The Difficult Birth of Democracy in (Almost) Post-Djukanovic Montenegro

In less than two and a half years after the coalition of the long-serving Montenegrin leader Milo Djukanovic lost the elections, the winning parties are at a crossroads. The choice is simple — they will either agree on forming the third post-Djukanovic government, which is unlikely, or prepare for parliamentary elections. Dritan Abazovic, the current prime minister, claims that the instability is the byproduct of the difficult birth of democracy. After the first democratic transition of power in the country’s history, Abazovic argues, political turbulence is no surprise. However, it will result in building a democratic society in this small Mediterranean country. Djukanovic, who still serves as the President, disagrees and blames the government for serving foreign interests and distancing the country from the European Union.

The country’s fate could be decided in the presidential elections scheduled for March 19. If Djukanovic wins, he will be back on track to regain power. The failure, however, would be a deadly blow to his ambitions. Whoever wins, the outcome of the coming elections will affect the trajectories of several novel trends in Montenegro’s politics. All of them are the consequence of Djukanovic’s 2020 defeat and have the potential to decisively change the patterns that have been shaping domestic politics for decades.

But first – who is Milo, and how has he remained in power for so long that he became the longest-serving leader in Europe?

Djukanovic’s strategy for dominating the politics of Montenegro was based on exploiting the divisions in the country. His favorite one is the Serbo-Montenegrin split, where people with no biological differences are torn between two identities. It is not uncommon for two siblings to have a different ethnic and linguistic affiliations. According to the last census, Montenegrins are the majority, but most of the Serbo-Montenegrin population speak the Serbian language. In terms of religion, the Serbian Orthodox Church (SOC) enjoys far greater support within this population than is the case with Montenegrin Orthodox Church.

For Djukanovic and his allies, the Serb identity in Montenegro is Belgrade’s hoax and a real threat to the country’s independence, which is why they worked on suppressing it. In line with this, Montenegrin nationalists insist that the Serb national parties and the SOC are Trojan horses working for Belgrade’s interests. Many staunch nationalists are genuine about their anti-Serb narrative, but Djukanovic always had another rationale behind such an approach. After all, he was once a Serbian nationalist. In the early 1990s, he was the one who criticized his current allies for precisely the same narrative they jointly promote today. For Djukanovic, Slobodan Milosevic’s ally back then, Serbia-threat theories were nothing but “sick hallucinations” of his opponents.

Today, however, he is a defender of statehood. This strategy has not only mobilized the majority of the ethnic Montenegrins around him but also secured support from minority parties and voters who were not in favor of Serbia’s influence in the country. Moreover, since the Serb national parties were left to be the central pillar of the anti-Djukanovic bloc, this almost all-against-one approach guaranteed that the opposition would always fail. Relying primarily on the votes of the Serbs, they could never challenge Djukanovic’s rule seriously. Nevertheless, some 20% of the votes they usually had made them visible enough to leave the impression on Djukanovic’s electorate that the threat to national survival was real.

Djukanovic’s master plan also had an international dimension. He managed to stigmatize the Serb national parties as Russian players in Montenegro, which had a tremendous effect abroad. The potency of this strategy has only increased after the crisis in Ukraine escalated in 2014 and Montenegro joined NATO in 2017. Rising animosity between the West and Russia made the former particularly aversive to the expansion of Moscow’s influence and the possibility that the military and political secrets of NATO could end up in Putin’s hands. For many years, this approach secured Djukanovic the status of a man who had no alternative to the West.

In a domestic context, it is today even more critical for Djukanovic to exploit the national divisions since he lost most of the executive power that allowed him to attract votes beyond the game of Serbo-Montenegrin polarization. Unlike the previous period of his rule, the various forms of political extremism in his party are evident this time, which is the first significant political trend that followed the 2020 elections. Indeed, Djukanovic’s first words after the defeat were that the struggle would continue, even from the woods, if needed. But instead of the guerilla, he organized street protests under the slogan “We are numerous” (Ima nas).

