The Winds of Political Change in Montenegro

By: Dejana Saric

Contributor: Heather A. Conley

For the first time in 30 years, Montenegro’s government will not be led by the Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS). Citizens and observers of Montenegro have grown so accustomed to the rule of the DPS and its leader, Milo Djukanovic, that it had become difficult to imagine a different future. Prior to Sunday’s election, public opinion polls suggested that DPS would win the majority of votes but require additional coalition partners to form a government. On Sunday, Djukanovic’s DPS did secure the most votes of any one party in the election, but together with its traditional partners it failed to gain the seats needed to secure a majority in parliament. Instead, the right-wing, pro-Serbian, and pro-Russian For the Future of Montenegro alliance, led by the Democratic Front, will lead an alliance with the pro-European Peace is Our Nation and Black on White coalitions to form a razor-thin majority of 41 seats in the 81-seat chamber. 
 
What was this election about and what does its result tell us about the future for this NATO member and EU aspirant country of 630,000 people?   
 
First and foremost, this election was about the role of the Serbian Orthodox Church, endemic corruption, and political stagnation under DPS’s 30-year rule.
 
Sunday’s election results built on months of tensions between the ruling government and the powerful Serbian Orthodox Church (SOC), which threw its support behind the For the Future of Montenegro alliance. Senior members of DPS considered the SOC to be the largest opposition power in Montenegro and, by passing a controversial law on church property in December 2019, the government went on the offensive to try and erode the church’s growing power and financial strength. The effort revealed the strength of the SOC (as well as Serbia and Russia’s malign role in the country) but DPS’s efforts backfired, adding a strong nationalistic element to an election that has deeply polarized Montenegro’s electorate along ethnic and religious lines.
 
The Black on White and the Peace is Our Nation coalitions campaigned on anti-corruption platforms, which placed them in sharp opposition to the DPS. The leaders of the three opposition parties have announced their intention to form an expert government to continue to lead the country on the path toward EU accession, institutedemocratic reforms, and root out corruption. But while the end of DPS rule offers a chance to push back on decades of state capture, the stability and priorities of the opposition alliance remain uncertain. 
 
These parties are united in little else than their opposition to the DPS, which may prove insufficient to drive desired political change in the country. If anything, the transition away from DPS rule may be inherently unstable. There have been reports of violent incidents by opposition supporters against ethnic Albanian and Bosniak minorities across the country, adding to concerns that far-right elements will be emboldened by the rise of a government led by the Democratic Front. 
 
In the best-case scenario, a technocratic government will be able to make progress on rooting out corruption and breaking the clientelist structures that have helped keep DPS in power for 30 years, while tempering the nationalistic rhetoric of some members of For the Future of Montenegro. If they can do this, the opposition has a real chance to show Montenegrin citizens that a new political path is possible, potentially paving the way for greater pluralism in the future. 
 
But there are real doubts about Montenegro being led by a political alliance in which the most powerful party is allied closely with Russia. Although the opposition alliance has reaffirmed its commitment to Montenegro’s Euro-Atlantic path, it is important to note that some of the leaders of the For the Future of Montenegro alliance were implicated in the 2016 coup attempt allegedly orchestrated by Russian GRU operatives. Should the Democratic Front and its allies continue to fan nationalistic flames and strengthen their alliance with the SOC, the other coalition partners would have little ability to curb their influence. Alternatively, Montenegro could see a Moldova-type scenario whereby an alliance of pro-Russian and pro-European political parties unravels after the pro-Russian parties maneuver to expunge the pro-European parties, once they no longer need the veneer of a politically acceptable coalition. Should this be the case, Montenegro’s European integration path would stall, its foreign policy would grow more resistant to the policy objectives of the United States, NATO, and the European Union, and its society would divide further over issues of identity. Strengthened Serbian and Russian influence would seek to undo the gains that the Euro-Atlantic community have made in the region. Ironically, this path would strengthen the justification for the return of Djukanovic and the DPS—but it would also mean a return to the political stagnation and corrupt patronage networks that brought the country to this point.  
 
For decades, the United States and its European allies overlooked the transgressions of Milo Djukanovic because of his willingness to lead Montenegro toward NATO and EU accession, even as he consolidated a system of party patronage and corruption that enshrined the power of the DPS and eroded Montenegrin institutions. As in other Western Balkan and Western countries, citizens in Montenegro have become increasingly frustrated with the level of corruption and elite capture as their economic situation grows more uncertain.   
 
The three opposition parties will now enter into weeks of negotiations in order to come to an agreement on the formation of a government. Expectations should be very modest about both the formation of a truly technical government (and its longevity) and its ability to combat endemic corruption. The surprising results of Montenegro’s election have injected needed political dynamism and created an opportunity to combat systemic corruption, but they have thrown the future of the country into question for the first time since its independence. We are again reminded that elections really do matter in deciding the future direction of a country.