"Welcome to Montenegro. Your car may already be here." So goes a saying in this tiny mountainous republic that, along with Serbia, forms the remainder of Yugoslavia.
It's an open secret here that Montenegro is the best hot-car market in Europe: new models, priced to go. Most of the inventory, however, appears on Interpol's list of stolen vehicles. The international police agency has no authority here, for Yugoslavia, a pariah state, has no relationship with Interpol.
"We have little money, but we do drive nice cars," says a taxi driver with a knowing smirk, sitting behind the wheel of his 1998 Mercedes 180C, a diesel model. The driver, who declined to be identified, says he picked it up for just under $10,000 - about half the cost in Germany for the same used model.
The bargains jump out in the classified section of Podgorica's Vjesti newspaper. The "owner" of a loaded 1999 Audi A3, 1800, wants $6,000. A 1994 BMW 730i sells for $3,000. Almost-new Porches, Renaults, Jeeps, Alfa Romeos, and Toyotas can be had for under $10,000.
In many cases, it isn't just Montenegrins who are benefiting from the scams.
Sinisa, a longtime member of a car-theft gang, explains how the cars arrive.
"There's the old rent-a-car scam with fake papers, but that's for amateurs," he says. "The best method is to find someone in, say, Germany, who needs extra money and who is willing to have his car stolen. We drive the car over, and the owner declares it stolen once it's already here. The owner collects his insurance policy, plus a bonus from us, depending on what kind of car it is. Few cars stay in Montenegro or Serbia, and most often continue to the Middle East."
The most popular car in the Balkans is the ubiquitous Volkwagen Golf, generally selling for $1,000 to $3,000, depending on the year and model. For those who like to buy American, a 1998 Ford Fiesta, with 15,000 miles, can be had for $2,500.
While you can't get a loan for a car purchase and Podgorica's used-car lot offers no credit, compromises can always be found. One ad offers to trade "high-quality dried meat for a car." The meat worth a car was the local Njegos prosciutto.
Legitimate owners justify a higher price by advertising "100 percent legal!" But legal cars seem to be the exception - they are simply too expensive for the majority of Montenegrins to afford.
On Sundays, a large dirt field on the outskirts of Podgorica becomes a used car lot. A bored-looking police officer approaches a teenager sitting in an almost- new Audi to ask, "Where did you get this car?" The cop is soon on his way. "He just wants to make sure it wasn't stolen in Montenegro," says the teenager.
Car registration in Montenegro is a simple process with few questions - and no link to European police agencies.
At a time when Montenegro's political situation is tenuous, Western countries are inclined to look the other way at Montenegro's dirty little secret.
Montenegro is a key part of the West's effort to isolate Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, indicted for war crimes last year by the Hague Tribunal. Montenegro's President Milo Djukanovic has allied himself with the West and has consequently received financial and diplomatic blessings from the European Union and the US State Department.
Though Montenegro is notorious as a place teeming with stolen goods, Western countries are anxious to protect the republic's image. While the Milosevic regime often categorizes the Djukanovic administration as a bunch of criminals and smugglers, the West points to the Djukanovic government as an example of ethnic tolerance that is a model for the Balkans.
Meanwhile, Montenegrins are reaping the fruits of a shady trade.
The deals don't stop at cars. Podgorica's main street, Sloboda Ulica (Freedom Street), is filled with people dressed in Italy's latest fashions, their luxury cars parked in front of busy cafes, where mobile phones lie next to cups of espresso and ashtrays.
A visitor would never guess that Montenegro's average monthly salary is less than $100 per month.
Montenegrins have a reputation in the Balkans for valuing the good life. "Visitors often say that it seems nobody does anything in Podgorica, that the cafes are filled with well-dressed people sipping coffee all day," says a cosmetics "importer" named Milos.
Yet there is hardly any industry to provide jobs for Montenegro's 600,000 citizens, aside from a smattering of of fishing, textile and tourism. Factories are shut down. The republic imports much of its food.
The stolen car trade could be seen as a legacy of Montenegro's geographical location and history. With wealthy Italy to the West, and Balkan mayhem in other directions, Montenegro is a natural transit point for goods across the Balkans.
In their defense, Montenegrins say they're only doing what they've done for hundreds of years. This independent people eked out a living for centuries on one of the most inhospitable pieces of European territory while surrounded by Ottoman Turks. The land is so undesirable that the Turks simply gave up trying to conquer what was then a much smaller Montenegro.
Just as they receive Western patronage today for their role as a buffer state, in the 19th-century Russia supported Montenegro for similar political reasons.
In this context, Montenegrins spent centuries raiding and smuggling to survive. Hot cars can be seen as part of that tradition.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society