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Montenegro at a Crossroads: How Tight is the Grip of the Past on its Future?

Just fourteen months after the beginning of its mandate, the Montenegrin government led by Prime Minister Zdravko Krivokapić imploded due to a vote of no confidence. What started as a coalition of former opposition parties has now sparked renewed political turmoil in this small Balkan state. This development represents a crucial turning point in the country’s walk into the future: will it go back to old habits, or will it manage to remain on its newly chosen, fragile path towards stronger democratic values? After thirty years under the firm grip of Milo Djukanović, who served interchangeably both as prime minister and president, Montenegrin voters made history in 2020 when they openly voiced their desire for change – and voted accordingly. For the first time in Montenegro’s history, Djukanović’s party, the Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS), did not gain a majority of seats in parliament, spurring the formation of an unforeseen coalition of parties aiming to fight the country’s entrenched corruption and reform the electoral law.

From geopolitics…

Despite a population of just 620,000 inhabitants, the significance of political developments in Montenegro should not be underestimated. Montenegro has been considered the front runner for EU accession in the Western Balkans, and thus internal events could easily influence the political scenery in other countries in the region. A small nation on the Adriatic Sea, Montenegro was one of Yugoslavia’s constituent republics until the 1990s, and later part of the State Union of Serbia and Montenegro. Montenegro eventually gained independence in 2006. Despite its small size and recent founding, Montenegro is located in a geographically strategic position where several, sometimes opposing, interests come together. The country formally applied for European Union (EU) membership in 2008, but accession talks have stalled, with only three out of the thirty-three chapters provisionally closed to date. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), however, welcomed Montenegro as a member in 2017.

At the same time, Montenegro has witnessed an increasing interest from China, whose influence over the country has become an intense topic of debate in recent years. The most controversial issue has proved to be Podgorica’s acceptance of a $1 billion loan from Beijing to build a highway that would connect its border with Serbia to its Adriatic coast. The project is yet to be completed, but it has sparked fears of stranded assets and the potential of high dependence on China. Moreover, notwithstanding its formal independence, Montenegro still remains under the significant influence of its larger neighbour, Serbia. In the 2006 independence referendum, only 55% of voters were in favour of the separation from Serbia and, until today, the Serbian Orthodox Church is the most powerful Church in the country. Ethnically, too, Montenegro remains somewhat divided. In recent polls, 45% of citizens claimed they identify as Montenegrin, while 28% identify as Serb.

…to religion…

The geopolitical situation has left a mark on the country’s political stability, illustrated by the recent vote of no confidence that brought down Krivokapić’s government. Yet internal tensions were high throughout most of the government’s tenure. Montenegrins remain divided on whether to keep pursuing EU membership or to strengthen ties with Serbia and Russia. The past years were marked by vigorous citizen uprisings over a new law that required the Serbian Orthodox Church to prove ownership of any land it claimed for its religious sites to maintain such ownership. Introduced by Djukanović’s administration, this request proved in most cases near impossible to fulfil, with many churches being several hundreds of years old and thus lacking the adequate paperwork. The Serbian Orthodox Church and its followers viewed this request as a direct attack by the state on their religious freedom. Tensions came to a peak during the summer of 2021 with the instalment of a new head of the Church in Cetinje, the former royal capital city. Joanikije II, the Metropolitan of Montenegro, had to be flown into Cetinje by helicopter for his enthronement as nationalist protesters barricaded the streets leading to the town. Old car tires were set on fire to prevent the metropolitan from reaching Cetinje’s monastery, further deepening divisions within the country.

…to national politics

The internal discords were well reflected in politics, even though Montenegro’s new ruling coalition had been fragile since its very inception. Essentially, the reason for uniting its parties, which otherwise cover a large political spectrum, was the will for political change through the removal of the DPS from power. Krivokapić, a religious, pro-Serb former university professor, had been nominated for the post of Prime Minister by the parties of the so-called Democratic Front, which was said to be pro-Russian and pro-Serbian. The government ultimately failed to implement drastic reforms and became entangled in internal power struggles. Krivokapić’s request for new elections did not get a majority in parliament, and Deputy Prime Minister Dritan Abazović of the liberal United Reform Action (URA) party, the smallest coalition partner, announced in mid-January 2022 his intention to form a minority government. After Abazović’s initiation of the vote of no confidence against Krivokapić’s government, the Prime Minister retaliated with a similar vote of no confidence against his deputy, Abazović.

An uncertain future

Paradoxically, the implosion of the ruling coalition has, once again, put Montenegro’s future in the hands of the DPS – the very adversary that the government had been set up to battle. It is up to President Milo Djukanović to nominate a candidate who can muster a parliamentary majority and form a new government. With its thirty seats, the DPS remains the largest party in parliament, and thus all crucial decisions regarding the state’s future depend largely on its votes. If no new government can be formed, Montenegro will be faced with the gloomy prospect of new elections, the possible outcome of which seems highly uncertain. New elections would bring the Montenegrin people to a crossroads once more: should they put their trust into politicians promising change for a second time? Or will the disappointment caused by Krivokapić’s failure lead to a loss of hope in the prospect of meaningful political change – and hence an acceptance of the continuous grip of the DPS on the country? At this moment, these questions remain unanswered. What is unquestionable, however, is that no matter the outcome of this political crisis, Montenegrins will be requested to take their country’s fate – and future – into their own hands once again.

Written by Milica Vujačić; Edited by Gabriele Melindo

Photo Credit to Milica Vujačić