Montenegro’s dysfunctional ruling coalition limps on

Montenegro’s dysfunctional ruling coalition limps on
By Clare Nuttall in Glasgow November 26, 2021

The biggest problem for Montenegro’s government is not its highly antagonistic relationship with President Milo Djukanovic and the opposition Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS), but the deep divisions within its own ranks.

Able to move swiftly on issues that unite its members — such as tackling organised crime and sacking DPS-era appointees from the civil service and judiciary — it has been hamstrung by the different agendas of the ruling coalition members when it comes to making the reforms needed to move towards EU accession. That was reflected in the latest EU enlargement report, which pointed to a lack of progress and some backsliding. 

The current government led by Prime Minister Zdravko Krivokapic came to power in December 2020, four months after the August general election finally put an end to the 30-year monopoly over Montenegrin politics enjoyed by Djukanovic’s DPS, before and after the tiny country declared its independence from its union with Serbia in 2006. Krivokapic appointed an almost entirely technocratic government that was backed by three formations – For the Future of Montenegro, Peace is Our Nation and Black in White – each comprising various small parties and coalitions. Their political orientation ranges from the hardline pro-Serbia, pro-Russia Democratic Front and Movement for Changes led by Nebojsa Medojevic – a vocal supporter of Donald Trump and other far-right politicians, who has blamed the coronavirus pandemic on satanists and ‘deep state’ paedophiles – to the progressive United Reform Action (URA) civic movement, whose leader, Deputy Prime Minister Dritan Abazovic, was the only party leader accepted by Krivokapic into his cabinet. 

Krivokapic himself is a former university professor who entered politics after the DPS took the fatal misstep of taking on the powerful Serbian Orthodox Church with the adoption of the controversial ‘church law’ in late 2019. He led the newly-formed NGO We won't give up Montenegro, set up by academics and intellectuals to support the Serbian Orthodox Church, later joining the For the Future of Montenegro alliance alongside the Democratic Front and smaller rightwing populist parties. Yet two months after the summer 2020 election he acknowledged that a government including ministers from the Democratic Front would lose credibility among international institutions; the party is now trying to oust him from office. 

Exceeding expectations 

The diverse make-up of the coalition and the widely diverging agendas of its members led analysts to speculate last year that it would be short-lived and able to achieve little. Yet such prognoses proved to have underestimated the coalition, or at least the strength of the glue holding it together, namely its members’ fierce opposition to the DPS and determination to keep the former ruling party out of power. Moreover, when it came to the issues that did unite its members, the government moved swiftly. 

One of the first actions it took was to scrap the DPS’ church law. The amendments, which were expected after the change of government in 2020, were aimed at removing the articles that provoked objections from the Serbian Orthodox Church and led to increased tensions between Podgorica and Belgrade. According to its critics, the law aimed to strip the Serbian Orthodox Church of hundreds of religious sites in Montenegro, including medieval monasteries and churches.

A less politically sensitive but even more pressing issue for the new guard in Podgorica was tackling the dire state of the economy, after the collapse of tourism in 2020 resulted in the deepest contraction of any emerging Europe economy. The finance ministry immediately issued a €750mn eurobond, which Finance Minister Milojko Spajic claimed had saved the country from bankruptcy. It did, however, take months to get the 2021 budget approved by all members of the coalition — a harbinger of the divisions to come later in 2021. 

More recently, it has drafted a roadmap on the transition to becoming carbon neutral, setting a goal to reduce carbon emissions by 35% by 2030, and adopted the ambitious Europe Now plan, a set of reforms aimed to hike wages and lower taxes for people and companies with lower incomes.

There have also been well published efforts to tackle organised crime, including the seizure of the largest haul of cocaine ever found in the country.

