Rows of tents outside Montenegrin parliament/facebook.com/SlobodaTrazi.Me. Photos used with permission of author.As I write these lines from an overcrowded, ad hoc assembled press HQ facing the Parliament of Montenegro in Podgorica, I shudder to think of what success our risky and implausible endeavor will yield.
On 27 September, thousands of Montenegrin citizens, led by the main opposition group (the Democratic Front), gathered in front of their parliament to demand an end to the 26 year rule of Milo Djukanovic’s regime. The resignation of Djukanovic’s government would be followed, it was hoped, by the formation of a transitional, national unity government, whose mandate would be limited to organising the first free and fair elections in the country’s history.
Since then, the protesters have put up tents on a boulevard which has become known as ‘liberated territory’; across the barricades, a thousand policemen in full armor stand guard outside an empty parliament building, on top of which snipers are dispersed. Last Sunday, the Ministry of Interior attempted to disband the assembled crowd, but the protests’ leaders refused to leave the occupied ground until their demands were met.
Anti-Government rallies have also taken place in three other cities – the organisers’ plan is to spread this wave of popular revolt to every municipality in which Djukanovic’s party holds power, thus making the movement nation-wide.
Meanwhile, from our press tent, I have been involved in running an international crowdfunding campaign to support the Montenegrin protests. Without the funds, the logistics or the manpower to mount a credible challenge to Djukanovic, the protests’ organisers have been forced to think outside of the box. Indeed, the prospect of the protests being the first political event of their kind to be sustained by small individual donations (‘citizen-driven and citizen-funded’, as they point out) is as out-of-the-box as it gets.
As partial as I am to this fundraising novelty it appears as though, even at this early stage of development, the protests have brought to the fore a far more pertinent point – one that may contribute to the understanding of the role of elections in authoritarian regimes.
This point becomes clear once the protesters’ fundamental goal is considered. Although the grievances against Djukanovic’s rule – a quarter-century period marked by theft, corruption and the proliferation of organised crime – form a powerful rallying cry, regime change is posited not as an end in itself, but as the inevitable sine qua non for achieving free and fair elections. Thus construed, the protesters’ goal reveals an underlying premise about elections in Montenegro: namely, that winning elections by rigging the vote is not some nuisance that Djukanovic has to put up with every now and then – it is the source of his regime’s legitimacy.
Before the tents
The decision of the Montenegrin opposition to take their struggle to the streets has been mulled over since 2013. In April that year, the presidential candidate around whom the opposition rallied had narrowly lost to Djukanovic’s aide, in what was called ‘the largest instance of election fraud to date’.
This election was held in the wake of a Watergate-like scandal that shook the nation: leaked audio tapes of the ruling Democratic Party of Socialists’ committee sessions, held in 2012, showed the leadership (including Djukanovic himself) hammering out strategies of buying votes for the upcoming electoral cycle.
“By getting jobs for our people, we’re raising our numbers, and lowering theirs. We get one person hired – we get four votes for DPS [Democratic Party of Socialists],” the former Chief of the State Employment Agency was caught saying on tape, “Putting money into these [partisan] hiring practices is not a waste, but an investment”.
The hiring scheme described by the abovementioned official runs as follows: the party operatives pull strings to get people hired in the public sector (which the regime controls) or in large private companies (which have strong crony ties to the regime). The new employees and their families are henceforth blackmailed into voting for Djukanovic’s party, and the fate of their career depends on the number of people they manage to tout and recruit.
Keeping one’s job requires mere compliance; any thought of promotion, let alone to a managerial post, demands a surplus of partisan zeal. The country’s labour market is thoroughly pervaded by this scheme – with the possible exception of high-level nepotism, free competition has transformed into a competitive vote-fetching contest.
This, however, is just one of the many techniques of electoral fraud developed and perfected by Djukanovic’s regime over the decades. Another one is the so-called ‘safe vote’ database – a massive collection of private information about every single registered voter in Montenegro. A small fraction of these spreadsheets were seized by opposition activists from one of the DPS’s local headquarters: its rows and columns contained data on voters’ family relations, sexual preferences, criminal records, treatable illnesses and anything else that could be used to coerce and extort.
This Orwellian monstrosity is meticulously updated by the party’s army of operatives, almost all of whom have strong ties to the National Security Agency, whose activity is structured around city districts. “Every district is led by the district’s chief, under whose supervision are 20 field leaders, each commanding a group of 10 to 15 field workers”, revealed an anonymous whistleblower in 2013.
With the help of the 'safe vote' database, Djukanovic’s party members are able to accurately target opposition-leaning voters, offer bribes (sometimes as small as a sack of flour), favours (e.g. covering unpaid electricity bills) or money in exchange for ID documents (required at the polls in order to cast a vote). On Election Day, the party’s field workers are dispatched near polling sites, conducting a head count of those who turned out and making note of those missing.
All line Ministries, Governmental Agencies and State-run Funds are harnessed to this electoral end. They have been firmly subjugated to serve Djukanovic's vote rigging goals, behaving more like campaign headquarters and less like institutions of governance.
For instance, the State Labour Fund had spent €4.3 million on severance packages during the election year (2014) - a 300% increase from the year before. As tapes from the ruling party’s committee meetings showed, this money was disbursed exclusively to the party’s members. “We’re expecting a lot from the State Labour Fund”, the Minister of Sustainable Development was heard pondering; “It’s also important that we channel the Fund’s severance money directly towards our membership”, one city Major retorted.
