March 29, 2023 From Media

Montenegro can still fight off Russia

Tonino Picula, Croatian member of the European Parliament and permanent rapporteur of the EP for relations with Montenegro, and head of the Working Group for the Western Balkans commented for Nacional on the presidential elections in Montenegro, where he was the head of the EP observer mission for those elections and the EU's perspective on the development of the situation.

We are delivering the interview in its entirety.

You were in Montenegro - what was the atmosphere like, how do you comment on the results - were you surprised?

Not too much. This result nevertheless confirms the earlier noticeable desire of the Montenegrin electorate for changes. Namely - for the first time, a representative of a non-parliamentary party founded only a few months ago, which has already achieved enviable success in local elections, is going to the second round of the presidential elections. She won, which is particularly indicative - the capital. On the other hand, the parties that won in coalition in the last regular parliamentary elections in 2020 recorded a weaker or completely weak result. Some of the winners of that time are no longer on the political scene, including the then Prime Minister Zdravko Krivokapić. In addition, this is the first time since 1997 that the winner of the presidential election will be known only after the second round.

However, the roots of the political crisis we are witnessing today go back several years.

Exactly, a lot is happening in Montenegro these days, but if we need to look for the immediate roots of this political dynamic, I think we have to go back to 2019, when Milo Đukanović, a man who for almost thirty years has been practically synonymous with state power in that country, decided to push the Law on Freedom of Religious Communities, which caused very serious resistance in Montenegro. And that, first of all, among the well-known structures of long-term political opponents of the President of Montenegro close to the Serbian Orthodox Church. Unlike many previous elections, they organized themselves very well and continuously publicly demonstrated their disagreement. Many parties say that the success of that gathering should be thanks to the Serbian Orthodox Church, which was directly affected by that political project of the Montenegrin government at the time. The opposition responded with a coordinated performance in several pre-election formations, so in August 2020 they managed to win power in Montenegro for the first time. However, although it was expected that the new government would be coherent, very quickly their mutual relations developed into a series of various crisis situations. In a short time, even two governments failed in the parliament, while the third could not be elected, although there were some truly bizarre attempts to circumvent even the Constitution of Montenegro. That is, that it is changed not in the way prescribed by the Constitution, but by a simple majority in the Parliament. To make the situation even more absurd, even the Constitutional Court could not act for a long time due to political obstructions during the election of new judges. Unfortunately, during that entire time, Montenegro practically stagnated on its European path. Basically, the citizens of Montenegro met these elections living in a toxic combination of intractable political blockades and institutional crisis.

You mentioned Zdravko Krivokapić. How does the European Parliament view Jakov Milatović, who was a minister in Zdravko Krivokapić's government? They are quite close to the Serbian Orthodox Church. What would his victory mean for the European future of Montenegro?

Of course, we have to wait and see what happens in the second round. However, the fact is that the election math is in Mr. Milatović's favor, because almost all the candidates with some results, who are part of that block that strongly opposes Đukanović and his DPS, openly made themselves available. However, the party's slogan "Movement Europe Now" has yet to be confirmed by a reformist, not a populist policy, if they get the chance to hold power. In my opinion, Jakov Milatović's political offer is hybrid, that is, three-layered. He primarily refers to concrete economic benefits for citizens; Namely, while he was the minister for economic development in Krivokapić's government, the minimum wage was increased from 200 to 400 euros, which is no small thing in a country like Montenegro. On the other hand, there is also the promise that the path to membership in the European Union will not only continue but also accelerate. And that one is practically blocked. And thirdly, leaning on pro-Serbian sentiments in Montenegro is visible. However, Milatović's excellent result indicates that these are well-balanced messages that the electorate obviously supported.

It was expected that Andrija Mandić from the pro-Serbian Democratic Front would enter the second round, but he won 19 percent. How do you interpret that?

He started the pre-election campaign three full weeks before all the other candidates. With this, he was able to gain a significant advantage in the media and political space over all the other candidates, including President Đukanović. Since this is an extremely pro-Serbian and pro-Russian politician, there should be no doubt that both Belgrade and Moscow were involved in his campaign in various ways. In addition, it should be taken into account that out of five television stations with a national frequency in Montenegro, as many as four are in the hands of companies from Serbia. Only the public RTV service is owned by Montenegro. So - at the start, Mr. Mandić had a kind of advantage over the other opposition candidates, but the electorate of that bloc decided to support the candidate who, according to him, has the best chance of defeating President Đukanović. And that is Jakov Milatović. His party "Europa Sad" took over at least many voters of the current parliamentary majority.

Montenegro is a deeply divided country. We remember that the president of the European Commission at the time determined that in the referendum on the independence of Montenegro, the result must be as much as 55% in favor. And he was, but the division remained. The pro-Russian sentiment is very strong, and half of the country is against sanctions against Russia. How does Europe view it?

