It's a beautiful day along Montenegro's Adriatic coast. The air is warm, the sun is high and Miljan Vujosevic cruises along in his rickety old station wagon to a beach known only to locals. But Vujosevic isn't on vacation. This trip is all about business.
His native Bay of Kotor, the only fjord on the Adriatic Sea and a Unesco World Heritage site, is in danger. He grew up in this idyllic corner of the Balkans and in recent years, he has watched as his home has grown increasingly popular with tourists.
Formerly part of Yugoslavia, Montenegro rests on Europe's southeastern flank. It has no raw materials, no real industry to speak of and little chance of ever joining the European Union. As compensation, it relies heavily on tourism to prop up its economy. But tourism is a double-edged sword, and it is threatening to destroy the tiny Balkan country.
The Bay of KotorFoto: Stevan Kordic
New apartments and resorts are under construction all along the Adriatic coast, but the building frenzy is strongest in the Bay of Kotor. Montenegrin municipalities, along with big and small investors alike, have been swept up in the gold rush. And should any pesky bureaucratic hurdles emerge, many local authorities -- including those who issue building permits -- have no qualms about accepting bribes. Anyone who cries foul and tries to expose this corrupt system will almost certainly run into trouble.
Miljan Vujosevic is one such person.
Trashing Ancient Ruins
The 46-year-old is a full-time programmer and IT expert who is no stranger to receiving threats. Most are anonymous, either by email or phone. The perpetrators have "encouraged" him to think about his family, his children's future. His car has been vandalized more than once. Someone even tried to set it on fire. The police did not investigate.
But Vujosevic refuses to remain silent. "My family has lived here for more than 400 years. This is our home," he says. "At some point, I couldn't sit by any longer and watch everything become disfigured and destroyed."
Miljan VujosevicFoto: Stevan Kordic
The narrow road along which Vujosevic is driving today winds over mountains, past old olive groves and through forests with acacias, pines, cypresses, cacti and palm trees. It meanders through small villages with centuries-old stone homes and churches. And finally, in the Bay of Zanjic, it leads to "Ribarsko Selo," a luxury resort with bungalows built into the cliffside, a gourmet restaurant and private water access. It was because of this complex that Vujosevic founded the initiative "Bokobran" with some of his friends.
From the resort's lofty perch, visitors can enjoy sweeping views that stretch all the way to the Adriatic Sea. There was once a fortress here and part of the old fortification wall can still be seen between trees and undergrowth. Today, the owner of "Ribarsko Selo" uses the space next to the ancient ruins as a dumping ground for trash, construction debris and scrap metal.
An archeological site next to a luxury resort that is now used as a dumping groundFoto: Stevan Kordic
According to contemporary Montenegrin regulations for undeveloped archaeological sites, construction at this site should never have taken place without an exhaustive preliminary investigation by experts, Vujosevic says. Experts should have assessed the area's cultural and historical value and, having found any, they should have imposed a ban on construction within a radius of several hundred meters. This would have included the luxury resort next door.
But there never was any such assessment. The owner of the property, Dejan Davidovic, had the resort erected within a few months in summer 2017.
Along with an archeologist friend of his, Vujosevic secretly mapped the site, photographed the new buildings and took videos with a drone. The duo submitted the documentation -- and a formal complaint -- to the Directorate for Protection of Cultural Heritage of Montenegro and to the public prosecutor's office. So far, their report has gone answered.
Local activists take photos of illegal constructions and misuse of historic cultural sites.Foto: Stevan Kordic
Construction workers toss rusty metal fencing between the ancient walls. Vujosevic snaps a few photos of the site. He intends to submit the photos to the local authorities and inquire whether they intend to do anything about it. He then walks down the stone path to the restaurant to speak with Davidovic, but he's told the businessman is unavailable. Davidovic didn't respond to inquiries from DER SPIEGEL asking about building permits and expert assessments.
Montenegro is the only country in the world that defines itself as "ecological" in its own constitution. In fact, it's in the very first article. Government officials are keen to mention this fact during interviews. The responsible cabinet department is called the "Ministry for Sustainable Development and Tourism." Montenegro's official tourism slogan is, "Wild Beauty."
Up to five cruise ships used to dock every day in Kotor. Now it's only an average of two.Foto: Stevan Kordic
Activists like Vujosevic find this cynical. In the "Yale Environmental Performance Index" (EPI), of the world's leading rankings of environmental standards and sustainable development, Montenegro scored near the bottom in Europe, along with Macedonia, Serbia, Ukraine and Moldova. The index cited the prevalence of sewage flowing untreated into the soil, rivers or the sea, hundreds of illegal garbage dumps sullying nature and the implementation of many infrastructure, hydropower and oil-drilling projects without any regard for the environment.
To be sure, the number of tourists -- and the demand for hotels -- is also rising in countries like Albania, Bulgaria, Croatia and Romania. But Montenegro has seen, by far, the most ruthless exploitation of its coastline. There is hardly any stretch of coast left untouched.
Anyone who wants to do business in Montenegro would be well advised to maintain close ties to Milo Djukanovic, the country's president, and his party, the Democratic Party of Socialists of Montenegro (DPS). Djukanovic has been in power in Montenegro for 30 years, whether as president, prime minister or as the head of the ruling political party. His brother owns a majority stake in the country's largest bank. For investors, there is no way around Djukanovic's sister, a business lawyer. Djukanovic's son owns a finance, IT and energy empire.
