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The fall of Milo Djukanović heralds an uncertain new dawn for Montenegro

Montenegro now appears to be entering a new political era. While the country had grown used to the presence of long-term leader Milo Djukanović, the election of a new group of politicians headed by Jakov Milatović has encouraged questions about the country’s future

April 24, 2023 - Kenneth Morrison Srdja Pavlović - Articles and Commentary

Presidential palace in Montenegro's capital. Photo: rj lerich / Shutterstock

On April 2nd 2023, the longest-serving political leader in South-East Europe, and until last week the president of the Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS), Milo Djukanović, lost his bid for a third term as president of Montenegro. The proverbial “Teflon Don” of Montenegrin politics, Djukanović suffered the first political defeat of his long career, and to a political newcomer, Jakov Milatović. Following the defeat, Djukanović, who has held the post of president or prime minister interchangeably for over three decades (with a few short sabbaticals), resigned as the leader of the party he had for so long led, though he committed to remain active within the DPS as an “elder statesman”. There is little doubt, then, that the presidential elections marked a major shift in Montenegrin politics, one that heralded the end of the era of Djukanović as the dominant political figure in the country.

Djukanović’s political dominance over the past three decades was marked by several notable achievements. Despite the best efforts of the Serbian leadership of the 1990s, Montenegro did not see active fighting on its territory during the Yugoslav Wars – though some Montenegrin citizens participated in the war in Croatia and, in fewer numbers, in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Of course, this is not to suggest that the country was an oasis of peace during this tumultuous period, nor that its political leaders, including Djukanović, were not complicit in some of the most shameful events in the modern history of Montenegro.

In the years that followed the violent disintegration of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY), Montenegro remained something of a junior partner with the asymmetrical “Federal Republic of Yugoslavia” (FRY), and then the short-lived “Joint State of Serbia and Montenegro”. In 2006, following an independence referendum, Montenegro reclaimed its sovereignty and independence and thereafter made steady, albeit relatively slow, progress towards European Union (EU) membership and became a member of NATO in 2017. For these successes, Djukanović should be given credit.

A mixed legacy

Conversely, however, his Janus-like political persona and the controversial policies that he adopted over the years contributed to the rise of corruption, unsavoury economic practices, and the criminalisation of Montenegrin society. He could also be credited with the strengthening and expanding of the “partitocracy” model in Montenegro, in which the lines between the main party (DPS) and the state became increasingly blurred. Within such a system, the emergence of viable, socially responsible and non-nationalist political alternatives was made impossible. Moreover, the DPS’s focus on identity politics left deep fault-lines in the country, cleavages that might require decades to overcome. That system, with Djukanović as a lynchpin, had long ago planted the seeds of its own demise, and the decay had become increasingly evident in recent years.

While Djukanović, a charismatic and highly-capable operator, might not fit the standard definition of an autocrat, his political success, longevity, and absolute dominance in the political arena was a by-product of a particular consensus with the sovereigntist bloc in Montenegro. Prior to the 2006 independence referendum, the sovereigntist bloc calculated that softening its criticism of him was necessary, in that it would allow him to successfully achieve their most important objective: renewing the country’s sovereignty and independence, a goal worthy of any and all sacrifices. 

Yet, this was also a period during which Djukanović and the DPS were tacitly permitted to claim complete ownership of the sovereigntist idea and related political discourse, leading to a dominance that was ultimately self-defeating. From that time to the present, the essence of the party narrative has been the protection of the state and its independence against all enemies, foreign and domestic. Any serious criticism of the DPS and its leader was dismissed as an attempt by enemies to breach the proverbial walls of the sovereign state. Consequently, this idea encouraged a siege mentality among the country’s citizens. At the same time, it introduced a security and intelligence-minded discourse of “friends” and “enemies”; within and without, hidden and visible.

The outcome of the most recent presidential election in Montenegro was a surprise only for the DPS faithful, many of whom believed that the protests, led by the Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro (known as the litije), which followed the DPS-led government’s proposal to introduce the “Law on Religious Freedoms” and the subsequent defeat in the August 2020 parliamentary elections, were merely aberrations and that normal service would inevitably resume. That has not been the case. Indeed, three decades of Djukanović’s rule could not have produced any other outcome but a plebiscite on his personal political style, his achievements and, of course, his failures. The outcome was perhaps inevitable, though the margin of defeat was a surprise to many.

