Southeast Europe’s Young Reformers Burn Bright but Fade Fast


More than four months after the June general election, Montenegro’s Europe Now Party (PES) is finally poised to form a government. Milojko Spajic, the party’s candidate for prime minister, presented the new government composition and its priorities in the parliament on October 26, a week after eight Montenegrin political formations signed the long-expected coalition agreement. 

This should put an end to the political crisis in the country and restart EU-oriented reforms, as pledged by Spajic, the co-founder of PES alongside Montenegro’s new President Jakov Milatovic. The two are among the class of young EU-oriented reformers who have managed to take power in several Southeast European countries, including Bulgaria and North Macedonia, in recent years. However, past experience has shown that after taking power from their entrenched political opponents, carrying out promised reforms is difficult, and many of these attempts have been short-lived. 

Among the promises made by Spajic in his speech to Montenegro’s parliament were accelerated progress towards EU membership, as well as reforms to the judiciary, anti-corruption initiatives, and higher living standards.

“The prospect of Montenegro’s integration into the EU is now more attainable than ever,” Spajic told the parliament, and he spoke in an interview with The Guardian of joining the bloc as early as 2028.

The presidential election in April, followed by the general election in June, handed over power to Montenegro’s new generation of politicians led by Milatovic and Spajic. For the first time in Montenegro’s independent history, the Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) will hold neither the presidency nor the prime minister position. 

Former president and prime minister Milo Djukanovic and his DPS ruled the small country for 30 years until the DPS lost several consecutive elections. This forced Djukanovic to retire after more than 30 years in power, quitting the DPS’ leadership. Meanwhile, Europe Now, set up last spring, quickly gained popularity among voters who see it as a pro-Western alternative to the DPS.

Storing up trouble 

The coalition led by PES is likely to be approved by the parliament as the eight formations behind it have a majority of 49 out of 81 MPs. They include formations varying from nationalist and pro-Russian to civic pro-Western parties and those representing the Serb and Albanian minorities in the country.

However, while this gives PES a stronger majority, the party is likely storing up trouble by allying itself with the nationalistic pro-Russian or the Future of Montenegro (ZBCG), despite demanding that the latter sign a document stating its unconditional support for the country’s membership in EU and Nato. The ZBCG will not have ministers, but one of its leaders, Andrija Mandic, will become a parliament speaker. The formation will also appoint 40% of the deputy ministers and other key members of ministerial teams.

PES’ founders first came to prominence when they were ministers in Zdravko Krivokapic’s technocratic cabinet formed four months after the August 2020 general election. This comprised a similarly mixed bag of parties ranging from Western-oriented liberals to far-right pro-Russians that put aside their political differences to back a government that did not include the DPS. However, infighting within the coalition led to its collapse in early 2022. 

After that, another young reformer, outgoing Prime Minister Dritan Abazovic, lasted just four months. His minority government took office in April 2022 with promises to unblock the country’s EU-related reforms and to fight corruption, protect the environment and promote the rule of law. His government had initially been backed by the DPS, but the party withdrew its support after Abazovic signed an agreement with the Serbian Orthodox Church in the country, aimed at resolving a dispute between church and state.

“We will be remembered as the government that lasted the shortest time,” said Abazovic when his government lost a confidence vote in August 2022 — though he has since remained in place due to the failure so far to replace the government either before or after the June general election.

Abazovic’s United Reform Action (URA) might have been a natural partner for PES, but this was scuppered when PES accused Abazovic of mounting a smear campaign against Spajic ahead of the June 2023 general election. 

Short-lived reforms

Other countries have also seen new leaders come to power in recent years, offering a brighter, less corrupt future. They include Zoran Zaev in North Macedonia, Kiril Petkov and Assen Vassilev in Bulgaria, and Maia Sandu in Moldova. 

On coming to power, these new leaders face a tough task as they take over administrations that have for years — and in Montenegro’s case decades — been in the hands of the incumbent party they displace. In both Montenegro and Bulgaria, the reformers only managed to take power as part of broad coalitions that eventually fell apart as their members’ interests were too divergent. On top of that, there are complicated country-specific issues: the role of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro or the demands made by first Greece and later Bulgaria on North Macedonia as a condition for its progress towards EU accession. 

In North Macedonia, a wave of mass protests dubbed the Colourful Revolution in 2016 eventually led to the removal of the VMRO-DPMNE party that had dominated the country’s political landscape for the past decade. Starting out with promises to attract investment and pursue EU membership, VMRO-DPMNE had become increasingly mired in corruption scandals, while its standoff with Greece meant there was little chance of Athens lifting its veto on the start of EU accession talks. 

Replacing VMRO-DPMNE — after a violent attempt by the nationalist party’s supporters to storm the parliament — came the centre-left SDSM, led by Zoran Zaev. He managed to end Greece’s decade-long block on the country’s EU accession progress, striking a deal under which the country formerly known as ‘Macedonia’ changed its name to ‘North Macedonia’. 

This enabled the country to become a Nato member in March 2020. However, it failed to launch EU accession talks due to the unexpected veto by Bulgaria. 

