In Montenegro, they’re calling it ‘the twilight of the idols’. Milo Đukanović, the man who ruled for nearly 33 years, lost the presidential election in the second round on 2 April. The longest reigning European leader, christened ‘the smartest man in the Balkans’ by Radio Free Europe, now looks likely to fade from the political stage. What this means for the country, however, is the subject of intense dispute. For some, including Montenegro’s liberal Atlanticists and many among its minority groups, the defeat represents a victory for Vladimir Putin – one that might threaten the very existence of the independent state. For others, including the sizeable Serbian population and a diverse range of Montenegrins, the election marks the end of a dictatorship.
To his detractors, Đukanović was a strongman who turned Montenegro into an authoritarian mafia state. Crime and corruption were rampant, nepotism ruled, critical journalists were attacked and even killed, and ethnic and religious divisions were deliberately stoked. All this was tolerated by the West because Đukanović supposedly guaranteed ‘stability’ and proved willing to work with the US to achieve its foreign policy objectives in the region, most recently ushering Montenegro into NATO.
Đukanović, a former basketball player, rose to prominence during the late 1980s as a partisan of Slobodan Milošević’s ‘anti-bureaucratic revolution’: an elite revolt that saw old political cadres swept away with the aim of centralizing power around those loyal to the leadership of the Socialist Republic of Serbia. With Milošević’s blessing, the young politician was appointed prime minister in 1991. Later that year, Montenegro drew international condemnation for shelling the UNESCO World Heritage City of Dubrovnik in Croatia, an operation launched ostensibly to safeguard the Serbian minority following the Croatian declaration of independence. In Montenegro, the Siege of Dubrovnik was justified as an attempt to protect Yugoslavia from Croatian fascism. Đukanović, referring to the chequered pattern on Croatia’s flag, declared that he ‘would never play chess again’.
Six years later, Đukanović performed a volte face, proclaiming his firm opposition to Milošević. This change of course came after Đukanović witnessed the large-scale Zajedno protest movement in 1996 and concluded that the Serbian leader had become ‘obsolete’. There were other factors at play in his pivot: a longstanding personal animosity toward Milošević’s powerful wife, Mira Marković, plus cajoling from Washington, which was keen to cultivate him as a potential counterweight to Milošević. Đukanović won the 1997 presidential election by a thin margin, amid allegations of irregularities and intimidation. The US immediately recognized his victory.
Incensed by Đukanović’s betrayal, Milošević reduced federal funding to the Montenegrin authorities. But the West would help fill in the gaps. Between 1999 and 2001, Montenegro received 765 million Deutschmarks from the US and EU. As the chief disseminators of foreign aid, Đukanović and his inner circle were able to create lasting patronage and clientelist networks. He also assumed control of the lucrative smuggling channels used to circumvent sanctions and thereby forged extensive links with organized crime. Đukanović oversaw a vast smuggling network that allowed cigarettes to be delivered via speedboat to the Italian port of Bari. The EU learned early on that this operation was costing it billions in tax revenue each year – and Italian prosecutors became increasingly eager to indict Đukanović for having ‘promoted, run, set up, and participated in a mafia-type association’. Yet he was protected by diplomatic immunity, and the US quietly advocated on his behalf before the government in Rome.
After Milošević was removed from power in 2000, Đukanović understood that he had lost much of his strategic value to the West. He set about remaking himself and his Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) – now a liberal outfit with no left-wing credentials – as champions of the independent Montenegrin nation, at a time when Montenegro and Serbia were still conjoined in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. A deeper identity conflict thereby emerged: ‘Montenegrin’ became associated with support for independence, while ‘Serb’ denoted support for the unitary state. Ahead of the 2006 referendum on independence, the DPS courted the Albanian, Bosniak and Croat minorities, adopting the rhetoric of multiculturalism less out of any meaningful conviction than out of political expedience. Most of them needed little arm twisting to get behind the idea of separating from Serbia, and on referendum day 55.5% of participants voted for independence, while 44.5% favoured preservation of the union. Tiny Montenegro – population 615,000 – was reborn as an independent country.
From that point on, Đukanović consolidated his rule by depicting opponents as a threat to Montenegro’s independence. He took particular aim at the Serbian population. In the Balkans, Serbian nationalism is often thought to entail Kremlin sympathies: an assumption that Đukanović exploited to depict Serbs as a threat to Montenegro’s modernizing, Euro-Atlantic orientation. The minority group was labelled a ‘fifth column’, an enemy of the state, a neo-fascist bloc – and thus significantly underrepresented in national and local government. Serbs frequently complained of voter disenfranchisement and other forms of political exclusion. The receipt of welfare benefits, too, was often contingent upon support for the DPS.
While Đukanović’s overreach was criticized by domestic opponents, his agenda was praised by allies abroad. Robert Gelbard, the former US Envoy to the Balkans, called him ‘a real hero’ for ‘building Montenegro as an independent, democratic state, a country that is founded on strong democratic and free market principles and one that has a clear vision of the future that accords with the way the US sees the world.’ John McCain described Đukanović’s push for Montenegrin independence as ‘the greatest European democracy project since the end of the Cold War’. Across the enlightened West, his austerity policies and privatization of public assets were applauded.
