Montenegro on the edge: Let down by the West

This article by  Natalie Sarkic-Todd was originally published on The Battleground on April 8, and is republished on Global Voices as part of a content-sharing agreement.

The Djukanović era is over. On April 2, Montenegrins voted 59/41 in favour of his opponent, Jakov Milatović.

Milo Djukanović’s three decades at the helm steered Montenegro away from the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s to independence in 2006 and NATO membership in 2017, turning the tiny state into the frontrunner for EU accession in the Western Balkans.

The new president, in comparison, is practically unknown.

An economic analyst who was appointed minister for the economy in 2020, Milatović co-founded the Europe Now! political party after the government collapsed 14 months later.

As president, he promises EU membership within his five-year mandate, a revived economy, and to unite the country. It sounds good, but if you look behind the hype, a worrying picture emerges.

Jakov Milatović was propelled to the presidency thanks to support from the candidates of pro-Serb and pro-Russia parties. Part of this support was underwritten with unsolicited endorsements from the leader of Serbia’s Radical Party and convicted Bosnian Serb war criminal, Vojislav Šešelj.

Just like in 2020, the Serbian-Russian front joined forces to overcome the incumbent’s largest individual share of the vote.

Why change a winning strategy when it worked so well before?

The problem is it resulted in two dysfunctional governments which collapsed, creating instability, holding back investment and EU membership, and creating further divisions in the country.

The anti-Djukanović bloc was standing right beside Milatović during his acceptance speech, celebrating their shared victory.

On his left stood Andrija Mandić, leader of the far-right Democratic Front, indicted for alleged involvement in the Russia-backed attempted coup against Djukanović in 2016. Mandić lent Milatović 18 percent of the first-round vote. Without a hint of irony or awareness, the president-elect declared an end to criminality with a beaming Mandić by his side.

Directly behind stood his former boss, Zdravko Krivokapić, a university professor who, extraordinarily, was anointed prime minister by the Serbian Orthodox Church.

In a secular state, he appointed church sympathisers to run the country’s schools and parachuted in what he called his “apostles” – among them Milatović – to run the government.

Krivokapić kissed his protege on his victory.

Next to him was Aleksa Becić, presidential candidate, president of the parliament and leader of another pro-Serbian Church party.

Becić put his name on billboards all around the capital, calling on his voters (11 percent) to cast their votes against Djukanović in the second round.

In front stood Dritan Abazović, caretaker of a minority government since August 2022, when he lost a vote of confidence for signing a controversial agreement with the Serbian Orthodox Church.

During his tenure, Abazović abused the parliamentary process, arbitrarily fired opponents, took control of key ministries, attempted to appoint handpicked judges to the constitutional court, and introduced legislation to limit the powers of the president.

These are the people who will contest the parliamentary elections and most likely form the next coalition government on June 11.

If they win two-thirds of the seats, a distinct possibility, they will have the power to change the constitution, which means independence, recognition of Kosovo, and even NATO membership could all be at stake.

And what of the outgoing incumbent, Milo Djukanović, and his Democratic Party of Socialists?

He wished the incoming president success, noting that Montenegro had undertaken another democratic election in its ongoing political transition, and reiterated his lifelong commitment to a “civil, European, multiethnic Montenegro.”

Unsurprisingly, Djukanović resigned as chairman of his party a few days later.

Support for Djukanović in the second round of voting included the Albanian, Bosnian and Croatian minority parties, representing together around 15 percent of the population.

Also supporting Djukanović were the DPS Women’s Alliance and the Mothers of Srebrenica.

They were joined by the only female presidential candidate, Draginja Vuksanović-Stanković who urged her supporters to vote for an “antifascist, civil, secular, NATO and independent Montenegro”.

The longtime leader of the Social Democrat Party, Vuksanović-Stanković, resigned from parliament and politics immediately after her defeat, leaving the leftwing parties seriously weakened just two months before the parliamentary elections.

Pensioners were another key demographic. The generation old enough to recall the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s remember how Djukanović’s government protected the population and gave sanctuary to 60,000 of the region’s refugees fleeing war and ethnic cleansing.

Asylum seekers included Serbs from Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo. Djukanović also provided a safe haven for Serbian politicians opposed to Slobodan Milosević.

