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Montenegrins Hand Djukanovic's Foes A Rare Opportunity. Can They Capitalize?

Pro-Serb Monetengrin opposition supporters celebrate parliamentary election results in Podgorica on August 31.
Pro-Serb Monetengrin opposition supporters celebrate parliamentary election results in Podgorica on August 31.

"Montenegro is finally free -- that's the easiest way to put it," said Perica Jankovic, a lawyer in the capital, Podgorica, one day after August 30 national elections.

"For the first time, a change of power is legal," he told RFE/RL.

Preliminary results have hinted at the tiniest, one-seat majority for a trio of opposition alliances who have vowed to unseat the small Adriatic country's perennially ruling Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS).

Big, boisterous crowds have gathered in downtown Podgorica and other cities to mark a milestone for parties opposing President Milo Djukanovic, who has been president or prime minister for nearly 30 years but whose stark challenge to the Serbian Orthodox Church last year cost him support in this heavily Orthodox Balkan country of some 620,000 people.

The leaders of the three opposition coalitions -- the pro-Serb and pro-Russian For The Future Of Montenegro, the pro-Serbian church but pro-EU Peace Is Our Nation, and the liberal and civic-oriented Black On White -- are eager to seize the momentum from the election results.

They have begun talks on forming a government to lead Montenegro out of the coronavirus pandemic and a morass of corruption toward greater prosperity.

But some experts warn that ethno-national and other divides in Montenegro may have been exacerbated by last week's vote, and there are still many factors that could preempt any chance for the anti-Djukanovic forces to govern.

'A Lot Still To Play For'

Initial results suggest Djukanovic's DPS won the most votes (35.1 percent), followed by Zdravko Krivokapic's For The Future Of Montenegro coalition (32.6 percent), then the Peace Is Our Nation (12.5 percent) and Black On White (5.5 percent) coalitions.

That is expected to give the three coalition groupings a slim combined majority, with 41 seats in the 81-member parliament, and leave the DPS and its minor partners in control of the remaining 40 seats.

It is a razor-thin margin for a collection of groups that have never governed, either together or in coalition.

"Much of the opposition want to say things like 'the regime has fallen.' It's not yet evident that that's actually what's going to happen," says Kenneth Morrison, a professor of modern Southeastern European history at Britain's De Montfort University. "There's a lot still to play for, I think."

And tough decisions are ahead on which of their leaders will be prime minister and who might occupy key government posts, never mind what their governing priorities should be.

They all oppose Djukanovic and their leaders have vowed to maintain NATO cooperation and stay on a path to EU membership, but that might be where their similarities end.

"It's worth saying that they chose not to run as one ticket," says Morrison. "They chose to run as three separate coalitions because there were fundamental disagreements even before the elections."

'High Time For Change'

Patrick Moore, RFE/RL's chief Balkan political analyst from 1977 to 2008, agrees that "it is high time for a change."

After all, he says, Montenegro is alone among postcommunist states as never having had a genuine change of government since the fall of communism.

"It is not healthy for any country to have one single leadership in power for 30 years, especially a leadership that has had plenty of serious scandals," says Moore.

But he says he won't be surprised to see Djukanovic "pull some rabbit out of his hat" to flummox the opposition.

"I don't underestimate him," Moore said.

Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic
Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic

Late on election night, as a combined majority for the opposition trio appeared increasingly likely, Djukanovic claimed that the DPS had emerged as the "strongest" party and said the "battle for the majority is continuing."

One of the most obvious cards held by Djukanovic, whose term as president ends in 2023, is the constitutional power to pick a prime minister-elect.

He has 30 days after the first sitting of the new parliament to give that mandate.

There are reports that the opposition, once in power, could seek to prosecute Djukanovic and other DPS officials for suspected wrongdoing.

"And so it's going to be very hard, I think, for any agreement to be reached with Djukanovic about any potential prime minister," Morrison says.

National Identities

Moreover, the coming weeks could feel like an eternity politically if pro-Serb elements are seen by any of the potential governing partners as whipping up disorder in the 14-year-old state.

There have already been signs that the election results have buoyed Serbian nationalism and clerical influence within Montenegro, where around one-third of its citizens regard themselves as ethnic Serb.

Election-night celebrations were described as "a massive display of Serbian nationalism" by the Atlantic Council's Damon Wilson, who also warned that this might alienate Montenegrins who were "proud of their country."

Some people have pushed back against suggestions that pro-Serb elements threaten to tread on Montenegrin national identity, arguing that most of the flags being waved are Montenegrin.

But many Serbian flags have been seen along with traditional Serbian three-finger salutes and songs associated with Serbian nationalism.

That could eat away at opposition unity and force the most vocally pro-Serb opposition coalition, For The Future Of Montenegro, on the defensive, possibly costing the would-be governing partners valuable time and energy.

The Clock Is Ticking

But the opposition victors appear to recognize that the clock is running and that there are bridges to be built.

One day after the election, the opposition trio's leaders issued a joint statement proposing to form a government of "experts" -- including individuals "regardless of their political, religious, national, or any other characteristics" -- to take over as soon as possible.

Djukanovic and the DPS could seek to split the opposition or lure away even a single lawmaker in the meantime to block their ability to form a majority.

"The longer this situation goes on, and the longer it takes to form a government, for a prime minister to be nominated and accepted, the more likely it doesn't happen or there's some kind of split or argument within the opposition ranks," Morrison says.

The opposition, he says, might be justifiably delighted at the prospect of displacing the party that has won every Montenegrin election since 1990.

"But now, in the cold light of day, they now have to demonstrate a political maturity that they haven't been able to demonstrate in the past."

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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.