Perspectives | Montenegro

Is Montenegro undergoing a change?

By - 04.09.2020

The end of Milo Đukanovic?

After almost three decades in power, Milo Đukanović and his Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) were finally beaten in Sunday’s parliamentary elections. Analysts are talking about the “end of an era” and “tectonic shifts,” while reactions range from those saying “Montenegro has witnessed its liberation,” to “Montenegro no longer exists.”

According to official preliminary results, three opposition parties have won exactly 41 seats, which is sufficient for the tightest possible majority. Their leaders — Zdravko Krivokapić Democratic Front (DF), Aleksa Bečić, Democratic Montenegro and Dritan Abazović, URA — have already agreed on the principles of the future coalition.

After almost 30 years in power, DPS has utilized party staffing to thoroughly grow together with the state it led.

Among them first the formation of “an expert government” that should create a break with the DPS’s rule. It is still possible that, in Game of Thrones fashion, some of the opposition leaders suddenly feel an irrepressible urge to support the former government and provide it with the necessary advantage, but this is currently only a theoretical observation.

Milo Đukanović has admitted defeat, meaning the legitimacy of the next parliamentary majority has not yet been brought into question.

After almost 30 years in power, the Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) has utilized party staffing to thoroughly grow together with the state it led. In 2020, Freedom House classified Đukanović’s regime as “hybrid,” which is an ingrained euphemism for pro-western autocratic regimes where democracy is largely reduced to colorful wrapper.

The two factors

However, neither corruption nor links to organized crime have so far stopped DPS from winning elections relatively easily. 2020 proved different, because it has added a combination of two factors to the political baggage of Đukanović’s regime.

The first one is the coronavirus, which annihilated the tourist season and impoverished many. The second is the conflict with the Serbian Orthodox Church (SPC) that has grown into mass street protests, serving as a key gathering point for the majority of those who oppose the three decade long reign of Đukanović.

Since the pandemic couldn’t be influenced by his government, the decision to ban citizens of Serbia from entering Montenegro during the tourist season was seen as part of the politicking that financially backfired against the whole country and ultimately reduced support for DPS in the elections.

People in the region mostly disregard the fact that Milo Đukanović's presidential term will expire only in three years.

The results of the vote show that Đukanović has made a mistake by escalating the conflict with SPC barely a year before the election date. Instead of creating a referendum-type climate surrounding a statehood under threat, which he could have used to rally Montenegrins to support him, he summoned a broad front of adversaries who weren’t basing their votes purely on their national identity.

Good evidence of this is found in Podgorica, where around 23% of the population declare themselves as Serbs, but where the opposition still won 58% of the votes.

So the DPS was also overthrown by dissatisfied Montenegrins.

However, the situation is far from uncomplicated.

People in the region mostly disregard the fact that Milo Đukanović’s presidential term will expire in only three years, providing him with a major reserve position. It shouldn’t be expected that he will be left behind by all those who have built their positions and personal wealth alongside him in the last three decades, especially if they count on his protection providing DPS soon comes back to power.

Even without that, the future coalition has several serious obstacles on its pathway. The first is the opposition itself.

Although these make up only three election lists on paper, they are actually composed of almost 20 parties and movements from different ends of the political spectrum, from liberals and intellectuals to hardcore conservatives, to antivaxxers and conspiracy theorists. Such a coalition is inherently unstable and it is unclear if it will be capable of pushing through the whole term in one piece.

Balancing the interests of the Serbian list, that is close to Belgrade and the SPC, the civic-oriented sovereigntist URA will have a complicated task, whereas citizens’ expectations are enormous and it will be impossible to make them all happen.

The West or Russia?

The new government will also face a range of practical issues. What will happen when they need to participate in an international panel with Kosovo’s representatives? Montenegro has recognized its independence but the DF opposes it. Who will change their stance, DF or Montenegro?

Montenegro is a member of NATO, while DF is Russia-oriented. What will future cooperation between the country and NATO look like, and what about security sensitive data?

One of the four principles of the new government is that Montenegro’s foreign policy direction will remain unchanged, especially bearing in mind its NATO membership, EU accession process, but also a possible derecognition of Kosovo. Such policies will certainly not stir up enthusiasm among many DF supporters.

The race against time has already begun for both the former and upcoming governments.

This is why it’s so important to know how the new coalition will label itself. Postelection chauvinist provocations and incidents in Pljevlja and Rožaje aimed at Bosniaks can prove to be a sound test for that.

Although they have yet to take office, the former opposition leaders are obliged to directly and unequivocally criticize any such a phenomenon in its infancy, and not only shift the blame to DPS’s attempts of “creating chaos.” If they fail to act, this may be the first signal that their term will be smeared by nationalism and revanchism, with the struggle against corruption as a part of that arsenal at best. 

The race against time has already begun for both the former and upcoming governments. The only goal that can secure the newly emerged coalition long-term will be to set in motion investigations against the former regime, to arrest corrupt officials and banded criminals, and implement related court proceedings.

If the mutual struggle for primacy or running after vacant seats pushes those goals into the shadows, Đukanović will get a chance to undermine them and restore DPS to power before his presidential term comes to an end.

Citizens aren’t in favor of a mere change in government, nor for foreign policy exhibitionism: The primary reasons for the fall of DPS are economic decline and corruption. The success of a future government will directly depend on its ability to realize that and offer solutions to these two issues.

If they, however, choose to immerse themselves in clericalization, flirt with the Kremlin or engage in third-rate populism, let them not get used to the minister cabinets, because they won’t be using them for long.

Feature image: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.