The irony is that, although Đukanović is now known as an ardent supporter of NATO, he spent his early political career cozying up to Russia. In the years after Milošević was overthrown, the West was initially reluctant to support an independent Montenegro, fearing it might undermine the fragile new democratic coalition in power in Belgrade. So Đukanović sought support elsewhere. Following the 2006 referendum, Russia was the first country to recognize Montenegro as a sovereign state. Putin valued Russian investments in Montenegro at $2 billion – roughly equivalent to the country’s entire economic output at the time. Russians also purchased the majority of shares in Montenegro’s industrial sector, along with vast swaths of its Adriatic coastline. Soon enough, every third yacht in Montenegro was owned by a Russian.
But with the annexation of Crimea, relations entered a new, icier phase. Montenegro joined the EU in imposing sanctions on Moscow. While Đukanović had long spoken of the prospect of NATO membership for Montenegro, the war in Ukraine made it a matter of greater urgency. The circumstances of the country’s accession were dramatic: Montenegrin authorities claimed that on election day in October 2016, Russia orchestrated an attempted coup d’état with the aim of assassinating Đukanović and preventing Montenegro from joining the Atlantic military alliance. The opposition expressed doubts about this narrative, which they described as a ‘cheap, staged vaudeville coup’, intended to preserve Đukanović’s power at a moment when he faced a formidable electoral challenge. But it was no matter. Đukanović was victorious once again, and Montenegro joined NATO in June 2017.
More recently, tensions between Serbs and Đukanović have centered around the powerful Serbian Orthodox Church, to which 70% of the country belongs. In December 2019, the government passed Đukanović’s controversial law on Freedom of Religion, allowing the state to appropriate property granted to the church after 1918. Protests, in the form of public liturgies and processions, were held throughout Montenegro. Such discontent dominated the 2020 parliamentary elections, as the church launched an ‘anyone but them’ campaign aimed at dethroning the DPS. The result was an unprecedented victory for the opposition, spanning both pro-Russia and pro-EU political blocs, which won 50.7% of the vote. Though Đukanović remained president, his challengers cobbled together a fragile new government that was instantly beset by crisis. It was felled by a no-confidence vote after just a few months in office. A subsequent opposition government met the same fate.
Yet, however crisis-addled the new opposition has been, the DPS remains in steep decline – having lost in 11 of 14 municipalities in local elections last year and anticipating a similarly poor result in upcoming parliamentary elections this June. In the recent presidential contest, Đukanović was defeated by Jakov Milatović, a 36-year-old Oxford-educated economist who ran as the candidate for ‘Europe Now!’, a new pro-EU centrist party. Milatović, who campaigned on an anti-corruption platform, served as economy minister since the opposition triumphed in 2020. During his tenure, the minimum wage more than doubled: the largest hike in Montenegrin history. But this reform, welcomed by citizens hurting from the Covid crisis, came with a price: gross salaries no longer include mandatory health insurance. In other words, the part of one’s salary that would have previously gone to the government for health care now goes directly into one’s pocket. Milatović’s economic programme retains universal healthcare as a basic right, funded by other means, but such means have yet to be clarified – and the increase in public spending is currently contributing to the country’s debt levels.
Đukanović derided his opponent’s policies as a dangerous form of ‘economic populism’ that would threaten the stability of the public finances and precipitate a so-called ‘Greek scenario’ (the charge of populism is dubious, given Milatović is a bland technocrat who spent years at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development). He also claimed that Milatović was an apologist for Serbian nationalism who had tricked the West into believing that he was a harmless liberal. This was a classic case of guilt-by-association: because many Serbs supported Milatović as a welcome alternative to Đukanović, this meant that Milatović himself must be an ultranationalist extremist. In this sense, Đukanović’s electoral campaign relied on collapsing the distinction between pro-Kremlin parties and Europeanist ones, portraying them all as crypto-Serbian nationalists intent on reabsorbing Montenegro into ‘Greater Serbia’.
In the end, Milatović’s victory was less a referendum on his policies than a decisive rejection of Đukanović’s narrative. Supporters of both the pro-Russian Democratic Front and smaller pro-EU parties ultimately banded together behind the opposition. This was evident in the pattern of votes between the two rounds. In the first, held on 19 March, Đukanović received 35% while Milatović won 29%, while in the second Đukanović received 41% and Milatović netted almost 60%. The ineluctable conclusion was that Đukanović’s polarizing strategy had foundered. Sixteen years after independence, his attempt to divide Montenegrin patriots from Serbs was no longer viable. Instead, a majority of voters from different ethnic and ideological backgrounds united to kick him out of office. Whether his replacement can deliver on his promises – to clean up Montenegro’s kleptocratic system and kickstart economic growth – is another matter.
Read on: Marco D’Eramo, ‘They, The People’, NLR 103.