Into a new era

The challenger, Milatović, had in abundance what Djukanović did not. A fresh face, untainted by over three decades of DPS rule, that represented a new breed of politician, not only because of his relative youth but also because he belonged to a generation born and raised in Montenegro during Djukanović’s decades in power. That generation was raised in a social, economic, cultural and political climate that valued duplicity, the primacy of self-interest, and an art of demagoguery that gets one elected to office. It is, moreover, a generation that possesses a very different emotional attachment (or absence of it) to issues such as sovereignty, identity, economic prosperity, and the very meaning of power in the Montenegrin context. Indeed, for many young Montenegrins, independence itself had become a “DPS project”, in which party leaders, apparatchiks and their families had benefitted significantly at the expense of the majority. Thus, the presidential election was not only a defeat for the sovereigntist bloc, but a plebiscite on their crowning achievement: the reclaiming of Montenegro’s independence in 2006.

For his part, Milatovic’s trajectory to becoming the president was one that explains much about the current socio-political context in Montenegro. He emerged onto the political scene as a staunch supporter of the litije, and by his own admission felt compelled to return to the country from his work as an economist for the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) to lend his support to what he described as “the magnificent litije”. He then became former Prime Minister Zdravko Krivokapić’s minister of economic development before forming the “Europe Now” movement with Milojko Spajić in 2022. Following success for Europe Now in local elections throughout that year, Milatović then ran for president, though only after Spajić’s candidacy was blocked by the State Electoral Commission on account of his dual Serbian-Montenegrin citizenship. Regarded by the sovereigntist bloc as little more than an errand boy for Serbian President Aleksander Vučić, Milatović represented the “new hope” for the parties and coalitions that claimed victory in the August 2020 parliamentary elections.

Where now?

So, what can we surmise about the kind of president Milatović is likely to be, and where he will lead Montenegro? Much of his rhetoric has claimed that the country will remain committed to the Euro-Atlantic path and that there would be no change vis-à-vis the country’s recognition of Kosovo or continuing alignment with EU sanctions against Russia. Despite this, it is important to view his comments, in the many interviews he has conducted since the presidential election, with a healthy dose of scepticism. This is because his victory was secured by the pro-Serbian electorate (who viewed Milatović’s victory as theirs) and was accompanied by post-election celebrations marked by the visibility of Serbian nationalist iconography, symbolism and slogans.

Thus, branding Milatović simply as a western-educated economic reformist, and understanding him as such, might be wishful thinking. After all, the Europe Now movement is an organisation without a party base and well-established infrastructure, and one heavily reliant on the voters of the pro-Serbian Democratic Front (DF). Thus, however much Milatović may be genuine in expressing a desire to maintain the current course in foreign policy, he will remain dependent on the support of those who do not share the views that he has recently expressed. With that in mind, it will be interesting to see if and to what extent his current rhetoric will survive the test of time. After all, he faces pressure from the pro-Serbian Democratic Front on the one hand, and the firm nudging from his western supporters, so willing to accept the image of him as a western-oriented reformer, on the other.

Whether Milatović is genuinely committed to such ideals is still to be determined. Yet, the podium upon which he gave his victory speech offered an interesting insight into the power dynamics within the bloc that helped to deliver his victory. While the speech was conciliatory and Milatović the central figure, the cast of characters that he shared that podium with possess a myriad of sometimes competing and contradictory aims. These could become increasingly evident in the coming weeks and months. While they all shared the common objective of defeating Djukanović, the struggle for dominance in advance of the June parliamentary elections has started in earnest, signalling a fierce political battle ahead of this vote.

Kenneth Morrison, PhD, is a Professor of History and Research Theme Director at De Montfort University, and a Research Associate at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), UK. He specialises in the modern history and politics of the Western Balkans and is the author of six books on the region, including Nationalism, Identity and Statehood in Post-Yugoslav Montenegro.

Srdja Pavlović, PhD, specialises in the modern political and cultural history of the Balkans, with a particular focus on identity construction, deconstruction and reconstruction among the South Slavs. He is the author of Balkan Anschluss: The Annexation of Montenegro and the Creation of the Common South Slav State, and is a Research Associate with the Wirth Institute for Austrian and Central European Studies at the University of Alberta, Canada. 

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