The end of the Djukanovic era approaches in Montenegro

The end of the Djukanovic era approaches in Montenegro
Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic led in the first round of the presidential election, but the eliminated candidates have urged their supporters to vote for his rival in the runoff.
By Clare Nuttall in Glasgow March 30, 2023

Milo Djukanovic is one of Emerging Europe’s longest-serving political leaders no easy feat in a part of the world that includes autocratic states where leaders build a power base and stay in office for decades. 

Now he is heading for a defeat in the presidential election second round on April 2, and with his Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) no longer in control of the parliament, the end of the Djukanovic era is finally approaching. 

Although Djukanovic led in the first round of the election on March 19, the eliminated candidates have urged their supporters to vote for his rival, Europe Now deputy leader Jakov Milatovic, in the runoff. 

Just like after the August 2020 general election when a broad spectrum of parties put aside their political differences to back a government that did not include the DPS, politicians ranging from Western-oriented liberals to far-right pro-Russians are throwing their weight behind Milatovic one of the newest faces in Montenegrin politics to evict Djukanovic from the presidency. 

Three decades in power 

The length of Djukanovic’s tenure at the helm of Montenegrin politics is comparable not with his peers from Southeast and Central Europe but with the autocrats of the former Soviet Union, who also came to prominence in the socialist era and then held on to power post-independence – the likes of Belarusian President Aleksandar Lukashenko, or the Central Asian leaders Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan until his resignation in 2019, or the late Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan. Even Russian President Vladimir Putin, despite carrying out the same kind of juggling act between presidency and prime minister’s office as Djukanovic, is a relative newcomer, having only come to power in 2000.

He became prime minister of Montenegro for the first time in 1991 at the age of just 29, and shortly before four of the Yugoslav republics declared their independence. Despite announcing his retirement twice, Djukanovic, now 61, has been unable to stay out of politics and has been either Montenegro’s president or prime minister for most of the last 32 years. 

During these years, as bne IntelliNews wrote in a profile of the Montenegrin leader, Djukanovic transformed himself from a communist to friend of the super-rich, from an ally of former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic to the man who led Montenegro out of its alliance with Serbia and towards the EU and Nato. He cemented his power through the ruling DPS’ control over state institutions, which ensured the party stayed in power. 

DPS starts to fray 

However, the last two and a half years have not gone well for Djukanovic or his DPS. 

For the first time in Montenegro’s independent history, a government was formed that did not include the DPS in 2020. Backed by around 20 small parties, the government of technocrats led by Zdravko Krivokapic was wracked by internal divisions, though it managed to limp on until April 2022 before finally collapsing. Given its fragmented nature, this was a better-than-expected performance, as many observers thought the DPS would manage to return to power within months.

Krivokapic’s cabinet was replaced by a government led by Dritan Abazovic of the civic United Reform Action (URA) movement, and backed by the DPS only to re-form a few months later when the DPS withdrew its support from Abazovic over the deal he struck with the Serbian Orthodox Church. 

Since then, neither the DPS nor the broad majority of small parties that opposes it has been able to form a new government, creating a deep constitutional crisis and at the same time again confounding expectations that the DPS, the largest party in the current parliament, would make a speedy comeback. 

Further evidence that both Djukanovic and his party are losing their grip on the country came from the local elections in October 2022, when the party lost the elections in 11 out of 14 municipalities where voting took place. The loss of the DPS's majority in Podgorica in particular was seen as a punishment for Djukanovic’s counter-productive role in the ongoing political crisis. 

Djukanovic and the DPS are not an entirely spent force. The DPS is still the largest party in the current parliament. However, following the presidential election and after the general election on June 11 they are not likely to dominate Montenegrin politics, at least for the foreseeable future. 

Dimitar Bechev, who leads Oxford Analytica’s coverage of the Southeast Europe region, anticipates a win for Milatovic on Sunday with the support of both pro-Western pro-EU voters who don’t support the DPS and on the other side of the political spectrum supporters of the rightwing Democratic Front. 

“I don’t think Djukanovic has a strong chance,” he tells bne IntelliNews. Moreover, Bechev adds, after the general election, “He probably won’t be able to make a comeback to the extent there will be another fragmented parliament. The DPS will probably have enough seats to make themselves indispensable for individual decisions. That’s their best strategy going forward.” 

