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Montenegro's Elections Bring Old, New Challenges Into Sharp Focus

Over half a million voters in Montenegro have the chance to go to the polls on August 30.
Over half a million voters in Montenegro have the chance to go to the polls on August 30.

Hitting adult milestones. Making relationships work. Settling into the anxieties of independence. And getting your own house in order.

The political dominance of Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic and his Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) looks to be running into many of the same pressures as people do as they, too, near their 30s.

Djukanovic has been the tiny Adriatic coast country's driving political force since the splintering of Yugoslavia in 1991.

But he and his allies could face one of their biggest electoral challenges ever when 540,000 or so registered voters go to the polls on August 30 in a referendum on the government and its broadly pro-Western agenda.

Montenegrins and their economy are stinging from the global pandemic's toll on tourism and people's lives in their laidback corner of the Balkans. The residue of a failed Russia-backed coup during the last election, in 2016, along with a string of unresolved corruption scandals continue to taint the national political landscape.

And the country has seen near-constant protests by supporters of the powerful Serbian Orthodox Church since ruling parties rammed through a new law on religion in December 2019.

"The atmosphere around the election is more febrile than in any parliamentary [elections] since Montenegro regained its independence in 2006," says Kenneth Morrison, a professor at De Montfort University and author of the book Nationalism, Identity And Statehood In Post-Yugoslav Montenegro.

'Most Important' Vote

Djukanovic this week called the vote "the most important in Montenegro's history because we must decide whether Montenegro continues its EU integration or becomes a theocratic state."

The opposition has appealed to voters to turn the page on years of alleged corruption under DPS leadership and to safeguard religious freedom for the Serbian Orthodox Church and its believers, estimated at around half the population.

Milo Djukanovic has been the driving force in Montenegro's politics since 1991.
Milo Djukanovic has been the driving force in Montenegro's politics since 1991.

It is spearheaded by the For The Future Of Montenegro alliance, which is led by a Democratic Front party that promotes close ethno-national ties with neighboring Serbia and closer ties to Russia.

A centrist alliance called Peace Is Our Nation has polled third recently and could prove vital if, as is expected, no bloc emerges with a clear majority to govern.

A handful of smaller parties, including minority-based groups, are also running.

The DPS has a majority of 42 deputies in the current 81-seat parliament.

A widely cited poll earlier this month showed its support at around one-third of voters versus around one-quarter for the For The Future alliance.

Just as in neighboring Balkan states Serbia and North Macedonia in recent months, the pandemic has particularly hampered opposition parties' chances to make their case to voters.

But protests ostensibly aimed at the religious law and frequently organized by Serbian church leaders have tapped into the Serb identity of some voters and provided an outlet for public frustrations.

Inner And Outer Peace

Djukanovic has dominated Montenegro's strongest political party and served as president or prime minister with only a few brief gaps from the Yugoslav breakup through Podgorica's declaration of independence from Serbia in 2006 and NATO accession in 2017.

He has portrayed the vote as a stark choice between Montenegro's current pro-EU path and an abandonment of national identity in favor of outside powers like Serbia and Russia and a "dark ideology" reminiscent of "the Middle Ages."

Belgrade and Moscow reject accusations of trying to unduly influence events in Montenegro, which still has no firm date for EU membership.

Serbian Orthodox Protesters Drive Toward Montenegro's Border
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Russian officials have denied involvement in a 2016 election-day coup attempt despite convictions in absentia of two Russian intelligence officers for a plot that reportedly included an order to assassinate Djukanovic.

Prosecutors argued that the coup d'etat was an effort by pro-Russian elements to derail Montenegro's final steps toward NATO membership.

A two-year trial resulted in 13 convictions, including members of Montenegro's opposition Democratic Front (DF), the Russian intelligence officers, and Serbian nationals including a police general.

The "dark ideology of the Middle Ages" remark by Djukanovic was a clear shot at the Serbian Orthodox Church, its Belgrade-based leadership, and its Montenegrin arm, officially known as the Orthodox Metropolitanate of Montenegro and the Littoral.

The Serbian Orthodox Church has a history of downplaying distinctions between Serbs and Montenegrins dating back a century and stoking Serb nationalism before and since a majority of voters in a Montenegrin referendum backed independence from Serbia in 2006.

More than one-third of Montenegro's 620,000 citizens still identify as Serbs, and around half of them are thought to worship under the auspices of the Serbian Orthodox Church.

Those ethno-national and religious pulpits, combined with shared language and frequent family ties, have provided Belgrade and the Serbian church with powerful levers to pressure Podgorica.

Montenegro's law on religions, passed in December 2019 after a walkout by pro-Serb lawmakers, could legally strip the Serbian Orthodox Church of hundreds of religious sites. It prompted pledges by the church and its faithful in Montenegro and neighboring Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina to defend Serbian Orthodox property.

An opposition supporter holds a cross during a church-led protest in Podgorica on August 27.
An opposition supporter holds a cross during a church-led protest in Podgorica on August 27.

Authorities this week filed criminal charges against the leader of the opposition For The Future Of Montenegro coalition, Zdravko Krivokapic, and six Serbian Orthodox priests over unauthorized "autoliturgies" that descended on the capital and blocked traffic on August 23, just one week before the election.

"In many respects, the real political battle in Montenegro is not between the DPS-led government and the opposition, but between the DPS and the Serbian Orthodox Church," says Morrison.

He says the head of the local arm of the Serbian church, Metropolitan Amfilohije, and his clergy "have been far more explicit in their appeals to voters to reject the 'godless' DPS" than in the past.

But Morrison adds that it is unclear whether such clerical outrage will translate into votes.

No Strangers To Scandal

Other government critics point to a troubling pattern of corruption and failure to prosecute bribery and other official abuses under DPS rule.

A drumbeat of scandal and failure to prosecute has followed the country's 2016 national elections.

An investigation is still not complete into accusations that senior DPS officials faked donors to flout campaign finance laws four years ago.

Two years later, Montenegrins marched in the streets after a purge of the public broadcaster and its overseers appeared aimed at ensuring programming friendlier to the ruling parties.

Last year, the government was accused of handing out apartments and mostly unrepaid loans to public officials, including prosecutors and judges.

Soon after that, months of protests broke out after a secretly recorded video appeared to show a businessman, Dusko Knezevic, handing over a cash-stuffed envelope to a senior DPS official.

And more recently, Svetozar Marovic, a fugitive former president of Serbia-Montenegro who cooperated closely with Djukanovic before his conviction on corruption charges in 2016, has leveled accusations against the DPS from neighboring Serbia.

"The situation in Montenegro has changed significantly in the past year and the potential for further deterioration exists," Morrison says. "The problem is, fundamentally, that the election will not solve any of the problems that have underpinned Montenegro’s long-standing political crisis but may merely bring those problems into sharper focus."

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    Andy Heil

    Andy Heil is a Prague-based senior correspondent covering central and southeastern Europe and the North Caucasus, and occasionally science and the environment. Before joining RFE/RL in 2001, he was a longtime reporter and editor of business, economic, and political news in Central Europe, including for the Prague Business Journal, Reuters, Oxford Analytica, and Acquisitions Monthly, and a freelance contributor to the Christian Science Monitor, Respekt, and Tyden. 

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