November 27th, 2016
By Irena Baboi – Research Assistant
Elections in Montenegro have generally been peaceful and characterised by a predictable outcome. The Democratic Party of Socialists have been in power since 1991, and their leader, Milo Djukanovic, has been alternating between the role of president and prime minister for the past more than a quarter of a century. This all changed on October 16 when, as voting was still taking place, Prime Minister Djukanovic accused Russian and Serbian nationalists of plotting to overthrow the government and assassinate him, in an alleged attempt on the part of Russia to gain control of the country and prevent it from joining NATO. In an unexpected turn of events, and despite winning the elections, Djukanovic also announced his resignation the following week, and his accusations led to an investigation that resulted in the arrest of Serbian and Russian nationals suspected of planning terrorist attacks in both Montenegro and Serbia. The prosecution, however, has provided virtually no evidence in support of Russian involvement so far, and Djukanovic himself has been accused of fabricating the coup attempt in an effort to ensure the tight control over Montenegro that his party ultimately failed to regain.
Despite being the second smallest state of the Balkan region, Montenegro’s Adriatic coastline means that the country has strategic importance to both Russia and the West; and despite significant economic involvement on the part of the former, the country has always favoured the latter. Montenegro was one of the first countries to support the sanctions imposed on Russia following its invasion of Crimea. The NATO military exercises scheduled for last month also went ahead as planned, and Montenegro is set to become a member of the organisation in spring 2017. However, from the point of view of the Western institutions, a ‘leader for life’ type of arrangement is not exactly in line with the democratic values their members are meant to uphold; and at the domestic level, both the opposition and critics of his methods of governing argue it was fraud that allowed Djukanovic to win the elections. The system that the veteran leader has built is one that is largely based on criminal ties and a focus on enriching his political friends at the expense of the future of his people, and Montenegrins at all levels of society have been growing increasingly dissatisfied with it for years.
It cannot be denied that Montenegro is one of the Balkan countries that has made the most progress internationally, and done so in an impressively short amount of time. Djukanovic’s pro-European, pro-NATO approach led the country to receive an invitation to join the latter less than ten years after declaring independence from Serbia, and has made him a safe bet for the West since the breakup of Yugoslavia. His tolerance and even enabling of corruption and organised crime, however, have made Montenegro’s accession to the European Union more difficult than it should be; and it is the relationship with the West rather than that with Russia that his resignation will ultimately benefit.
As things stand, one allegation is just as likely to be true as the other – Russia has repeatedly shown strong opposition to Montenegro’s quest to join NATO, but the timing of the accusation makes the charges that is was merely a political ploy equally plausible. Djukanovic’s Democratic Party of Socialists did win the elections, but it did not secure a parliamentary majority. This means that it will need to form a coalition to remain in power, one in which many opposition parties would have been even more reluctant to enter with Djukanovic as Prime Minister. Moreover, regardless of where the truth lies, one thing is clear: the alleged coup attempt does not constitute the only or even main reason for Djukanovic’s loss of his decades-long tight grip over the country.
A dramatic change, however, is not to be expected, as Djukanovic’s successor is committed to following the Western path. Former head of the Montenegrin intelligence service and current deputy prime minister, Dusko Markovic, is also Djukanovic’s closest ally and, as chairman of the party, Djukanovic is likely to effectively continue ruling the country from behind the scenes. During his over a quarter of a century in power, Djukanovic has twice before left public office, only to return to a top position and remain a dominant political figure in the meantime. Montenegro is also significantly more stable than its neighbours, with which the country has tended to maintain friendly relations; and although resentment over NATO’s bombing of 1999 persists throughout the country, joining the organisation is likely to go ahead as planned.
The outcome and aftermath of Montenegro’s elections offer an important lesson: favouring stability over transparency and the rule of law has its justifications in the aftermath of a war, but it can be damaging to both domestic and international credibility in the long-term. Djukanovic created a Montenegro that looks to the West while being governed as in the East; and even with international integration to boast, his political game will only become increasingly difficult for him to play.