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Montenegro’s Fragile Political Course in the Post-Authoritarian Era

21 Oct 2021
By Nikola Popovic
Election observation, Montenegro, 30 August 2020

Montenegro is in the midst of a democratic transition. Unfortunately, this member of NATO and candidate for entry into the European Union faces significant hurdles in becoming a functioning democracy.  

Will Montenegro’s democratic transition continue? Layers of a socio-political crisis driven by weak institutions, identity politics, and sharp political divisions hold implications for Montenegro’s future. These factors continue to shake Montenegro’s political stability and prospects of economic recovery in the aftermath of COVID-19. 

On 30 August 2020, Montenegro’s parliamentary elections ended the thirty-year rule of the Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) led by Milo Djukanovic. For many Montenegrin voters, the ousting of DPS leadership marked the end of authoritarian rule. However, a lack of social, economic, and political reform has forced the country’s prime minister, Zdravko Krivokapic, to initiate a reshuffle of key government positions. There is widespread disappointment in leaders for failing to reach a consensus on the structure of Montenegro’s government. The goal of the reshuffle is to overcome voter disappointment and restore confidence in Montenegro’s political course in the post-authoritarian period. Party leaders of the Montenegrin government are urging politically affiliated appointments to enter cabinet. Until now, expert appointments have constituted Montenegro’s government. 

Identity Politics  

Since the 2006 Montenegrin Independence Referendum from Serbia, which was approved 55.5 percent of voters, religious and ethnic tensions have stalled the country’s progress towards EU membership. While national minorities of Montenegro are identified in the Constitution of Montenegro, there are diverging views on the meaning of the Montenegrin identity. Both religion and language continue to divide the nation.  

On 5 September 2021, staunch supporters of the Montenegrin Orthodox Church, including President Milo Djukanovic, protested against the inaguration of Joanikije II as the new Metropolitan of Montenegro, the top clerical position, at Cetinje Monastery. The protestors consider Joanikije and his enthronement by the Serbian Orthodox Church as confirmation of Serbia’s influence in Montenegro. The arrival of Metropolitan Joaknije to Cetinje Monastery by helicopter as protestors blocked incoming traffic is evidence of Montenegro’s hostile atmosphere. 

In 2021, Montenegrin parliament has been debating the upcoming National Census, fuelling heated arguments between Montenegro’s non-government organisations and government officials. The source of contention has been whether to delay the census and remove questions about religion and ethnicity.  

The majority of Montenegrins are members of the Christian Orthodox faith. Montenegrins and Serbs each want to protect and promote the Montenegrin and Serbian languages, respectively. These divisions are always manifested at the political level. In March 2021, there was heated debate over funding of the Faculty of the Montenegrin Language and Literature and whether to include Serbian literature as compulsory text for secondary school students.  

Divisions within government 

Driving current negotiations over the reshuffle are the three main political parties: the Democratic Front (DF), Democratic Montenegro (DM), and the United Reform Action (URA). Together, they make up a narrow majority of 41 of the 81 seats with other smaller political blocs and parties in Montenegro’s parliament.  

Since forming government, all three blocs have accused one another of political treachery and of cooperating with DPS. The central problem is Prime Minister Krivokapic’s poor coordination and communication in regards to draft legislation. His inability to unite the three blocs has also led to calls for his resignation. 

Philosophically, none of the three blocs share much in common. DF is a centre-right bloc and largely advocates for the interests of Serbian people in Montenegro, estimated to be 30 percent of Montenegro’s population. DM is a centrist party appealing to different ethnic groups through rhetoric of peace between Montenegro’s minorities. The URA is a reformist civic movement which sits to left of the political spectrum as a recognised member of the European Greens. Despite their political disagreements, the three blocs continue negotiations. The ousting of President Djukanovic and ending DPS influence in Montenegro’s institutions unites them. 

Montenegro faces a democratic backslide unless its institutions, especially the judiciary, undergo reform. The government claims that Chief Prosecutor Milivoje Katnic has been obstructing investigations into cases involving DPS officials. Over the years, a series of scandals has emerged involving cigarette smuggling and money laundering. DPS officials, including former mayor of Podgorica Migo Stijepovic, were exposed by Montenegrin business Dusko Knezevic.  

Despite leading the smallest country of the former Yugoslavia, Djukanovic was named in the top 20 wealthiest leaders in 2010. The earnings of his political career cannot explain his amassed wealth. On 3 October, a non-governmental organisation fighting corruption and organised crime in Montenegro, MANS, revealed Djukanovic family’s wide network of trusts and hidden investments across five countries.  

The future of Montenegro’s stability  

Like other post-communist countries, Montenegro is a premature democracy. It will take political will and conviction on the part of Montenegrin politicians to establish the rules of democracy and ensure they are respected by citizens and political parties.

Since the 1990s, elections in Montenegro have been affected by electoral roll tampering. It is alleged that DPS has been involved in organising identity cards for people to repeatedly vote at polling stations using the identities of deceased persons and diaspora members. These are so called “phantom voters.”  

To achieve free and fair elections, Montenegro will need to take steps to ensure that only eligible voters are listed on the electoral roll. Confirming the eligibility of voters is an integral part of the democratic process, which will strengthen confidence in Montenegro’s institutions domestically and internationally.

Nikola Popovic has worked as an adviser and researcher across state and federal governments in Australia. He holds a Master of International Relations from the University of Sydney. The views in this article are his own and not of any organisation.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.