This was a devastating blow to Zaev’s government, which had expended much of its political capital getting the name change through the parliament, only to find North Macedonia’s progress blocked by another of its neighbours. 

Zaev resigned in December 2021 after the SDSM’s poor performance in local elections. While unfulfilled promises relating to EU accession progress were the main reason for voters’ decision to desert the SDSM, it also struggled to make headway against corruption, while the country’s debt increased sharply. 

Bulgaria’s struggle against corruption 

Another duo of reformers came to power in Bulgaria in December 2021, like Milatovic and Spajic having previously proved themselves as members of a technocratic government. 

Kiril Petkov and Assen Vassilev announced in September 2021 that they were entering politics and planned to run in the next general election after becoming two of the most popular ministers in Stefan Yanev’s former caretaker government that devoted much of its efforts to rooting out corruption by previous administrations. Both have impressive educational credentials, having studied at Harvard, before going on to successful business careers. 

They managed to put together a four-party coalition comprising their Change Continues party and its natural allies from Democratic Bulgaria plus the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) and popular showman Slavi Trifonov’s There Are Such People (ITN). Their mission was to continue tackling corruption in Bulgaria — ranked by Transparency International as the most corrupt state in the EU. 

However, in June 2022 Petkov’s government was abandoned by ITN and lost a no-confidence motion filed by former ruling party Gerb. Petkov said after the vote that his government had been brought down by corrupt established parties plus the Russian ambassador to Bulgaria Eleonora Mitrofanova. 

After that, reforms made during Change Continues’ brief time in power — such as the appointment of experts to official positions — have been reversed. 

Change Continues made a comeback after the April election but only after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine resulted in a new polarisation of Bulgarian politics along pro-Russia vs pro-Western lines. Previously, the reformist Change Continues had worked with the BSP and President Rumen Radev to tackle the graft that had flourished during ten years of government by Boyko Borissov’s populist Gerb Party. But with the radically changed political landscape, Change Continues’ new partners are its old opponents: Gerb and the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS).

Romania not saved yet 

In neighbouring Romania, Union Save Romania (USR) also burned brightly for a few years. 

The party started out as the Save Bucharest Union (USB), which in turn grew out of the Save Bucharest Association, an NGO dedicated to preserving the architectural heritage and green spaces in the Romanian capital. Back in 2016, Roxana Wring, a member of the party’s national executive, pointed out to bne IntelliNews in an interview that newly formed political parties that can threaten the status quo are a rarity in Romania, since Romanian politics is largely a closed shop dominated by the established parties. USR’s aim was to take on what Wring described as the “corrupt and incompetent” political class and address the important issues facing Romania such as healthcare, education, the declining population and the deep divide between rural and urban dwellers. 

After strong performances in local elections, USR-PLUS — an alliance between USR and the Freedom, Unity and Solidarity Party (PLUS) — came to power in December 2020 as the junior partner of the centre-right National Liberal Party (PNL). 

But in September 2021, USR-PLUS announced that it had withdrawn its support for Romania’s then prime minister Florin Citu, accusing him of planning to “rob public money” through the RON50bn (€10bn) public investments plan. The party claimed Citu sought to buy political support from mayors in his struggle for the leadership of the PNL. 

The PNL has since teamed up with Romania’s other large mainstream party, the Social Democratic Party (PSD) in a grand coalition. USR’s support wavered after the collapse of the PNL-USR-PLUS government, and it is currently polling around 14% — the same as the radical rightwing Alliance for the Future of Romanians (AUR). 

Obstacles to reform 

Reformers in other countries are still in power but again have struggled to fulfil their agendas. 

In Kosovo, leftwing nationalist Vetevendosje swept to power in the 2021 general and presidential elections, promising a radical break from past administrations led by wartime-era leaders. Businesspeople and officials interviewed by bne IntelliNews in Pristina recently said there has been a noticeable reduction in corruption in Kosovo under Vetevendosje, and this is confirmed by Transparency International’s annual Corruption Perceptions Index which shows Kosovo’s progress in the last two years. 

On the other hand, Prime Minister Albin Kurti’s nationalism means he does not fit the mould of a pro-EU reformer, and the normalisation process with Serbia has stalled this summer, in turn putting off Kosovo’s long-range ambitions to secure EU candidate status.

In Moldova, Harvard-educated Maia Sandu took the presidency from the pro-Russian Socialist leader Igor Dodon in December 2020, and this was followed by a landslide victory for her Party of Action and Solidarity (PAS) in July 2021. This was a remarkable turnaround from just a few years before when Moldova was increasingly under the thrall of oligarch and politician Vlad Plahotnuic with the European Commission and independent observers sounding the alarm about state capture. 

However, efforts to overhaul the judiciary and stamp out corruption have been somewhat controversial, and the PAS was forced to spend much of its time in power in crisis mode dealing first with the aftermath of the deep pandemic-related recession and later with the fallout from Russia’s war in neighbouring Ukraine.

Source : BNE