One of the symptomatic examples of the extreme political action of his Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) was the 2021 attempt to block the access roads to Cetinje, Djukanovic’s main stronghold. Their goal was to prevent the enthronement of the Metropolitan of Montenegro and the Littoral in the Cetinje monastery, which belongs to the SOC but is located in an unfriendly environment. The government was determined to ensure the succession of the orthodox bishops, but it faced a rebellious town and the sovereignty test. The crisis escalated into street violence between the police and demonstrators, where the former prevailed.

In one of the acts of revenge that followed, Djukanovic’s supporters decorated the fences around the monastery and the monastery itself with dozens of Montenegrin flags. Despite the grotesque sight, the monks were careful not to be accused of desecration of state symbols by removing the flags. But, more importantly, the Serb camp of street radicalism did not react with reciprocity, so this and similar situations never escalated as some feared or hoped. If they did, everyone would lose. Everyone but Djukanovic.

Radicalization is currently in service of Djukanovic’s return to power, and the DPS is a hostage of his political ambitions. He may not have a choice at the moment, but the party has one since Djukanovic will likely resign from party positions if he loses the upcoming elections. Once he leaves the scene, the temporary trend of the party’s extremism will go in the opposite direction. Radicalism would not be able to yield the results in the long run, so the younger generation of DPS politicians should soon abandon it. This would have a spillover effect on reducing the overall tensions in the country.

In a deradicalized environment, voters would have less incentive to choose the parties with ethnonational agendas. This effect would reinforce the ongoing consolidation of the moderate forces – another notable trend in (almost) post-Djukanovic Montenegro. The moderate parties are ascending and could quickly grow into the backbone of the political change in the country.

The Democrats, the strongest party of the center in the parliament, got 10% of the votes in the local elections recently held in Podgorica. The success of repeating the previous good results proves that their support is stable. On top of that, new moderate parties emerged and quickly attracted voters’ attention. It is the case with Europe Now (Evropa sad) Movement, formed by several non-partisan members of the first post-Djukanovic government. Only a couple of months after being founded, Europe Now gained some 20% of the votes in Podgorica and became the leading power, not only among the moderate parties but in the wider anti-Djukanovic bloc.

The success of Europe Now was unthinkable three years ago, and it signals the shift of voters’ preferences toward the political center. The growing role of the moderate camp would eventually contribute to the system’s transition toward modern democracy. No less important, it would have a pacifying effect on the divided Montenegrin society.

The third important outcome of Djukanovic’s 2020 defeat is that it has paved the way for Serb national parties to participate in government. It would allow them to finally socialize with the system and the country’s international affairs. These developments would be particularly beneficial, considering that Serb national parties opposed the country’s independence in the 2006 referendum and its accession to NATO in 2017. Simply put, the once–alienated Serbs’ engagement in the government will bring them closer to the system they saw as unfavorable and unjust. Simultaneously, the others would have the opportunity to learn about them.

In the first place, it would be fruitful if the Serb parties could cooperate with the parties of national minorities. For the first time in the country’s modern history, the possibility of collaborating with Bosniak/Muslim and Albanian parties is essential here. It could reduce prejudice and animosity between the traditionally opposing sides.

Antagonism is also present on the international level. The Serb national parties and Montenegro’s Western partners had to play by Djukanovic’s rules for a long time. By fueling hostility between the two sides and acting as the guardian against Russian influence, Djukanovic managed to secure international support for the survival of his regime. Since close cooperation with the West will inevitably remain the cornerstone of the country’s foreign policy, it would be healing if the Serb parties could work on international affairs in order to overcome mistrust.

Considering the ongoing trends, the democratization and stability of Montenegro would only benefit from Djukanovic’s departure. The current extremism of the DPS would eventually diminish, reducing the tensions in the country. The emerging moderates and the Serb national parties’ growing role would also improve social cohesion. Only in such an environment can one expect civil society to flourish.

If Montenegro’s foreign partners care about these processes, they should encourage the birth of democracy in Montenegro. Yes, birth is difficult, but the mother will survive, and the baby will be beautiful.

[Montenegro’s flag by AleGranholm is licensed under CC BY 2.0.]

Stefan Jojić is a Ph.D. candidate in international relations at the University in Belgrade and an analyst at the Centre for Non-Proliferation, Arms Control and Disarmament of the Professional Association of Security Sector, Belgrade. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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