Defiant protest is not enough; they must use their unique position to negotiate shrewdly for meaningful gains
By Martin Vulaj
In a peaceful break with three decades of largely one-party rule, a newly elected government will soon lead the small Balkan nation of Montenegro into uncharted waters. The country’s emerging coalition includes parties that are united more in their opposition to the outgoing regime than in policy or ideology.
Washington and the major European capitals are escalating their support to ensure that this young NATO ally and European Union-aspirant continues on a Euro-Atlantic path, while Russia and Serbia seek new opportunities to reverse this progress and restore their influence.
Montenegro may be entering a new era, but its period of single-party rule left it no stranger to political turbulence and geo-strategic instability. After voting decisively for independence in a 2006 internationally backed referendum, Montenegro continued on a bumpy journey to a democratic polity and free-market economy. Current President Milo Djukanovic has served as President or Prime Minister in alternating periods for most of the past thirty years. While his legacy is secure as the architect of modern Montenegrin independence, his regime ultimately collapsed under the weight of hubris, endemic corruption, and other reversals of liberty. His fate should send a clear signal across the western Balkans, where corruption has stunted and deformed democratic development.
This year, Freedom House downgraded Montenegro to “Partly Free” from “Free,” a rating it had held since 2003. Amnesty International criticized Montenegro for its elimination of press freedoms, failures to prosecute war criminals, and tolerance of police abuses against minorities.
After the vote against him, Djukanovic summoned one last grasp at power. His supporters took to the streets to protest the election results, but retreated as international monitors determined that the process had been free and fair.
Like other fading leaders’ scare tactics, Djukanovic’s apocalyptic warning that the new government would pull Montenegro out of NATO and withdraw the recognition of Kosova is exaggerated. The Democratic Front, the alliance that won the largest plurality of votes and the leader of which will likely become Prime Minister, represents Montengrins who identify ethnically as Serbian. In these elections, however, it also united disparate groups who had grown disenchanted with the regime. Ideologically, the Front is indeed backed by Belgrade and favored by Moscow, but it is also pro-EU and has vowed not to undermine Montenegro’s constructive partnership in NATO or withdraw Kosova’s recognition. It is also unlikely to control the ministries that are key to keeping Montenegro on its pro-western course. Furthermore, it can only govern effectively with other parties that are unequivocally pro-western and that, together with western capitals, should keep the coalition as a whole in that camp.
Among those are parties representing Albanian and Bosnian communities. Granted token representation in Djukanovic governments, the indigenous Albanian population, who played a critical role in Montenegrin independence, should have the opportunity to exercise genuine power and share in meaningful decision-making in the new ruling coalition. Staying in opposition would mean that the Albanian factor would wither over the next four years. Defiant protest is not enough; they must use their unique position to negotiate shrewdly for meaningful gains. In addition to key positions in government such as Deputy Prime Minister and Deputy Minister of Finance, the Albanians must secure a meaningful Ministry such as Tourism or Agriculture rather than an almost symbolic Ministry of Minorities. They should also have a fully proportional share of power across the board including access to key economic levers such as decision making positions in Plantazhe the Aluminum Combine and Montenegro Airlines. For the first time, they would be in position to influence political policy, end or reduce longstanding economic discrimination, redress Djukanovic’s elimination of their reserved parliamentary seats, and share appropriately in the benefits of western integration.
In addition, the Albanians will gain from their diaspora’s deep political ties to the United States. In Podgorica, their leaders will ensure that Montenegro navigates the delicate bilateral relationship expertly in the critical months ahead. Unlike some Balkan leaders in 2016, they will not allow Montenegro to play an inappropriately partisan role during the U.S. presidential campaign. They know that, in spite of the polls, President Donald Trump may win for a second time. They also recall that, while the traditional wisdom is that Balkan countries prosper more under Democratic presidents, Republicans have also acted decisively to advance their interests. They are prepared to work constructively from their new position of greater strength with a President Trump or Biden.
While some players in the new government are likely not going to be ideal, the rotation of power is healthy for a democracy and this will be a true test. The outgoing DPS should use this time as an opportunity to reflect and reform in a manner that is consistent not just with the rhetoric of the West but also its’ values. The incoming government faces not only immense challenges of reform but legitimate skepticism both from a substantial portion of its citizenry as well as the wary eyes of the western world.
Some individuals in Montenegro’s new leadership continue to fix their gaze to the east, but even they realize that their future lies in the west. The smooth election of the new Parliamentary Speaker, Aleksa Becic and his acknowledgment of the deep skepticism that the new government will face is an encouraging sign. Montenegro must continue to demonstrate its sincere commitment to western values. Thanks to the forward-looking global leadership of the United States, with continued monitoring and support, Montenegro is poised to return to its democratic path towards Europe.
Martin Vulaj, a Montenegro-born Albanian-American, is a former director of the National Albanian American Council.