RPT: REVIEW - Montenegro Takes Pivot To Democracy, Opposition Still Fragile

BRUSSELS (Pakistan Point News / Sputnik - 11th September, 2020) The pro-democracy agenda of the Montenegrin tripartite opposition coalition, which claimed victory in the parliamentary elections last month, risks stumbling upon the sabotage of supporters of the old ruling authorities.

On August 30, the Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) of Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic suffered a major blow at the legislative elections, collecting just over 35 percent of the vote. This was the biggest defeat in the party's history since it came to power in 1990.

A coalition of three opposition blocs For the Future of Montenegro, Peace is Our Nation, and Black on White won a historic combined majority of 41 seats in the 81-seat legislature as a result of the elections. The DPS was left with only 30 seats.

It was not until 10 days after the election that Djukanovic officially recognized the outcome. The leaders of the three opposition blocs have already announced their intention to cooperate to form a new government made up of experts, not politicians.

DJUKANOVIC DROVE MONTENEGRO'S FOREIGN POLICY COURSE SINGLE-HANDEDLY

Djukanovic, who served as Montenegro's prime minister for two terms and then president since 2018, chose to turn the country to the European Union over rapprochement with Serbia, though some 30 percent of the Montenegrin population are ethnic Serbs whose dominant religion is Orthodox Christianity with close links to the Serbian Orthodox Church.

Djukanovic also pivoted Montenegro to NATO, which was very keen on gaining loyalty of as many Balkan countries as possible. Bordering Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia, Montenegro has a population of only 630,000 people, but its strategic importance is the access to the Adriatic Sea. Montenegro became the 29th member of NATO in 2017, costing it friendship with the eastward mighty neighbor, Russia.

Neither of these decisions was consulted with the population of Montenegro.

Now Djukanovic argues that the victorious opposition parties want to "give the country back" to Serbia and realign it with Russia. This, however, finds no confirmation in the statements of the opposition leaders.

"The next government of Montenegro will not withdraw from NATO and will not cancel its recognition of Kosovo either," Dritan Abazovic, the leader of the Black on White coalition, said, stressing that the small Balkan republic had no intention of becoming a "province of Serbia nor to be part of a Greater Albania."

"We are facing the West and we are sending a message of peace to our closest neighbors," Zdravko Krivokapic, a co-chairman of the For the Future of Montenegro bloc, said.

The new government will be challenged to relaunch negotiations on Montenegro's accession to the European Union, a task that Djukanovic failed to fulfill. Negotiations with the EU have been going on for eight years without result due to the reluctance of the authorities to conduct the necessary reforms.

"Of the 35 chapters of the acquis communautaire, only one sees the conditions fulfilled. We must therefore tackle the list with seriousness and responsibility," Krivocapic said.

The opposition has taken advantage of a power error a law passed by Djukanovic and his party on the freedom of religion last December ignited mass protests across the country and abroad.

The law provided for the transfer of the properties of the Serbian Orthodox Church, which has been installed in Montenegro for 700 years now, to the state of Montenegro.

The discontent of the Orthodox population was voiced throughout the winter via protests, ongoing despite the coronavirus pandemic, snowfall and freezing temperatures. Religious rallies were organized during the campaign, priests were arrested and the religious issue became dominant in the electoral process.

Djuro Cvetkovic, the Pogdorica-based president of the Union of Serbs in France, described it as a "political earthquake" in a conversation with Sputnik.

"Seeing the Orthodox processions in the north of the country, in the heart of winter, under two meters [6.5 feet] of snow has galvanized the Orthodox, who want to maintain the freedom of their church. While trying to nationalize the church, Djukanovic shot himself a second bullet in the foot," Cvetkovic said.

The result was a record 76 percent of voters showing up to cast ballots. It would be wrong though to conclude that Djukanovic was only overthrown by the Serbian Orthodox Church, but the absurd policy of the government helped the opposition a lot.

REACTIONS IN MONTENEGRO AND ABROAD

"It is not true that the opposition is simply pro-Serb and in the shadow of Russia. People are just fed up with autocrat Djukanovic who has seized power for 30 years," Cvetkovic told Sputnik.

A fierce supporter of the Montenegrin opposition, Cvetkovic fears their combined political weight might still be not enough to take over Djukanovic's influence.

"Under pressure from the European Union and the United States, Djukanovic has admitted losing the election, but he is still secretly trying to divert members of parliament of the new majority to his DPS party. He has done this in the past. But today, all of the opposition candidates have pledged to return their party seats to the party if they leave, precisely to prevent Djukanovic from buying them," the civil activist said.

The priority, therefore, must be given to purging the state institutions, police, public media and other strategic institutions from Djukanovic's henchmen, the union head believes.

The victorious opposition parties have, in fact, already unveiled the plans to conduct lustration of the Djukanovic-era high-ranking appointees in the state and security institutions. Nebojsa Medojevic, a cochairman of the For the Future of Montenegro party, said the new government wanted to go as far as to "disband security services and rearranged them from scratch and purged the courts and prosecution from the regime henchmen."

"The tripartite is walking on eggs ... What strikes me is that the president failed to buy any MP [member of parliament] from the opposition. This is the most remarkable sign of hope for Montenegro," Slobodan Despot, a Swiss-based Serbian journalist with expertise in Balkan geopolitics, told Sputnik.

Despot believes Montenegro's eventual rapprochement with Serbia under the new government is "inevitable," especially given that there are more Montenegrins in Belgrade than in Montenegro. He points, at the same time, to a "very strong pressure" coming from NATO and Western media, which do not want to let go of Djukanovic's anti-Serbian political legacy so easily.

"Djukanovic was supported by the EU and the US. He is in a way a creation of the United States, against Serbia and the influence of Moscow," Paris-based geopolitical analyst Nicola Mirkovic told Sputnik.

At the same time, the analyst emphasized the president's deep-rooted niche in Montenegro's history, saying "It must be said that Djukanovic is the founding father of modern Montenegro, since the fall of Communism ... In Montenegro, everything bears the mark of Djukanovic."

Mirkovic described Djukanovic as a "very skillful" politician who has always been able to "play with divisions within the opposition." Furthermore, he still has supporters strategically infiltrated in "all the cogs of the state," which means a big part of his political influence is still in place.

"The opposition's victory is fragile," the analyst said, but added that "what is remarkable is that this time around, the opposition parties, which are not aligned on all issues, have remained united; they want to rebuild the state."

An important goal for the opposition now is, according to the analyst, not to let the pro-Djukanovic forces recruit even a single opposition lawmaker as well as to conduct political reforms that would bring palpable results, a prerequisite of launching rapprochement with Serbia and Russia without running on a risk of igniting a color revolution by Euro-Atlantic integration supporters.