Another such telling example is the State Police which has been reduced over time to Djukanovic's private Praetorian Guard: wiretapping opposition figures, silencing dissidents and mediating between the regime’s political and criminal vertices. In 2013, an ex-member of the State’s Antiterrorist Unit publicly spoke about the activities of the so-called ‘black troikas’, three-member units, allegedly assembled and overseen by Montenegro’s Chief of Police himself, with the mission of battering prominent journalists and anti-regime activists.
This loss of institutional autonomy has been gradual and the process was led with a steady hand. One by one, echelons of the State nomenclature were overtaken by party apparatchiks whose only true competence was whipping votes. At first, only the top-level decision-making positions were hijacked in this manner; with time, however, this became the case with mid-level posts as well. Today, the top-down route has reached its end, as the lines of hiring ‘by the Party and for the Party’ extend to over-the-counter, reception-desk and janitorial jobs.
Each gig, no matter how small or underpaid, entails a commensurate service to the party during election seasons. In this domain, a perverse kind of free competition emerges – one where public administrators are judged by their merits, but wherein partisan efficiency is the sole criteria of adjudication.
Protestors gather outside the Montenegrin parliament building/facebook.com/SlobodaTrazi.Me. Photos used with permission of author.
'Smoke and mirrors'
In the 26 years of Djukanovic’s hold on power in Montenegro, few things have been constant. An ally of Slobodan Milosevic and notorious warmonger in the early 1990s, Djukanovic switched sides in 1996, eventually becoming a full-fledged advocate for Montenegro’s EU accession and NATO membership.
Once a communist firebrand, Djukanovic came to embrace neoliberalism, privatising the bulk of the country’s industry during the 2000s. A staunch defender of the Yugoslav union throughout the 1990s, Djukanovic had a change of heart around 2004, trading militant Serbian nationalism, on whose wave he’d once ridden, for a l'etat c'est moi version of the Montenegrin sovereignist sentiment.
Throughout this time, Djukanovic’s politics has been smoke and mirrors to service the unrelenting appetites of a tight-knit, kin-based group of kleptocrats.
In the 1990s, while Montenegro (then a part of Yugoslavia) was suffering the effects of severe war sanctions, Djukanovic’s government decided to replenish its exchequer by sponsoring an international cigarette smuggling ring, on top of which was Djukanovic himself. Soon, it became evident that a much larger-than-intended share of the spoils went to private pockets. In 2004, Djukanovic was charged with collaborating in organised criminal activity by the Italian judiciary and Italy’s Supreme Court of Cassation issued an international warrant for his arrest.
Since Montenegro was still a constituent republic of the State Union with Serbia, the Court ruled that Djukanovic did not possess the sort of immunity wielded by leaders of sovereign States. From that point on, Djukanovic became the most ardent promoter of Montenegro’s independence – a cause that, two years later, would grant him the needed international immunity of a full-fledged Head of Government.
During the 2000s, Djukanovic managed the privatisation of Montenegro’s state-owned industry. In this process, large-scale theft was more than a mere side occurrence. In fact, to say that the whole business was a government-facilitated land grab, in which Djukanovic’s inner circle took hold of, exsanguinated and eventually bankrupted large chunks of the economy, would not be an unfair summary of what happened.
Between 1998-2014 Montenegro’s industry, whose worth in 1998 was estimated to be $4.5 billion, was sold out for a total of €735 million. Out of the 198 state-owned firms privatised in this period, 176 have gone bankrupt. Some 100,000 workers (approximately one fourth of the country’s workforce) have lost their jobs. Whole conglomerates were sold to phantom firms, each with a few hundred dollars worth of liquid assets at a Cayman Islands bank and, invariably, ownership links to one of Djukanovic’s cronies.
In the process, the inner circle (comprised, among others, of Djukanovic’s brother and sister, personal friends, top political aides and mafia bosses) grew astoundingly rich – a poll ranked Djukanovic the 20th richest world leader in 2010. Some of that wealth may have come from bribes, in addition to theft.
In 2011, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission charged the Hungarian telecommunications firm Magyar Telecom with giving $6 million in bribes to Djukanovic’s sister in a bid to buy Montenegro’s largest telephone operating company. They settled: the accused party paying $95 million in criminal penalties, disgorgement and prejudgment interest.
If these few contours of Montenegro’s political and economic predicament may lend themselves to an immediately pertinent conclusion, it would be that the ongoing anti-regime protests – as unlikely as their success appears – are the only shot that the country has at breaking from Djukanovic’s grip.
A façade democracy
Montenegro is a prime example of a ‘façade democracy’, to use one of the many neologisms coined in recent discourse on democratic transition. Its institutions of governance serve as a façade of order and lawfulness, veiling a corrupt, authoritarian kleptocracy. Objectively, this all-pervasive criminality makes the institutions ungovernable and the government’s basic tasks (e.g. collecting tax revenue from its cronies’ firms) unmanageable. Djukanovic’s success lies in the fact that he has compensated the capacity to govern with the ability to win elections.
This latter ability is not important merely because it suppresses any notion of democratic accountability – it serves a legitimising function as well. Staged elections are the keystone of the fraudulent construction which Djukanovic has systematically erected over the years. Just as free and fair elections serve to validate the rule of governments in genuinely democratic societies, Montenegro’s faux elections legitimise, in an analogous way, the façade by which Djukanovic conceals his true colors.
This is precisely why the ongoing protests may well be a defining moment in the country’s recent political history. The people camping in front of their parliament – joined, for the thirteenth night in a row by their MPs – are sending a powerful debunking message. Their insistence on organising free and fair elections is the most unequivocal rejection that Djukanovic’s democratic façade has suffered to date. As such, it is the first step towards meaningful democratic transition in Montenegro.