One-on-one | Montenegro

Aleksandar Saša Zeković: Montenegro cannot be considered innocent in the Yugoslav wars

By - 28.11.2018

Podgorica-based human rights activist talks LGBTI rights, Montenegrin politics and the process of facing the past.

Aleksandar Saša Zeković has dedicated his career to the promotion of — and fight for — human rights. It’s a role that has seen him targeted for his work and words on more than one occasion.

In 2013, various NGOs in his native Montenegro demanded that the state institutions protect Saša after he received a number of threats due to his work in exposing the abuse of the country’s police authority.

For more than a decade, he has been a member of the Council for Civilian Control of Police Work, a body that monitors the work of the police in Montenegro. Based on his experience, earlier this year he co-authored a book titled “Citizen’s Watchdog and Strengthening of the Integrity of the Police in Montenegro.”

While promoting the book, the authors kept repeating that police officers in Montenegro do not have a lack of physical strength, nor even a lack of psychological courage, “but, from the point of view of citizens who are observing their work, our attention is directed toward their moral strengths.”

Saša’s work isn’t confined to oversight of the police. He is also known to the Montenegrin public as an advocate for the initiative for RECOM, which promotes the idea of establishing a regional truth commission as a transitional justice mechanism for dealing with the past in the Balkans.

He has additionally been an outspoken voice for the rights of Montenegro’s LGBTQ community. Six years ago, he was one of the organizers of Montenegro’s first Pride parade, held in Budva. About 30 people participated, but they had to be protected by hundreds of police officers amidst violent attacks by dozens of homophobic protesters. An advocate for LGBTQ rights to this day, Saša says that while recent events haven’t seen a repeat of the violence in 2013, LGBTQ people in Montenegro are still far from able to fully exercise their rights.

Following the most recent Pride parade on November 17, K2.0 spoke to Saša about the battle for human rights in Montenegro, including the status of the LGBTQ population, the moral courage of the Montenegrin police, Montenegro’s role in the wars on former Yugoslav soil, and the readiness of the state and citizens to face the past.

Photo courtesy of Aleksandar Zeković.

K2.0: Do you feel that there is greater acceptance of LGBTQ people in Montenegrin society today than a few years ago? We still see news in the media of the violence that members of the  community are exposed to in the form of both physical attacks and hate speech. Do you think that the state, at all levels, is adequately reacting to these events?

Aleksandar Saša Zeković: LGBT people aren’t accepted in our society. Discrimination and violence against LGBT people is still happening on a daily basis. This is confirmed by statistics from the LGBT community itself, but also by relevant institutions.

In comparison with other citizens, LGBT people lead substantially lower quality and less inclusive lives. Even disregarding all other areas, LGBT individuals are forced to think about and take care of their security in all places and at every moment, unlike other citizens.

If the LGBT community were more accepted in our society, we would have many more openly LGBT individuals from this community, especially in the government, the Assembly, diplomatic circles, political parties, media, culture, art, sports… I’m not sure that there are such examples in Montenegro.

However, in all of this, the improved work of the police and judicial authorities is visible. A special turning point in protecting LGBT people was achieved [in 2013] when the court acknowledged threats through social media as serious and viable. Essential progress and real social acceptance of LGBT people in Montenegro can only come through involving LGBT topics in official educational curricula and textbooks.

For now, there is no political will for such a decision to be made. Without inclusion in the education system, LGBT persons will not have a good quality of life or be safe, while state institutions, particularly the police, are going to be under strong, often exhausting, pressure.

In 2013, you were one of the organizers of Montenegro’s first Pride parade, in Budva; it ended violently when it turned out that the Montenegrin police wasn’t ready to control such an event. Five years later, in Podgorica, the sixth Pride has just been conducted without any issues, and Montenegrin Prides have passed without incident for years now. Pride participants walk through the center of the capital city, but the question remains, is it an artificially built and controlled peace, or the consequence of the emancipation of Montenegrin citizens who have managed to overcome their homophobic ideas?

The Montenegrin police did everything necessary for the first Pride parade to be conducted safely, so on this point I would like to amend your statement. In a continuous period from 2013 onward, the LGBT community has given positive and praising assessments about the work and conduct of the Montenegrin police. The Budva Pride parade indicated the true atmosphere and [lack of] opportunities that LGBT people in Montenegro face.

Generally speaking, LGBT activists and the LGBT community wish for an open Pride, but they behave in a responsible and professional manner toward police risk assessments. It is the responsibility of the police, or the state, to enable the right to free and peaceful gatherings, and this is the area in which organizers acknowledge police assessments.

Protection measures have been decreasing in recent years, the number of engaged police officers has decreased. This is a consequence of the enhanced work by security structures toward extreme groups and hooligans, and the improved criminal prosecution of violent perpetrators. This is, still, not the result of a social acceptance of LGBT people.

