22 Nov Europe’s longest-standing leader survives with Western support, while oppressively ruling the country
Montenegro is the only country in Europe (not counting Russia) in which there has never been a change of government in an election. Since 1945, it has been governed invariably by one and the same party – the Communist Party, which in 1990 changed its name to the Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS). Although the multiparty system was introduced at the time, the Berlin Wall has not been demolished here, because the entire system is tightly controlled by the DPS, more precisely by its leader, the longterm president Milo Đukanović and his family and friends, who seized power with support from Slobodan Milošević and have not released it since. On two occasions, he briefly withdrew from government functions, but remained in full control as DPS Chairman. Thus, real democratic elections in which the free will of the citizens would prevail have never been conducted in this country. The shortcomings of the electoral process are detailed in several international documents, including the OSCE / ODIHR report from the last presidential elections, which emphasizes the so-called institutional advantage enjoyed by the ruling party candidate. If one has an institutional advantage in elections, how can the opponents challenge him or her? Despite the monopolies, the Podgorica government is persistently supported in the West. On several occasions, when Europe’s longest-serving leader Đukanović was on the cliff-edge, his friends from Europe and the United States reached out to him to stop him falling. They usually justified this support for an essentially deeply authoritarian politician by pointing to a weak, disunited anti-Western alternative that would divert the country from its European path and to the threats coming from Russia.
Russia has been introduced into this narrative in recent years, especially since the 2016 elections, as allegedly trying to destabilize Montenegro, the youngest NATO member. This has been claimed even by some politicians from influential Western countries. The fact that Đukanović developed close relations with Moscow in the recent past and gave Putin’s oligarchs some strategic companies and the most beautiful real estate by the sea has been forgotten. The opposition in Montenegro has weaknesses. It is not well organized and is bitterly divided, but most opposition parties cannot be defined as predominantly pro-Russian and anti-Western. On the contrary, none of the parliamentary opposition parties calls into question the country’s accession to the European Union, and only parts of the Democratic Front are openly pro-Russian.
While the country is suffocating in corruption and crime, many offences remain unpunished, especially those whose perpetrators hold the highest positions. Two decades ago, the President himself was charged in Italy as a member of a criminal group that smuggled cigarettes between the two coasts of the Adriatic but his case was archived due to his sovereign immunity and thus never prosecuted. Narco-bosses, such as the infamous Šarić brothers, who have been tried in the neighbouring and several EU countries for smuggling huge amounts of hard drugs, are protected here and are freely doing business with the state and state officials, including the family of Milo Đukanović and the family’s bank in which they hold millions. The judiciary did not prosecute even overt abuses and electoral manipulations. After the “Recordings” and “Envelope” affairs, which clearly demonstrated that the ruling party was buying votes and offering state jobs ahead of elections, no high-ranking officials were held accountable, despite convincing evidence and appeals by the EU, which regularly demands in its reports that these affairs be resolved. Crimes and violence against investigative reporters in recent years have also gone unpunished. One reporter was murdered, another journalist was shot in the leg, explosive devices have been planted in their yards and several were brutally beaten, while a bomb shook the offices of the daily Vijesti, several of whose cars were set on fire. Not only were the perpetrators of these crimes never held accountable, but the dirty campaign against the free media which dared, but the dirty to report on the links between business, crime and politics, has become a constant in pro-government media outlets. Critical media have been accused of various crimes and their representatives of betraying the country and national interests, as during the peak years of Communism. This campaign against the media was often led personally by Đukanović, who depicted investigative journalists as “mice to be exterminated” and openly called for the arrest of the owners of the daily Vijesti and weekly Monitor. Because of all this, over the last decade Montenegro has fallen by more than 50 places on the Reporters Without Borders’ Media Freedom Index. In 2018, it was ranked a disastrous 104th, among the lowest in Europe. In the last 30 years, the middle class in Montenegro has been almost completely wiped out. According to UNDP research in Southeast Europe, the biggest gap between the rich and poor is to be found in Montenegro. About 30 percent of the country’s citizens are on or below the poverty line. At the same time, a small group associated with the authorities is enormously wealthy, and has taken over the wealth of the country in an untransparent privatization: factories, land, banks, hotels, real estate and so on. In this process, Đukanović and his family and closest friends turned out to be the most successful ‘entrepreneurs’. A few years ago, the distinguished British daily the Independent ranked him among the twenty richest politicians in the world, while Forbes estimated the wealth of the Đukanović family at over $ 160 million, marking the Montenegrin president as one of the richest persons in the country. This could be just part of his visible fortune, as some estimated that it could be worth more than $ 1 billion.
The average monthly salary in Montenegro is only 500 euros. According to unofficial estimates, from 1991 to 2015, some 140,000 people left the country of only 620,000 inhabitants, fleeing unemployment, poverty and unequal chances. Most of them emigrated to Germany. When that country further liberalizes its labour market next January, it is feared that emigration from Montenegro will further intensify. Montenegro’s economy is quite devastated by corruption and shady privatization. External debt has grown from about 28 percent of GDP in 2006 to an enormous 70 percent of GDP in 2018. According to independent economists, the loans were used mainly to stimulate consumption and for unreasonable projects. An example is the construction of a 40km motorway section from Podgorica to Kolašin financed by China that will cost more than one billion euros. According to international experts, this loan could make Montenegro dependent on Beijing because it is unclear how the weak Montenegrin economy can service the increasing debt.
