The 81-seat Montenegrin Parliament ushered early this month a new conservative, pro-Serb coalition government, ending the 30-year-old undisputed rule by President Milo Djukanovic, and raising questions which way the country will now turn to. With NATO membership and Kosovo recognition in the balance, the new Prime Minister, Zdravko Krivokapic, shocked many nationalists in the region by vowing not to deviate from the course set by the earlier administration.
Djukanovic, a savvy pro-Western politician who lost the elections in a wave of acrimony, corruption and crime, could have continued ruling without effective and united opposition had he not made the grave mistake of angering the powerful Serbian Orthodox Church by introducing a new law on religion. It implied the unthinkable – the Church would have to give up vast assets across the tiny Adriatic sea country.
The church rose up and for the most of the year held masses and processions across the country of some 630,000 people led by late Archbishop Amfilohije, one of the most influential figures in the Serbian Orthodox Church (SPC), who paid with his life for snubbing the Covid 19 pandemic rules of social distancing and wearing protection masks. SPC then paid an even steeper price – the Patriarch of the Serbian Orthodox Church Irinej followed him soon after catching the virus at Amfilohije’s funeral.
“Milo finally met his match – he took on the Church and God won, but it came at a serious price, ” a pundit said.
Amfilohije was the only single personality in the region who could rally the fractured opposition comprising Pro-Russians, Pro-Serbians, Albanians, a splash of Bosniaks and a dash of Croats and plenty of Montenegrins unhappy with Djukanovic and keep them all in line thanks to the Church’s authority and power of his own personality. Some 30% of the population declare themselves as Serbs and nationalists have been claiming the two peoples were originally one and the same: “two eyes in the same head”.
“The head must be cross-eyed by now because one eye was looking towards Constantinople for a millennium and the other towards Venice,” Svetozar Marovic, a former parliament speaker, told New Europe some time ago. He explained the difference in mindsets of the Serbs and Montenegrins. “They were too exposed to totally different influences, sets of values, customs and cultures for such a long time to stay the same people.”
“Amfilohije simply forced them to set aside their differences and unite in the quest for the Holy Grail – the toppling of Djukanovic,“ analysts said.
Djukanovic, who transformed himself from Slobodan Milosevic’s favorite prodigy to his arch-nemesis, survived the fallout of the former close relations with the Serbian strongman, made quiet deals to spare his country from serious bombardment in the 1999 NATO action against Serbia over Kosovo and reconfigured the country from a Russian semi-satellite to a NATO member, on a solid track to become the member of the EU.
This came at the expense of souring relations with Belgrade. Moscow’s response was to send a pair of GRU officers to Montenegro to organize a coup against Djukanović, with embarrassing, publicly ridiculed abortive result. The final break up between Belgrade and Podgorica came when Montenegro recognized Serbia’s breakaway province of Kosovo.
However, the allegations of crime, corruption, nepotism and cronyism, accompanying him practically from day one of his rule, grew over time and once Djukanovic turned against Belgrade, many saw his fate sealed.
“The epoch of Balkans politics in which his (Djukanovic’s) career was forged was one of the strong men, of opacity, rule-bending and a lack of accountability. But if Montenegro is ever to achieve full membership of the European Union, it will need a different kind of leader and a different political culture,” wrote former UK Ambassador to Belgrade Sir Ivor Roberts.
“The EU accession process demands that applicant states reach tough standards of propriety and the rule of law, adhere to regulations and get tough on corruption. Montenegro has a long way to go to combat criminality and develop a culture of transparency and accountability. And it will need a leader who is capable of leading on these issues, not one whose own integrity is under question,” he said.
The newly elected prime minister, Zdravko Krivokapic, 62, fits the bill perfectly – he is a highly respected engineering professor, married with five adult children and several grandchildren, and has never been involved in politics, like so many of his cabinet ministers, many of them educated in the West. His Deputy Prime Minister is a charismatic ethnic Albanian Dritan Abazovic who is also in charge of security.
“The country’s new government is comprised of experts in their fields, with a Western orientation, who support NATO. They are patriots in the best sense of the word. Montenegro finally has a government on par with western European governments, comprised of excellent leaders willing to work for very little money and yet remain incorruptible,” one western journalist said.
