Can Europe Make It?

Montenegro: a fistful of democracy

Despite ostensibly being a Western Balkans success story, the tiny republic of Montenegro still suffers under the arcane rule of a Prime Minister, Milo Đukanović, who legitimises violence against political opponents.

Koča Pavlović
10 March 2014
Prime Minister Milo Đukanović, and his wife, meet the Obamas. US Federal Government photograph. Public Domain.

Prime Minister Milo Đukanović, and his wife, meet the Obamas. US Federal Government photograph. Public Domain.

The interaction between political actors in Montenegro has always been colourful and, more often than not, emotionally charged. I have been a part of that political landscape for some years now. The opposition politicians and those representing the ruling coalition slice each other up with equal ferocity on the parliament floor, in their public speeches, on the pages of the daily papers or in postings on various web portals. A few decades ago, the sharp tongue of the current Prime Minister, Milo Đukanović, had earned him the nickname “the Blade” (Britva). He has been in power since 1989, as both the country’s prime minister and as its president, and is currently serving his seventh prime ministerial term.

Over the last decade or so the opposition politician, Nebojša Medojević and his colleagues in the party he leads, the Movement for Changes (PZP), have been astute, harsh, and passionate critics of the policies enacted by the ruling coalition, and the country’s multi-term Prime Minister, Milo Đukanović, in particular. The leader of the PZP and his party colleagues are by far the most vocal and persistent critics of the decades-long rule of the Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) and its leader, Đukanović.

They frequently point to endemic corruption, gangster privatization, links between the ruling elite and organized crime, and the criminalization of Montenegrin society among other improprieties. Medojević and his colleagues attribute those problems plaguing the Montenegrin society to the flawed policies enacted by the ruling coalition and designed by Milo Đukanović. Lately, some of the new opposition players on the local political scene have also been critical of the ruling DPS and its leader in their parliamentary discussions.

There is nothing exceptional about this setup: the opposition politicians are vocal critics of the government, while the government and the prime minister try to downplay the criticism coming from the opposition parties. Frequent fiery exchanges of political left and right hooks between elected representatives are usually a sign of healthy parliamentary democracy.

But Montenegro does not function as a parliamentary democracy, let alone a healthy one. Its model of governing could be best described as a hybrid regime of a proto-democratic type, in which those tools we commonly associate with democratic system (strong parliament; free elections; efficient and independent judiciary, etc.) exist only to hide the reality of a highly centralised party state whose leadership displays considerable authoritarian tendencies. The leader of the DPS and the country’s Prime Minister, Milo Đukanović, acts as alpha and omega of the local political space.

The current situation in the rapidly changing political landscape in Montenegro points to the change of the dynamics of the interaction between the ruling coalition and the opposition parties. As his grip on power weakens and the criticism of the DPS grows in scope and frequency, and as it becomes clear that the system he had created breeds only nepotism, kleptocracy, corruption, disregard for parliament, and violence directed against the critics, the prime minister responds to his critics in a more authoritarian manner than before.

Over the last year or so, his arguing with political opponents has been characterised by harsh words and insults hurled at opposition MPs. In his press conferences and during the question period, Milo Đukanović shouted at the opposition benches calling his critics rats, drug addicts, criminals and scoundrels, and calling for the “deratization” of Montenegrin politics. His wrath was directed mainly against the PZP and its MPs but he also castigated other opposition politicians.

Some months ago, during the question period, the prime minister called the MP for the Positive Montenegro party, Dritan Abazović, a scoundrel. More recently, after losing control of the municipal government in the coastal city of Ulcinj, he publically wagged his finger to the political representatives of the Albanian population in the region and threatened them. He referred to media critical of his politics and his authoritarian practice of governing as “monsters and Mafiosi” who desire his “physical elimination”. During the 2012 presidential election campaign, Milo Đukanović described the owner of the Vijesti daily as “the leader of non-organized crime whose ambitions are to become the country’s president”.

Some years earlier, in 2009, he called his critics “frustrated individuals and immature political creatures”. It is clear that the Prime Minister has, for some time, been displaying disdain and even hatred towards the institution of parliament, the MPs, free media, and towards any public and well founded criticism directed against his policies.

His critics have not only been on the receiving end of his sharp tongue but have also been victims of physical assaults by oligarchs and the so-called “strategic investment partners” of Mr. Đukanović and his DPS. A worrying trend emerges: Đukanović’s criticism is often followed by an assault on the opposition figure by either a hired thug or a “strategic investment partner of the government” and then, in the most extreme cases, by drive by shooting, or even assassination as in the cases of the newspaper editor, Duško Jovanović and the police inspector, Šćekić.

