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Montenegro's Djukanovic Defies Balkan Political Instability With Ability To Change

Milo Djukanovic

Milo Djukanovic, who has led Montenegro from the presidency or the prime minister's office for decades, has been a master of change.

He has variously transformed himself from a communist to a friend of the super-rich, from an ally of ill-fated Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic to the man who led his country away from Serbia and into NATO.

One of two Europeans to have dominated his country's politics for longer than Russia's Vladimir Putin, Djukanovic has been Montenegro's prime minister six times and president once, holding power with only brief interruptions since 1991.

Now, using his tried and true recipe of populism and patronage, he appears poised to win a presidential election on April 15 that will end a two-year hiatus at a key moment in the Adriatic nation’s history.

“Djukanovic has been more skilled and less ideological than most other politicians in the region, allowing him to reshape his agenda, policies according to the prevailing influence,” Florian Bieber, a Balkans expert at the University of Graz, said.

Djukanovic became the face of a new generation as part of a group of young communists who appealed to Montenegrins tired of an older generation of politicians who emerged after the 1980 death of longtime Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito.

He parlayed that into becoming the youngest head of government in Europe at the age of 29 in 1991, the year he backed the Yugoslav military action against Croatia, allowing Montenegrin forces to participate in the siege and bombardment of the historic port of Dubrovnik and other devastation in the former Yugoslav republic.

Then, when Djukanovic saw where Milosevic’s policies were headed, he jettisoned Milosevic in 1998 and turned to pro-Western reforms even as the country remained paired with Serbia in statehood.

A billboard in Podgorica
A billboard in Podgorica

The drive away from former eastern allies culminated last year in Podgorica's crowning diplomatic moment.

Montenegro became NATO's 29th member in June, marking a historic turn toward the transatlantic alliance amid protests from the country's political opposition and Moscow, which has long opposed any further enlargement of the military alliance.

Montenegrin officials claim that in the run-up to NATO accession, Serbian and Russian nationalists plotted to occupy parliament during the country's October 2016 parliamentary elections, assassinate Djukanovic, who then was the prime minister, and install a pro-Russian leadership to halt the bid.

“He realized the importance of external legitimacy. To be seen as a reliable interlocutor by foreign partners, in particular the EU and the U.S., and that this strategic partnership offers domestic legitimacy. By pursuing a policy of good relations with neighbors, he has been able to receive credit abroad and be seen as a source of stability,” Bieber told RFE/RL.

While the Kremlin has denied claims that "Russian state bodies" were involved in the alleged plot, 14 suspects in the case are currently on trial in Podgorica.

Djukanovic’s attention hasn’t been solely focused abroad.

He has conducted politics skillfully at home, dividing the opposition, in particular on issues that will fragment Serbian nationalist and reformist opposition.

In tiny Montenegro, with a population of around 640,000, the boundary between knowing everybody and patronage is particularly blurred, arguably making entrenched party control more easy to sustain than in larger countries.

“Djukanovic has been able to present himself as the only guarantor of stability in Montenegro, the one who gained independence for Montenegro, the one who led the country into the NATO and who is supported by the international community no matter the illiberalism in the country,” said Vera Stojarova, assistant professor at the department of political science at Masaryk University and editor of Party Politics In The Western Balkans.

“He is just basically able to sell himself better than the opposition, which offers better ties with Russia, is against NATO, and is Euroskeptic; liberal parties are fragmented and you also have minority parties -- so no chance for the opposition to unite and offer a credible alternative,” she added.

While he’s remained broadly popular, Djukanovic has also built up a cadre of enemies and naysayers who say he’s never had a consistent ideology other than staying in power.

While multiparty democracy was introduced in Montenegro more than a quarter of a century ago, Djukanovic has faced repeated accusations of irregularities such as voter intimidation and vote buying.

He also came under investigation and was indicted by prosecutors in the Italian city of Bari in 2008. The probe was later dropped given Djukanovic's diplomatic immunity.

Charges of nepotism and shady links to tycoons continue to dog him. Some reports allege he and his family are the country's biggest tycoons.

According to the International Consortium of Investigative Reporters (ICIJ), Djukanovic has amassed assets worth millions of dollars, while his family members are said to be worth tens of millions of dollars.

How they accumulated their wealth, the ICIJ says, is unclear.

"For 27 years, the people have been cheated with a story that they have a plan to live better. Of course this better life is felt only by his close family and close friends," Djukanovic’s main rival in the presidential vote, Mladen Bojanic, said.

Rumors notwithstanding, Djukanovic still appears to be able to hit all the right notes as he once again blazes the campaign trail.

A dominating figure both physically -- he’s about 190 centimeters tall -- and with his oversized personality, Djukanovic embodies the hot-blooded passion that many in the Balkans demand from their leaders.

"Djukanovic succeeds for many reasons,” says Sasa Petrovic, a 39-year-old farmer.

“He’s had this type of support for so many years because he has charisma. His leadership style is appreciated and it works for now. If he’s been able to hold power for so long, it must mean that he has the ability to lead."

With reporting by RFE/RL’s Balkan Service