The Council for Civilian Control of Police Work, which you have been a very active member of, often has the opportunity to state negative examples of police behavior — overstepping authority, beating up innocent citizens, concealing such events — and expressing solidarity with police officers who have a more professional approach. To what extent are basic human rights upheld in Montenegro? You have mentioned the police’s conduct in relation to the Pride parades as an example, but you have also been heavily critical of the work of the police in the past. How are the other state institutions performing?

In Montenegro, generally speaking, there have been significant improvements in terms of respecting human rights. National minorities enjoy remarkable participation in all spheres of life, while their political representatives take part in managing the country. They do this in a substantive manner, heading spheres of importance to the state and they aren’t simply there for decoration, which is the case with ethnic minorities in other regional governments.

"In comparison to bulky and bureaucratic structures, the citizen is in a subordinate position and often humiliated."

The women’s movement is exceptionally visible and successful, and Montenegro constitutes a positive example in the region in the struggle against violence against women. Unfortunately, there is no particular improvement in the inclusion of persons with disabilities. The overall safety of all ethnic communities and sensitive social groups has been significantly advanced, which means that progress has been made in law and rights enforcement.

I would say that the key problem in the further realization of basic rights are the capacities of the state and local administrations to present themselves to the citizens as a service that should satisfy their needs in an efficient and quality manner. In comparison to bulky and bureaucratic structures, the citizen is in a subordinate position and often humiliated.

What are the effects of the activities conducted by the Council for Civilian Control of Police Work? Do those in charge take your conclusions into consideration? Do you notice any change in their work? We often hear of cases that the Council deals with but we rarely hear anything about resultant sanctions.

The Council constitutes a collective ombudsperson system specializing in monitoring police work and the implementation of police authority. The ombudsperson role mainly defines the absence of sanctions, but imposes an obligation and responsibility for us to implement activities quite visibly and loudly.

Silence is unacceptable and compromising for the Council’s members. In a timely manner, we try to identify and prevent unprofessional behavior and prevent the police from practices that are compromising and that constitute human rights violations. The fight against crime, the implementation of the rule of law, and efficient police work are not real nor possible without complete trust in police work. Trust is impossible to achieve without acknowledging civilian oversight of the police.

Photo courtesy of Aleksandar Zeković.

The Council establishes close contact with the public and largely enjoys its trust. The community is heavily involved in the Montenegrin model of civilian monitoring: through an organizational concept of the Council, through a strong consultative process with the wider community, through easy access and simple procedures, through complete openness toward the public and through intensive communication with the media.

Civilian oversight doesn’t allow the possibility of imposing sanctions. Some see it as a flaw of civilian monitoring, but it may be an advantage in terms of cooperation with the police, since there is nothing else. The Council is focused on police practise. Such an approach, with the key problems and cause-identification of certain events and phenomena, which civilian oversight pays particular attention to, may be very useful for the establishment of accountable police management and for other decision makers in the security sector.

It may be of importance to the police management to consult the civilian oversight more often, especially in the course of planning and decision making in relation to human rights and police integrity. We may conclude that civilian oversight today is the fastest and most efficient mechanism to protect human rights and police integrity in Montenegro.

Journalists are targeted by the police as well. Police officers inflict damage both through their actions — for example in beating up Gojko Raičević during opposition protests in October 2015 — or by inaction — like with Tufik Softić, who sued the state and won after the police failed to conduct an efficient investigation into his attempted murder in 2007. Raičević was beaten up by police officers three times, while it was never established who did this. He awaits a final verdict in which, among other things, it is stated that he was subjected to torture and inhumane behavior. What do these cases tell us about the Montenegrin police?

It is unacceptable that a NATO member state and a serious candidate for EU membership cannot establish who the police officers were that conducted themselves in a brutal manner, and have no respect toward the rights and dignity of citizens, journalists and activists. Raičević’s case, as well as many other examples, speak volumes about gravely violated police integrity.

"Even though practise and various data confirm that the Montenegrin police is made up of professionals, people with integrity, we cannot say that all police officials and heads are adorned with good and reliable characters, and all categories of courage."

A police conduct report carried out in the course of these protests — one that was supported by the government, the Ombudsperson, civilian police control and civil society [organizations] — comes down to the Prosecution’s statement: “The perpetrator has not yet been identified.” This means that the state is not fit to complete its basic function: to discover criminal offenses and their perpetrators, thereby further preventing the Prosecution from pursuing proper prosecution steps.

Even though practise and various data confirm that the Montenegrin police is made up of professionals, people with integrity, we cannot say that all police officials and heads are adorned with good and reliable characters, and all categories of courage. With regard to police officials, their physical and psychological courage is unquestionable, but in terms of civilian monitoring, attention has somehow shifted mostly to moral courage, a lack of which is evident.

Finally, we are facing the misuse of the police and the political decision to not reveal the identity of the compromised police officers.