Out with the old 

Djukanovic is going down fighting. Speaking to the Associated Press ahead of the second-round vote, he criticised the EU for allowing Russian influence to spread in the Western Balkans and highlighted Milatovic’s stint as minister in Krivokapic’s government, whose backers included pro-Russian parties, notably the Democratic Front. He framed the upcoming vote as a choice between himself as the pro-EU candidate and the “brutal populism” of the coalition that ousted the DPS. 

The president elaborated on this in an op-ed for Newsweek published on March 30, in which he argued that it is "not only Montenegro's European path, the development of multi-ethnic civic society and sustainable economic growth that are to be decided upon in the days to come — it is the future of the Balkans and the stability of Europe as well." 

Montenegro, he argued, is at risk not only from Russian destabilisation efforts, but also from Serb nationalists' ambitions to create a 'Greater Serbia'. 

However, what makes Europe Now and its leaders a bigger threat to the DPS than other Montenegrin parties is that both occupy the pro-EU centre ground. Moreover, unlike the DPS, which has been burdened by a number of corruption scandals over the years, the newly formed Europe Now is seen as offering a fresh start. 

Looking at Montenegro’s record on corruption, the country compares favourably to the other Western Balkan countries on Transparency International’s recent annual Corruption Perceptions Index. While Djukanovic has faced various allegations of corruption and links to organised crime, no charges against him have ever led to conviction.

Despite this, the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) picked Djukanovic as its 2015 Organised Crime and Corruption person of the year. During his time in power there have been repeated claims that the country became a haven for cigarette smugglers. Money laundering was also facilitated by Podgorica’s decision to adopt the euro as the country’s currency, even though the country has not yet joined the EU. Another scandal surrounded First Bank (Prva Banka), controlled by Djukanovic’s brother, where the European Parliament called for an investigation over suspicions of money laundering.

A fresh start

Milatovic appears confident of a win, tweeting ahead of the second-round vote: “We will celebrate April 2 as the day of golden victory because Montenegro will win on Sunday!” 

One of Milatovic’s defeated rivals in the first round of the presidential election, fourth-placed Aleksa Becic, argued immediately after the first-round vote that Montenegrin citizens had “sent a very strong democratic message”. 

He called the DPS’ politics “the politics of the past, the citizens of Montenegro do not want to live with that politics anymore.” 

By contrast, after the newly formed Europe Now did unexpectedly well in the local elections, Milatovic and party leader Milojko Spajic have become Montenegro’s rising political stars. 

They first came to prominence as ministers, of economy and finance respectively, in Krivokapic’s short-lived cabinet. During this time, they were the authors of the Europe Now programme of reforms that envisaged a significant increase of wages and pensions in the country. After the collapse of Krivokapic’s government, the two politicians decided to start their own political project named after the reform programme.

Milatovic is seen as young and energetic, and is highly regarded by his former fellow students at Oxford University and colleagues from the banking world, according to Bechev, though he adds: “Whether he has the political acumen to navigate Montenegrin politics I don’t know.” 

This has been the main line of attack from his rivals in the presidential race, who have highlighted his lack of political experience. At 37, he is not much over half Djukanovic’s age, and he built a career in the international banking sector before his recent entry to politics. 

Europe Now’s path to the presidency has not been an easy one. Its original candidate, Spajic, was disqualified over the revelation that he had Serbian as well as Montenegrin citizenship. 

Milatovic was then nominated in his stead. During the campaign period he was physically attacked in the city of Cetinje. Later another group attempted to prevent his meeting with supporters in Niksic. Most recently, Europe Now’s website claims hoaxers announcing themselves as Europe Now campaigners have been phoning voters and offering them bribes. 

After the election

Assuming Milatovic takes the presidency on Sunday, he will become head of state of a country riven for months by internal divisions and in the midst of a constitutional crisis though that may be eased by the replacement of Djukanovic with the political newcomer and ruled by a lame-duck outgoing government that no one has managed to replace. 

