Flames and Storms
Edited by Faustas Norvaisa
The Certainty of a Promise : Montenegrin Parliamentary Elections in 2020 and 2023
Montenegro is oftentimes a wonderland; in a day, you hear the news about an allegedly loose panther in a remote village, and read about canceled classes over bomb threats. While sensationalism and absurdity in the media shake up the daily lives of Montenegrins, it still remains a quaint and mundane place. Despite the small population and territory, the country presents a pivotal strategic stronghold for both regional, and international powers.
In a place of 500 000 registered voters, Montenegrins have high stakes in influencing the geopolitical tides in the Western Balkans. Bordering Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia, and Albania, it is within Montenegro where external powers can assert their presence in the region. It is a country where the influences of the West, Russia, UAE, and China, interplay; yet, Montenegrin domestic and foreign policy has been steered towards the European Union and the West throughout the decades since its 2006 independence. For instance, Montenegro became a member of NATO in 2017, and membership negotiations to join the EU started in 2012.
While pro-EU sentiments were shared amongst the public in the past, with slow progress and the rising presence of populism, Montenegro’s future becomes more unclear. Europe may have been a representation of progress, but euroscepticism trickled down from wider political presence of Russian-backed leaders who helped the common men in times of financial disparities during the pandemic. In the whirlwind of press statements, affairs, scandals, protests from pro-Serbian nationalist groups, and counter-protests of pro-Montenegrin civil blocks, parliamentary elections become the best indicator of the political climate in Montenegro.
After six months of lockdown and highly restricted movement in 2020, Montenegrin’s political tide shifted for the first time in years. The loss of the largest political party, the Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS), during the parliamentary elections in 2020, many foreign analysts interpreted as the first democratic elections in the country, but also as a potential political turmoil. European political analysts like Florian Bieber warned that Djukanovic’s pro-Western stance does not excuse for decades of unwavering rule. There was no social upheaval, nor power-grabbing attempts in the aftermath of the 2020 elections. Newly elected PM Zdravko Krivokapic introduced his cabinet ministers as 12 apostles, there to bring change to a corrupt society that formed and roted the political structures under the DPS rule. An allegory was the golden promise made to America and the EU, as a final crackdown on organised crime and corruption. It was a promise of a breakdown in separation of church and state, in a multi- religious and multi-ethnic country.
In fact, this was the first election in Montenegro with a political campaign openly funded by the pro-Russian Serbian Orthodox Church. The supporters of the winning coalition headed by the far-right Democratic Front (DF) attacked or threatened Muslims and ethnic Albanians residing in the north of Montenegro. They wrote on their houses, “the blackbird takes its flight, Pljelvlja will be another Srebrenica”. Despite the unrests and violent threats that transpired ( and which the newly elected government never publicly condemned), American Ambassador Reinke welcomed the transition of power as “ the new government is constituted through democratic processes, by the will of the people”.
In 2021, Curt Walker at the Centre for European Political Analysis in Washington D.C. recognized that “ Serbia and Russia ran great interference in 2020 elections.” Indeed, the 2020 elections have indicated the political capacities of Montenegrin society to change age-old political structures. The 2020 elections showed not only to the foreign partners, but to the Montenegrin public, that the electoral results can be respected and that the voter turnout of 76% mattered in defining the political course for the next four years. The public voted for a promise of change. While the power-grabbing and nepotistic practices exhibited by DPS during their time in parliament remained, the political climate indeed shifted, with greater integration of religious figures and their political agendas in domestic and foreign policy, trickling down to changes in education syllabuses and acquisition of funds for cultural projects.
Now, three years later, the Montenegrin public has witnessed, although ever so subtle, social fragmentation in society. The town of Cetinje, a place of historical and social significance as the old capital of Montenegro, became a microcosm of such dynamics; in 2021, mass protests against the inauguration of the next Serbian Orthodox Metropolitan were held at the two entries into the town. Heart-breakingly, it also became a place of great sadness and moroseness in 2022, with the first massacre to occur in Montenegro after 35 years. In both instances, the government alienated the public, with a lack of follow-up inquiries, all lost in the accusatory behaviour between Montenegrin and Serbian national factions in parliament. After 18 months, the DF government lost its vote of confidence, and the technical government led by Dritan Abazovic, leader of URA, brought the decision-making to a standstill.
From Krivokapic’s government, “two apostles” became the faces of a new political party called Europe Now, which aims to steer Montenegro toward the final stages of the EU accession process. During 2020, Jakov Milatovic and Milojko Spajic acted as ministers of economic growth and finance, respectively. Earlier this year, Milatovic managed to unseat the encumbered president Milo Djukanovic and mark the first mandate of a non-DPS candidate in years. Spajic on the other hand, led the party list in the 2023 parliamentary elections.
While Spajic leads with promises of higher minimum wages, the Montenegrin public has grown more apathetic in the last years; disappointed by either side of the political spectrum. As I write this, the age-old dance of the back-room political dealings and promises is about to begin in Montenegro. With only 56% of voters participating in the 2023 parliamentary elections, there were no winners or losers for the 81 parliamentary seats. With only 24 seats for Europe Now, 21 seats for the DPS-led coalition, and further weakening of support for third parties, it’s an open game for who will be able to form a government. Interestingly, 2023 marks the first election where radical right political figures did not pass the threshold of support. A multi-party government awaits the Montenegrin public, and if the last three years can attest, there is a storm of uncertainty about what the next four years will unfold.
In the end, only a few things in Montenegro are seldom certain. That cafes and chatter over deutch coffee remains. The BlueLine buses will never arrive on time. And we will never be truly content with our leaders and political landscape. Dissatisfaction ( and slowly growing apathy) fuels conversations and reminds Montenegrins of the lack of proper judicial structures that could hold politicians, whether in power or in opposition, accountable to their voters. Being well-situated on the Adriatic coast and in between the EU and non-EU borders, Montenegro becomes a boarderland for soft power influence. Without a complete alignment to either the West or Russian/Chinese blocks, the foreign policy of Montenegro has to be carefully crafted, as the country cannot afford to alienate either external power. Because of such ambivalence, it was possible for 2020 elections to turn the tide in favour of Serbian Orthodox Church-backed coalition. With the dismantling of secularism in both political and social spheres, it is difficult to believe Europe Now ( as a party that stemmed from SOC- backing) will truly adhere to a pro-EU agenda. Montenegrins are essentially paradoxical pessimists. They will never be satisfied with their political landscape, yet it has not dissuaded the people to follow promises, no matter how improbable they might seem.