March 25, 2019
By Irena Baboi – Senior Fellow
As anti-government protests in Serbia enter their fourth month, the people of Albania and Montenegro have also been taking to the streets to call for an end to the systemic corruption in their respective countries. In Montenegro, thousands of people led by civic activists, bloggers and journalists are demanding the resignation of President Milo Djukanovic, but also that of Prime Minister Dusko Markovic, Supreme State Prosecutor Ivica Stankovic, and Chief Prosecutor for organised crime Milivoje Katnic. In Albania, several thousand opposition supporters continue to call for Prime Minister Edi Rama’s government to step down and pave the way to early elections. This current wave of demonstrations has prompted talks of a Balkan Spring developing in the region, a conversation that the West seems more than eager to cut short. Balkan Spring or not, however, there is little way around the fact that the damage caused by the current ruling elites cannot go on ignored – and that the people of the Western Balkans are done letting it.
The protests in Montenegro began when Dusko Knezevic, prominent businessman and close, personal friend of President Milo Djukanovic for the last quarter of a century, accused him and his ruling Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) of corruption, cronyism, abuse of office and questionable financial deals. As owner of Atlas Group, a conglomerate of banking, insurance and health interests, Knezevic himself stands accused by the Montenegrin authorities of fraud and money laundering, and has fled to London to avoid prosecution. In retaliation to this judicial spotlight on him, in the form of a long series of social media posts, Knezevic decided to release documents and videos on a variety of corruption and mismanagement scandals, including ones that involve top level officials and politicians. What seems to have angered people the most is the so-called “Envelope Affair”, a recording from 2016 that shows Knezevic appearing to hand the then mayor of Podgorica, Slavoljub Stijepovic, an envelope containing a hundred thousand dollars to fund a DPS election campaign. The government’s corruption and links to organised crime have long been an open secret in Montenegro, but this was perceived as the first concrete confirmation of decades of wrongdoings.
European Union front-runner Montenegro is the only country in the region that is yet to experience a genuine alternation of power. As leader of the Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS), President Milo Djukanovic has been in power with brief interruptions since 1991, holding the position of prime minister six times and that of president once before, and calling the political shots even when behind the scenes. Although the role of president is largely ceremonial in Montenegro, the parliamentary majority that his party enjoys means that Djukanovic has considerable control and influence over his country. From an external point of view, this is generally felt as a relief, as Montenegro has done very well internationally with the DPS in power. Devoted communist and ally of Slobodan Milosevic turned strong Western supporter, Milo Djukanovic has led his country on the path to both independence from Serbia and NATO membership, and has been a source of stability who has always been very sensitive and adaptable to evolving circumstances. With a fragmented rest of the political elite, part of which takes every available opportunity to re-affirm its commitment to Moscow, the West is eager to brush under the carpet the allegations of corruption and organised crime links that surround him, and voting days tend to offer little feasible alternatives.
Albania is another of the countries where change is a long time coming, as people have been taking to the streets against their government consistently since the beginning of 2017. The current protests are organised by opposition parties, and said to be one of the biggest and most dramatic that the country has experienced in years. The opposing Democratic Party (PD), who were replaced by the Socialist Party (PS) in the last general elections and have lost every local election since, accuse Edi Rama’s party of winning through illegal means, but also of governing the state in a semi-authoritarian manner. Unfortunately, while serious, the accusations brought to the ruling Socialists are also eerily familiar. Vote rigging and opposition intimidation are not exactly tactics the Democrats have been reluctant to employ, and links to organised crime on the part of the political elite are close to becoming endemic.
As such, in response to demands for a new government, Albania’s Prime Minister Edi Rama maintains that he will not resign, and has dismissed all calls for snap elections. Rama also defiantly urged the opposition to test their strength at the local elections in June, and rejected all allegations of corruption and vote fraud. Said opposition responded by resigning from parliament and announcing a fresh series of protests, a move that they hoped would add the breaking point pressure. So far, however, Albania’s ruling elite seems not only determined to stay, but also quietly confident that the current circumstances are unlikely to last.
All three leaders of Serbia, Montenegro and Albania are seasoned politicians who have used every means available to consolidate their position both internally and externally, and ensure there is little feasible alternative to their rule. In all three countries, a high level of mistrust for other parties has created a weak and fragmented opposition, most of which is seen as unreliable both by the West and their own people. Serbia’s opposition parties are trailing far behind the ruling Progressives, and even if they ran as an alliance at the next elections, they could only expect to count on approximately 15 percent of the vote. Montenegro’s largely pro-Russian opposition initially supported the current protests, but their eventual distancing from them is more likely to help rather than hinder the anti-government movement and its survival. Albania is the only one of the three where parts of the opposition remain actively involved in the protests, but questions continue to be raised over their true long-term interests. As things currently stand, the persistent fragmentation in all three political systems can be used to the ruling elites’ advantage, and maintained to ensure no viable threat arises.
All is not as bleak as it appears, however, and the country that now officially goes by the name of North Macedonia is living proof that reform in a fragmented political system is possible. Zoran Zaev’s Social Democrats (SDSM) coming to power ended a two-year political and social crisis in the country, and the progress made by Skopje’s current government cannot be overstated. From improving relations with its Albanian minority to settling a three-decade dispute with Greece, the 2017 change in leadership secured North Macedonia its invitation to join NATO last year – and brought the country well and truly back on the European path.
The people’s determination to see change happen, moreover, is more apparent than ever, and recent events show that postponing reform is no longer acceptable. While protests in Montenegro have remained peaceful, both Albania and Serbia have experienced clashes with the police during their anti-government movements, a sign that people’s patience is running thin. In February, Albanian protesters threw stones at the prime minister’s office and the government headquarters, and tried to force their way into the building, to which the Albanian police responded with tear gas, flash grenades and water cannons. In March, after months of peaceful demonstrations, protesters in Serbia circled and attempted to enter the Presidency building, where President Vucic was holding a press conference. The clashes with the riot police did not intimidate crowds in either country, and thousands of people seem intent on continuing the fight for their democratic rights and freedoms.
The current wave of protests across the Western Balkans is seen by many as the lead-up to something bigger, as the thousands of people on the streets in Serbia, Montenegro and Albania seem determined to maintain pressure on their respective governments. Regardless of whether or not an event of Balkan Spring proportions is coming to the region, however, it is beyond evident that continuity is no longer an option – and that, one way or another, the present state of affairs will be coming to an end.
Image: the logo of the Montenegro protests – ‘#Oduprise’ [‘#Resist’] (source: Instagram account of #Oduprise protests)