It is the year 2025. A big bottle of champaign pops open at a party in central Brussels. Montenegro has just joined the EU club and celebrations are in full swing. Diplomats and European commissioners toast the new arrival. At long last, the Union is in enlargement mode again and has just brought back its membership to 28 – after the disgraceful Brexit.
There is no doubt who is the star of the night: Montenegro’s President Milo Djukanovic, Europe’s most distinguished statesman. Since 1991, when he was still in his late 20s, Djukanovic has served as either prime minister or president in Podgoritsa.
There were, of course, a few brief spells of formal retirement, but even then, there was little doubt in the country over who was pulling the strings behind the scenes. Djukanovic just returned to the presidency after the April 15 vote, and it is not difficult for most Montenegrins to imagine him getting re-elected once again in 2023 and attending that hypothetical Brussels party in 2025.
By then, he would be on the verge of overtaking Yugoslavia’s Josip Broz Tito as the longest-serving political leader in the region. With a towering figure and an ever-present retinue of courtiers, he also strikes a pose as one of the prince-bishops who ruled for centuries over the realm of the Black Mountain (Montenegro) before it was absorbed into Yugoslavia after World War I.
But regardless of which of his predecessors Djukanovic aspires to be, he surely has the ambition to stick around in Montenegrin politics for the long run and that’s not necessarily good news for the soon-to-be EU member.
Djukanovic was insightful enough to break with his ally Slobodan Milosevic a few years before his political demise in 2000. In 2006, Montenegro split from the loose federation with Serbia in a peaceful manner after an EU-monitored referendum. Montenegro profits from amicable relations with all neighbours, including Kosovo, whose independence it recognised in 2008.
Unlike its former big brother, Serbia, the country has no major territorial dispute hindering its accession to the EU, with talks under way since 2012.
Montenegro joined NATO in June 2017, defying stiff opposition by Russia – a long-standing friend and top investor in the Montenegrin economy. In October 2016, on the eve of the parliamentary elections, authorities neutralised a coup plot orchestrated by Moscow. The quarrel with the Russians has not caused much economic damage, however.
In 2017, for instance, 318,000 Russian tourists flocked to Adriatic beaches, an eight percent increase compared with the previous year. The economy, too, has been doing quite well. In 2017, it expanded by 4.3 percent, becoming one of the best performing in the Western Balkans.
In short, Montenegro seems to be doing fine … Except that it’s not.
If the country is true to its stated ambition to transform itself, clean up the government and install the rule of law, then it is facing an uphill struggle.
This year, international watchdog Freedom House recorded further decline in democratic standards in the country, having already downgraded it from “free” to “partly free” in 2016. Reporters Without Borders ranks Montenegro 106th out of 180 countries, a steep jump from the 53rd position a decade earlier.
Apart from declining civil and political rights and increasingly stifled media, Montenegro is also suffering from a compromised judicial system.
The Special Prosecutor established to fight graft and organised crime is now busy with the leaders of the Democratic Front (DF), the main opposition bloc, accused of complicity in the alleged Moscow-sponsored coup aimed to prevent the country’s accession to NATO. They were stripped of parliamentary immunity and detained for a short period before the chief prosecutor ordered their release pending trial.
The bigger question concerning Montenegro is how to change a country where the people in charge remain, essentially, the same. All Western Balkan states have seen a political turnover. Opposition parties challenge and occasionally defeat incumbent governments in competitive elections – except in Montenegro.
Djukanovic’s Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) has been governing since a multi-party system was established in 1990 within the Yugoslav federation. Actually, one could even argue that they’ve been ruling since 1945 as the DPS is the political heir of the League of Communists of Montenegro, which was in power under the Titoist regime.
The DPS has not been ruling entirely alone: it has formed coalition governments with other political groups, including parties backed by the Muslim/Bosniak and Albanian communities. That has not prevented a certain degree of overlap between the party and the state from happening.
The DPS has influence across the public sector, the bureaucracy, the police and security apparatus, and – not to forget – the media. Its higher echelons have moved away from cigarette smuggling, a trade which thrived during the UN sanctions against Yugoslavia in the 1990s, but it would be wishful thinking to assume they have cleaned up their act to ingratiate the EU.
Svetozar Marovic, a Djukanovic lieutenant who served as president of the short-lived common state of Serbia and Montenegro between 2003 and 2006, was sentenced in 2017 to three years in prison on graft charges. The chances that other high-profile DPS officials would be held accountable for abuse of power are quite slim.
Part of Montenegro’s problem lies with the opposition. The DF espouses Serbian nationalism (Montenegrin identity still being a contentious issue) and opposes NATO membership, choosing instead to seek support from Moscow. This works in Djukanovic’s favour. Once the darling of Russian oligarchs and well-received in the Kremlin, he now stands for Montenegro’s firm attachment to the West. Gone are the days when he could be spotted in the company of Oleg Deripaska and Paul Manafort (who provided consultancy services during the 2006 independence referendum).
Those Montenegrins who are opposed to corruption but favour the EU and NATO don’t have any political choice and some begrudgingly vote for the DPS.
Despite the internal polarisation in Montenegro, not everything is about Russian and the Western influence.
The race between Djukanovic and Mladen Bojanic, the main opposition candidate, in the April 15 presidential elections could not be reduced to a proxy struggle between the West and Russia, as Western media would have you believe.
Bojanic drew support well beyond the DF’s hardcore electorate venerating Russian President Vladimir Putin. While the Front gained 20.3 percent of the votes in the 2016 parliamentary polls, their presidential candidate brought the number to 33.3 percent thanks to the support of other opposition factions. The dissatisfaction with the DPS was a major boost for Bojanic.
It was not enough to tip the scales, especially in the absence of a level playing field. Djukanovic won with 54 percent of the vote, avoiding a runoff.
Facing such political deadlock, Montenegro’s best bet for political and socioeconomic progress remains the EU. For all its flaws, external pressure from Brussels is a driver for change. The latest progress report released by the European Commission on April 17 contains a fair amount of criticism as do previous reports.
There will be more of that “tough love”, no doubt, in the coming years. But, as cliche as it may sound, democracy and the rule of law won’t thrive unless there is domestic buy-in.
Unless there is effort on the ground to embrace change, Montenegro, like its neighbours, risks entering the EU and then turning into a replica of Orban’s Hungary. And that is not a good prospect for either the Montenegrins or the EU.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.