Behind the scenes, Djukanovic still pulls the strings and his cronies in the government apparatus, police and judiciary he set up over the past 30 years have not all abandoned him, yet. In a show of defiance, his outgoing Foreign Ministry accused Serbian Ambassador Vladimir Bozovic of “interfering in Montenegro’s internal affairs” and ordered his expulsion on November 28.
In a reciprocal diplomatic move, Serbia almost immediately expelled Montenegrin Ambassador, Tarzan Milosevic, after Montenegro gave Serbia’s envoy Bozovic 72 hours to leave. On November 29, Serbia’s Prime Minister Ana Brnabic, however, announced the expulsion had been rescinded and made conciliatory diplomatic overtures. The new Podgorica government is expected to rescind the decision.
This Queen’s Gambit opening only makes sense when one takes into account the Pandora’s Box of issues that have now been opened – Podgorica has a government comprising a pro-Serb majority, which should be music to the Serbian nationalists’ ears. However, it naturally then came as a shock when Krivokapic publicly underscored that there will be no deviation from the current foreign policy course – Montenegro stays in NATO, vigorously pursues EU membership and will not revoke recognition of Kosovo. The only concession is that the law on religion will be revisited, he said, insisting he will not allow Montenegro to become a satellite of Serbia.
“This, coupled with the fact that it is now proven that Serbs actually can share power in government with Albanians and even allow one to be their boss and live through that experience, shatters a lot of stereotypes in the region,” a veteran western analyst said wryly. “This government will not make the Serb nationalists and pro-Russian extremists happy at all. It sets such a bad example in their eyes”, he said.
Diplomats say that Podgorica is under a microscope by many politicians and entities in the region where nationalism is the quintessential political platform which keeps certain politicians in power. They fear that should Krivokapic succeed, people in Bosnia and Herzegovina, who have already caused a stir by electing unknows at the recent local elections, could follow suit.
For the first time since the Dayton Peace Accords 25 years ago, Bakir Izetbegovic and his SDA party have lost power in Sarajevo and Milorad Dodik lost the mayorship of Banja Luka, the capital of his Republika Srpska, to his biggest adversary, Drasko Stanivukovic, a 27-year old who is otherwise mostly unknown outside the Republika Srpska. The messages also apply to Tirana, Pristina and Belgrade.
Belgrade is in a vice. The protector and supreme authority for all Serbs in the region, all of a sudden it has no control over the Serbs now in government in Podgorica. Many analysts believe that despite the occasional warlike rhetoric between Belgrade and Podgorica, Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vucic might yet rue the day when his so-called arch-rival Djukanovic lost power to his fellow Serbs.
“There is indeed a school of thinking, among analysts in both Belgrade and Podgorica, which places Vucic and Djukanovic within the frame of so-called “best frenemies scenario”, ones which relentlessly help each other by creating permanent tensions.
However, this theory fails to understand deeper layers of their mutual relationship: both Vucic and Djukanovic, over time, built up their own respective languages, symbols, social structures and international alliances. Indeed, they might think they would be able to keep all of it under control, but ultimately, they became hostages of realities they created themselves,” Zoran Cicak, Senior Advisory Board member, NATO Defense College Foundation, Rome, told New Europe.
“Therefore, even if the conflict was initially perceived as nothing more than cynical manipulation of both public opinions (and the international one, alike) the process gained its own momentum. The excited public believed in virtual reality, leaving to our movie stars no other option but to play their respective roles until the very end,” he said.
Djukanovic, on the other hand, proved wrong many pundits who believed that with the new government in town, he would flee the country and his DPS party would dissipate. Instead, he stoically sat, albeit red-faced, in the parliament at the inauguration of the new government, fully aware that he lost by just one seat, something that a willy politician like himself can rectify if he plays his cards right four years later. He already played one deck right – by admitting defeat by a single vote without a fuss, by making the transition effortless, he has started refuting the charges that he is a dictator and proved he can relinquish power in a true democratic style,” a veteran western analyst said.
“He is now in ‘wait and see mode’ for the time being. He is not absolved, but neither is he going anywhere,“ the analyst said.