Many years ago, as a young shipbroker based in London, I sold a ship from Montenegro to Ethiopia. I was acting on behalf of the sellers, and the buyers had given them an offer that they found hard to resist. We negotiated the price and the terms, and we eventually agreed and signed the contract. The deposit was lodged, and the sellers’ and the buyers’ representatives agreed to meet in Rotterdam where the closing was to take place. I attended too, and arranged to have dinner with Igor, the sellers’ man in charge, in our hotel. I was looking forward to meeting to him in person: he proved to be a giant of a man, a former basketball player – they take it very seriously in Montenegro – but softly spoken, rather stern but at the same time personable and likeable.
We had a pleasant but workmanlike dinner, discussing the issues we had to face the following day – it was by no means going to be straightforward delivery – but as we walked through the lobby to go to the bar for a final drink, Igor caught sight of a television and stopped, frozen in his tracks. A news channel was showing coverage of an aerial bombing campaign: NATO planes, and missiles from ships and submarines were targeting Yugoslavia, and whilst Serbia was taking most of the hits, strategic installations – radar and radio masts, army and air bases – in Montenegro were being hit too. In very simple terms my client’s country was being bombed by an alliance to which my country was a very vocal and military active member. I did not know what to say. Igor helped me out:
“It’s always the big people that make the small people suffer.”
The next day we met the representatives of the buyers and whilst there were a few words of rather bland and glib commiseration for Igor, we got down to business. There was – in want of a better phrase – a cooked up protest on the side of the buyers about the condition of the ship, and compensation was demanded. The problem was that – of course – Igor could not consult with his technical department in Bar, in Montenegro, and had no information or authority to agree to a reduction in the price. In order to get through this impasse the brokers contributed to the compensation from their commissions and so the money was finally agreed and remitted.
But the money, although irrevocably remitted, could not be confirmed received by the sellers. There was no communication with Montenegro, and the receiving bank – also in Montenegro – could not be notified that money was coming, and therefore the ship became the property of the Ethiopians without the cash having arrived in the hands of the sellers. With the threat of sanctions – naturally – in the air it was not at all clear where the many millions of dollars actually were.
There were further complications. There were – it goes without saying – no flights to Montenegro from anywhere. The only way for Igor to get home was to travel to Bari, in South East Italy, and wait for a ferry (run by their company) to get across to Bar in Montenegro. He travelled by land over a few days, and finally got home, safe if somewhat shaken, calling me at regular intervals to report on his progress. We had become friends during the sale of the vessel, and our difficult day during the closing had cemented it.
Three days after the delivery, the funds were confirmed received, and two days later the commission was remitted, much to the disbelief – and relief – of my boss, who thought the whole thing had been a disaster. There is nothing – and I say this with some sadness – like a hefty commission payment to improve the standing of a young broker in a company.
The next year I went to Croatia and Montenegro to visit my clients. It was a wonderful if somewhat disturbing trip at times. I have bought and sold ships for clients in Rijeka, Zadar, Split, Dubrovnik and Bar and visiting clients along that coast was almost like a holiday. Their hospitality was always exemplary, and the food and wine was always excellent.
The disturbing part of the trip was crossing from Croatia in Montenegro, and then travelling through Montenegro to near the Albanian border where Igor’s company was. We were stopped every 10 kilometres or so by the police, checking on traffic, which was not so bad because they were Montenegrin. It was the army, that also had roadblocks, which were the ones to fear: the army was Yugoslavian, or what was left of it by then, and so more than likely Serbian, and therefore hardly pro-British. We were stopped by the army twice, and the search and the questioning was not pleasant.
Why am I telling you all this? Well I was reminded of these travels when I saw the news that a Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius in Lithuania had been forced to land – with a Belarusian fighter jet as an escort – so that one of the passengers, Belarusian journalist and dissident Roman Protasevich, could be taken off and arrested. I will not dwell on the details, nor can I say that any of my rather timid experiences be compared to incarceration by a repressive state, but I do think that there is a worrying pattern.
States have the power – and therefore the ability – to do what they like when they want to get hold of someone who they feel is dangerous. This is not limited to Russia, or Belarus, or Iran, or North Korea. The United States and their policy of extraordinary rendition is much the same thing. Whether this is right, or even whether it infringes the human rights of individuals or groups is not under consideration. Might is right. When states decide to break the laws of other countries, or break international conventions to further their own national interests then it is the small people that suffer, as Igor would say.
Let me extend it further. A ship travelling in international waters, under an inoffensive flag, with mixed international crew, managed from Greece (with a benign European beneficial owner) can be stopped and diverted en route because someone, somewhere deems the cargo, or the cargo owners, or the insurers, or whoever not to their taste. This is done in contravention of national and international laws and conventions, because although these dictate what rights people and companies have, might simply has the right. It will be an outrage, and then forgotten as the next bigger outrage is perpetrated.
Except. The future arrives and it is never as bad as we imagined it. Montenegro is no longer the rather sad Balkan backwater that it used to be. Live moves on because it is the lives of the little people that push things forward eventually despite what the big people do. I went on to sell two more ships – ferries – to Igor’s company, and then I got seduced by Greece, and my life, and my client base changed.
When we consider the geopolitical threats increasingly looming dark on the horizon, it is worthwhile remembering that business, and trade, and human relationships continue to develop, and it is the human relationships themselves that are usually the catalysts to get the problems caused by the ‘big men’ resolved. The solutions are never perfect, but nothing ever is. This, in itself, is reason enough to keep going, and be determined not to let the big men always get their way.