Milo Djukanovic: Montenegro's chameleon king

Milo Djukanovic: Montenegro's chameleon king
Milo Djukanovic has been a master at adapting to change
By Clare Nuttall in Bucharest February 14, 2016

Twenty five years Milo Djukanovic celebrated his 29th birthday by becoming Europe’s youngest prime minister. A lot has changed since then - not least Montenegro’s split from Serbia to become an independent state - but Djukanovic is still Montenegro’s prime minister, having dominated the tiny country’s politics for the last quarter century.

Since first taking power, Djukanovic has been either Montenegro’s president or prime minister for 19 of the 25 years, twice returning to politics after announcing his retirement. However, 2016 could be a time of seismic change as the coalition that has backed him for almost 18 years has collapsed, leaving Montenegro facing the most unpredictable general election in its history.

Djukanovic has been a master of adapting to change, transforming himself from a communist to friend of the super-rich, from an ally of former president Slobodan Milosevic to the man who led Montenegro out of its alliance with Serbia and towards the EU and Nato.

It is not clear how he will now steer his party, the Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS), through the murky waters of Montenegro’s radically changed political scene, but he has survived for so long through his skill at manoeuvring. “His ability to adapt to changing political eras and even anticipate certain political changes was an important contributor to his lengthy time at the top of Montenegro’s politics,” Ivan Vuković, assistant professor in political science at the University of Montenegro, tells bne IntelliNews.

“Djukanovic is very chameleonic and adjusts to every situation, being Marxist in his youth, turning to believe in the market economy, good at using propaganda before completely having the country in his hands,” agrees Vera Stojarová, assistant professor at the department of political science at Masaryk University and editor of “Party Politics in the Western Balkans”. “He is able to play on all sides, being a good friend with the West as well as Russia, and being able to switch positions very easily.”

Djukanovic’s rise through the ranks of Yugoslavia’s only political party, the League of Communists, was rapid. At just 26, he was one of a triumvirate within the Montenegrin branch of the party - alongside Momir Bulatovic and Svetozar Marovic - that helped Slobodan Milosevic push out the communist old guard.

Within the next decade, Djukanovic moved against his former allies. He defeated Bulatovic in the 1997 presidential elections, which were marred by violent protests. At the same time, he became increasingly outspoken against Milosevic. During the violence in Kosovo in the late 1990s, he started to cultivate western politicians such as British prime minister Tony Blair and US secretary of state Madeleine Albright. However, he only started openly campaigning for Montenegro’s independence after Milosevic was ousted in 2000.

Vladimir Gligorov, research economist at the Vienna Institute for International Economic Studies (wiiw), says that Djukanovic became the undisputed number one in Montenegro after the referendum that secured the country’s independence in 2006. “Before that, he shared power with Bulatovic and Milosevic,” said Gligorov. “You can really talk about him being in charge from 2006.”

His role in promoting Montenegro’s independence (despite opposing it in an earlier referendum in 1992) has made him a symbol of the new country’s independence struggle, and virtually secured him father of the nation status.

During his time at the top, Djukanovic cemented his power through his control over state institutions. “Djukanovic’s longevity in power can be attributed mainly to his absolute control over the police-intelligence apparatus in the country,” says Filip Kovacevic, chairman of the Movement for Neutrality of Montenegro and adjunct professor at the University of San Francisco. “Since the early 1990s, he has had ultimate power to reward and punish and was brutal in destroying all political opponents.”

Stojarová believes that Djukanovic built the new country as a “family business”. “Being part of the leading elite, you can do whatever you want, freedom of speech is restricted and the Djukanovic party controls the whole state,” she says.

Corruption as way of life

NGO Freedom House’s Freedom of the Press 2015 report found that conditions had deteriorated since Djukanovic was re-elected prime minister in 2012. The report lists problems including lawsuits launched against independent media outlets, physical attacks on journalists and “hostile” government rhetoric. However, Montenegro rose 15 places on Transparency International’s latest Corruption Perceptions Index released on January 27, indicating some recent improvements.

Delays in building transparent, functioning institutions are common to most transition countries. Montenegro has had less time than most because it became independent 15 years later than most countries from the former Yugoslavia and former Soviet Union. “To formalise the situation and create neutral institutions is not something that can be done quickly,” says Gligorov. “In Montenegro everything happens on a personal basis and corruption is a way of life.”

Another factor is the tiny size of the country - Montenegro has a population of just 620,000 people and the state is a major employer, giving thousands of people a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. It is a country where “everyone knows everyone and it has been more convenient for the locals to be part of the ‘Djukanovic family’,” Stojarová says.

Equally important, however, was the weakness of Montenegro’s opposition, which for more than a decade has doggedly sabotaged its own chances of taking power from the DPS (which is the direct successor to the League of Communists) and its junior coalition partner the Social Democratic Party (SDP).

The main opposition parties are pro-Serbian and opposed to Montenegro’s independence, as well as its progress towards EU and Nato membership. Much of their focus has been on opposing any decision by Podgorica that goes against the interests of Serbia or Montenegro’s other traditional ally Russia, even though this viewpoint does not have the support of many within Montenegro.

