To some it may seem like hyperbole, but members of the victorious Montenegrin opposition could be excused for exclaiming late Sunday, August 30, 2020, that the Berlin Wall had finally fallen in their country as well – albeit a “mere” three decades after it had fallen everywhere else in Europe, materially and figuratively. For Montenegrin strongman Milo Djukanovic’s ruling DPS (Democratic Party of Socialists, the heir to the Montenegrin Communist Party) had finally lost an election amidst a record, almost 77% turnout.
But it would be a mistake to see this as a belated outburst of Western-inspired triumphalism over the remnants of the vanquished Cold War enemy’s remnants. There was more irony than triumph here. And not because Djukanovic is still president, his mandate running until 2023, or because the opposition will likely have a razor-thin 41-40 majority, faced with the daunting task of disentangling the elaborate political-economic-media-criminal webs of a deep state built since 1989 (although many argue that its origins go back to the final communist liberation/takeover of Yugoslavia in 1945).
The irony, rather, lies in the fact that Djukanovic’s (un)reformed neo(liberal)-communists were a trusted Western partner and accomplice over most of that period. Djukanovic’s betrayal of the demonized Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic, who had helped him ascend to power in the first place, followed by the subsequent betrayal of his main political partners, breakup of the joint state with Serbia in 2006 by way of a referendum of questionable validity and his sharp turn against Russia and towards NATO – these were all lauded in Western capitals, with hardly a peep about a “Berlin Wall” that needed taking down – until the desired tasks were accomplished, that is.
When Djukanovic and company staged a crudely organized, evidence-free “Russian-supported coup attempt” during the elections of October 2016, using the occasion to reduce turnout and proper election monitoring just enough to secure a (nevertheless narrow) victory and then, less than a year later, steered this coastal country of some 600,000 to the seemingly safe harbors of full NATO membership – they did not realize that the deafening applause they were hearing from the self-designated guardians of global democracy and all that is good, was in fact the far off sound of their swansong, and that it was time for a graceful exit. As it ultimately happens with all the West’s situational favorites, their expiration date was nearing.
For why would the West put up with living evidence of its double standards and selective attention to human rights and democracy longer than it had to, especially on hallowed European soil, where “democracy” is supposedly an indigenous plant? Djukanovic and pals had already become notorious for their Latin American-style rule, financed by proceeds of cigarette and drug smuggling, murky privatizations of state property and (deep) state-backed monopolies. Not to mention unsolved high-profile murders with a clearly political dimension, such as the May 27, 2004 assassination of the editor-in-chief of an opposition newspaper. In 2015, Djukanovic was even deemed worthy of a “criminal of the year” award.
But the warning shots, in the shape of increasingly unfavorable media coverage and negative “independent” reports on crime and corruption, went unheeded. Instead of gracefully withdrawing from the political stage to enjoy his millions, Djukanovic – the “eternal president” as Deutsche Welle dubbed him – reentered the arena and reclaimed the country’s highest office in 2018, which was his eighth term as either prime minister or president.
And Djukanovic’s party might very well have carried these last elections as well if not for the monumental mistake he made at the end last year, when, at his behest, the Montenegrin parliament passed the Law on the Freedom of Religion in the early hours of December 27, 2019. Despite its name, the law called for a de facto nationalization of properties of the Serbian Orthodox Church (SOC) in Montenegro and for the Church to “register with the authorities” under an officially approved name, despite the fact that the SOC had just celebrated the 800th anniversary of its autocephaly, along with its first diocese – the Zeta diocese – established in 1219 on the territory of today’s Montenegro, by Archbishop Sava, a prince of the Serbian Nemanjic dynasty. During the parliamentary voting, which took place in the dead of the night, the most vehement opposition MPs were arrested, despite their immunity.
Public resistance started the next day. Some of the police acted with brutality. A bishop was beaten severely enough to require hospitalization (another would be arrested a couple of months later, along with several priests). However, what first looked like just another mass political protest of the kind Djukanovic had previously successfully put down, quickly transformed into a spiritual tidal wave that washed over the country’s entire landscape – both physical and political.
It was estimated that anywhere between a quarter and a third of Montenegro’s population joined in what soon became daily processions. The scenes from the peaceful processions, in which priests and the faithful carried church banners, huge wooden crosses, icons, Serbian and traditional Montenegrin flags (whose colors are identical) while singing spiritual songs exploded over the region’s social media.
As was the case with most human activity, the processions were interrupted after three months in mid-March by the pandemic and the accompanying anti-mass gathering measures that the Montenegrin government was all too eager to enforce. But the damage had obviously been done. The spiritual uprising, with its rallying cry: “We won’t give up our shrines,” had broken the suffocating political atmosphere. The resistance of the Orthodox faithful also encouraged those of other faiths or even no faith at all to join in, and wound up serving as an organizing framework for all that were in any way opposed to Djukanovic and his 30-year rule, just in time for the August elections. The clear anti-regime opposition united in three blocs, preventing the dissipation of votes that had hampered previous campaigns, and secured the parliamentary majority.
Unlike previous times, Djukanovic could no longer count on overt pre- or post-election support from his Western allies. The incoming messages were neutral at best, and often unapproving. Even Freedom House was not amused, assessing that “corruption is a serious issue,” and that “investigative journalists and journalists critical of the government face pressure, as do many nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).”
It may have been hard enough to support a figure like Djukanovic for so long, but now he had become undefendable. It wasn’t just the malevolent new law, but the fact that Djukanovic, himself an avowed, unbaptized secularist, was announcing the formation of a new, domestic “church.” This was not only a potential embarrassment for the post-religious Eurocrats in Brussels, but something that even the Ecumenical Patriarchate, fresh from its ill-conceived Ukrainian adventure, refused to support, standing firmly behind the Serbian Orthodox Church and its historical roots. Doubleplusungood.
Still, Djukanovic is not the type to go off into the night quietly. It’s expected that he’ll give his all to poach that all-important single MP from the opposition’s ranks as a last-ditch attempt to keep the reigns of power securely in his hands, and that his security services and underworld allies might engineer various, potentially destabilizing incidents. But there is a consensus that, this time, that simply won’t fly. The three opposition blocs have been so adamant in their opposition to the ruling party that any defection from the ranks would be clearly seen for what it is – a straight buy-off, after which all the grievances, emotions and resentments that had been pent up for decades, and which the Church-inspired uprising managed to discipline and channel in a positive, proactive direction, would finally explode out of control.
Unfortunately, if all else fails, après moi, le déluge does not seem like an option that Djukanovic and at least some of his domestic and foreign partners in crime would shy away from. So, the Montenegrin parliamentary elections may be over, but not the West’s traditional geopolitical game in the Balkans, according to which Montenegro is a key barrier to Serbia’s – and, by extension, its traditional ally and Orthodox Slavic cousin Russia’s – access to the warm Mediterranean and the (re)establishment of a sovereign bulwark against perpetual, Western-inspired “balkanization” that has made the area into a perpetual “tinderbox.” If that project, which includes not only the completion of NATO’s “unfinished business” in the region, but also the consolidation of an artificial Montenegrin, anti-Serbian identity – i.e., the Ukrainization of Montenegro – is seen to be endangered, then all bets are off and, in the eyes of certain Western swamp-dwellers, even damaged goods like Djukanovic might be preferable to any further inroads made in the region by dreaded Russia and the new(est) Western bogeyman, China.