“It’s still early days, of course, but there have been some notable achievements. Though their successes have been relatively modest, they have done well to mitigate against the worst impact of the economic crisis fuelled by the Covid pandemic and in tackling organised crime, evidenced by the seizure of 1.4 tonnes of cocaine near Podgorica and the arrest of the leader of the Kavac clan, Slobodan Kascelanmm,” Kenneth Morrison, professor of modern Southeast European history at De Montfort University and author of Montenegro: A Modern History, tells bne IntelliNews

Going too far? 

The new government has also been delving into suspected corruption under former DPS-led governments, including in connection to the Bar-Boljare motorway construction, a project that pushed Montenegro’s debt up to the extent that the new government had to appeal to Brussels for help when its first loan repayment to Chinese Exim Bank became due. The capital investment ministry recently revealed that two separate studies by UK consultancies both put the cost of the project considerably below the €724mn plus €38mn paid so far. Local anti-corruption NGO MANS has many times voiced concerns about the project, claiming it has created room for corruption and lacks transparency, and the project has also run into controversy over its environmental impact on the Unesco-protected Tara river.

The capital investments ministry has also notified prosecutors of several other cases of possible corruption and complained that prosecutors have not taken any action so far. 

More controversially, the government has made several efforts to overhaul the judiciary, including efforts to remove chief special prosector Milivoje Katnic, the man who led the investigation into the 2016 failed coup plot which led to the sentencing of Democratic Front leaders Andrija Mandic and Milan Knezevic. Their sentences were later annulled after the change of government. This issue led to one of the early public confrontations within the new government when the initial legislation put forward by the Democratic Front was toned down by Krivokapic following criticism from the Venice Commission

“This government did not stay paralysed in absolute terms. They were very active on the domestic front when it came to pursuing their very politically charged agenda, enacting certain laws that were promised to the Serbian Orthodox Church or to do with some specific governmental acts that would provide for a more retaliatory attitude towards the officials and even bureaucrats that were part of the previous government,” says Sinisa Vukovic, senior lecturer of conflict management and global policy at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. 

Vukovic points to the "highly heterogeneous composition” of the ruling coalition, which “clearly is composed of political forces that have diverging priorities. On the issues they can agree they were very pro-active but there are many aspects they cannot agree on completely in a sense of sequence, tradeoffs and substance.” 

Multiple disagreements

Over the last year it has become apparent that there are multiple issues on which members of the government and the coalition that installed it disagree, which have stymied efforts at reform in those areas. 

“I had high hopes when the new government came in. The Djukanovic government had been there too long, and corruption had become entrenched … but the only thing that unites the government is their opposition to Milo Djukanovic and I wonder how long they are going to survive. They are only hanging together because they don’t want Djukanovic back,” says Michael Taylor, senior analyst, Eastern Europe, at independent geopolitical analysis and advisory firm Oxford Analytica. 

This has been particularly problematic when it comes to the reforms Montenegro needs to complete to become a member of the European Union. While it has long been the frontrunner among the aspiring EU members in the Western Balkans, this autumn its annual enlargement report from the European Commission was highly critical, stating that reforms have been slowed by the political insecurity since the August 2020 general election. 

“[T]he reporting period was marked by tensions and mistrust between political actors. The deep polarisation between the new ruling majority and the opposition persisted throughout 2020 and intensified in the post-election period. Heated relations and mistrust fed frequent escalations and further exacerbated political divisions, including within the ruling majority,” the latest progress report from the EC notes.

It adds that friction between the executive and legislative powers slowed reform work: “The lack of constructive engagement of all parliamentary actors prevented a meaningful political dialogue, further polarising the political landscape. The boycott of plenary sessions by a majority of MPs from the opposition and the ruling majority caused a suspension of decision-making in parliament in 2021.” Further criticisms concern the lack of progress in reforming the judiciary, and while there has been some improvement in the fight against organised crime, the country has made just limited progress in the fight against corruption, which ” remains prevalent in many areas and an issue of concern”. 

Despite the shortcomings of Djukanovic and the DPS, particularly on the issue of corruption, the president and his party had long been committed to pursuing EU accession. By contrast, some of the members of the new ruling coalition are more ambiguous on this ambition, favouring close relations with Serbia and Russia. 