Commenting on the role he is likely to play after the election, Bechev points out that the influence of the presidency in Montenegro has historically been personality driven. “When Djukanovic was prime minister it was the prime minister office that made decisions; when he was the president, Montenegro was a presidential republic,” he says. 

“It is likely that if Milatovic is elected at least initially the president won’t be as prominent … but if there is a hung parliament the president becomes important by default, then he might become an important dealmaker.” Assuming that after the general election other parties again band together to keep the DPS out of power, he would be responsible for “bringing together the pro-Russian Serb nationalist side and the reform one. It will be interesting to see how that plays out.”

On the plus side for Milatovic, some of the issues dividing the small country have been resolved in the last few years. Montenegro has already joined Nato, removing the motive for Russia’s intense interference in the run-up to its accession. This included a failed coup attempt ahead of the 2016 general election, involving Russian and Serb paramilitaries. Leaders of the Democratic Front were among those convicted, but the verdicts were later overturned. 

The festering conflict over the role of the Serbian Orthodox Church, which dragged down support for the DPS in August 2020 and later dealt the death blow to Abazovic's cabinet, has been resolved with the signing of the fundamental agreement in 2022. That resulted in an easing of tensions between Podgorica and the Serbian Orthodox Church, and by extension with Belgrade, following tensions caused back in 2020 by the adoption of a law on the church by an earlier DPS-led government. 

The biggest issue for Milatovic will be to help get a functioning government in place that can revive its stalled EU accession progress. 

With the DPS firmly focussed on securing EU membership, Montenegro emerged as the frontrunner among the Western Balkans countries, becoming the first of the six states to start accession negotiations back in 2012. 

However, the political instability over the last two years took its toll, and EU officials have warned that the lengthy political crisis and the deadlock over appointing constitutional court judges risked sabotaging the country’s accession process

“The proper functioning of Montenegrin institutions has been affected by political volatility, government instability and tensions within the ruling majorities, stalling decision-making processes and reform implementation,” the European Commission noted in its latest enlargement progress report in 2022. 

“Overall, the governments and the parliament failed to demonstrate in practice their engagement as regards the EU-related reform agenda,” the report added. It also said that Montenegro also failed to mark a significant progress in reform of the judiciary or the fight against corruption. 

Milatovic, as his party's name highlights, is also committed to bringing Montenegro closer to EU accession. With him as president, Montenegro may have a better chance of forming a new government — especially after the general election in June, when Europe Now is likely to become an important part of the new parliament. Unlike in the days of DPS dominance, however, a government backed by multiple smaller parties with vastly divergent political orientations (some of them more oriented towards Moscow than Brussels) will still face the challenge of repeatedly needing to persuade them to unite to back reforms.

Any chance of a comeback? 

While the current focus is on Sunday’s presidential election runoff, in just over two months Montenegro will hold its general election. Djukanovic controversially dissolved the parliament on March 16, just days before the first round of the presidential election. 

The main difference after the general election is expected to be that Europe Now will become one of the major parties in the new parliament, judging by its popularity in the presidential and local elections. 

Having a second larger party alongside the DPS the other parties in the current parliament are relatively small could help to break the deadlocks seen throughout most of the current parliamentary term. Meanwhile, the rightwing Democratic Front underperformed in the presidential election, where its candidate Andrija Mandic failed to make it to the runoff, and this could be reflected in lower support for the party in the general election too. 

Yet while it doesn’t seem to be heading for a speedy comeback, the DPS can’t be written off, not least because the party’s people are deeply entrenched in the state apparatus and state-owned companies. 

“They [the DPS] lost big time in the municipal elections, but they still have their people in the bureaucracy and the judiciary, in the economy, where the state still plays a role. This second tier of people are likely to remain loyal at least in the short run before they see which way the wind blows,” says Bechev. 

Three decades years is a long time for a party to be in power, but as Bechev points out, as the successor to the old Yugoslav-era League of Communists, the DPS has been the driving force in Montenegrin politics for much longer than that.

Still, defying expectations of a speedy comeback for the DPS after the 2020 general election, the loose alliance of rival parties has proved to be extremely tenacious, as its determination to effect a change of regime in Montenegro has held it together despite its differences. Now this is set to pay off in the form of a presidential election victory for Djukanovic’s rival Milatovic.