When he came to power at the age of 27, Đukanović possessed nothing but a bachelor’s degree in economics, with rather poor average grades, but an excellent CV of a party soldier. He had been a member of the League of Communists since high school, climbing the power ladder with incredible speed. His brother Alexander (Aco) owns hundreds of thousands of square meters in the country’s best locations, along with office buildings, apartments and one of the largest banks in the country. Milo Đukanović’s government has extensively supported this bank, not only by depositing state funds in it, but also by bailing it out with tens of millions of euros during the financial crisis. His sister Ana, a lawyer, has become the exclusive attorney for foreign investors doing deals with the state. Đukanović’s family and its cronies and closest friends have taken over the state’s most valuable resources. The rest of the DPS party nomenklatura also enjoys the benefits. This summer, it was reported that millions of euros were spent exclusively on high-level officials’ apartments, many of whom have obtained grant funding for their purchase or renovation, which is in collision with the law.
This retrograde system is maintained by appointing to key positions ‘reliable’ individuals, who frequently do not meet either legal or professional requirements. Only recently, Vesna Medenica was elected as President of the Supreme Court of Montenegro for the third time, despite the constitutional limit of two terms for performing this important judicial function. The same thing happened earlier with former Montenegrin President Filip Vujanović, who was elected as president three times in a row, despite a restriction in the Constitution that clearly stipulates a maximum of two terms. Both Vujanović and Medenica are considered loyal party cadres close to Đukanović. Montenegro has been in the negotiation process with the European Union for seven years, but its prospects for membership are still hazy due to disrespect for the rule of law, although 2025 has been floated informally by some Brussels officials as the year of possible entry. If indeed this smallest of all former Yugoslav countries were then to be accepted in the Union, it would mean that the negotiation process took longer than it did for any new EU member to date. Clearly, the main barrier to joining the Union is the whole range of internal factors, many of which we have mentioned here.
Therefore, it is hard to believe that negotiations on Chapters 23 and 24 on the rule of law could be closed in the near future. Or, say, Chapter 27, on the issue of sustainable development and ecology, since nature and biodiversity, including in areas protected by UNESCO, such as the Tara Canyon, have been aggressively assaulted, while waste, toxic emissions and pollution have still not been addressed.
It is well known that the EU is tired of enlargement, that it is uncertain about its own future and that Brexit is making it look increasingly like Yugoslavia before the breakup. It is thus quite normal that in such a situation there is no particular enthusiasm for negotiations with Montenegro, as well as with other candidate and potential candidate countries.
But despite all this, under the Association and Accession Agreement, Brussels should at this stage play a more proactive role in transforming Montenegro into a functioning democracy, especially when it comes to the rule of law, economic reforms and nature protection. Instead, Brussels treats with considerable tolerance the brutal violations of law by official Podgorica, including its gross infringements of the country’s constitutional order, as in the case of the unlawful election of the Supreme Court president.
There was no adequate response from Brussels to a number of other breaches of the law. Last year, the management of Radio Television of Montenegro (RTCG), which sought to reform the broadcaster and make it a truly public service rather than a mere service of the DPS – was unlawfully dismissed. In that case too, the EU voiced only moderate criticism of this act in its regular report, and Montenegro continued to drop down the charts of media freedoms.
There was no decisive reaction from Brussels even when an insider, the businessman Duško Knežević, posted a video in January of this year, showing him handing over an envelope of about € 100,000 to the former Mayor of Podgorica and present member of DPS presidency Slavoljub Stijepović for the ruling party’s 2016 parliamentary election campaign – which would have constituted illegal campaign financing. Knežević, one of richest Montenegrins, has launched an entire campaign to release large amounts of compromising evidence against local authorities from London, where he took refuge from the Montenegrin public prosecution service, which has meanwhile raised financial misconduct charges against him. He has directly accused Đukanović of numerous illegal acts and has handed out to the media documents on Đukanović’s secret offshore and financial dealings. In the European Union governments would resign and fall for much less. In Montenegro, European officials have continued to cooperate with Đukanović, and many to openly support him, even though Đukanović in person and his nomenklatura are the main obstacles, not only to joining the EU, but to establishing a basic rule of law in the smallest of the post-Yugoslav states. Why does the West support such a regime, more specifically why do the EU countries do it?
Đukanović immediately recognized Kosovo, when requested by Brussels and Washington. He quickly implemented the necessary reforms in the military, and in 2017 Montenegro joined the NATO alliance. In addition, he established good relations with neighbours, primarily with Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, against whom he had fought in the 1990s. He apologized to Zagreb and Sarajevo for his acts during the breakup of Yugoslavia and the love affair with Milošević, but at the same time, no war crimes committed by Montenegrins have been fully prosecuted.
Đukanović has also established good ties with Serbia, whose rulers he had opposed when Montenegro was heading towards independence in 2006. Today the Montenegrin president, despite his confrontation with the local pro-Serbian parties and the Serbian Orthodox Church, maintains an exceptional relationship with Serbian President Vučić, with whom he shares many similarities in the way they govern their respective countries. Đukanović also imposed himself on the regional scene, with some experts even suggesting him as a mediator in the Prishtinë-Belgrade talks. He also has an intense and friendly communication with the Kosovo leadership. At the same time, the Montenegrin ruler imposed sanctions on Russia when the European Union did and began accusing Moscow of interfering in the country’s domestic affairs.
Thus, all that Đukanović did was to align the country’s foreign policy priorities with the interests of Brussels and Washington. In return, he got a free hand to do whatever he wants at home, to oppress and consolidate his own power, instead of reforming Montenegro and preparing it for EU accession.