Jason Gold on political shifts in Montenegro masking moves to ‘Open Balkans’
With a change of government, Montenegro remains extremely pro-Serb and pro-Russian, but in more subtle ways.
A new minority government assumed office on April 28th, and President Djukanovic offered a mandate to Dritan Abazovic of United Reform Action (URA) to become prime minister. The new administration comprises a coalition of political parties, most of which were part of the previous government, but with one important change: the inclusion of one of our sister parties, the Social Democratic Party. There are three Montenegrin sister parties, the other two being President Djukanovic’s Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) and the Social Democrats, neither of which are in the new ruling coalition. The condition of the minority government being formed was that DPS would be excluded, even though it had the largest number of MPs. The SD were invited to join the coalition but refused.
So, why did Djukanovic offer a mandate that excluded his own political party? To understand this, one must know two things. The first is that all substantive parliamentary legislation needs a supermajority of the 81-seat parliament to pass into law, and the second being that Abazovic lost his left-wing supporters by joining forces with the previous government, giving it a majority of one in the parliament.
Any substantive legislation – and, in particular, any relevant to furthering Montenegro’s accession to the EU (all chapters are open but only three have been closed) – will only become law with support from the DPS and SD in opposition, thus making the new PM, Abazovic, susceptible to losing his right-wing, pro-Serb, pro-Russian supporters. The Social Democrats (previously in government with DPS before 2020) understand the long game that DPS are playing: namely, to hold a new general election as soon as possible, and therefore not to taint themselves, as URA have, by being part of a government with pro-Serb/pro-Russian parties.
People outside of Montenegro, even seasoned politicos, do not understand that President Milo Djukanovic has not been in power for 30 years because he is a tyrant or a dictator, but only because he understands how politics works, domestically, regionally and internationally. He has given this minority government, particularly Abazovic, a poisoned chalice, while ensuring Abazovic – with the help of his new foreign minister, SDP’s Ranko Krivokapic – continues on a pro-Western, pro-EU path.
Abazovic has always claimed publicly that many international players, such as Germany, USA, EU, UK, France and others, support him; but there is an elephant in the room, and it’s called ‘Open Balkans’: President Vucic of Serbia’s pet project, supported by Abazovic.
Vucic has managed to sell the idea to the international community as a positive initiative for the Western Balkans. The project aims to open the borders of Kosovo, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Montenegro, Serbia and Macedonia for trade, travel, investment etc., like a mini-Schengen for the region. This would be hugely advantageous to everyone except Montenegro, because the nation is so far advanced in its accession process compared to the other countries that it would, in reality, just be held back by the project. This would either precipitate all the remaining Western Balkans joining the EU en masse, or not allow them to join at all, with Open Balkans seen as an alternative to EU membership.
This is a worrying prospect, especially for Montenegro, because Vucic’s mantra vis-a-vis Serbia’s neighbour is in every way (except militarily as yet) identical to that which Putin holds regarding Ukraine. Vucic has publicly declared all Montenegrins to be Serbs (which they most definitely are not). He denies that Montenegrin is a separate cultural identity and denies the existence of Montenegrin as a language. He denies the right of the Montenegrin Orthodox Church to exist, and has used the Serb Orthodox Church in Montenegro as a political weapon to promote his narrative, much as he has done in Bosnia & Herzegovina and Kosovo but with far more subtlety, to the point of it being omnipresent in all areas of Montenegrin life, including across all media avenues.
I remind readers that in 2016, on the eve of presidential elections in Montenegro, Putin and Vucic together organised an attempted coup d’etat, which only failed because one of the people involved backed out at the last moment and alerted the Montenegrin security service. (All this has been widely reported by Bellingcat.)
Is the international community going to do to Montenegro what it has done to Ukraine? It is true that total war is not yet on the horizon in Montenegro, but many didn’t think it was going to happen in Ukraine either.
Politicians like Putin and Vucic play a clever game over a long period of time. This is how they build false narratives and false equivalence to change the perceived consensus of the places they wish to rule over. Vucic’s stand on the Russian invasion of Ukraine and Montenegro’s recent (2017) membership of NATO should tell us all we need to know about the situation facing Montenegro. Pro-peace left progressive internationalists need to wake up to the dangers brewing in the Balkans.