The luxury resort "Dobrota Palazzi" has an artificial beach that was created despite local regulations. The owner is the nephew of Montenegro's president.Foto: Stevan Kordic
Under "Milo's" rule, as the president is known to Montenegrins, large stretches of the Adriatic coast have been sold to private companies and individuals, local businessmen and party functionaries and rich Russians and Arabs. Of course, Djukanovic's allies also head the Ministry of Sustainable Development and Tourism, which is responsible for greenlighting plans for development.
Too Many Tourists
The town of Kotor, from which the scenic bay gets its name, was an important Adriatic trading hub in the Middle Ages. Its historic city center is among southeastern Europe's most precious destinations and Kotor has been one of the top sites for tour operators in the eastern Mediterranean for several years, attracting several thousand tourists a day during the high season. Many arrive via bus from nearby Croatia, though the lion's share come via cruise ship.
Cruise ships approach the city of Kotor.Foto: Stevan Kordic
Around 9:30 a.m., Ana Nives Radovic walks through Kotor's historic district to her office. Already hundreds of tourists crowd the narrow streets. They take selfies as tour guides recite the same thing in English, Spanish, French, Russian and Chinese. Shop owners hawk souvenirs while waiters canvass for customers. Radovic waits patiently, again and again, for tourists to finish taking their photos. "Many people here condemn tourism overall," she says, "but I think it just needs to be organized differently."
Radovic, 35, has been the director of the Tourism Organisation of Kotor for nearly two years. She has degrees in economics, tourism and finance economics, EU law and block chain technology. She speaks six languages fluently. Her goal is to save her hometown from collapse through overtourism.
She has watched cruise ship tourism with increasing unease in recent years, she says. "The city administration only cared about docking fees," she says, "otherwise there has been no tourism management." This was the reason she applied to be the director of the tourism office. "I'm not an activist. I don't speak publicly about politics," she says. "I just wanted to try and change something."
Ana Nives Radovic, the director of the local tourism office in KotorFoto: Stevan Kordic
She negotiated with cruise lines to reduce the number of ships calling at port each day in Kotor. Rather than four or five massive cruise liners arriving as it was before, now it's only an average of two. There are even some days in the summer when no ships drop anchor in the bay. "Cruise operators are willing to cooperate because they want to shake their reputation as polluters," Radovic says. "It's a business matter too. They want the places where their ships dock to remain authentic and not be destroyed."
Most people trying to exploit Montenegro's tourism industry for all it's worth, however, don't have this much foresight.
A Special Place
It's evening and the environmentalist Miljan Vujosevic decides to head to one of his favorite swimming spots in Dobrota, a suburb of Kotor, where he grew up.
Around two years ago, there used to be a park near Vujosevic's spot. He went there a lot as a kid to fish and it's where he taught his own children to swim. But a few years ago, a young businessman named Edin Kolarevic bought the property. He's the nephew of President Milo Djukanovic.
Kolarevic erected the "Dobrota Palazzi" resort here in 2017, a complex of luxury villas and apartments with an artificial private beach. The law technically forbade the construction of such a beach, but Vujosevic says legal regulations and historical documents were bent into shape. The media in Montenegro covered the case extensively and there were a number of protests.
The "Ribarsko Selo" luxury resort. Its construction was illegal according to Montenegrin laws and UNESCO World Heritage regulations.Foto: Stevan Kordic
"My entire life is connected to this place," Vujosevic says. "My heart bleeds when I see this. None of our protests made any difference, simply because the uncle of the man who built this is the most powerful man in the country."
Later, when he gets back to his modest 1.5-room apartment in Budva, a town south of Kotor, he tells his wife Mirjana about his day. She keeps quiet and listens, her face betraying no emotion. She often worries about him, but she doesn't try to stop him from protesting. She understands his indignation.
She worked as a port engineer for a long time until she was laid off in 2003. The reason, she says, was because she was not a sympathizer of Djukanovic's ruling party. Since then, she has worked as a saleswoman in boutiques during the summer season. "I'm proud of what my husband is doing," she says. "Unfortunately, it doesn't seem to be helping. It's a shame, especially for our kids. They have no future here as honest citizens."
The next morning, Miljan Vujosevic calls the responsible public prosecutor about the "Ribarsko Selo" case. It's not the first time he's done so, and like every other time, he's turned away. Yet he keeps inquiring about the current status of the case. They can't be led to believe he's ever going to give up.
The man on the other end of the line says his office is waiting for various documents. Before they receive them, they won't be able to decide whether to file charges or close the investigation. Then he hangs up.
This piece is part of the Global Societies series. The project runs for three years and is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
The Global Societies series involves journalists reporting in Asia, Africa, Latin America and Europe on injustices, societal challenges and sustainable development in a globalized world. A selection of the features, analyses, photo essays, videos and podcasts, which originally appear in DER SPIEGEL’s Foreign Desk section, will also appear in the Global Societies section of DER SPIEGEL International. The project is initially scheduled to run for three years and receives financial support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.