What is behind Montenegro‘s political instability?

A no-confidence vote has prompted the collapse of Montenegro’s government after just three and a half months in office.

Montenegro's Prime Minister Dritan Abazovic speaks to the media after a no-confidence vote for his minority government passed at the parliament, in Podgorica
Prime Minister Dritan Abazovic speaks to the media after the no-confidence vote [File: Stevo Vasiljevic/Reuters]

After just three and a half months in office, a vote of no confidence earlier this month prompted the collapse of Montenegro’s government under Prime Minister Dritan Abazovic.

It came on August 20 after a dispute over an agreement with the Serbian Orthodox Church.

However, the collapse of the government is only the latest example of the country’s political gridlock and could have broader-ranging impacts, according to experts.

Montenegro has been going through a phase of political instability for some time.

In February, Montenegro’s previous government, which took office in 2020 and consisted primarily of pro-Serbian and pro-Russian parties, was overthrown by a vote of no confidence.

New polls loom

Now, President Milo Djukanovic must appoint a new prime minister. Otherwise, the country faces fresh elections.

For more than 30 years, Djukanovic and his Democrat Party of Socialists (DPS) determined the politics of the country, which he led to negotiated independence from Serbia in 2006.

At the same time, however, Djukanovic remains a controversial figure who has been criticised for corruption, links to organised crime and attacks on independent journalists.

The recent collapse of the government is just the latest example of what could be labelled political instability, Gezim Krasniqi, lecturer in nationalism and political sociology at the University of Edinburgh, told Al Jazeera.

“One main factor is a growing rift between pro-EU and pro-NATO parties and those backing stronger ties with Serbia and Russia,” he said.

“This polarisation became especially prominent during the last parliamentary election in 2020 when the latter camp scored a narrow electoral victory and unseated Montenegro’s current president and seven-times prime minister (since 1991), Milo Djukanović’s party, the Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS),” Krasniqi said.

“Although the 2020 election ended the near 30-year-rule of Milo Djukanović’s DPS, the latter remains the most prominent political force in Montenegro. Djukanović’s and DPS’s long reign has created many enemies, but the anti-DPS camp is ideologically and politically too diverse and fragmented to create a viable and stable governing alternative in the near future.”

Meanwhile, Nikolaos Tzifakis, associate professor in political science and international relations at the University of the Peloponnese, told Al Jazeera that Montenegro is not suffering from instability but rather from “too much stability” given the role that DPS has been playing.

“For the first time in history [after the 2020 election], DPS went in opposition. However, it soon became clear that the governing coalition was too heterogeneous and could not move the country beyond ousting DPS from power much further,” he told Al Jazeera.

“Following the coalition’s demise [in February 2022], a minority government was formed that was led by the “In Black and White” civil platform and supported in parliament by DPS,” Tzifakis said.

“As a result, not only has the DPS again acquired a check on power and the handling of issues such as the fight against corruption and organised crime, but it has also contributed to solidifying and widening the gap among the former governing coalition partners. In this way, it has rendered itself almost indispensable for forming any subsequent governing coalition. Moreover, DPS profiles itself internationally as a guardian of stability in the country. Nevertheless, its promised stability is premised on endemic corruption, state capture, and semi-authoritarian governance.”

The Serbian Orthodox Church

Today’s Montenegro, a former Yugoslav republic, became independent in 2006 in agreement with the Serbian state.

Serbia is trying to regain more influence in Montenegro through the church and local pro-Serbian parties and organisations.

The status of the Serbian Orthodox Church has become one of the main contentious political issues in the country, and is considered part of Serbia’s continued influence.

In fact, a controversial agreement between Abazovic and the Serbian Orthodox Church had recently initiated tensions between the head of government and Djukanovic.

The agreement was intended to grant special rights to the church, of which Djukanovic is considered a harsh critic.

Montenegro's President Milo Dukanovic speaks to the media
Djukanovic speaks to the media in Brussels [File: Yves Herman/Reuters]

“In reality, the recent agreement between Abazović’s government and the Serbian Orthodox Church was a key reason for pro-Montenegrin and pro-European camps to trigger a vote of no-confidence on the government,” Krasniqi said.

“Notwithstanding different interpretations of this agreement, it is a well-known fact that any interference of religious institutions in politics and the public sphere has the potential to inflate tensions further and widen the rift in divided societies,” he added.

Complex ties

Despite a shared history and a long experience of joined statehood, relations between Serbia and Montenegro have been complex since the late 1990s, when a pro-independence political alternative took hold of Montenegrin politics.

