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Alessandro Minuto-Rizzo, President

Montenegro on the verge of change?

NDCF - ST Balkans August 2020
The elections in Montenegro, held on the 30th of August, marked a major political disruption. The Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS), in power since 1991 and headed by Milo Djukanovic, the former Prime Minister, now President of the Republic, lost the majority in the unicameral Parliament. DPS obtained 30 seats out of 81 seats in Skupstina, as the chamber is named. Counting on parties representing ethnic minorities, its traditional allies, DPS can reach 40 seats, falling short of majority.
Three coalitions could join forces to form a government: For the Future of Montenegro (27 seats); Peace is Our Nation (10 seats); Black on White (5 seats). Together, they have 41 seats in the Parliament: a very thin margin. The leading coalition “For the Future of Montenegro” is led by the Democratic Front, a party considered pro-Serbia and pro-Russia, accused by DPS of having masterminded an alleged attempted coup in 2016 to hijack Montenegro’s accession to NATO, achieved in 2017. Peace is Our Nation is a liberal civic tent. Black on White, finally, is a progressive green alliance promoted by the URA (United Reform Action – Građanski Pokret Ujedinjena reformska akcija) party.
Different political orientations among winning parties can make coalition talks hard, yet the three blocs seem determined to capitalize on the momentum in order to end the DPS hegemony. According to media reports, they vowed to maintain NATO membership and confirm the commitment to European integration, putting a strong emphasis on restoring the rule of law in the country, which appears to be their primary goal. All of them argue that Montenegro, during the DPS long-time dominance, has been plagued by corruption, nepotism and opaque links between politics and business. Time for dismantling this “state within a state” and restoring citizens’ trust in public institutions has come, they say.
As for the composition of the cabinet, the posts of Prime Minister, Minister of Defense and Minister of Interior should go to members of the winning parties, while other ministries could be distributed so that also the civil society could be involved in the process of change.
There are rumours that the new government, if formed, could activate a vetting process of DPS officials, included Djukanovic, for wrongdoings committed in the past. This could be a risky choice, exacerbating tensions in the country: DPS still has a strong popular support. Furthermore, Djukanovic has the constitutional power to appoint the Prime Minister: he could trade the appointment with a formal guarantee that the vetting process will not be implemented, some observers suggest.
Meanwhile, Djukanovic and his party are telling that the new government will revolutionize the course of Montenegro’s foreign policy, aligning with Serbia and Russia, jeopardizing the Euro-Atlantic path followed since 2006, the year in which Montenegro held a referendum to leave the state union with Serbia.
DPS plans to polarize the public opinion – a potentially counterproductive move – and try to split the majority, shortening its life. For this reason, the three coalitions are supposed to convince parties representing ethnic minorities to join the new parliamentary majority. Not an easy task: DPS has a strong influence on them.
While the political future of Montenegro is still uncertain, reasons of Djukanovic’s historic defeat are rather clear. Firstly, a border controversy with Serbia, whose citizens were banned from travelling to Montenegro due to the Covid-19; secondly, a bill threatening to strip the Serbian Orthodox Church – the main church in the country – of its holdings, disappointed many citizens and believers. The two moves were perceived as too hostile towards Serbia and the Serbs. Language, history, religion and mixed families cement ties between the two countries. Serbia is a complicate neighbour, but for many Montenegrins is not an enemy. For a wider glimpse on Serbia-Montenegro confrontation, please go to our May 2020 Strategic Trends.
Thirdly, a recent Freedom House report underlined a democratic backsliding in the country, while the EU Commission signalled very little progresses in key areas, like justice, media freedom and the fight against organized crime that are crucial in the context of accession negotiations, ongoing since eight years. Frustration for political stagnation has grown among people, who had already expressed their deep dissatisfaction for DPS’s ruling last year, organizing mass protests. Perhaps, DPS has underestimated this aspect.

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