Montenegro after the elections: who will call the last dance?

By Vesko Garcevic

In a tight and bitterly contested parliamentary election, described by many as historic for Montenegro, the ruling Democratic Party of Socialists lost the majority in the Parliament, for the first time in the last 30 years.

Election day witnessed a high turnout with more 76% of the country’s citizens casting a vote, the highest since the referendum on independence in 2006.

Given its rhetoric, iconography, symbols, flags, and public discourse for those of us who remember former Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic’s “Serbian awakening”, it is not difficult to draw a parallel between this “happening of the people” or the “meetings of the truth” with an event 30 years ago that changed the history of Yugoslavia and plunged it into a decade of conflict. The only missing piece in the current puzzle was Milosevic, himself, but who has been replaced with a far more powerful and more influential player — the Serbian Orthodox Church.

President Milo Djukanovic will remain in office until 2023, but his Democratic Party of Socialists lost and will be in the opposition at least until the next parliamentary elections, if not longer. The defeat has more than a symbolic meaning for a party that previously felt invincible as it will deprive them of power and state resources.

The cacophony of political exclamations following the political earthquake in Montenegro obscures the postelection picture and causes Montenegrins to feel confused and concerned about their future.

The frustration and dissatisfaction of Montenegrin citizens is not a new phenomenon. It has been present particularly present in the north of the country for years. In its last report, Freedom House portrayed Montenegro as a hybrid regime with the Democratic Party of Socialists having been in power for almost three decades.

Feeling neglected, impoverished, and disfranchised, many citizens have been waiting for something to trigger a popular revolt to vent their frustration. Several corruption scandals in the last few years were seen as a spark a badly to bring needed change, but the ensuing protests were poorly organized and carried out.

It was not until the Montenegrin parliament approved a law on religious communities that the opposition protests began to gain some energy, particularly after the Serbian Orthodox Church gave them their blessing. The church, along with the pro-Serbian opposition parties and backed by official Belgrade, became the main contender to take on the incumbent Montenegrin government.

The result of the election has some (possibly shortlived) positive effects for democracy. Unlike some of its neighbors in a similar situation, all the parties accepted the results and didn’t question the electoral process. It appeared that the major political actors in the country possess the needed maturity and prudence to deal with a complicated situation.

However, the events that followed the elections stand in stark contrast with the Montenegrin opposition’s calls for reconciliation. The representatives of minority ethnic groups, particularly Bosniaks and their religious institutions and political associations have been targeted by Serbian nationalist groups affiliated with For the Future of Montenegro, the strongest member of the future ruling coalition, which won just a few seats less than the Democratic Party of Socialists. In a country deeply divided over identity issues, the rise of the Orthodox Church as a political player is an unwelcome development.

The reasons for the deep concern lies in the fact that two parties of the future coalition still find inspiration from Milosevic’s policies, despite recent attempts to polish their political programs. They have never acknowledged the genocide in Srebrenica. They look to Moscow for guidance with passion and excitement and see Russian President Vladimir Putin as a model of politician who safeguards the interest of the Orthodox world.

The new coalition is fully reliant on support from Belgrade and the Serbian Orthodox Church, and they see themselves as a part of the so-called “Serbian Cultural Space”, Belgrade’s answer to “the Russian World”.

This nationalistic narrative is rooted in a narrow interpretation of Orthodoxy that does little to win the hearts and the minds of Montenegro’s minority populations of Muslim Albanians and Bosniaks and Catholic Croats. For representatives of the national minorities, the Democratic Party of Socialists, or DPS, has also not been overly well-liked, but for decades the ruling party was seen as a partner and one that they could work with. It is hard to imagine an Albanian, a Bosniaks, or Croatian party in a coalition with the same people who used derogatory terms when talking about them just two weeks before the election.

Most importantly, with or without the DPS, there is no Montenegro without its Albanian, Bosniak, and Croat populations. Without their participation, the idea of a civic Montenegro is dead.

What is the way ahead?

The results of the elections have opened a space for a change. A shift can be positive, but it can be a setback. The experiences of the region, particularly in Serbia, teaches us that regime change is not always a change for better. Montenegro has two ways ahead — it can either form an interim government of experts tasked with the preparations of new elections in the foreseeable future, possibly in the second half of 2021; or enter a period of political instability that will lead to early elections, but in a more charged political environment.

One of the (positive) surprises from the elections is the rise of the Civic Movement (URA), which has become a game-changer in the political dispute between the DPS and the pro-Serb opposition, both of which continue to use recycled narratives and policies.

With its four mandates, the Civic Movement can decide who will be running the country in the months ahead. Their support for the DPS seems to be out of the question since the party leadership repeated on several occasions that the bringing down the DPS and Djukanovic was their political goal.

If Montenegro manages to get a government made up of experts, as a result of the URA’s persistence and pressure, the future partners in the government will create a political atmosphere where nobody can play the role of a “big brother”. If Montenegro finally has free elections, then it can be seen as a fresh breath of democracy for, not only Montenegro but the region as a whole.

Is the Civic Movement capable of fulfilling its task while excluding the DPS from its table? Will it become a “limpet” of nationalistic, pro-Serbian, parties, and destroy its civic profile? The URA may have good intentions, which I don’t doubt, but in the world of politics, it rarely happens that a smaller player can keep in check the stronger parties for an extended period of time. No matter how important their four seats look right now, once two pro-Serbian coalition partners consolidate their power, they will find a way to outmaneuver “the political alien” in their midst.

After bringing DPS apparatchiks that are involved in corruption to justice, a grand anti-DPS Government may look efficient at the beginning. However, its internal power dynamics will likely cause the implosion of the coalition.

I agree with Jamie Shea, former Deputy Assistant of NATO, that it is too early to assume that the next government will chart a different course regarding NATO and the West so long as long as it is dependent on the URA’s support. Furthermore, Russia may benefit from having another benevolent NATO member ready to listen to the Kremlin.

What may instead be expected is a period of political instability. We are entering a perplexing time of political cohabitation at different levels within the government and between the governing coalition and the president. Djukanovic can remain in office until 2023., long enough to see early parliamentary elections in the country.

The Montenegrin case is telling in many ways. The period of stagnation has lasted for a long time, for which the DPS is responsible. The party paid the price for its misdemeanors, corruption affairs, and self-complacency. This is a lesson for the EU, as well.

More than 17 years after the EU-West Balkans Summit in Thessaloniki, and after almost a decade of accession talks, the countries in the region have no viable democratic alternatives to those who are in power. Good governance exists only on paper. Given the time, money, and energy Brussels has invested in the Balkans, it has been a disappointing achievement so far.

It is high time for the EU to be more involved in the region and to support a new generation of leaders and new regional policies.

Vesko Garcevic

Montenegro after the elections: who will call the last dance? by Vesko Garsevic has been originally published by New Europe.

Vesko Garcevic is Professor of the Practice of Diplomacy and International Relations at the Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University. He was a Montenegrin Ambassador to NATO, and the first Montenegrin Ambassador to Austria and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.



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