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As Montenegrins Prepare To Vote, Djukanovic Hopes To Take Them For One Last Spin

Milo Djukanovic, one of Europe's longest-ruling leaders, has raised the stakes ahead of this weekend's election in Montenegro, where he's seeking a final term as president.
Milo Djukanovic, one of Europe's longest-ruling leaders, has raised the stakes ahead of this weekend's election in Montenegro, where he's seeking a final term as president.

Milo Djukanovic has a long habit of ignoring his political opponents.

For three decades, it has mostly worked for him. Serving as prime minister six times and president twice, the chameleonic 61-year-old has singularly dominated Montenegrin politics.

But this time, in the first national election since pro-Serbian parties and their fractious coalition defeated his parliamentary allies two and a half years ago, Djukanovic's challengers for a five-year term as president have his attention.

Speaking earlier this month about his opponents in the March 19 presidential election, Djukanovic called them "charlatans" and "dukes" and included a "titled" Chetnik, a historical swipe at a veteran Serbian nationalist's fealty to Montenegrin statehood. The governments of the past two and a half years "served" the Serbian Orthodox Church and "big-state nationalism," he charged.

It's part of a race that could unseat one of Europe's longest-ruling leaders in one of its youngest democracies, with signs that any eventual winner will face serious challenges trying to unite 620,000 Montenegrins.

"Whoever wins...will be the president of a deeply divided country and will find it near impossible to rally all of the country's citizens behind them," said Kenneth Morrison, a professor of modern Southeastern European history at Britain's De Montfort University.

Djukanovic's populist Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS), the successor to the Yugoslav-era Communists, governed continuously from 1991 to 2020 and was dogged by accusations of corruption, nepotism, and ties to organized crime. Determined to unseat Djukanovic's party, a coalition led by pro-Serbian groups with support from the Serbian Orthodox Church defeated the DPS in August 2020 elections.

The victory deepened tensions over Montenegrin national identity and shared culture with larger neighbor Serbia that are exacerbated by right-wing narratives, including some that Djukanovic's promotion of Montenegrin consciousness helped to create.

Since then, two governments have collapsed as the country lurched from one political or institutional crisis to another. A "technical" government remains in charge ahead of early elections sparked by Djukanovic's dissolution of parliament on March 16, three days before this weekend's election.

The paralysis threatens to tarnish accomplishments under Djukanovic since he emerged as an ally of strongman Slobodan Milosevic in Yugoslavia's dying days to lead Montenegrins to independence in 2006, NATO membership in 2017, and most likely EU accession in the next few years.

"I see him as a consummate machine politician who, like Franco Tudjman in Croatia before him, has been blessed by having an incompetent and divided opposition," Patrick Moore, RFE/RL's chief Balkan political analyst from 1977-2008, said recently.

Djukanovic recently acknowledged that "the state and society are in serious agony." However, he blames the current problems on the erosion of the DPS's electoral fortunes.

Milo Djukanovic has campaigned in the current race as "Our President," tapping into both nationalist and historical sentiment.
Milo Djukanovic has campaigned in the current race as "Our President," tapping into both nationalist and historical sentiment.

He has used his presidential powers to deny any new government mandate and his March 16 decision to dissolve parliament and announce early parliamentary elections, to be held on June 11, has further raised the stakes, with his gamble that voters blame their troubles on his opponents' 2020 election victory.

"Any sound-minded person can only conclude," he said during campaigning that "'it happened [once] and it won't happen again.'"

Institutional problems, namely corruption, have always complicated Djukanovic's rule. Milan Jovanovic, a senior researcher at the Digital Forensic Center (DFC) in Podgorica, the country's capital, rejects the notion these miseries arose so suddenly.

"I think in the last 20 years, Montenegro has been burdened" with corruption, particracy, and nepotism, he said. He called it "the major issue" left behind following the DPS's nearly 30-year reign.

"The biggest weakness of the government during this 30-year period is that they didn't approach the construction of, let's say, strong and independent institutions more decisively," Jovanovic said. "That way of acting [backfired] on Montenegro negatively after the change of government in 2020, and currently the institutions in Montenegro are almost nonexistent."

Meanwhile, the question of closer relations with Serbia is omnipresent.

Around 30 percent of people in Montenegro identify as Serbs, and many lament the 2006 declaration of independence from Serbia. More than 70 percent of the population worships under the local arm of the Serbian Orthodox Church, which has a history of meddling in independent Montenegro's affairs and led public opposition to the DPS in the 2020 elections.

The short-lived ruling coalition that brought Prime Minister Zdravko Krivokapic, a Serb, to power in late 2020 was led by the Democratic Front, a right-wing alliance of Serbian nationalist and socially conservative parties that tapped into some Montenegrins' identification as Serbs.

Marija Popovic Kalezic from the Center for Civil Liberties (Cegas), a nonprofit based in Podgorica, blames Djukanovic in part for fanning ethno-nationalist divisions. He was "the creator of right-wing nationalist narratives that have led to social and political turbulence," she said.

Djukanovic has campaigned in the current race as "Our President," tapping into both nationalist and historical sentiment.

"He may seek to be a president for all Montenegrins, but this is not easily attainable," Morrison said. "Indeed, a defeat for Djukanovic could hasten his political demise."

That would be a particularly painful blow for a man who "has held high political positions for almost all of his adult life and has been, for decades, by far the dominant political figure in Montenegro," he said.

And if so, Morrison said, "He will, perhaps, see his legacy as incomplete, given that his core objective had been to see Montenegro become a member of both NATO and the EU."

