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Milo Djukanović: Stepping down or stepping aside?

Following the October 16th parliamentary election in Montenegro, in which Milo Djukanović’s Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) won 36 of the 81 seats, it appears that the DPS will form a government, subject to a coalition agreement being reached. The party had the largest share of the vote, though the margin of their victory was not sufficient to gain a majority that would allow them to govern alone. Thus negotiations between the DPS and a number of ethnic minority parties are ongoing, and it is likely that a governing coalition will be forged in the coming days. The job of leading the government will, however, now fall to Montenegro’s prime minister-designate, Duško Marković, the former head of Montenegrin state security and a close ally of Djukanović.

November 4, 2016 - Kenneth Morrison - Articles and Commentary

Last week, the DPS announced that Djukanović was to leave his post as prime minister, a move endorsed by the main board of the party amid denials that that he was under pressure from the Unites States to do so. In any event, for those who monitor Montenegrin developments closely, it was neither surprising that Djukanović would step down, nor who his replacement would be. It was Djukanović’s third departure from the role of prime minister in a decade, having stepped down from the role twice before – in 2006 and again in 2010. On both occasions Djukanović not only chose who would succeed him, but he remained a powerful and influential figure within the party, albeit operating from behind the scenes. So does this latest departure really mean that Djukanović is leaving the Montenegrin political scene?

Aforementioned sabbaticals aside, Djukanović has held power (as either prime minister or president) for two and a half decades. Even if grudgingly, Djukanović’s political opponents would acknowledge that he is the most charismatic, pragmatic, politically-adept and ruthless politician to emerge in Montenegro in modern times. His ability to adapt quickly and decisively in fluid political situations, his instinct for political survival, and his ability to outflank his political opponents has proved unassailable. These qualities have ensured his longevity as the dominant political figure in a country and a region where political lives can be short.

Djukanović has been a constant since the January Coup of 1989, during which senior members of the Montenegrin League of Communists submitted their resignations en masse. Djukanović was then part of a group of young Montenegrin communists – the so-called “young, handsome and intelligent” leaders who rose to the helm of the party (subsequently re-named the DPS). In 1991 he became Europe’s youngest prime minister at the age of just 29 and showed little sign of deviating from the DPS’s pro-Belgrade stance in the early days of being prime minister. Indeed, the government that he led throughout the wars in Croatia and Bosnia & Herzegovina was a staunch ally of the Serbian President, Slobodan Milošević, and the then leadership of the DPS was fully engaged in creating the conditions that facilitated the Montenegrin/Yugoslav Army attack Dubrovnik and its environs in 1991. The DPS position vis-à-vis Milošević remained consistent until the period following the signing of the 1995 Dayton Peace Agreement. But the consensus within the DPS elite and between elites in Montenegro and Serbia was to end abruptly soon after. 

Following alleged electoral fraud in Serbia in 1996 by the Milošević government, which resulted in the Zajedno (Together) protests, in February 1997 Djukanović attacked Milošević’s policies and described him as an “obsolete politician”. These statements initiated a split within the DPS into pro- and anti- Milošević factions, the former led by the then Montenegrin President, Momir Bulatović and the latter by Djukanović. In a relatively short period Djukanović and his allies wrested control of the DPS and, following presidential elections in late 1997, he became Montenegro’s president, remaining in this position throughout the 1998-99 Kosovo conflict and the subsequent NATO bombing of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Throughout this period Djukanović insisted that Montenegro should chart a course independent of Serbia, without making an explicit commitment to outright independence.

When the Milošević regime was toppled in Serbia in October 2000, the threat of Montenegrin independence was no longer a useful lever for Western governments to put pressure on Belgrade. The genie was, however, out of the bottle and the DPS (doing much to destroy those political parties who had for years been advocates of independence) gradually became the vehicle for Montenegro’s independence. In 2002 Djukanović was heavily criticised by those advocating Montenegro’s independence when he signed, in March 2002, the EU-brokered Belgrade Agreement, which committed Montenegro to establishing a joint state with Serbia. Djukanović, however, insisted on a caveat – that Montenegro could hold a referendum on independence three years (or more) after the ratification of the agreement. He became prime minister again in January 2003 and oversaw preparations for the independence referendum of May 21st 2006. He led the pro-independence coalition to a narrow victory in a referendum contest where the threshold for victory was 55 per cent (a threshold set by the EU). 55.5 per cent of eligible voters cast their ballots in favour of independence.

In the wake of the referendum, the Montenegrin government immediately stated that their core objective was Euro-Atlantic integration (European Union and NATO membership), a message that seemed to be well received by voters – though there was far less consensus on the latter. In the parliamentary election of September 2006 the DPS won convincingly, though Djukanović stepped down afterwards (to be replaced by Željko Sturanović), ostensibly to focus on his business interests. However, he again returned as prime minister in February 2008, after Sturanović was forced to give up the post as a result of ill health. Djukanović thus held the role of prime minister when Montenegro’s recognition of Kosovo in October 2009 led to protests in Montenegro and a worsening of relations with Serbia. Accusations that he had been involved in the illicit cigarette-smuggling business again surfaced, although Djukanović claimed that profits from smuggling were not channelled into private hands, but used to pay for the state’s running costs while Montenegro was subject to United Nations-imposed sanctions.  

Djukanović retired again in December 2010 (allegedly under pressure from the EU and the United States) to make way for Igor Lukšić. In his resignation speech he stated that he reached his objective of Montenegro becoming an EU candidate. He would not, however, be out of the political spotlight for long, playing a pivotal role in the party’s election campaign in the autumn of 2012. He would, following the October parliamentary election of that year, become prime minister again, holding a DPS-led governing coalition together in an increasingly challenging political context, including a series of anti-government protests in Podgorica in October 2015 and a vote of confidence in his rule (which he narrowly survived). During the recent election campaign for the 2016 parliamentary election there was no evidence that Djukanović had tired of frontline politics, though he had hinted in numerous interviews that he did not intend to remain prime minister indefinitely.   

Following the announcement that Djukanović would step down, Duško Marković was nominated by the party to succeed him. Dubbed by the opposition as “Putin from Mojkovac” (a small town in northern Montenegro where he was born), Marković’s past as the head of state security means he is both respected and feared. No-one, perhaps, has his finger so firmly on the pulse of social and political developments in Montenegro and while he is not as slick as Djukanović he is, no doubt, a highly capable operator and one that can enforce internal party discipline. Montenegro’s fragmented opposition are at least united in assessing that he is a quintessential “DPS man” who will seek to preserve party interests over the national interest and will never undermine his own people, particularly Djukanović. Moreover they claim he is not the right person to fight corruption, organised crime or create conditions that would allow for much-needed political reconciliation. That said, some opposition figures have signalled that a government led by anyone else, even Marković, is preferable to one led by Djukanović.   

Of course, Djukanović’s departure does not herald fundamental political change. He remains at the helm of the DPS, giving him oversight of party developments and considerable influence over party matters and has stated that he will be helping Marković to govern Montenegro when his experience is called upon. So, much like his departure from a formal political role in both 2006 and 2010, Djukanović will not simply retreat into quiet retirement, but will remain engaged – albeit away from the glare of daily politics. Moreover, if recent history is anything to go by, one cannot exclude Djukanović’s return to a senior political role in future.    

Kenneth Morrison is a Professor of Modern Southeast European History, De Montfort University, UK, and the author of Montenegro: A Modern History and Nationalism, Identity and Statehood in Post-Yugoslav Montenegro (forthcoming). 

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