The latest victim of physical assault was the leader of the opposition PZP, Nebojša Medojević. He was attacked at the terminal at Belgrade airport by the now new owner of the bankrupt aluminum plant in Podgorica and a businessman with close ties to the ruling elite. The attacker admitted to insulting and hitting Medojević because he had to somehow “defend his honor and the honor of his family” against Medojević’s “unfounded accusations” about the lack of transparency in the case of the selling of the said aluminum plant.

While all political and non-governmental actors in Montenegro condemned this despicable act in no uncertain terms, Milo Đukanović chose to understate its severity and shift the blame to the opposition politician. In a speech delivered in Nikšić, one day after this attack occurred, Đukanović condemned violence in principle but said that when the system is not functioning properly people are forced to use tools from the treasure chest of the Montenegrin custom law in order to defend their honor. Those less knowledgeable about the recent history of Montenegro might think that the opposition parties and the PZP had created such a system, and that Đukanović and his DPS had nothing to do with it. Having in mind his history of disdain for the parliament and the institutions of the state, Đukanović’s latest performance confirms that the prime minister indeed hates everyone and everything he is unable to control.  

We have seen nothing new in this latest address by Đukanović. From the day his political career started in earnest in 1990s under the mentoring of Slobodan Milošević, he has governed in the same fashion: by spreading hate, supressing free expression, and supporting the use of “traditional forms of violence” against his critics. All along, he has assured us repeatedly that such methods are effective and appropriate when trying to save face and protect one’s honor and family.

Đukanović is the last person to call honor and dignity to his aid. He was the first and the only prime minister of Montenegro to ever be interrogated as a common criminal by the judiciary of a neighbouring state. It is also rather unwise of him to advocate the use of “traditional methods” in protecting one’s family and personal values because that could come back to haunt him, and he might end up paying dearly for it.

Since the prime minister advocates such manner of resolving arguments he should tell us who else (aside from him and his supporters) would have the right and be allowed to resort to such methods. Do all those citizens of Montenegro that were pushed into war and humiliated by his war mongering rhetoric and expansionist policies of 1990s have the right to employ methods of violence typical for the medieval custom law? Does that right apply to children, parents, spouses, and relatives of all those that Đukanović and his deputy Svetozar Marović, as well as the government controlled Pobjeda daily and the Montenegrin State Television (TVCG) dispatched to wage an aggressive war against our Croatian neighbours? How about all those whose property and family inheritance was stolen by his criminalized structure of power? Could, they swing their clenched fists at the back of his head? Could the family of the assassinated newspaper editor, Duško Jovanović have the right to resort to blood feud? How about the family of the assassinated police inspector, Šćekić? Do they also have the right to defend their honor and dignity by using “traditional methods”? Or, does Đukanović reserves this right only for those belonging to his inner circle?

During his speech in Nikšić, he was glowing because of the violence directed against his most significant political critic. He sounded and looked like a man who condones that kind of violence but never had the courage to himself commit such acts. That, indeed, is one of the lessons we had learned over the last twenty five years: it was always someone else who turned Đukanović’s political disagreements and public threats into acts of violence, drive-by-shootings, assassinations and beatings in dark alleyways. It was never him personally.

Since he entered politics, Milo Đukanović has been surrounded by bodyguards and criminals. That is the world in which even cowards could start advocating “traditional methods” of dealing with opponents and favour “custom law” as a mode of interaction. But once the security cordons disappear and their criminal protectors find themselves behind bars, all those newly minted advocates of custom law show their true face. It is the face of a coward from the beginning of the story. I am convinced that Montenegro will soon have a chance for that all-important face-off that has been long in the making.

The assault on Nebojša Medojević has upset many of our activists and party members, who are calling for an appropriate response. It is the president of the PZP who tries to calm the situation asking for patience and restraint. Đukanović’s condoning of violence during his speech in Nikšić only adds fuel to the already heated and tense situation as if he desires it to escalate.

In conclusion, I have to add that the most grotesque part of Đukanović’s speech was his criticism of those who hide behind the immunity! While being driven from Podgorica to Nikšić to deliver his celebratory oration on custom law and traditional methods of social interaction, Đukanović conveniently forgot that he spoke as the prime minister of Montenegro who not so long ago narrowly escaped a lengthy vacation in an Italian jail cell. He was able to do so only because he hid behind the prime ministerial immunity from prosecution, after being interrogated for over 6 hours about the organized crime charges by a prosecutor in Bari!

After listening to him speak in Nikšić, I have to admit to rethinking the validity of the previously dismissed thesis about Milo Đukanović supporting the political project of independent and sovereign Montenegro in order to protect himself from charges that he is “a serious criminal who is willing to destroy documentary evidence and eliminate witness” (a quote from the verdict by Italian court). It was laughable and said at the same time to listen to a politician who hid his criminal dossier behind the prime ministerial immunity, criticize others for allegedly hiding behind the MP immunity when criticizing the government and its kleptocrats.

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