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Montenegro: 'Deep Polarization' Seen As Voters Head, Yet Again, To The Polls

The people of Montenegro go to the polls on 20 October to elect a new parliament. As RFE/RL reports, the campaign has been marked by particularly sharp backbiting among the various political camps.

Prague, 17 October 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Just 18 months after the last parliamentary elections in Montenegro, the republic's 455,000 registered voters on 20 October are being asked yet again to choose a new parliament -- in the republic's seventh free elections since 1990.

Some analysts describe this campaign as revealing "deep polarization" among the parties in this tiny mountainous republic, wedged between Albania, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, and Kosovo.

The formerly pro-Milosevic, pro-Serbian opposition coalition, which last year campaigned under the banner of Together for Yugoslavia, now calls itself Together for Change and is campaigning on a single theme of trying to topple President Milo Djukanovic. These pro-Belgrade forces are portraying Djukanovic and his allies in the For a European Montenegro coalition as privileged and corrupt and are accusing Djukanovic of ruling the country virtually single-handedly because of his alleged distrust of those around him.

The opposition is accusing the ruling coalition of quietly organizing an election boycott to ensure that the opposition gets few votes. Savo Djurdjevac is deputy chairman of the People's Party and a Together for Change member. "The regime of Milo Djukanovic is not publicly calling on citizens not to vote. But they are secretly buying up personal identity cards in all sorts of ways [since without the IDs people are barred from voting]."

The rhetoric sometimes runs to excess. Liberal Alliance Chairman Miroslav Zivkovic, speaking recently at Podgorica University, said: "This is not a battle for the state, nor for the nation or the church. This is a battle for bare human existence, for the honor of our families."

President Milo Djukanovic and his For a European Montenegro coalition are just as feisty. "What is needed on 20 October is an end to the political history of retrograde, conservative, nationalist, mythical policies, which unfortunately for so long have tripped up Montenegro from its European road and even today represent a stumbling block."

Djukanovic has an image problem, even in his own camp. In the words of one politician from the junior Social Democratic partner in the ruling coalition, "The only people in this country who are well-off are 'King' Milo and some 200 families -- everyone else is poor."

Djukanovic is under investigation by an Italian magistrate for his alleged role in cigarette smuggling. But many voters in Montenegro do not perceive smuggling as a crime but rather as a reliable source of income. Under pressure from the international community, most smuggling routes through the country have been shut down. And the incumbents in the election are promising the passage of laws that would fundamentally reform the police and establish a national security agency.

The government, with considerable assistance from the international community, has undertaken some economic reforms and adopted the euro as its currency. But high unemployment, a 20 percent inflation rate, and government interference in the media have embittered many voters.

Djukanovic risks losing his traditional support among pro-independence Montenegrins for allegedly having "sold out" to Brussels. Some feel he succumbed to pressure from European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana in postponing for three years plans for a referendum on independence, in favor of a new loose relationship with Serbia, to be known as Serbia and Montenegro, which would replace the current dysfunctional Yugoslav Federation.

The international community tolerated Montenegro's separate path as long as it weakened the regime of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, but in the post-Milosevic era, another independent Balkan mini-state is not perceived by Washington or Brussels as being a stabilizing influence on the region.

Nebojsa Medojevic is the head of the Center for Transition, a nongovernmental organization based in Podgorica. Medojevic predicts a close race between the two main coalitions that will, in the end, provide no long-term solutions. He believes neither coalition -- if it forms a government -- will have sufficient legitimacy or capacity to implement real reform.

"I suspect there will be new elections very soon since whatever government is formed [after the 20 October elections] will not be able to respond to the difficult problems in society, will not be able to launch a program against corruption and won't be able to undertake an effective program of economic development."

Medojevic warns that voters are not being given a real choice: "A serious problem has arisen here -- the lack of progressive political alternatives. And in this sense, the international community has created plenty of problems for us by, on the one hand, confirming that there are no credible forces here, while on the other hand partially offering short-term and pragmatic support, which just delays the development of new political alternatives in Montenegro."

Medojevic says that what Montenegro needs is a new political class not burdened by corruption, by the legacy of sanctions, by collaboration with Milosevic and other indicted war criminals -- a new political class that would offer citizens solutions to their difficult problems.

The issue of identity also remains a political stumbling block for many parties in Montenegro. Many Orthodox residents in the north of the republic consider themselves Serbs rather than Montenegrins and traditionally vote for nationalist-oriented Serbian parties.

Pro-Serbian opposition activist Zolica Tajic-Drenovic was on fertile ground this week as she was campaigning in Berane near the Serbian border: "It's an honor to repeat for the millionth time that our language is called Serbian, that our religion is called Serbian [Orthodox], and that the dignity of our Montenegro is also of Serbian origin. (Applause)"

Several parties, both monoethnic and multiethnic ones, are competing vigorously for the ethnic-minority vote. Unlike in other parts of the former Yugoslavia, Montenegro's Albanians and Bosniaks have not traditionally voted en masse for ethnic parties. In fact, three of the five deputies in the Montenegrin parliament are members of mainstream Montenegrin parties.

Djukanovic campaigned in the overwhelmingly Albanian seaside resort of Ulcinj/Ulqin on 15 October, telling a crowd that Montenegro is the only example in the region where minority peoples have had a constructive, genuine and loyal relationship to the state. Mixing metaphors, he described Montenegro as "an oasis and lighthouse of multiethnic democracy that disperses the gloom hanging over the Balkans."

The head of the Albanian coalition in parliament, Ferhat Dinosha, is hopeful that the republic's Albanians will vote en masse this time for Albanian parties. He says the time has come to define the social and political status of Montenegro's Albanians according to European standards, so that "our status will not depend on the changing of governments in Montenegro."

"We'll try to have Albanians integrated into this society and state organs and public services of Montenegro. We make up 7 percent of the population today but only 0.5 percent maybe in the state organs and public services of Montenegro. We need integration, but integration with identity. Our ethnic roots are different. Our culture, tradition are different."

But Dinosha insists the Albanians of Montenegro are autochthonous, living on their own land and deserving of European democratic standards being applied "not more but not less."