Within hours of the polls closing in Montenegro's presidential election on March 19, 36-year-old Jakov Milatovic was already declaring victory -- even though he hadn't won.
That honor went to 61-year-old incumbent Milo Djukanovic, who has dominated politics in the Balkan coastal nation for decades and won the first round of the vote with 35.3 percent.
But with other candidates quickly throwing their support behind Milatovic and limited avenues for Djukanovic to overcome voter fatigue ahead of next month's runoff, the upstart economist with the shiny new political party gushed with confidence.
"I promised that we would succeed, and we succeeded," Milatovic told a crowd of supporters in Podgorica. "This is a victory for all those who were discriminated against in the previous 30 years, whose children left Montenegro, those who could have no justice. We'll send Djukanovic into political retirement on April 2."
But analysts say the jury is still out on whether Milatovic and his suddenly ascendant Europe Now! movement will be as eager to follow through with pro-EU policies as they have been to tap into public frustrations with aging politicians, institutional stalemate, and stalled reforms.
They caution that the movement's brand of populism could turn out to falter on tough issues facing one of the continent's newest democracies, including political divides over Serbian and Montenegrin identity, relations with Belgrade and the Serbian Orthodox Church, and Russian influence in the region.
"A likely victory of Mr. Milatovic in the second round of the Montenegrin presidential election doesn't mean that we're going to have a pro-EU/NATO person as Montenegrin president," Vesko Garcevic, a former Montenegrin ambassador and professor at Boston University's Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies, told RFE/RL this week.
Talking The EU Talk
On election night, the partly Western-educated Milatovic sought to reassure pro-EU Montenegrins and outsiders concerned that questions of national identity and affinities for neighboring Serbia and Belgrade's ally Russia could hinder the country's ongoing European integration.
Milatovic said he was a step closer to fulfilling his pledge that "I will be the one to bring the country into the EU."
EU accession is an enduring desire for most Montenegrins since the country's application to join the bloc in 2008, two years after its independence from Serbia. But around one-third of Montenegro's residents identify as Serbs, and twice as many worship under a Serbian church that flexed its political muscles two years ago to oust Djukanovic's governing allies in favor of pro-Serbian parties.
Whatever the bumps and detours along the way, Djukanovic has spent decades pursuing a policy of EU accession, on top of the NATO membership achieved in 2017.
After the first round of voting, he described his first-place finish as providing a "tailwind" for his Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) and its agenda "to lead Montenegro down the European path."
But it could as easily portend an end to Djukanovic's personal domination of national politics and further decline for his DPS, which governed continuously from 1991 to 2020. Veteran leader Djukanovic won the 2018 presidential election outright with 53 percent of the vote.
Zlatko Vujovic, a professor of political science at the University of Montenegro, said that "the halo of the eventual winner over Djukanovic" could allow Europe Now! to swallow up voters from other parties.
"This could affect a major restructuring of the political scene," he told RFE/RL's Balkan Service.
A restructuring arguably began 2 1/2 years ago, when a handful of relatively disparate groups led by a pro-Serbian coalition narrowly defeated the DPS and its allies to win a one-seat majority in parliamentary elections.
Milatovic became economy minister in the subsequent government, led by then-Prime Minister Zdravko Krivokapic, a Serb and a staunch pro-Serbian and pro-Russian former academic.
Two governments collapsed amid infighting over the next two years, and a caretaker government was left in charge until snap elections now slated for June 11.
"There were a lot of protests against corruption and self-dealing and abuse of power under the previous government, and that's pretty widely felt," Kurt Bassuener, senior associate at the Berlin-based Democratization Policy Council, said. "But then what followed in the governments was not necessarily a cleanup to strengthen the institutions and strengthen rule of law, but rather to populate institutions with their people."
The signs of political restructuring continued in 2022 with Europe Now!'s formation under leader Milojko Spajic and deputy leader and then-mayoral candidate Milatovic in June, buoyed by a surprisingly strong showing in local elections in October.
Europe Now! won 41 of the 458 local legislative seats being contested in 14 municipalities including Podgorica. That was well behind the totals for Djukanovic's DPS party (110) and the pro-Serbian Democratic Front alliance (98) but a stunning showing for a party that only came into existence four months before.
It also signaled public support for Spajic and Milatovic's efforts to spark economic rejuvenation and wage growth by carving away at direct financing of health care, among other steps.
"The Europe Now! movement...has been offering voters things they want to hear: better salaries, a fight against corruption, and [criticism of] the political establishment," Garcevic said, "[but it] avoids all 'difficult issues' like relations with Russia, Serbia, or the role of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro."
Garcevic suggested the movement's narratives "often resemble narratives of European populist and antiestablishment parties when they entered their political campaigns in their countries, like the Five Star Movement in Italy, but it doesn't necessarily mean that they are the same. Simply, we don't know yet."
He also said it speaks volumes about the calcified political scene in Montenegro.
"The fact that the candidate of a nonparliamentary party, formed just several months ago, won almost 30 percent of popular support and is likely to win the presidential election in Montenegro speaks about how much citizens need new policies and new political actors," Garcevic said.
Vujovic suggests the movement's populist approach is likely to continue to win over voters until the snap elections in June but is unsustainable in the longer term, particularly in the Montenegrin context.
"I think the expectations of the citizens far exceed even the promises made by the leaders of Europe Now! There is an unfounded optimism that wages will continue to rise, even though we do not have income in the budget to finance it," Vujovic told RFE/RL's Balkan Service.
There are other warning signs, too, particularly with respect to the issues of national identity and Serbian church influence, according to some observers.
Krivokapic used the word "apostles" to describe his cabinet in the fragile government that he led immediately after his and other anti-Djukanovic groups won the 2020 elections. It was regarded by many as a provocative choice of words, since the Serbian Orthodox Church had led anti-government rallies and otherwise mobilized its faithful in Montenegro to help unseat the DPS out of revenge for a law on religion and faith that Djukanovic and the DPS had passed nearly a year earlier.
Milatovic was also a stand-in after the February disqualification of his fellow Europe Now! leader Spajic as presidential candidate. It was no minor technicality that excluded Spajic but the disclosure amid an Interior Ministry investigation that Spajic had maintained Serbian residency for years and was suspected of holding dual citizenship. It was a notable miscalculation on an issue that remains central to Montenegrin identity and politics.
"He doesn't look like a compromise candidate to a lot of people," Bassuener said of a recent visit to Montenegro. He noted the sensitivities among many Montenegrins regarding relations with the Serbian church and Serbs more broadly, including some Serbian government officials' willingness to endorse a "Serbian world" view, which echoes the "Russky mir," a pan-Slavic concept that denotes a core "world" of Russian culture and smaller, outlying cultures.
The entire Balkan region is currently grappling with pro-Russian disinformation and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic's refusal to align his policies with EU-wide sanctions and other punishments for Russia's year-old invasion of Ukraine.
"The mistrust toward Milatovic and Europe Now!, on the part of those who identify as Montenegrin and identify with Montenegrin statehood is profound," Bassuener said. "And he is seen by a lot of the folks that I talked to as the more-marketable-to-outsiders face of a 'Serbian world' approach to the region."
Montenegrin sovereignty, independence, and social cohesion "have all been damaged under a static government for a very long time," he said, leaving the country especially "vulnerable to predatory action both internally [and] by an interested neighboring state that has an openly irridentist agenda not just towards Montenegro -- that [state] being Serbia -- and by Russia."