Montenegro is at a crossroads after its leader, Milo Djukanovic, lost the latest parliamentary elections and ended his uninterrupted 30-year rule over the small coastal Western Balkans country, which broke from Serbia in 2006, joined NATO in 2017, and is the closest of all countries in the region to becoming a new EU member.
Djukanovic, as the incumbent president, failed to secure an outright parliamentary majority during the August 28 elections and now faces the biggest challenge yet as he must now form a coalition government with the numbers strongly against him. As the “favorite son” of Serbia’s late strongman, Slobodan Milosevic, he became the youngest prime minister in Europe in 1991 and has ruled ever since.
Djukanovic’s Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) won 35.1%, according to the full results published on August 31. An umbrella group of pro-Russian and pro-Serbian parties called For the Future of Montenegro won 32.5%, followed by 12.5% for the opposition alliance Peace is Our Nation, and 5.6% for the Black on White, all of which translates to at least 41 seats in the 81-seat parliament.
Djukanovic’s loyalists said the political future of the country, its NATO membership, and EU aspirations all apparently hang in the balance, but the opposition quickly sought to downplay the dilemma. They claim there will be no changes to the country’s foreign policy course – only it will no longer be ruled by what it calls a “corrupt regime and its divisive policies”.
The US-based Freedom House declared in its annual Nations in Transition report that Montenegro has lost its democratic status for the first time since 2003 because of “years of increasing state capture, abuse of power, and the strongman tactics employed” by Djukanovic.
The pressure is now on a small but progressive opposition party known as the URA and led by a Dritan Abazovic, an ethnic Albanian, which won four seats in the 81-seat parliament and could secure Djukanovic’s rule for the next four years. So far, he has rejected massive pressure by ethnic Albanians and Bosniaks in the region to abandon the loose, three-column opposition coalition that scored a landmark victory and side with Djukanovic.
“Despite thousands of messages and calls from around the region and the international community, I give you my word that we shall succumb to no pressure and be guided only by the national interests of Montenegro,” Abazovic told a press conference. “Montenegro will never become Serbian Sparta or a province in Greater Albania… it will develop as a civic state and will become an EU member ASAP.”
“The battle for a parliamentary majority is still on,” Djukanovic said in a show of obstinate bravado in the days shortly after the election. Indeed, he has always managed to get himself out of the corner before, relying on his vast 30-year experience in the loaded and murky brand of Balkan politics. This time he made a critical error in that he seems to have put a stop to his unprecedented winning streak by miscalculating that he could take on the Serbian Orthodox Church and win.
Djukanovic’s popularity has plunged following months of anti-government protests triggered after he pushed through a law on religious groups that could strip the local branch of the Serbian Orthodox Church, the nation’s biggest denomination, of its assets and give them to the unrecognized Montenegrin Orthodox Church, which Djukanovic has been trying to develop as another mainstay of the newly-established national statehood.
The Serbs account for 29% of Montenegro’s population according to the last census, However, the ties go much deeper and romantics on both sides claim that they are “two eyes in the same head”. However, the coastal Montenegrins historically looked to the West, particularly the Venetian and Genoese republics, for trade, cultural, and even religious ties, as well as political influence and military alliances, whereas Belgrade’s umbilical cord at the same time was tied to Constantinople – hence the large cultural divide and totally different geopolitical optics between the two people.
The huge turnout of above 75%, which cost the DPS an outright victory, is the result of a call-to-arms by the leader of Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro, the powerful Bishop Amfilohije, who called on Montenegrins to vote against the authorities. He admitted to never doing such a thing before.
“Milo Dukanovic finally came up against someone in Montenegro more powerful than him: God,” Politico’s Una Hajdari aptly said.
The quintessential dilemma now is if Djukanovic fails to pull a rabbit out of his hat, the rabbit being just one seat in the parliament– will Montenegro pull out of NATO, abandon its EU path, roll back its recognition of Kosovo, and will the cohabitation between Djukanovic and the hostile government be so disruptive that will it cause even further tensions in the country? Will the new, opposition-led government join the initiative for a regional mini-Schengen to enable a free flow of people, goods and services, as promoted by Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and Prime Minister Edi Rama of Albania?
Opposition leaders sought to quickly allay any fears of a major about-face when it comes to Montenegro’s foreign policy. Zdravko Krivokapic, Aleksa Becic, and Abazovic said that they will work on setting up a government of experts regardless of their political, religious, national or other characteristics in order to meet all international obligations and implement every needed reform to qualify for EU membership. The contentious Law on Freedom of Religion will be revisited.
“The possibility of Montenegro leaving the NATO alliance is non-existent. The government will focus on the country’s economic recovery, the independence of legal and judicial institutions and all that is necessary to speed up the way towards the EU,” Milan Knezevic, a leader of the mainstay opposition party, the Democratic Front, told reporters.
The country’s economic mainstay, tourism, was hard hit by the COVID-19 pandemic with a drop of 90% in the tourist trade this season, which was the result of a very badly misguided decision by Djukanovic made when he opted to close the border to Serbian and Bosnian tourists to fight the virus.
The war of words between Djukanovic and Belgrade continued even after the elections. Djukanovic blamed Vucic and Belgrade for fomenting nationalism in Montenegro. Belgrade dismissed the claims: “Vucic mentioned Montenegro altogether for the past eight years fewer times than Djukanovic mentioned Vucic and Serbia in a single interview, and always in a negative context, naturally,” Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic countered.
Montenegro recognized Kosovo’s independence in 2008, which Belgrade described as a stab in the back. Given the current successful campaign to overturn the Montenegrin government’s recognition, it is going to be interesting to see whether the new government in Podgorica will revoke its recognition and how soon. As an ethnic Albanian, Abazovic could play a role in dampening those hopes.
One thing that Djukanovic has opposed because it came from Belgrade, is the idea of establishing a mini-Schengen zone in the Balkans. This could quickly change, just like the return of some Djukanovic’s fierce and powerful foes, analysts said. These include successful businessmen who fell from grace, like Dusko Knezevic of the Atlas group, one of the biggest Montenegrin real estate and banking conglomerates, worth billions of euros. Knezevic was forced to flee to London after uncovering several cases of corruption. Podgorica’s credibility Is so low that Interpol scrapped three arrest warrants issued by Montenegro against him as invalid and “politically-motivated”. Knezevic has vowed to run against Djukanovic during the next presidential elections.
Dampening the delight of victory, some Muslim shop windows and a mosque in the town of Pljevlja, near the border with Bosnia and Herzegovina, were attacked overnight, as were some Muslim residents.
Opposition leaders blamed it on Djukanovic security forces trying to whip up nationalist tensions and vowed to personally guard Muslim shops and religious sites. “The attack on Pljevlja’s Muslims is an attack on each and every Pljevlja Christian and citizen of Montenegro,” Bishop Amfolihije said.