“The pan-European reformist agenda that would move the county closer to EU integration has at best stalled, at worst reversed,” comments Vukovic. “I have seen some very troubling reactions from various European officials over the past 10 months, especially in recent months. The progress report pointed out point blank that progress towards the EU has been halted, no meaningful process has been made and there are troubling signals that the country lacks ability and appetite to pursue those types of reforms.” 

Responsibility for the slowdown in progress cannot, however, be entirely cast onto the new government in Podgorica, as waning enthusiasm for EU integration is apparent across the region, where politicians have seen their hopes of speedy progress towards accession dashed.

“[T]he greatest impediment to Montenegro joining the EU emanates from within the bloc,” says Morrison. “Montenegro still has significant challenges to overcome, but they are not insurmountable. However, the reality is that there is little or no appetite from within the EU for further expansion, at least not any time soon … there is a growing perception that the EU accession process is, at least for now, stalled. Recent reports that there simply is no consensus within the EU regarding the accession of the ‘Western Balkan Six’ have only added to the pre-existing scepticism.”

Democratic Front's appetite grows

The biggest division within the ruling coalition doesn’t concern policy, but the composition of the cabinet. While the parties behind it initially agreed on a government of technocrats, the Democratic Front in particular is now unhappy with that, and has been pushing aggressively for a reshuffle that would allocate ministries to its leaders. As Taylor points out, “in a Balkan-style government it’s always a good thing to have a ministry”. The Democratic Front thus “wanted a reshuffle to get rid of the technocrats and have their own people in various portfolios”. 

Meanwhile, with the ruling coalition members failing to find agreement on a common strategy in many areas, the policies that got backing were “largely random”, says Vukovic. "The people who were given ministerial roles were never politically active [before joining the government], and as such their political capital, agenda and accountability is very elusive. They started enacting policies that were not necessarily reflective of anyone in the ruling coalition.” 

Over time, says Vukovic, “appetites grew” and the Democratic Front in particular saw “some of their priorities were not really reflected in the way the government was operating”. Today, he says, it has got to the point there the party is “providing an active resistance to the government”. At the same time, the political ambitions of the technocrats currently in power are growing, creating a new political force that could form their own party to run in the next general election. 

DPS waits for its chance

Throughout the last year, the DPS and Djukanovic have clearly been hoping for — and encouraging — the disintegration of the ruling coalition, which would allow the former ruling party to make a comeback. The distribution of seats in the parliament is so close that only one MP would need to switch sides for the government to fall.

Moreover, as Morrison points out, “the DPS, though now in opposition and seemingly unable to reform, was a ‘state party’ that had ruled Montenegro, in one form or another, for three decades. They created a system in which party members or loyalists were deeply embedded into state institutions and many that remain in post are, inevitably, resistant to any changes proposed by the new government. The DPS were not simply a government; they had established a system of power and control that could not be easily dismantled simply because the party lost the August 2020 elections.” 

The closest the DPS came to achieving this was when Krivokapic moved to sack the country’s then justice minister Vladimir Leposavic in June over his denial of the Srebrenica genocide in Bosnia & Herzegovina. As the Democratic Front refused to back Krivokapic, Leposavic was dismissed in a parliament vote with the support of the DPS and with the Democratic Front acting as the opposition. 

Djukanovic, meanwhile, has slowed the approval of new legislation by frequently wielding his presidential veto, only to have it repeatedly overturned by the parliament.   

Despite the party’s deep entrenchment in Montenegro, since the change of regime, sackings of DPS-era appointees have chipped away at the party’s control over the state apparatus, while it has also lost control over state broadcaster Radio Television Montenegro (RTCG). 

Taylor talks of a “clearout of the old guard” appointed under previous governments, but the downside has been the new appointments are “not necessarily better than the old ones, just different and inexperienced”. 

