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The Smartest Man In The Balkans

A person doesn't remain at the pinnacle of power in a country in a volatile region like the Balkans for two decades -- as Montenegrin Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic has done -- without knowing how to determine which way the wind is blowing and how to reinvent oneself.

"They are young, smart, and wear sweaters," was the most common way of describing the generation of young communists that rose to prominence in 1988 during the so-called anti-bureaucracy revolution. Longtime Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito had died in 1980, but the older generation of communists -- with their gray suits and dark ties -- were still clinging to power.

Djukanovic became the face of this new generation. He was elevated to prime minister in 1991 at the age of 29. It was the first paid job he'd ever held. Since then, he has served five terms as prime minister (1991-93, 1993-96, 1996-98, 2003-06, and again since February this year) and one term as Montenegro's president (1998-2002). And all this time he has guided his country through tumult without making a strategic mistake.

Milosevic Ally

Originally, Djukanovic was a close ally of Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic. In 1991, he backed the Yugoslav military action against Croatia and Montenegrin forces participated in the siege and bombardment of the historic port of Dubrovnik and other devastation in Croatia. "I'll never play chess again," Djukanovic famously said at the time, referring to the chessboard-like pattern on the Croatian flag.

But Djukanovic was among the first to understand where Milosevic's policies were heading, and the first to realize that Milosevic's time was over. At the first opportune moment, in 1998, he dumped Milosevic and remade himself as a pro-Western reformer, although Montenegro remained part of the union state of Serbia and Montenegro. Milosevic tried to engineer a coup against Djukanovic, but failed.
He is a modern leader. He has a Facebook page and anyone is welcome to become his 'friend'

NATO air strikes against Serbia came the following year, and Djukanovic made another bold strategic decision. "This is not our war," he declared. And he opened his border to thousands of ethnic-Albanian Kosavars and provided a safe haven for some of Milosevic's opponents. Milosevic blustered and threatened, but, as British Balkans expert Misha Glenny wrote, "the Montenegrin held his nerve and that took guts." The payoff for Djukanovic came in the form support from the European Union and the United States.

Later, Djukanovic figured out that Milosevic was combating economic problems by printing worthless money without informing Montenegro. So he introduced the German mark. When the mark was replaced by the euro, that became the de facto currency in Montenegro -- which became in effect the only country in the euro zone that wasn't a member of the EU.

Shortly after Djukanovic broke with Milosevic, the Italian press began -- coincidence? Some say not -- accusing him of cigarette smuggling and money laundering. Montenegro became infamous throughout the former Yugoslavia as supposed mafia state. "If your car has been stolen -- look for it in Montenegro," was the common wisdom. But Djukanovic steadfastly maintained his innocence and that the accusations were politically motivated. Prosecutors in Italy eventually dropped the case, giving Djukanovic a moral victory.

Independence Aspirations

Like all the other former Yugoslav leaders, Djukanovic wanted independence. In his case, the move was more about gaining distance from the self-destructing Milosevic than about independence per se. He focused, therefore, on the question of "when" rather than "why."

Some wondered why he did not push his independence bid during the NATO air strikes or their aftermath. "I was aware that one had to take this risk," he later said of his decision to move slowly, "but one also had to proceed carefully. That meant not taking even half a step too many and trying to avoid incurring Milosevic's wrath. Over time, his power waned and the chances of saving Montenegro improved. My idea -- moving slowly with occasional sidesteps, but with the intention of avoiding conflict and Milosevic's aggression and moving toward our goal, independence, without casualties -- was proven correct."
Pro-Serbian opposition supporters rally in Podgorica to protest Montenegro's recognition of Kosovo

Initially, in fact, the EU resisted Montenegro's independence ambitions. In 2002, European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana pressed hard for an agreement that would continue the joint state. As a result, Djukanovic agreed to put off an independence referendum for three years. In 2005, the EU set a nearly impossible condition -- saying the referendum had to pass with 55 percent yes vote. Many observers -- including some within the EU -- felt this result would be impossible, but Djukanovic proceeded. And on May 21, 2006, 55.5 percent of Montenegrins voted in favor of independence -- just 2,000 votes above the EU's threshold. Parliament declared independence on June 3, 2006.

Last week, Djukanovic made his latest strategic gambit, one that appears to be as smart as his previous ones. Montenegro on October 9 recognized Kosovo's independence. Again, Djukanovic was clear as to why he took this step -- recognizing Kosovo is a precondition for joining NATO and the EU and failing to do so would harm Montenegro's interests. Although officially Serbia has responded to this decision diplomatically, radicals in Serbia and the Serbian Orthodox Church encouraged protests in Podgorica.

Kosovo Protests

Some 8,000-10,000 people occupied Freedom Square last week, and the protests devolved into violence orchestrated by some of the demonstrators. Some of the 30 people injured were police and journalists. Another protest was scheduled for October 16, but it was cancelled, while one opposition leader announced a hunger strike. It would appear the Serbian radicals have failed in their last bid to foment a new conflict in Montenegro -- one more gamble by Prime Minister Djukanovic that paid off.

So, the wheel has come full circle. When Djukanovic came to power during the 1988 anti-bureaucracy revolution, Kosovars were seeking independence, while he sided with Milosevic. Now, Djukanovic is weathering protests at home for his support of Kosovar independence. Likewise, he began his career as a young communist and today he is a rabid privatizer. He originally supported Milosevic's wars in the Balkans, but later was among the first to abandon this position and apologize for his country's actions. He has encouraged the inflow of Russian capital into the country, while simultaneously forging strong and growing ties with the EU and the United States.

No other leader in postcommunist Europe has dominated the political life of his country for such a long time as Djukanovic has. Charges of nepotism and shady links to tycoons continue to dog him. Some reports go so far as to allege he is the country's biggest tycoon, although no one has proven such charges. Critics point out the Djukanovic has never had a consistent ideology beyond merely staying in power and, some say, enriching himself. But he has weathered some tumultuous times and brought his country through two perilous decades without violence.

He is a modern leader. He has a Facebook page and anyone is welcome to become his "friend." He is dominating figure in every sense -- 1.9 meters tall, charming, smart, energetic. Although he knows how to react calmly, he has the hot-blooded passion that many in the Balkans demand from their leaders. He is the embodiment of the slogan that is being broadcast endlessly in advertisements on CNN these days: Montenegro -- the wild beauty.

Nenad Pejic is associate director of broadcasting at RFE/RL. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.

RFE/RL Balkan Report

RFE/RL Balkan Report


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