Since the beginning of this year, several thousand people on the move have come to Montenegro. Most of them are not interested in staying here long, however there has still been panic, and some political parties are persistently instilling intolerance toward refugees. How do you comment on this irrational fear, but also on what is actually happening with refugees in other countries in the region, especially Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Croatia?

Populist approaches will always exist, while the Montenegrin political scene is still not immune to manipulation. Certain structures are not missing any opportunity to renew hate toward diversity.

Since it has become socially and politically unacceptable and damaging to represent hatred domestically, now there are attempts to find and recruit citizens for supporting resistance toward migrants, and creating a distance in relation to them.

The focus of our attention should be shifted toward the government and its activities. The government is the one with the responsibility to prepare for possible acceptance of refugees in a quality manner, to create and promote a supportive environment, to secure sufficient and quality services, but also to guarantee security to everyone.

As for the regional context, I would say that political elites in Croatia, and in Bosnia and Herzegovina, behave as if they are comfortable with the new inspiration for hatred. A new ‘culprit’ for the given state of affairs in the local societies and economies have to exist and to be presented.

The approach is still encouraged by official policy in Hungary and Austria, which are being increasingly used as a good example. The thing that is especially regrettable is the fact that a large portion of the respective public [in the region] has forgotten all about their [own refugee] status from some 20 years ago.

When we speak about former Yugoslav wars, it’s regularly pointed out that Montenegro managed to get out of it relatively untarnished, which is correct in the sense that there were no wars in Montenegrin territory, but Montenegrin citizens were still victims and perpetrators in all of that turmoil. Just some of the examples of this can be seen in Morinj, where a concentration camp was established, or Štrpci, where a train was stopped and people were taken off and killed, or the taking part in the shelling of Dubrovnik… Where does individual responsibility versus that of the state lie in these cases?

Montenegro cannot be considered innocent, but if we speak about the conduct of state authorities, we may assert the view that official Montenegro, in comparison to other countries in the region, has done some praiseworthy things and provided certain contributions for justice to be served.

However, one should not disregard the intention of the political elite to control and measure everything, and not to disrupt its reformist and European identity. Such an approach is somewhat supported by the victims and their representatives, especially the political ones.

"We speak about warmongering politics modestly and timidly — with a strategy that only the future and economic investments are important."

Victims’ voices and the memory of that period is less and less heard as time passes. Commemorative gatherings are held without their presence — can you imagine? This is truly a serious matter where a question, a dilemma, is posed as to the legitimacy of those who attend those events.

We speak about warmongering politics modestly and timidly — with a strategy that only the future and economic investments are important. Those who were persecuted, especially due to different political views, and who were the bearers of that process, are now ‘satisfied.’ They don’t remember the past, since they have focused their attention on modern Montenegrin enemies, and they think that [the authorities] are doing a good thing. They expect additional acknowledgment from the state for doing so.

“In Montenegro, a free society won’t be established, nor will democracy — and especially tolerance — truly come to life until we strengthen internal dialogue about the past, and until current and future generations aren’t taught about Montenegrin crusades toward our neighbors and our own diversities.” Less than a year ago, you and just eight others from Montenegrin public life made this statement on the anniversary of the 1991-92 siege of Dubrovnik. Is it too much to expect Montenegro’s citizens to face what happened during the ’90s when we know that we haven’t faced the events of any of the wars that have befallen us?

Remembering and nurturing the collective memory of the painful times of suffering and crimes is of extraordinary social importance. The process of dealing with the past is key for the truth, the satisfaction of the victims and the recovery of the entire society.

At one time [in the ’90s], this process took the form of a movement that was visible, wide-ranging and intensive, like the recent one, from 2006, aimed at restoring our independence.

However, we may state that the process of facing the past in Montenegro has become completely marginalized. We must admit that many have given up on this process, for different — but mostly pragmatic — reasons. Sometimes, someone’s daughter is employed, for instance, or someone gets a seat on a board of directors.

It was betrayed, first and foremost, by those political parties that had advocated for it the most. Then, it was betrayed by some non-governmental organizations — or they deal with it in a strictly controlled, agreed upon way. Victims are increasingly abandoning it as well.

You posed the essential question. It is unsustainable to advocate for facing the 1990s while keeping quiet about 1948 [when Josip Broz Tito rejected Joseph’s Stalin’s attempts to make Yugoslavia a satellite state of the USSR, triggering suppression of Soviet supporters in Yugoslavia], or the unconfirmed facts about the events after liberation in World War II [when those who opposed the mainstream political narrative were imprisoned].

We are starting to worry about the fact that our communist past and its icons are glorified in an unconstructive and unquestionable manner, without dialogue, without facts. This is the complete opposite to the experience of democratic societies. K

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. The interview was conducted in Montenegrin.

Feature image courtesy of Aleksandar Zeković.