Montenegro really achieved its sovereignty in a unique way because, for the first time, a threshold of even 55 percent was standardized instead of the usual 50 percent plus one vote. But these presidential elections are also special because they represent a kind of referendum for or against Milo Đukanović, since for both his supporters and opponents he is the incarnation of something that goes beyond his political function as president. In his career, he was also the prime minister, and he is still the president of DPS. This is a politician who personally articulated the policy that made Montenegro a sovereign state that joined NATO in 2017 and is leading the EU candidate accession process. Obviously, this is a career that, along with all the earlier wanderings, was finally and irrevocably linked to the Euro-Atlantic orientation of its country.

But also with corruption. In the opinion of many, Milo Đukanović is a deeply corrupt politician…

The degree of corruption and organized crime should not and cannot be ignored when evaluating the overall situation in Montenegro. Precisely because of this, it is necessary to carefully analyze whether Đukanović's political opponents want and can change the long-standing system of government to which various forms of social and political pathology are linked, or if they win the election, they would reset Montenegro's foreign policy orientation and threaten the elements of its sovereignty. I would just like to remind you how, for example, the Government of Dritan Abazović received support for a program for which it quickly changed its priorities and thus led to even deeper social divisions. Any such similar new attempt would be completely contrary to what almost 80% of citizens of Montenegro want, regardless of which party they belong to. And that is EU membership. If, of course, he is in a position to decide as the president of the state or an influential official of the party in power, we will see how Mr. Milatović will coordinate different positions or influence, especially if the government depends on the Democratic Front. Populism can be the fuel of an election campaign, but it opens up much more serious risks as the content of government in a country that has to make up a lot in a short time.

And they would smell like Putin's fingers in the whole story. Russia still has ambitions toward Montenegro.

These ambitions have never disappeared and I doubt that the Kremlin will ever give them up. However, here we come to another dilemma. And that is - to what extent is this result of Jakov Milatović the product of the dissatisfaction of a significant part of Montenegrin citizens with the existing bad situation in society and long-term blockades, so how much is this "sui generis" original dissatisfaction, and how much was the entire process influenced by factors located somewhere outside of Montenegro. There, opinions remain quite divided. It should be taken into account that the most obvious candidate from Belgrade, which was certainly Andrija Mandić, did not enter the second round. So - the influence of Russia and/or Serbia certainly exists, but the question is how strong it is.

The political situation in Montenegro is further complicated by the decision of the current president Đukanović to dissolve the parliament and schedule parliamentary elections for July 11th. How do you comment on that?

President Đukanović actually had a very narrow choice. Because, according to the unconstitutional Law on the Election of the President, which the ruling majority in the parliament passed in short order, in order to dethrone Đukanović because he did not want to give a mandate to their candidate for prime minister, Lekić, on that very date, 16.3. could dissolve Parliament. By the irony of fate, that very Law of questionable constitutionality made it possible for him. And he did it, which was a strong political move. He probably wanted to further mobilize his supporters and prove how determined he was. But that's how he turned 2023 into a super-election year in Montenegro. Namely, after the second round of presidential elections, early elections for the Montenegrin Parliament will be held on June 11. Overall, the new situation opens up opportunities as well as risks for the President and his party; The DPS has not been in power in the country for three years, in the recent local elections they lost in many areas, including the capital, and if in the meantime they also lose the position of the president of the country, it is questionable whether they will be able to consolidate and achieve success in extraordinary elections in such a short period of time. parliamentary elections.

What then is the European perspective of Montenegro? When could you become a member? In five years, as Đukanović promised?

It should be recalled that during the interim Croatian presidency of the European Council, Montenegro opened the last negotiation chapter in the first half of 2020. Unfortunately, the good rhythm that Podgorica had in the accession process was disrupted and even stopped thanks to political turbulence and wanderings of the authorities after the parliamentary elections in August 2020. Only Serbia and Montenegro did not progress on their European path during the last year, when, nevertheless, certain the progress of all other countries in the Western Balkans. Bosnia and Herzegovina received candidate status, North Macedonia and Albania finally started negotiations, and Kosovo applied for EU membership. The further development of events is not easy to predict since this is the last full year of the mandate of this convocation of the European Parliament and the Commission. Everything depends on whether the enlargement policy will remain in such a focus of the EU or will be marginalized again. However, the most important thing is how the authorities in Montenegro will be positioned according to the country's European perspective. Montenegrin voters are on the move, and they will soon articulate their own future by electing the president of the state and the parliament.

Will you be at the head of the observation mission of the European Parliament in the second round of elections and what kind of treatment do you expect in Podgorica?

Due to other obligations that I have as a member of the foreign policy committee of the European Parliament, I will not be an observer, and therefore not at the head of the observation mission at the second round of the presidential elections in Montenegro. Regardless, I'm hoping for a repeat of one of the more striking features from the first round. Namely, the campaign itself, as well as the election day, were relatively calm considering the marked polarization of the political scene and the significance of the presidential elections themselves. I would like everyone in Montenegro to be aware of the fullness of their responsibility in these elections: the candidates themselves and their teams, the election administration, and citizens who will use their right to determine the direction of their country in a high percentage.


We use cookies to give you the best online experience. By using our website you agree to our use of cookies.