Nikolay Krastev, Balkan Pool, 12 April 2023
The loss of the Montenegrin presidential election by the doyen of the local political scene Milo Đukanović was not surprising. After 33 years in power, it was time for him to step down as president of the small Adriatic republic. What he has done for Montenegro, whether anyone likes it or not, will remain forever in its history, where his place will be cherished.
From being an ally of Slobodan Milosevic since the late 1980s to coming on the wings of the anti-bureaucratic revolutions, Milo Đukanović has managed to find the strength to separate himself from the shadow of his mentor and follow a completely different path from Belgrade. In 1998, he split the Democratic Party of Socialists from Momir Bulatovic and led Montenegro for 25 years. This was the period associated with the break with Slobodan Milosevic’s regime. Đukanović managed to keep Montenegro going through subsequent challenges, such as the Kosovo war in 1999, the international isolation it found itself in with Serbia when they were part of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. At one point, Belgrade tried to send armed forces to overthrow it and regain control of Podgorica. Despite international pressure after the fall of Slobodan Milosevic in 2000 to maintain a common state with Serbia, Đukanović still deftly managed to put Montenegro back on the international map after a referendum in spring 2006. Since then, the Adriatic republic has been moving independently towards consolidating its independence, and no one can deny it. After the secession of Podgorica, Montenegro became an important factor in the Adriatic region, becoming a member of NATO and, over time, the champion of European integration in the Western Balkans until two years ago.
Since then, it has started to stagnate and lag behind these processes and become part of the problems, rather than part of the solutions to them, because of internal political problems. This was also the time when, in 2020, Đukanović’s party lost its majority in the Montenegrin Parliament and, for the first time, someone not close to him became Prime Minister. Zdravko Krivokapić’s government began the dethroning of Milo Đukanović, albeit with partial success, but eventually the process became irreversible when, in the autumn of 2022, the Democratic Party of Socialists lost Podgorica in the local elections, which had never happened before. Jakov Milatovic could have become mayor of Podgorica if it were not for the political tricks applied by Djukanovic’s party to get to the presidential elections in April this year , which their party leader lost to him. The entire election campaign in February and March indicated that the showdown would be between Milo Đukanović and pro-Serb politician Andrija Mandić. And so it was until 19 March, when, surprisingly, it was not Mandic but Jakov Milatovic who came out on top in the first round by just seven percent.
In the end, Milatovic managed to unite a very large part of Montenegrin society in the second round against Đukanović, which was also evident in the election results, 60:40. After losing the presidential election, Đukanović resigned as leader of the Social Democratic Party. Milatovic was said to be Belgrade’s man and the representative of the “Serbian world” policy in the Balkans, behind which are circles close to Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic. The 36-year-old Milatovic’s career is linked more to European banking institutions than to Balkan politics.
He was Montenegro’s finance minister for a year in the government of Zdravko Krivokapic. Since his election as president, Milatovic has declared that Montenegro would not leave NATO, something he was suspected of doing as a pro-Serb candidate if he won the presidential election. He said Montenegro would not withdraw its recognition of Kosovo. Jakov Milatovic also managed to anger Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik by saying that genocide had been committed in Srebrenica and by pointing out that the International War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague had clearly ruled that the genocide had been committed by Radko Mladic’s Bosnian Serb forces. EU leaders and US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken congratulated the winner of Montenegro’s presidential election, Jakov Milatovic. US experts on the Balkans said they do not expect Montenegro’s newly elected president to change his country’s geopolitical direction. Prominent former US diplomat and Washington’s former ambassador to NATO, Kurt Walker, commented that Montenegrin voters decided to enter the second round of the presidential race with two candidates who support the EU and NATO, focusing on the candidate of Milatovic’s Europe Now party.
In doing so, they also showed a desire to strengthen Montenegro’s democratic institutions and for their country to continue on its path towards the EU. Walker, said that when someone has been in a leadership position for 30 years, people want change, but like a true diplomat, he did not forget to say of the outgoing Milo Đukanović that he had done a lot for Montenegro, but added that people still wanted change. Early parliamentary elections are due to take place in Montenegro in two months’ time, with Jacob Milatovic’s party, Europe Now, expected to take over. Montenegro is facing a sea change in the local political scene, linked not only to Milo Đukanović’s political retirement but also to his party’s declining influence in the local parliament. Pro-Western and pro-Serb political parties and coalitions will continue to fight their battles in the 82nd Local Assembly. Seventeen years after Montenegro’s separation from the common state of Serbia, the country’s citizens decided to hand over the government to technocrat Milatovic to solve their economic problems. Today, Montenegrins have decided to gamble on economic prosperity, turning their backs on regional challenges, believing they have diminished for their country. But is that really the case? In 2016, there was an attempted coup in Montenegro organised by two Russian military intelligence officers and Serbian mercenaries in the Donbas war on the side of pro-Russian separatists. Undoubtedly, the refocusing on solving Montenegro’s economic problems could blur their focus and, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine , the Balkans could become a sphere of tension in Europe.
The actions of the ‘Serb world’ in the Balkans are intensifying. This will lead to the strengthening of Belgrade’s extreme positions in that part of the Western Balkans, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro, and that is why it is important to strengthen defences in order to preserve multi-ethnicity and preserve democracy. Despite the desire for change in Montenegro’s political climate, a significant part of the local public is concerned that Jakov Milatović was nevertheless elected with strong support from the country’s pro-Serb parties. Time will soon tell who Jakov Milatović is? In the coming months, the role of the EU and the US will be important for stability, both in Montenegro and in the Western Balkans.
Photo: The Montenegrin president-elect Jakov Milatovic (source: YouTube)
This article was published by the Balkan Pool media, which writes on international relations in the Western Balkans and Southeastern Europe. It is republished with the consent of the author. It was translated into English by the Bridge of Friendship.