Scores of private cars are queuing up on the narrow border road between mountains and a lake, their tanks filled at petrol stations lining the routenorth of the town of Shkoder. Many of them carry extra barrels or jerrycans in the boot and under the back seat.
Almost invariably, the cars glide past Albanian police and customs posts without inspection. Once on the Montenegrin side of the border, they are met by buyers ready to siphon off the petrol and pay hard currency for it at a rate handsomely above the retail price in Albania.
The trade has been going on for months, despite pledges by the government in Tirana to halt the sanctions-busting.
The Albanian authorities appear to have been assiduous in stopping the barges and container boats that until two weeks ago were plying the water routes across the border - either across Lake Shkoder or along the Buna river. The fuel trucks that until recently were taking 700,000 litres or more of fuel each day have also been stopped. But so far the police seem indifferent to the well established traffic in private cars taking the only road route into Montenegro.
"Stop us? You must be joking. We've been coming every day as usual," said one driver in a large white Mercedes whose back end sagged noticeably. "The only difference is that you don't see any barges out on the lake any more."
Two weeks ago the Albanian interior ministry issued a statement claiming that it had cracked down hard on the whole business. It said the police had seized 15 floating tankers, four tanker trucks and one lorry, closed down 10 fuel pumps and established six road blocks operating 24 hours a day.
Furthermore, the ministry said it had issued an order outlawing the sale of petrol within an unspecified distance from the border, banning all navigation down the Buna and restricting use of the lake to tourists and fishing boats.
A visit to the area on Friday, corroborated by other independent reports, suggested that the water routes had indeed been blocked off. Police launches have been seen patrolling Lake Shkoder and speedboats, seized from smugglers carrying clandestine immigrants to Italy from the Albanian port of Vlora, are believed to be on their way.
But the 20-mile road from Shkoder to the border post of Hani I Hotit remains a free-for-all. On Friday only two of the promised six police checkpoints were in evidence, one just outside Shkoder and the other next to the border. Some drivers were asked to show their identity papers, but no more.
At least 34 filling stations lined the route, around nine of which looked either very new or, in a few cases, in the process of being built. It was not possible to verify how many, if any, had been forced to close in the last two weeks, but the majority were open and busy serving customers.
The nearest filling station was less than a mile from the border, right under the noses of the policeman and army guard checking passports.
It is impossible to tell how much fuel is reaching Montenegro and Serbia from Albania, although Western intelligence estimates suggest it could be the single most important outside source of petrol and diesel. Serbia itself is believed to provide around half the fuel on its own market, followed by Albania, then Croatia (via a gas pipeline), Romania (along the Danube), Macedonia and Hungary. One can nevertheless make some rough calculations. Vehicles, most of them Mercedes and other bulky cars, pass across the border as early as 2am and continue well into the evening. At breakfast time, the most crowded moment in the day, the queue can be 60 or 70 cars long.
Assuming an average of 20 cars an hour cross the border for 10 hours a day (a very cautious estimate), and each car carries 50 litres (also very cautious, since a Mercedes can easily carry 50 litres in the tank and another 50 under the back seat), then one can calculate that at least 10,000 litres of fuel are crossing the border each day. The true figure may be up to five times that much.
The Albanians have some excuses for the laxity. As the poorest country in Europe, they badly lack resources to combat smuggling, even if they wanted to. It also so happens that the government is in the process of reorganising the finance police - who would have been responsible for anti-smuggling operations in the past - into tax and customs divisions. But above all the Albanians feel the lack of outside help, both in their policing efforts and in countering the economic ill effects they have felt as a neighbour of the country under embargo.Reuse content