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Why Montenegro’s Recent Elections Could Spell Trouble for Europe

Nestled breathtakingly between the Adriatic sea and some of the most rugged mountains in Europe, the tiny nation of Montenegro is known more for its scenery than its politics – if it is remembered at all. Yet the country’s location in the fragile Western Balkans region, which also includes Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, North Macedonia, and Serbia, makes its trajectory of critical importance to the larger process of Euro-Atlantic integration.

In recent years, Montenegro has demonstrated consistent commitment to a Western orientation, with the country joining NATO in 2017 and becoming the regional frontrunner in its accession negotiations with the European Union. This progress is in large part due to the leadership of President Milo Djukanovic and his Democratic Party of Socialists (D.P.S.), which has governed Montenegro since 1990 – well before national independence from Serbia in 2006 and even prior to the dissolution of Yugoslavia.

Yet suddenly and unexpectedly, the country’s future is up in the air. The results of parliamentary elections held on August 30, 2020, revealed that the D.P.S. fell one seat short of securing a majority in Montenegro’s unicameral legislature. While no government has been formed yet, it seems likely that various opposition parties will work together and form a coalition in order to oust the D.P.S. from power.

The largest such opposition party by far is the Democratic Front (D.F.), known for its right-wing views and desire to forge closer relations with Serbia and Russia. The D.F. owes much of its success to divisive religious issues that dominated the campaign – after the D.P.S. administration passed a controversial law last year that created an independent Montenegrin Orthodox Church, the D.F. capitalized on the backlash by aligning itself closely with the country’s influential Serbian Orthodox Church establishment, which ended up backing it in the election. This issue reveals the fundamental question around Montenegro’s national identity – to what extent should the country distance itself from Serbia, with whom it shares so many historical, cultural, and linguistic similarities?

Indeed, the ethnic differences between Montenegrins and Serbs are subtle even by the most generous interpretation. According to the most recent demographic data, nearly 30% of Montenegro’s citizens ethnically identify as Serb, versus 45% who identify as Montenegrin. Notably, family members often find themselves on opposite sides of this division, leading some to question why the distinction is necessary in the first place.  

The Democratic Front party and its voters hold such a view, believing that Djukanovic and the D.P.S. have already unacceptably widened the cleavages between the two formerly united countries. Support for the Serbian Orthodox Church is only one element of a broader Serbian nationalist agenda that includes opposition to NATO and a pro-Russian orientation. Some D.F. party members have even been implicated in a failed 2016 attempt to overthrow the government and install a new one hostile to NATO.

In fact, broad support for similar policies inside Serbia itself provides more than enough justification for Montenegro to keep its distance from its neighbor. Simply put, it is a choice between stability and turbulence: continuing down the path to Euro-Atlantic integration will enmesh the country within the Western security architecture, while a pivot to Russia will only further encourage Vladimir Putin’s determined efforts to destabilize Europe.

A possible D.F.-led ruling coalition in Montenegro should thus be legitimate cause for concern. However, various factors could mitigate such a government’s pernicious impact. Most importantly, the Democratic Front’s would-be governing partners do not all share its views on foreign relations. In fact, the leaders of the three main opposition parties have already jointly declared that they would not change the country’s course towards EU membership if in government, though they made no similar commitment to remain in NATO. Additionally, there is no guarantee that they will be able to reconcile their many other policy differences in order to form a government in the first place. At the moment, the only common thread among the opposition seems to be a general desire for change.

It is important to acknowledge this very real dissatisfaction with the status quo within a large proportion of Montenegrin society. There are legitimate reasons to be concerned about the deterioration of rule of law and media freedom in the country, which Freedom House has recently downgraded from a “semi-consolidated democracy” to a “hybrid regime.” Additionally, one may lay much of the blame for this situation on the shoulders of Djukanovic, who in 2015 even received the undesirable designation of “Man of the Year in Organized Crime and Corruption.”

Yet no matter what one thinks of the president’s mixed record, it does not change the fact that Montenegro’s existing pro-Western course remains the best strategy for the country’s long-term security and stability. A reversal of this orientation would spell trouble for the future of both Montenegrins and the future of the Euro-Atlantic institutions.    

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Nick Lokker

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