The August 30 parliamentary elections in Montenegro are a game changing event, no matter what the immediate outcome. The three decade-old NATO-friendly regime has been dealt a blow which may not be lethal in the near term, but it certainly marks the beginning of its terminal decline.
The outcome of the electoral contest is ambiguous, as most things are in the Balkans. The ruling pro-Western DPS Party (ironically, the acronym stands for “Democratic Party of Socialists” which is the successor to the former League of Communists), if we are to go by the official count, obtained a plurality of the votes, about 35%. (Of course, this generous percentage might be modified somewhat by factoring in reported widespread fraud which, according to some persuasive estimates, ascends to 40,000 phantom votes, or roughly one-third of DPS’ total.) But while DPS was presumably the biggest single vote-getter, together the three opposition coalitions it was facing still beat it by a wide margin. These opposition groups have signed a political pact with the intention of jointly forming Montenegro’s new government.
Even if they were to succeed, however, things at the top of the political pyramid would still remain the same. President Milo Djukanovic, who has been running Montenegro for the last thirty years, has another three years to go before his mandate expires. If the new government, as is likely, is formed by the opposition we will soon find out what the President thinks of the idea of cohabitation as the French would put it and had practiced successfully in the 1990s. Would temperamental Montenegrins manage to abide by the rules of such a delicate arrangement?
The choices facing President Djukanovic are stark. In order to evade legal problems related to broad accusations of criminal misconduct, he must hold on at all cost to the immunity afforded by the Presidential office. His options are neither many nor pleasant, given the palpable cooling in the stance of his Western sponsors toward his regime.
He could string out the appointment of the new government (constitutionally the process can take up to ninety days) or try to cobble together a majority coalition around his DPS by luring (in the Balkans there is little mystery about the means that would encompass, and personal charm is certainly not a part of it) a sufficient number of opposition deputies over to his camp. With thirty years of political experience, he surely has a dossier on every one of them and is well informed about their weaknesses.
The first option would depend heavily on Djukanovic’s betting on a Biden victory. Djukanovic has scored some good points with the Albanian factor in the Balkans by recognizing Kosovo and cooperating in other important ways. In fact, Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama, breaching diplomatic etiquette, made an impassioned appeal on Djukanovic’s behalf on the eve of the election. Biden is known to be sympathetic to the Albanian lobby, so support from him in the event he wins in November would not be an unreasonable expectation.
But while that is neither here nor there, the here and now does not look very cheerful. Signs that the West is getting tired and even annoyed with Djukanovic were accumulating as election day drew near and became particularly noticeable after the results were in. In a Statement issued two days after the votes were counted, EU honchos Josep Borrell and Olivér Várhelyi made it clear that Brussels would take a dim view of Djukanovic’s post-electoral shenanigans, though the warning was couched in refined diplomatic language. They referred to “a number of concerns in relation to undue advantage for the ruling party and the unbalanced media coverage” and urged “all political actors and relevant institutions … to engage in a transparent, decisive and inclusive dialogue on the implementation of these recommendations to address long-standing electoral shortcomings well ahead of the next elections”. Contrasted with effusive praise that until recently was showered on Djukanovic, these terse words are the functional equivalent of being politically thrown under the bus.
The other, more offensive strategy Djukanovic could employ is to play deaf to EU warnings and manufacture a parliamentary majority that would relatively smoothly prolong his rule. He could do it by…well, temporarily suspending the European values that he swears by and reverting to tried and tested Balkan methods of pressure creatively mixed with bribery. The alleged acquisition of enormous quantities of cash by illicit means is, after all, precisely one of the compelling reasons for holding on to the immunity of Presidential office, so the cash might as well be put to good use.
Djukanovic’s legacy is not pretty. Its leitmotif, simply put, is treachery, with larceny running not too far behind as the defining characteristic of his political career. His endless series of betrayals started with the opportunistic repudiation of his political mentor Slobodan Milosevic in the 1990s. During the NATO aggression in 1999, he openly consorted with his country’s adversaries, whose bombs were destroying Montenegrin targets and killing Montenegrin civilians, as in the village of Murino. In 2006, he organized a fraudulent referendum which led to Montenegro’s separation from Serbia with himself as its undisputed ruler. When in 2010 the NATO occupied statelet of Kosovo declared its independence, he obligingly recognized it although a good part of it was Montenegrin territory until the beginning of World War I. But what did he care?
Having placed his fate entirely in the hands of new sponsors in Washington and Brussels, in lockstep with them he instituted a radically anti-Russian policy, even imposing “sanctions” on the Russian Federation, unconcerned about the overwhelmingly pro-Russian sentiment of the Montenegrin people. In 2015, by a vote in parliament under his party’s domination and without taking into account the opinion of the Montenegrin public, he dragged the country into the universally loathed NATO alliance.
The climax – and the beginning of his downfall – was the December 2019 law on religious communities that targeted the Serbian Orthodox Church. Unexpectedly, it touched a raw nerve. That is where the public, which had sullenly tolerated egregious misrule, finally drew the line. When parliament which he then still controlled passed the offensive religion law, peaceful rebellion could no longer be contained. Mass religious processions began being held in protest, demanding that the discriminatory law be repealed. With a new parliament to be seated soon, that very well may happen.
Fittingly, the great betrayer is now himself being betrayed by his foreign sponsors and there are signs that his domestic political machine is beginning to implode as well, as many of his lieutenants sense that the end is near. It is unlikely that many will regret Milo Djukanovic’s demise.