Clashes erupted at the end of an anti-government demonstration in Podgorica on October 24, as protesters hurled stones and Molotov cocktails at police. Two leaders of the opposition Democratic Front (DF), which is trying to force Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic to stand down, were arrested.
Several thousand people turned out for the protest, although the DF has not yet gained mass popular backing. Further unrest could prevent the government from securing an agreement on Montenegro’s Nato membership by the end of the year. Djukanovic has already accused Russia of backing the protesters in an attempt to stop Montenegro entering Nato.
The DF’s demands have remained unchanged since the beginning of a series of protests that started on September 27 - resignation of the current government, appointment of an interim cabinet and early elections. At the October 24 protest, some demonstrators spoke out against Montenegro’s goal of Nato entry, while others said their main grievance was the low standard of living, accusing Djukanovic of robbing the country.
According to local news service CDM, police data showed that the October 24 protest attracted between 5,000 and 6,000 people. On the other hand, the organisers claimed that between 20,000 and 30,000 people participated.
The protest was initially peaceful, but late in the evening some protesters started throwing stones, torches and Molotov cocktails at the police, and attempted to break through a police cordon and protective fence to enter the parliament.
Police swiftly restored order, and continued to patrol the streets of Podgorica. The DF claimed that the violence was provoked by hooligans sent by the government. AFP reports that there were masked and violent men among the demonstrators.
A total of 15 policemen and 24 citizens were injured in the clashes, Internal Affairs Minister Rasko Konjevic told a news conference after the demonstration. Some reporters also sustained minor injuries.
Two DP leaders - Andrija Mandic and Slaven Radunovic - were arrested and accused of provoking the clashes. It is possible that the two MPs will be stripped of their immunity and face trial.
The DF is a coalition of opposition parties - New Serb Democracy (NOVA), Movement for Changes (PzP) and Democratic Party of Unity (DSJ) - led by former diplomat Miodrag Lekic. Its main goal is to overthrow Djukanovic’s ruling Democratic Party of Socialists of Montenegro (DPS), which has been in power since 1991.
In an interview with Bosnian broadcaster TV Federation BiH on October 21, Djukanovic claimed that the protest organisers were backed by “nationalists from Belgrade” and also supported by Russian politicians.
“Preventing NATO enlargement into the Balkans is an official objective of the Russian state politics, and that is why we have to conclude that the organisers of the protests in Montenegro have a very strong base in certain political, economic, security and other centres outside of Montenegro,” Djukanovic said according to the Montenegrin government website.
An October 17 statement from the Russian foreign ministry criticises Podgorica for removing protesters camped outside the parliament and claims that Montenegro’s Euro-Atlantic integration “does not lead to its consolidation and prosperity”. “Quite the contrary - there is a political and ideological polarisation of society, a worsening of socioeconomic problems. One gets the impression that ... the accelerated promotion of Montenegro into Nato implies the suppression of alternative approaches,” the ministry statement said.
Montenegro previously had a good relationship with Moscow and attracted so many Russian tourists its Adriatic coastline was dubbed “Moscow on sea”. However, more recently Podgorica has switched its focus to European integration, and joined western sanctions against Russia in 2014.
Djukanovic’s government has been pursuing Nato membership, and a decision from Nato is expected by the end of this year. While the population is divided over whether their country should enter Nato, polls show the majority of Montenegrins do not back the protesters. According to a poll conducted by Damar polling agency prior to the protests, just 11.5% of Montenegrins believe that protests are the most effective political tool of the opposition. Most of those polled, 29.6%, think that the most effective political tool is participation in elections.
However, the DF insists it will continue trying to oust Djukanovic, who has been in power almost continuously since 1991, when he became the youngest prime minister in Europe at the age of just 29. He later held the position of president (between 1998 and 2002) and was again prime minister from 2003 and 2006, 2008 and 2010, and December 2012 to the present.
Djukanovic is widely expected to call elections for spring 2016, around six months in advance of the general election scheduled for October the same year, as the DPS-led coalition is increasingly shaky. There is widespread speculation in Montenegro that the DPS and its junior partner the Social Democrats Party are only keeping the coalition together to ensure that Montenegro does not miss its chance of Nato membership.
The EU delegation to Montenegro issued a statement on October 25, expressing concern over the clashes that erupted during the latest demonstration. “While demonstrations are a legitimate and legal way of expressing political and other views, they should be peaceful and respect the law,” the statement reads. It also urged all political parties to re-engage in a constructive dialogue within the parliament.