Montenegro expected to speed up EU membership talks as Milatovic takes presidency

Montenegro expected to speed up EU membership talks as Milatovic takes presidency
After winning the presidential election Jakov Milatovic says his first foreign trip will be to Brussels. / Europe Now
By Denitsa Koseva in Sofia April 4, 2023

Montenegro is expected to speed up reforms that will help the country to join the European Union, after Jakov Milatovic, deputy leader of Europe Now, won the presidential election and ousted veteran politician Milo Djukanovic from power.

On April 2, Milatovic got around 60% of the votes amid high turnout of around 70%, ousting from power Djukanovic who ruled the country either as president or a prime minister for over three decades.

“Congratulations to the new president of Montenegro, Jakov Milatovic! I look forward to working with you to speed up the necessary reforms on the EU path of Montenegro,” the EU’s Enlargement Commissioner Oliver Varhelyi wrote on Twitter.

Europe Now, a party that was set up in spring 2022 by Milatovic and the party’s leader, Milojko Spajic, has made its top priority to carry out key reforms that would speed up Montenegro’s EU accession and raise the living standard of the population.

Montenegro made progress towards EU membership under Djukanovic and his Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) for years, becoming the most advanced of the Western Balkan states on the accession path. However, the political turmoil of the last couple of years called progress to stall. 

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell also congratulated Milatovic, writing on Twitter he expects the new president to work for Montenegro’s progress on the EU path.

“We look forward to continuing to collaborate with a Montenegro that is an active Nato ally, strongly committed to Euro-Atlantic values, including supporting Ukraine, aligning with sanctions against Russia, and rapidly progressing toward EU membership,” the US embassy to Montenegro wrote after Milatovic’s election.

The expectation that Milatovic will push Montenegro towards the EU was also pointed out by Croatia’s Foreign Minister Gordan Grlic Radman.

Meanwhile, the newly-elected president gave his first interview, to public broadcaster RTCG, saying he would focus on good relations with Montenegro’s neighbours, as well as on unifying the divided people within the country.

"My priority is internal reconciliation in Montenegro. I shall do what depends on me, but I also appeal to other politicians, to stop using the rhetoric of the 1990s, to look forward because it is important for future state processes. We can differ politically, but I am sure that our goal does not differ - that Montenegro be a reconciled country and that all citizens have the same chance of success in life, and that the only thing that matters for that is education, work and effort," Milatovic said.

He added that his first official visit will be to Brussels as a sign that the country wants to put more effort into its progress towards EU membership.

However, Milatovic also said he would accept an invitation from Serbia to visit the Russia-friendly country as well.

Earlier on April 3, Serbian President Alekandar Vucic said that he personally congratulated Milatovic on his victory in the presidential elections in Montenegro, and that he hoped that, after the inauguration, the first country that Milatovic would visit would be Serbia.

"I congratulated Milatovic and expressed my hope that relations will be good and that we will work on the progress of relations. That is the only important thing for us," Vucic told reporters during his visit to Verona, RTS reported.

Prior to Vucic’s statement, Croatian news agency Hina reported that Serbian national flags and three-finger Serbian salutes by his supporters were seen during the celebrations in the evening of April 2 when the first results showed that Milatovic was the winner. The three-finger salute is used as a gesture for ethnic Serbs and Serbia.

Pro-Serb political leaders in Podgorica joined him at the celebration. However, this comes as no surprise as all rival candidates who trailed behind Djukanovic and Milatovic in the first round of the presidential vote said they would back the young politician in the runoff.

Milatovic’s Europe Now party (of which he is a deputy leader) is the rising star in Montenegro. It beat Djukanovic’s Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) in 11 out of 14 municipalities at local elections last autumn. As the country will hold a snap general election on June 11, the party is expected to become a significant factor in next parliament.

Meanwhile, international observers commented that the second round of Montenegro’s presidential election was competitive and candidates were able to campaign freely with fundamental freedoms respected. However, the organisation noted that the tone was increasingly negative and the gaps in the legal framework became ever more apparent.

“By voting in this presidential election in such a relaxed atmosphere, Montenegrins have proved that their country has reached a high level of democratic culture and they deserve congratulations,” Joe O’Reilly, head of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) delegation, said in a joint statement by international observers.

“It is now crucial that Montenegro continue on its path of European and Euro-Atlantic integration, without outside negative interference. It is also essential that the Montenegrin state institutions collaborate in good faith, in order to facilitate the functioning of the political and legislative structure of the country. We hope that both this presidential election and the coming parliamentary ones will make this possible,” O’Reily added.

The joint observation mission comprised representatives of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), the European Parliament (EP) and PACE.