handsome and intelligent: Ratko Knežević, man of taste
PHOTO: Stock

With such a phenomenal opinion of himself, Ratko Knežević came to the conclusion that he would make an excellent candidate for president of Montenegro. In an interview for the Ekspres daily (12th August 2002) Knežević confidently stated: "I have no more doubts! I'm definitely going to run" and added “All the opinion polls, which we have been conducting once monthly since February, show that my popularity is growing...” Such was the growth in his popularity, Knežević claimed, that his victory was almost a foregone conclusion. The extent to which Ratko Knežević had deluded himself and imagined that he had a good chance in the presidential elections can be seen from the advertisements which he regularly published in Podgorica and Belgrade newspapers, presenting himself as a businessman and the perfect candidate for the president of Montenegro.

Ultimately, of course, Knežević's candidacy came to nothing. People close to him persuaded him that it would be an embarrassment of unimagined proportions, that he had no political support and that by trying his hand in the elections he would only become a topic of ridicule in Montenegro.

However, having convinced himself that he had a good chance in the election, Ratko Knežević made serious preparations to run in the presidential elections. The media (Borba, 29th jul 2003) reported that he had signed a contract with the Washington agency BGR for them to run the ‘American’ side of his presidential campaign. Knežević then set out in search of money which he sought from various American foundations. Promising the earth to all and sundry, he managed to secure $2 million. However that money was never used for its intended purpose. There was no presidential campaign, either in Montenegro or in America! Knežević collected the money and left the USA! Thus the BGR agency lost the business, but that was not their only loss: Knežević left this company with expenses totalling $60,000. This was money which Knežević had spent on phone bills, expensive hotels and plane tickets. When the agency realised it had been robbed it was already too late. Knežević, as was his custom, had disappeared leaving debt in his wake.

After his fruitless attempt to launch himself into the position of president of Montenegro – this coinciding somehow with the appearance of more and more information revealing Knežević's and Pukanić’s connections with mafia boss Hrvoj Petrač – Ratko Knežević disappeared from the public eye.

His Croatian protectors and connections had disappeared almost completely: Hrvoje Petrač was in prison, the boss of the Croatian counterintelligence service Franjo Turek had been replaced, William Montgomery had been driven out of the diplomatic service, Ivo Pukanić was dead. Business was not good for Knežević either – he was not making any money in Britain, where he was living, his company closed down. He followed his old recipe and, as in previous situations, looked for some new 'masters'. This time he would try to ingratiate himself with the Serbian authorities whom it suited, for political reasons – primarily because Montenegro, despite obstruction from Serbia and Serbian politicians, was now an independent country – to continually stoke the fires under the story of cigarette smuggling and the supposed involvement of Milo Đukanović in various criminal dealings.

Knežević’s protector: Franjo Turek
Photo: Stock
EIGHT YEARS LATER, THE SAME ALL OVER AGAIN: So, 8 years after the launch of the Tobacco Affair, in July 2009, Ratko Knežević, without having been provoked into doing so or accused of anything, without clear cause or purpose, reappeared in the media and began to make very serious accusations against Milo Đukanović and Stanko Subotić. First in the Montenegro daily Vijesti (20th July 2009) and then several days later in the Belgrade daily Blic (12th August 2009), Knežević accused  Đukanović and Subotić of the most serious crimes: contract killings, organising the smuggling of tobacco, abuse of office, even planning the murder of Serbian President Boris Tadić. Podgorica daily Vijesta published this interview in instalments. The interview was signed by Mila Radulović, a former Belgrade journalist whose sister Dragana Manojlović had first written headline articles in Montenegro in the newspaper Dan during 2001 and 2002 about the Tobacco Affair, and later in the Belgrade tabloid Kurir had lead the campaign to discredit the charges against the killers of prime minister Đinđić.

The Belgrade media, especially those under the influence of the ruling Democratic Party, relayed the interview, not bothering to investigate the veracity of the accusations made by Knežević, or even to check some very easily verified facts. Knežević had particular media support from government circles, primarily those close to the Democratic Party, despite the fact that during the Tobacco Affair in 2001 and 2002 then-president of this party, Zoran Đinđić, was the target of a campaign waged against him by Ratko Knežević and Ivo Pukanić...

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