“Given the opposition’s refusal to accept the reality of the 2006 referendum, it is not surprising that Djukanovic has been in power for a quarter century,” says Vuković. “The coalition has been invincible because its stance on Montenegrin independence and EU integration was enough to beat the opposition every time.”

This has ensured the DPS-SDP coalition remained in power despite revelations about high-level corruption and links to organised criminals in Montenegro.

Under Djukanovic’s rule, the country notoriously became a haven for cigarette smugglers, who made billions of euros supplying the Italian market across the Adriatic. According to Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), the island of St Nikola off the Montenegrin coast, owned by Djukanovic’s friend Stanko Subotic, was used to smuggle cigarettes in cooperation with two Italian mafia families.

Djukanovic himself came under investigation and was indicted by prosecutors in the Italian city of Bari in 2008. However, the probe was dropped the following year thanks to Djukanovic’s diplomatic immunity.

Montenegro also shielded notorious Balkan criminals including Darko Saric, who was sentenced to 15 years in prison for cocaine smuggling by a Serbia court in 2015, and Kosovo-born mafia boss Naser Kelmendi, who is under investigation in several countries, according to the OCCRP.

Money laundering was facilitated by Podgorica’s decision to adopt the euro as the country’s currency even though the country has not yet joined the EU. In January, European parliament deputies called for First Bank, which is controlled by Djukanovic’s brother Ajo, to be investigated over suspicions of money laundering. According to local NGOs, First Bank is treated as a “personal ATM” by the prime minister’s family, despite its bailout by the state in 2008.

OCCRP gave Djukanovic the dubious honour of being its 2015 Organised Crime and Corruption person of the year. “He has built one of the most dedicated kleptocracies and organised crime havens in the world,” the OCCRP says. Meanwhile, Vanja Calovic, director of the Montenegro-based Network for Affirmation of NGO Sector (MANS), claims Djukanovic is the “last European dictator”, who has “captured [Montenegro] for his own private interests.”

Influential Western friends

Yet Djukanovic has succeeded in pushing Montenegro towards EU accession. It has currently opened 22 of the 35 EU accession chapters, putting it ahead of Albania, Macedonia and Serbia, even though there have been regular criticisms of Podgorica’s record on fighting organised crime and corruption in the European Commission’s annual enlargement progress reports.

He has pursued a successful foreign policy agenda, managing for many years to balance Euro-Atlantic integration with a friendly relationship with Russia - resulting in an influx of high-spending Russian tourists and a disastrous investment by oligarch Oleg Deripaska into the Podgorica Aluminium Kombinat (KAP). Only recently has the relationship between Montenegro and Russia soured, once Montenegro secured its invitation to join Nato in 2015. Djukanovic claims that Moscow backed a series of anti-government protests last autumn in Podgorica with the aim of deterring Nato by creating an unstable image of the country.

By contrast, he has managed to keep his influential western friends, who include US Vice President Joe Biden, one of the backers of Montenegro’s Nato bid.

At home, he faces a new challenge in the form of a fractured parliament now that the DPS has lost its long-time coalition partner. When the split became apparent, Djukanovic called a confidence vote, which took place on January 27 after a marathon three-day debate in parliament. Although the SDP voted against the government, it survived with the support of Positive Montenegro, a new party founded in 2012, and other small parties. Djukanovic has now invited opposition parties to join forces with the DPS in government.

Vuković believes the collapse of the ruling coalition will be “game changing” for Montenegro, where elections are due to take place later this year. “There will be a big realignment of the political scene,” he forecasts. “Although Djukanovic won the vote of confidence, I believe the real winners were the opposition parties. This will be a competitive election as never before.”

“It is clear that the political situation in the country is far from stable and that any outcome, including violence on the streets, is possible ... there is no doubt that Djukanovic is not ready to relinquish power in any substantive way,” says Kovacevic.

However, Gligorov argues that the rift between the DPS and the SDP could be pre-election positioning rather than a “definite divorce” and does not rule out the parties working together in a future government. Nonetheless, he points to ambitious would-be successors to Djukanovic including SDP leader Ranko Krivokapić and opposition leader Miodrag Lekić. “Eventually the succession has to be a problem - if not after this election then after the next one,” Gligorov says.

For now, however, Djukanovic appears to have survived the breakup of the coalition with no major damage. The economy is growing, with the European Commission forecasting growth of 4% in 2016 and 4.1% next year. Even the December 2015 arrest of Svetozar Marovic, the former president of Serbia & Montenegro and a long-term Djukanovic ally, has been spun as a success in the fight against corruption rather than a sign of corruption in the Djukanovic camp.

The latest polls show that far from flailing after the vote of confidence, the DP’s support is stronger than ever at well over 40% while it is the SDP’s support that has taken a hit. As he passes the quarter century mark, Montenegro’s man at the top therefore shows no signs of quitting or being made to quit.