Most observers expect Djukanovic to advance to a second-round runoff in two weeks, on April 2, to face one of the other six candidates.

A woman pushes a child in a stroller past a preelection billboard of candidate Andrija Mandic in Podgorica on March 15.
A woman pushes a child in a stroller past a preelection billboard of candidate Andrija Mandic in Podgorica on March 15.

Many regard New Serb Democracy leader and Democratic Front candidate Andrija Mandic as the other favorite. The 58-year-old veteran politician is similarly eager to capitalize on experience and recognizability while shedding some unwanted baggage.

With dual citizenship illegal under Montenegrin law, Mandic famously acknowledged having Serbian citizenship in 2011. He was later convicted of participating in the purported Serbian- and Russian-backed coup attempt in 2016 before an appeals court threw out his guilty verdict.

Now, Mandic has told voters, "It is my duty to unite Montenegro," adding, "We invite all honest people to join us, regardless of who they voted for previously." During the campaign, the tricolor and other Serbian national symbols that for years have been central to the Democratic Front's right-wing, populist message were downplayed or absent.

Radoje Cerovic, a Podgorica psychologist and veteran political communications consultant, called it part of a savvy strategy.

"The whole [Mandic] campaign is centered around an attempt to distance him from his political past," Cerovic told RFE/RL's Balkan Service. "With the slogan, 'Building the future, let's preserve tradition,' he is trying to say that this is both Mandic and a new Mandic."

Jakov Milatovic is the candidate of the upstart Europe Now, a new party that has exploded onto the scene.
Jakov Milatovic is the candidate of the upstart Europe Now, a new party that has exploded onto the scene.

Among the other notable challengers is Jakov Milatovic of the upstart Europe Now, a new party that exploded onto the scene with a surprisingly strong showing in last October's local elections in the capital, Podgorica.

Thirty-seven-year-old Milatovic served as economy minister in the first, short-lived cabinet after the anti-Djukanovic coalition unseated the DPS in 2020. He has campaigned on jobs and better living standards.

Djukanovic and Mandic appear to have taken note.

"Given that both have been attacking the [Europe Now] candidate, Jakov Milatovic, it's clear that they regard him as a potential threat, albeit one that could be eliminated in the first round," Morrison said.

Milatovic has expressed confidence that he can reach the second round and then attract the former governing coalition's supporters to defeat Djukanovic or anyone else.

"Finally, after 30 years of one-man rule, Montenegro will see clearly again and return to the path of democratic and economic development," Milatovic told supporters recently.

It's become a familiar refrain.

Aleksa Becic
Aleksa Becic

The Democratic Montenegro civic group argues that its candidate, Aleksa Becic, is the only candidate who is assured of "defeating the personification of the 30-year autocracy."

Becic described himself on the campaign trail as "the people's president."

Meanwhile, Democratic Front leader Milan Knezevic has already called on Mandic, Milatovic, and Becic to agree to support whichever of those three candidates reaches a second round.

Draginja Vuksanovic Stankovic
Draginja Vuksanovic Stankovic

Draginja Vuksanovic Stankovic, a parliamentary deputy for the Social Democratic Party which she once led, is the only woman running for president. A legislator and legal expert, she received over 8 percent of the presidential vote in 2018 on a platform of NATO and EU membership.

Goran Danilovic is a pro-Serbian former interior minister who has opposed international recognition of Kosovo, the predominantly ethnic Albanian former province of Serbia that declared independence in 2008, and has argued for Montenegro to abandon EU-led sanctions against Russia for its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

Goran Danilovic
Goran Danilovic

The last of the presidential challengers is Jovan Radulovic, an Internet influencer and outsider whose appeal is thought to be limited among voters.

Virtually all of the candidates are running on messages of reconciliation, unity, and progress. That includes Djukanovic and Mandic.

"The big question is how two candidates who have been on the political scene for the past 30 years can be the president of all citizens," Popovic Kalezic said.

Polling in Montenegro is notoriously unreliable, frequently reflecting the views of the messenger more than the desires of voters. So it's unclear whether the electorate is buying it.

Veselin Nenezic, a resident of Podgorica, said when asked about the campaigns that it felt like the candidates were too concerned about alienating voters to say anything substantial, and he said he doesn't believe anything they say.

"Before there was much greater stratification, both political and national and so on," he said. Now, Nenezic added, "I have a feeling that they all share one major fear: the fear of losing."

Anica Vujisic, another voter in the capital, agreed that it was hard to distinguish between candidates' messages. "Everything is kind of blurred, as they say," she said. "To tell you the truth, I'm bored listening to them and watching them."

But despite the mealy messaging, analysts say it is difficult to envisage the emergence of anyone capable of uniting all Montenegrins.

"In my opinion -- and I think that many people would agree -- it would be very challenging at this moment to find one candidate who could, at some point, represent unity and who would be accepted by all sides of this very polarized Montenegrin public," the DFC's Jovanovic told RFE/RL.

Written and reported by Andy Heil with contributions from RFE/RL Balkan Service correspondents Lela Scepanovic, Aneta Durovic, and Srdjan Jankovic in Podgorica.
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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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    Lela Scepanovic

    Lela Scepanovic is a correspondent for RFE/RL's Balkan Service.

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    Aneta Durovic

    Aneta Durovic is a correspondent in Podgorica for RFE/RL's Balkan Service. 

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    Srdjan Jankovic

    Srdjan Jankovic is a correspondent for RFE/RL's Balkan Service. 

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