This has been problematic in the context of Montenegro’s EU accession, as Taylor points out: “Negotiations for EU membership had to start again with new people and the fact people were sacked from the bureaucracy had a very poor effect on effectiveness.” Moreover, on the judicial side there were many vacancies that couldn’t be filled because some needed a two-thirds majority in parliament, which the government doesn’t have. 

According to the latest EU enlargement report, the government dismissed 110 members of the teams for negotiations on EU accession chapters, which “significantly weakened” the negotiation structure.

Divisions laid bare in Cetinje 

The conflict over the inauguration of the new head of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro in September not only pitted the two sides openly against each other but also exposed the deep polarisation in Montenegrin society. 

As the road from Podgorica to the historic Montenegrin capital Cetinje filled with cars and buses taking thousands of people to the inauguration of Metropolitan Bishop Joanikije II, Djukanovic arrived in the city vowing to prevent the inauguration. He accused Krivokapic’s government of sacrificing the security of Montenegrins to serve the Serbian Orthodox Church and to help Serbia regain its control over Podgorica. The DPS is widely understood to have backed protesters, who built a barricade of tyres in an attempt to prevent people reaching the city. Police used tear gas to break up the protests and arrested dozens of people during the clashes, among them the president’s security advisor Veselin Veljovic.

The government won that confrontation insofar as the inauguration went ahead after the authorities decided to transport Joanikije and the head of the Serbian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Porfirije, to Cetinje by military helicopter. 

The incident laid bare the deep divisions within Montenegro, where two-thirds of the country’s population of just over 620,000 is Orthodox Christian and the main church is the Serbian Orthodox Church. A separate Montenegrin Orthodox Church was set up in 1993 but has not been recognised by other Orthodox Christian communities to date.

“The events in Cetinje were only part of a much longer and complex story that pre-dates the controversy over the Law on Religious Freedoms. But what was evident was that the  political environment had become more polarised and radicalised, and certainly more so than at any point since Montenegro became independent in 2006,” says Morrison. 

Staying together? 

While the dramatic events in Cetinje unfolded, Montenegro was in the process of emerging from the deep economic crisis this year, though it isn’t expected to recover fully from the contraction in 2020 for at least another year. The government expects the 2022 budget deficit to reach a record-high €5.3bn, or 3.87% of GDP, as spending on healthcare and other areas is set to remain high. Montenegro has by no means left the coronavirus pandemic behind; after opening up to tourism in the summer, this autumn it has suffered a severe new wave of the pandemic, which forced the authorities to cancel New Year’s Eve celebrations and all other mass gatherings. 

Jockeying for position continues within the fractious ruling coalition. In the latest development on November 22, the Democratic Front proposed removing Krivokapic and appointing a new government that includes members of the ruling coalition parties. 

“The enthronement of Joanikije might have been seen as a victory for the parties and coalitions that comprise the new government, but in the wake of it tensions between them were evident again,” comments Morrison. “That said, while there may be disagreements, they all have an interest in remaining united and keeping the DPS out of power. This will probably ensure that, however fragile, the governing coalition will find a way to stay together because the one thing that united them during the August 2020 elections was their shared antipathy towards the DPS.”

The next electoral test of the relative popularity of the current ruling parties and Djukanovic’s DPS will be the presidential election in 2023. This will be a chance for voters to compare the achievements of the current government during what will by then be almost three years in office (assuming it survives) against the record of the previous DPS-led administrations. 

In the meantime, there are plenty of opportunities for the new guard to further tarnish the reputation of Djukanovic and his party as they continue to probe suspected corruption under previous governments. Most recently, Montenegro’s specialised prosecution launched a probe into allegations by Albanian oil businessman Rezart Taci that Djukanovic has been participating in an international money laundering scheme — a claim denied by Djukanovic. The president is also being probed over revelations in the Pandora Papers that he and his son Blazo funnelled money to offshore accounts via a complicated network of companies in the UK, Switzerland, the British Virgin Islands, Panama and Gibraltar.