On April 2, Montenegro held a landmark presidential run-off that saw 36-year-old former Economy Minister Jakov Milatovic declare victory against longstanding incumbent Milo Djukanovic.
Djukanovic’s ousting from power raised important questions about the future direction of the small Balkan country and its commitment to a pro-Western course.
Sixty-one-year-old Djukanovic was a fixture of Montenegro’s politics for more than three decades. An economist by training, he first became Montenegro’s prime minister back in early 1991 at the young age of 29. Since then, he almost always remained at the helm of Montenegro, alternating between serving as prime minister and president. Even during the brief periods he was officially out of government, there had been little doubt, both in Montenegro and abroad, that Djukanovic maintained control over the country’s affairs.
Djukanovic’s early political career was riddled with controversy. When he first entered the political scene in the early 1990s, he was a close ally of Serbia’s Slobodan Milošević and was right by his side when he embarked on bloody wars of aggression against Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. In 1991-92, Djukanovic’s cabinet actively supported the months-long siege of Dubrovnik which devastated the historical coastal city and claimed many civilian lives. In the spring of 1992, at the beginning of the Bosnian war, Montenegrin police arrested more than 60 mostly Bosniak refugees in the western coastal town of Herceg Novi and handed them over to Bosnian Serb troops. Only a few survived. Numerous Montenegrin soldiers and volunteers went on to participate in atrocities in Bosnia. All this took place under Djukanovic’s leadership.
In the late-1990s, however, the Montenegrin leader realised that the tide was turning against Milošević and swiftly turned his back on the Serbian leader. He distanced himself from policies supported by Milošević, dropped pro-Serb talking points, embraced Montenegrin nationalism and slowly reinvented himself as an independently-minded, pro-Western reformer.
Djukanovic led his country out of the Serbia-Montenegro Union in 2006 with a referendum and made ensuring the newly independent nation’s accession to leading Western institutions his political priority.
Montenegro officially applied for European Union membership in 2008 and accession talks started in 2012. With 33 chapters opened and three conditionally closed, the country has gone the furthest in the European integration process among the remaining post-Yugoslav states that are still not part of the union. Montenegro also joined NATO in June 2017.
Over the years, Djukanovic’s early days as a Milošević ally have mostly been forgotten and his rule in Montenegro came to be seen as a positive one guided by a pro-European vision.
And to his credit, he did put Montenegro on the path to becoming a peaceful, prosperous and well-integrated European nation. He built constructive ties with all of Montenegro’s neighbours and recognised Kosovo’s independence in 2008. Ethnic minorities in Montenegro, including Bosniaks and Albanians, have largely been content with the rights they have been given under his rule. He also approved Montenegro paying compensation to the relatives of Bosniak refugees it deported in 1992. In 2021, Montenegro’s parliament adopted a resolution condemning the Srebrenica genocide and banning its denial.
Of course, Djukanovic’s time in power has not been entirely without controversy. He has repeatedly been accused of corruption and faced criticism for his alleged links to organised crime. He was featured in the Pandora Papers and faced allegations of money laundering. He has also been criticised at home and abroad for his attacks on independent journalists.
Nevertheless, as the leader who made Montenegro’s independence possible, entered it into NATO and put it on a direct path to full EU membership, Djukanovic’s presidency seemed as secure as can be until very recently.
However, things started to change for the seasoned politician in August 2020.
At the end of a fiercely fought parliamentary election, his Democratic Party of Socialists of Montenegro (DPS) got the most votes but failed to secure a large enough majority to form a government on its own. Dritan Abazović, a young populist hellbent on loosening Djukanovic’s grip on Montenegrin politics, emerged as kingmaker and formed alliances with pro-Serbian and pro-Russian political fractions to keep DPS out of government. After a brief stint as deputy prime minister in Zdravko Krivokapić’s government, Abazović became prime minister in April 2022.
As the prime minister of a broad coalition of nominally pro-European but in reality pro-Serbian parties, Abazović promised to tackle corruption, implement reforms that would speed up Montenegro’s accession to the EU, and pursue policies to ensure good relations with all of the country’s neighbours. Despite his declared reformist and pro-European agenda, however, many in Montenegro viewed Abazović as serving no other purpose than fostering the conditions for the ousting of the long-term president – to the benefit of Serbia and Russia.
And soon they were proved right.
As Montenegro went to presidential elections in a state of political turmoil with Abazović himself suffering a vote of no confidence in August 2022, Djukanovic finally lost his grip on power.
In the first round of the election, Djukanovic got 35.3 percent of the vote, while his government-supported rival Milatovic, who campaigned on a promise to improve Montenegro’s ties with both Europe and Serbia, got 29.2 percent. Then, in last week’s run-off, all the anti-Djukanovic forces in the country – including those working to steer it away from Europe and closer to Serbia and Russia – united behind his rival and carried him to the presidency.
Milatović’s resounding victory marked the likely end of Djukanovic’s long and impactful political career. Parliamentary elections are scheduled for June this year but the veteran politician is highly unlikely to be able to secure another comeback.
What happens next in Montenegro is subject to much speculation in the Balkans and beyond. Whether Djukanovic will contest the next elections or not remains uncertain. More crucially, there are vital questions about the direction in which Milatović will take the small but strategically important Balkan nation of 600,000.
As an economist who studied in the United States and holds a master’s degree from Oxford University, Milatović no doubt has experience in the West. In his victory speech, he made a pledge to make the country a full member of the EU in five years. He also promised a new chapter in relations with all of Montenegro’s neighbours.
Conspicuously, however, the president-elect failed to mention the new administration’s continued commitment to NATO. In fact, he did little to reassure those worried about the influence the pro-Serbian and pro-Russian forces that brought him to power may have over his presidency.
Before his ouster, Djukanovic had warned that Serbia is seeking to establish a “Serbian world” where it would exert control over all Balkan states with historic links to Serbia, including Montenegro.
With Serb nationalists celebrating Djukanovic’s ousting across the Balkans and Milatović declaring his ambition to strengthen ties with Serbia, it appears, at least for now, that the change in leadership in Montenegro will help Belgrade’s ambitions for regional hegemony. It was telling that Milatović’s supporters celebrated his victory by waving Serbian flags.
Of course, only time will tell whether Milatović will do what is expected of him and bring his country closer to Serbia. But for now, it seems there is more reason than ever before to worry about Montenegro’s commitment to the West and the stability of its neighbourhood.