As hyperinflation soared and sanctions against Serbia also hit Montenegro, he worked to free the country from its economic and political orbit and became a regional ally for Western governments.

Adoption of the euro, regained independence, the opening of EU accession negotiations, and NATO membership brought security, investment and a growing economy.

That, in turn, heightened societal expectations for a share in the country’s new fortunes. But the prosperity of the boom years, whilst reflected in the country’s infrastructure, real estate and tourist industry, did not trickle far enough beyond government and business circles, and though GDP rose, average salaries remained low.

In a nation of just over 600,000 inhabitants, the accumulation of wealth and power over the decades was clear for all to see.

The bubble was bound to burst eventually.

And so, a new generation is set to take the helm in Montenegro at a time of global uncertainty.

The founders of Europe Now! are the new kids on the block, schooled in the world of international banking and finance but limited in their experience of government.

They have caught the wind of change and are gaining significant support.

Milatović’s ascent is not unlike that of French President Emmanuel Macron, who launched his neoliberal En Marche party and a successful bid for the presidency after a stint as finance minister.

Unlike Macron, Milatović showed a distinctly uneconomic approach when he increased Montenegro’s salaries and pensions by raiding the healthcare budget during the pandemic, and borrowed money at the highest possible interest rates.

The political turmoil and financial mismanagement of the past two years have subsequently reduced investment and put further pressure on the state budget. Europe Now’s president and former finance minister, Milojko Spajić, says he is worried about the threat of bankruptcy.

No doubt, the party will call on their financial contacts to help turn Montenegro’s economy around. There will be a temptation to go all out for new forms of investment, creative financial schemes and loans just to keep the show on the road.

When in government, Spajić stated that he wanted to make Montenegro a regional hub for cryptocurrency. He publicly welcomed Vitaly Buterin, the Russian founder of blockchain platform Ethereum, awarding him Montenegrin citizenship.

The government also extended the issuing of golden passports, against the EU’s advice, which has seen a significant increase in wealthy Russian citizens of Montenegro and Ukrainian refugees.

If Milojko Spajić returns to government, will the crash of cryptocurrencies this past year deter him? With the arrest of South Korean crypto fugitive Do Kwon in Montenegro just last month, one would hope so.

But perhaps the bigger strategic question is whether Europe Now will be able to resist their coalition partners’, Serbian and, ultimately, Russian influence. Will they adopt the balancing act of Serbia’s President Vucić and attempt to play the same sides – the EU, the US, Russia, and China?

How will Milatović as president re-boot the EU accession process that stalled when he was in government?

And how will he be able to unite the country when 30 percent of the population identify as Serb, fly another country’s flag and see themselves as part of the Serbian World?

The victory parades by his supporters on the night of his election suggest otherwise. Cars full of young men drove at speed up and down the capital’s main thoroughfare, loudly sounding their horns, giving the three-fingered Serbian victory sign to pedestrians, and provocatively flying Serbian flags past the Montenegrin presidential and parliament buildings. They and hundreds of Milatović supporters congregated around the city’s Serbian Orthodox Church to celebrate their win in symbolic recognition of their allegiance.

It was an inauspicious start to the post-Djukanović era.

Will all this have been observed and fully understood in Western capitals? If recent diplomacy is anything to go by, probably not.

The US is seemingly willing to do whatever it takes to keep Serbia from spinning off into Russia’s orbit. Even at the expense of its smaller Western Balkan neighbours.

The EU has downplayed Montenegro’s achievements ever since they cooled on enlargement.

And they have turned away from Djukanović, whom they have come to regard as too long in the job and associated with corruption.

Balkan history and geopolitics are inextricably intertwined. Antifascism is a proud tradition amongst Montenegrins, whose Partisan movement fiercely resisted German Nazis, Italian Fascists and their Balkan sympathisers in WWII. That is at the heart of resistance to Serbia’s attempts to reassert its influence over Montenegro.

Montenegrins see their secular, multiethnic democracy coming under threat and an international community that just doesn’t seem to get it or doesn’t care enough to help them resist it.

Worse, they find themselves labelled as nationalists or even extremists for wanting to defend their culture and country. It’s a familiar playbook.

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