Can Europe Make It?

Montenegro: something had to give

The resignation of Milo Djukanovic, who has ruled Montenegro since 1991, is the logical end result of a political establishment whose contradictions could no longer hold the country together.

Marcu Niculescu
27 October 2016
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Montenegro's Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic kisses the child of a supporter in front of the polling station after voting in parliamentary elections, in Podgorica, Montenegro, Sunday, Oct. 16, 2016. PAimages/Darko Vojinovic. All rights reserved.

Good vs evil. Black vs white. Rich vs poor. The media loves a good dichotomy. In Montenegro, the dichotomy du jour is the tried and true West vs Russia trope.

The country’s prime minister, Milo Djukanovic, abruptly resigned on 25 October after suggesting that Russia had a hand in the outcome of the recent legislative elections where his party, the Democratic Socialist Party (DPS), narrowly avoided defeat at the hands of the opposition.

On top of fingerpointing towards Russia, the eight-term prime minister has launched an investigation into an alleged coup attempt staged on election day by Serbian officers, which led to the arrest of 20 paramilitary fighters and a Serbian police commander.

Both the Serbian government and the commander accused denied any involvement. Not wanting to cause any more tensions, Djukanovic decided to step down, putting his deputy and former head of the country’s security agency, Dusko Markovic, in charge. 

It’s a compelling way to present things for the (now) former Prime Minister, who has always brandished his pro-European credentials as a way of legitimizing his rule in Montenegro. Unfortunately, it’s not quite that simple.

In truth, Montenegro’s political situation is far more complex and is a function of the widespread ‘abuse of public office, the undue seizure of state property and the large-scale tax dodging’ endemic among the ruling elite that has led to persistent strikes, cratering approval ratings for Djukanovic and declining living standards. 

While the outside world saw the recent elections, which took place on 16 October, as a choice between the pro-Russian opposition and the pro-West DPS, the choice facing the Montenegrin electorate went far beyond a simple binary issue.

What is clear is that the voting process was marred with irregularities that had little to do with Russian or Serbian interference. The two opposition alliances in the country rejected the outcome of the vote, accusing the government of voter intimidation.

Nebosa Medojevic, the leader of the Democratic Forum (the larger of the two alliances) saying that "the opposition has unanimously decided not to recognize the election result because of an attempted coup and misuse of state institutions as well as the creation of an atmosphere of fear which directly influenced the election result.”

These allegations seem to be borne out by the volume of complaints proliferating in the wake of the election. The Montenegrin Prosecutor’s Office confirmed on 18 October that it had received hundreds of complaints alleging electoral fraud and vote-buying, while the country’s anti-corruption watchdog filed charges against a number of people suspected of buying ID cards for the purpose of casting illegitimate votes.

The country’s other watchdogs, the Centre for Monitoring and Research (CEMI) and the Center for Democratic Transition (CDT) also reported that there was evidence of irregularities at polling stations. In the wake of these allegations, the European Union (EU) has waded in and called for a “thorough investigation” of these allegations of electoral fraud. 

The reasons that pushed the ruling DPS to resort to these tactics stem from Djukanovic’s low approval ratings, borne about by his long rule and frequent brushes with organised crime groups. In 2015, the streets of the capital, Podgorica, were thick with tear gas as protestors took to the streets demanding the resignation of the Prime Minister.

That same year, the Prime Minister had the dubious honour of being named the Organised Crime and Corruption ‘Person of the Year’ by the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), aimed at ‘acknowledging those who best promote uncivil society’.

The organisation pulled no punches in explaining why he had been chosen, saying that ‘while [Djukanovic] casts himself as a progressive, pro-Western leader who recently helped his country join NATO and is on track to join the European Union, he has built one of the most dedicated kleptocracies and organized crime havens in the world.’ 

The relationship with the EU has also been carefully curated by Djukanovic, who has long been positioning himself as a reliable partner for the EU against Russian aggression and offered gushing proclamations about his enthusiasm for the European project while underscoring his commitment to ensuring his country becomes a part of NATO.

He is so enthusiastic about Montenegro joining NATO, in fact, that while the opposition demands a referendum on NATO accession, Djukanovic wants to push through accession. The reason for this is simple: if he asks the Montenegrin people, there’s a very good chance he won’t get the answer he wants.

poll in April by the Montenegrin Movement for Neutrality, for one, found a 7,000-person majority of the 10,000 people it surveyed were in favour of retaining military neutrality. In July, another poll by local watchdog organisation the Centre for Democracy and Human Rights (CEDEM) found that, if a referendum was held immediately on NATO membership, 36% of Montenegrins would vote in favour and 37% would vote against, while another 26% remain undecided on the issue.

In order to de-legitimise the position of the opposition, anti-NATO sentiment is being presented as ‘pro-Russian’ to add an extra frisson of conflict to a debate that already invokes memories of the 1999 NATO bombing of Yugoslavia.

For all the efforts of the ruling elite to maintain control of the country, the tide seems to be changing in Montenegro. Djukanovic is a typical undemocratic ruler, but the battle between his will and the will of the public is becoming ever more intense. At some point, something had to give.

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