While Serbia formally came to terms with Montenegro’s independence in the mid-2000s, various nationalist elements within Serbia have never ceased to propagate a future in which Montenegro will be part of some “Greater Serbia”.

Nonetheless, the Serbian Orthodox Church has played a far more active role in Montenegrin politics than the Serbian state, Krasniqi said.

“Serb leaders have not shied away from supporting the pro-Serb parties in Montenegro but have fallen short of direct involvements the types of which we have seen elsewhere – for example, Russia’s interventions in the post-Soviet region to install/support pro-Kremlin leaders in neighbouring states,” he said.

Tzifakis said: “Montenegro has adopted diametrically opposite positions from Serbia on most major issues such as NATO membership, Kosovo independence, Srebrenica genocide, and sanctions against Russia.”

“Having said that, we should still acknowledge that the Serbian Orthodox Church has been the decisive factor that brought about the defeat of DPS in the August 2020 elections, manifesting that it exerted greater influence in Montenegrin society than any opposition party,” he said.

“Moreover, we should not underestimate the flow of news and information from Serbia to Montenegro that shape public opinion stances on many matters, such as the people’s view of external geopolitical actors.”

Given that these factors are highly likely to persist, the next government will probably face the same problems, with Serbia likely to continue its influence in the region, particularly through the instrumentalisation of Serb ethnic groups. In Montenegro, about 30 percent of citizens identify themselves as Serbs.

‘Genuine political change’

“The country needs to form a coalition among all its pro-reform and EU-oriented political parties and civil society actors that would inspire the people to vote for genuine political change in early parliamentary elections. Unfortunately, the formation of such a coalition has not been in sight yet,” Tzifakis said.

“What we are witnessing now is a new type of political struggle in Montenegro with various anti-DPS and anti-Djukanović parties and leaders vying to establish dominance,” Krasniqi said.

“As I mentioned above, given that this camp is ideologically and politically fragmented, one can expect this period of political fragmentation and polarisation to continue for a more extended period,” he added.

He said that it remained to be seen whether a new majority can be formed in parliament or both camps can agree to new elections.

“New elections, which might be called soon, will be crucial for various oppositional parties to win the battle to take the mantle of the anti-DPS alternative in Montenegro,” Krasniqi said.

“However, given the bad blood between multiple parties that were part of the coalition government that unseated DPS in 2020, it wouldn’t be surprising to see a DPS-led government being formed after the next election.”

However, in a region where political instability has been a constant feature for the longest time, one wonders whether this undoing struggle could have implications beyond Montenegro, although “internal political struggles and political contestation per se are not a threat to the region”, Krasniqi said.

The fixation of nationalist circles in Belgrade on the completion of the “Serbian world” – i.e., the axis Belgrade (Serbia); Banja Luka (Bosnia Herzegovina); Podgorica (Montenegro); and Mitrovica (Kosovo) – is seriously reinforced by the very fluid international context as well as the emerging political vacuum in the Balkans.

“Undoubtedly, this poses a threat to Montenegro’s statehood and the wider region’s stability,” Krasniqi noted.

‘The weakest link’

Montenegro’s NATO membership and pro-Western alignment in the Ukraine war could easily make it an easy target for the Russian state and its proxies in the Balkans.

“In many ways, given its political, ideological and ethnic cleavages, Montenegro could be seen by Russia as the weakest link in the NATO chain,” Krasniqi said.

Moreover, he also noted that given the delicate regional and international context, the ongoing political polarisation in Montenegro might be exploited by other external actors eager to undermine Montenegro’s Euro-Atlantic commitment and regional stability.

Montenegro has been conducting concrete European Union accession negotiations since June 2012, and has so far been able to open all negotiation chapters.

This puts the country ahead of Serbia among the six Western Balkan nations aspiring to join the EU.

Hence, the next government will significantly impact whether the country moves further west or falls under Serb influence.

“Montenegro is considered the frontrunner among the Western Balkan countries in the path to EU accession. If Montenegro cannot eventually advance towards EU membership, the EU is deprived of its selected success story to induce regional reforms,” he said.

“The country needs to form a coalition among all its pro-reform and EU-oriented political parties and civil society actors that would inspire the people to vote for genuine political change in early parliamentary elections,” Tzifakis concluded. “Unfortunately, the formation of such a coalition has not been in sight yet.”

Source: Al Jazeera