This article is part of ECFR's Wider Europe Forum
Division amongst Montenegro’s opposition parties helps maintain vicious circle of bad governance
More than nine years since the restoration of independence, Montenegro is one of the most serious candidates for NATO membership and has opened more than half of the negotiation chapters with the EU.
Yet it still faces many of the same problems as other countries in the region: weak institutions, a difficult economic situation, corruption, nepotism and so on. And division amongst the opposition means they do not pose a serious alternative to the ruling coalition, hindering the development of an effective domestic counterpoint to Montenegro’s governmental malaise.
This division is, in places, stark. The radical sector of the opposition - the Democratic Front (DF) - recently organised protests in front of the national parliament. Having pitched tents for almost three weeks, the protest failed to gain traction. Marked by nationalist iconography and rhetoric, with strong support from media outlets in Montenegro and in Serbia, the protests boiled over. Wholly justified dissatisfaction about the overall economic, political, and social situation in Montenegro gave way to the setting of unrealistic goals, staging ultimatums, and an attempt to storm the national parliament. This in turn led the police to lash out and to disrupt the citizens’ protest, using excessive force in some cases. The protest ended with violence on the street - 26 policemen and 24 citizens were injured.
How are we to interpret this violence?
In part, this was an issue of party management. In recent months, a drastic drop in the DF’s popularity – the latest polls place them at just 8 percent – has led to a power struggle within the opposition. Historically a composite, DF is made up of the New Serb Democracy which absorbed all other constituents, including the formerly civic oriented Movement for Changes and minor political entities within its matrix of nationalist ideology.
On the other side, more moderate opposition structures like the Democrats Party, DEMOS and URA have gained about 25-30 percent support and are gradually becoming a credible alternative to the government. In this environment, opting for protests is a way of diverting national attention towards the DF, ahead of parliamentary elections next year, thus they opted for protests. DF had a great opportunity to channel the protests into a broad civic and democratic revolt against the government. However, their understanding of democratic changes is rooted in methods of violently seizing power and re-examining key national priorities. The DF were not honest when they said that the main reason for the protests was the establishment of a transitional government who could conduct a new election. The protests sought instead to use the energy of the dissatisfied masses to storm the institutions and abolish the government. The fact that citizens from Serbia had travelled to join the protests, and were subsequently returned to the border, supports this contention.
The second reason for the protests is resistance to Montenegrin NATO membership. This is a very divisive issue. In public, the ruling parties are for it, whilst the majority of opposition parties rally against it. It is particularly sensitive due to the traditionally close relations Montenegro has had with Serbia and Russia. The debate around how integrated Montenegro should be with NATO is, in fact, the tip of the iceberg, which hide more complex disagreements. Owing to its size, foreign policy is particularly important in the shaping of politics in Montenegro.
The relations between Montenegro and Russia, which have a long history, have been disrupted considerably due to Podgorica’s commitment to joining Euro-Atlantic structures and, in relation to that, disruption of the protest of the DF by public authorities. Moscow’s reaction to events has been unusually harsh. When police removed the DF tents from in front of parliament, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs expressed their regret at the police “demolishing the opposition camp in Podgorica”; they also said that NATO membership would only make Montenegro’s socio-economic problems worse and implied the suppression of alternative approaches.
It is understandable that one of the greatest strategic priorities Russia has is to prevent NATO enlargement. It considers NATO an enemy to its interests, including the area of the Balkans: countries it has always considered its own sphere of interest and influence. Russian involvement in relation to the recent protests in Podgorica is directly linked to the planned NATO ministerial meeting in December, where consensus is expected on inviting Montenegro to join. Therefore, until the final decision about the invitation, one can expect obstruction from Moscow and the persistence of sporadic protests in order to prevent such decision being taken.
It is only through the opening of a broader social dialogue that society can break out of the vicious circle of corruption, nepotism, crime and nationalism that the crisis has created. The EU should maintain its interest in Montenegro, in order to ensure a stable political system at this stage of negotiations and reaffirm the necessity of dialogue within the institutions. It is therefore important that the EU should provide its services through full implementation of electoral legislation, as well as to support a political consensus on how to monitor the electoral process to ensure that the next elections can be free and without abuses of power.
Nenad Koprivica is Executive Director of CEDEM in Montenegro.
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The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.