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Montenegro’s new government: another step closer to Belgrade 

At first glance, the formation of Montenegro’s new government appears to represent a victory for pro-western forces in the country. Despite this, the new coalition is ultimately propped up by groups with close links to both Serbia and Russia.

November 21, 2023 - Kenneth Morrison Srdja Pavlović - Articles and Commentary

Government building, Podgorica, Montenegro. Photo: Rasho / wikimedia.org

The formation of the new coalition government in Montenegro, after lengthy negotiations between the partners and formally presided over by the leader of the “Europe Now Movement” (PES) Milojko Spajić, was confirmed on October 31st. This was agreed five months after June’s snap parliamentary elections. It marked the end of a period of negotiation over the government’s formation, throughout which the prospect of new parliamentary elections, and yet more instability, loomed large. Numerous media outlets opined that Montenegro’s new government was “pro-EU” and that “a new period of stabilisation” therefore beckoned. But do such assertions obscure what is actually happening in the country?

Spajić has stated that his government will be focused on economic issues and necessary judicial reforms, and that it will endeavour to shift away from the ethnic and religious disputes that have characterised the Montenegrin political landscape in recent years. Greater strides towards the reforms required for EU membership and being a “good partner” within NATO were represented by the foreign policy commitments conveyed by the new government. Yet, on closer inspection, one can see that running counter to the narrative that PES are a “pro-EU” and “centrist” movement is the strength of the pro-Serbian and pro-Russian political forces in the country, which joined NATO in 2017. The “For the Future of Montenegro” (ZBCG) coalition, without whose support the government could not have been formed, were given the post of parliamentary speaker, with a further inducement that they may get four ministerial seats in the near future. 

The composition of the new government, and the support that underwrites it, also clearly demonstrates the significant influence of both the Serbian Orthodox Church (SPC) and Serbia’s authoritarian president, Aleksandar Vučić, over political developments in Montenegro. Consequently, it is likely that the new prime minister, as well as the country’s President Jakov Milatović – both of whom arrived onto the political scene as cadres of the SPC and passionate supporters of the “magnificent litije”, the SPC-led protests against the 2019 “Law on Religious Freedoms” – will primarily serve the interests of those that brought them from obscurity to the most powerful political positions.

Spajić, however, has gone to great lengths to assure Montenegro’s US and EU partners that his government is one they can do business with. Yet, the prime minister’s political fate depends primarily on the continued support of the ZBCG coalition, which includes a number of key figures from the now defunct Democratic Front (DF). The leading figure within the ZBCG is the new Speaker of the Montenegrin Parliament Andrija Mandić, a Chetnik “Vojvoda” (Duke) who has close relations with the Kremlin. He also vociferously opposed Montenegro’s independence and NATO membership. Moreover, he was, before his sentence was quashed after the August 2020 parliamentary elections, found guilty of involvement in the alleged Russian-backed coup in October 2016. A combative, divisive but nevertheless astute political operator, Mandić may be more comfortable with the “politics of the streets”. However, he now presides over the country’s parliament. Nevertheless, he is likely to be more muted in the year ahead, given that the ZBCG has its eye on future ministerial posts.

The latest battleground in the “Serbianisation” of Montenegro is the upcoming population census. The ruling Montenegrin elite regards this process as an opportunity to alter the fragile balance of national and ethnic determination in favour of those who declare themselves Serbs. Even if the results indicate only a couple of percentage points more in comparison to the 2011 census, pro-Serbian political forces will acquire a powerful propaganda tool, one that they would use to legitimise their (ultimate) wish to call for a new referendum on whether Montenegro should remain independent or reunify with Serbia. This may, for those that do not follow Montenegrin politics closely, seem outlandish. But the direction of travel in the past three years means that anything is possible. Moreover, the proponents of the Serbian World, strong in their conviction that the process is irreversible, will patiently wait for their moment. In a febrile geopolitical environment in which international attention is concentrated elsewhere, they believe that they may be close. Indeed, Aleksandar Vučić has stated that the outcome of the upcoming census matters more to him than the election results in Montenegro.

Currently, however, the rhetoric of the new government is that Montenegro’s Euro-Atlantic foreign policy orientation remains unchanged and, at least in the short term, there may be little to no concern to note in this regard. However, the aim of the ZBCG and their political allies is to wrest control of the levers of power, of state institutions, first. The appointment of Andrija Mandić as the speaker of parliament was an important step in that direction. Indeed, in addition to being able to determine the nature and dynamics of the legislative agenda, Mandić has also stated, somewhat unconvincingly, that Montenegro remains on the steady course of Euro-Atlanticism. However, it would hardly be an overreaction to suspect that he is merely paying lip service to Montenegro’s EU and NATO partners, all in an attempt to assuage the concerns of the US.

So, what of Montenegro’s western partners? In the cold light of day, one has to conclude that they have – by attempting to bring Aleksandar Vučić into the western fold – unwittingly facilitated the de-facto takeover of Montenegro by pro-Serbian forces, within which there are those that have well-documented links to Moscow. Having brought Montenegro into NATO in 2017, the West has largely turned a blind eye to Vučić’s neo-colonial appetites towards Montenegro, which have created genuine dangers not only for Montenegro but also for Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo. History teaches us that appeasement of an autocrat never leads to peace and stability. To the detriment of its own longer-term interests, the West has for too long stood by as pro-Serbian parties have consolidated control over Montenegro, further destabilising a country that was already plagued by deep political divisions. Moreover, they have left local western-oriented political and intellectual elites – some of whom argue that the West underestimates the dangers of Russian attempts to push their agenda in the region – in a position of great anxiety, in which they fear abandonment and betrayal by their western allies. Many, despite evidence to the contrary, cling to the hope that, sooner rather than later, those allies will come to a realisation that a policy shift is urgently needed.

It would, however, be unrealistic to apportion blame solely to Montenegro’s western allies. The greater part of responsibility for the current state of affairs lies with the Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS), which had been in power for three decades, albeit in various coalition governments that included civic parties and those representing Croatian, Albanian and Bosniak electorates. Of course, there will be those that argue that the DPS and its governing partners should be given credit for delivering independence in 2006 and NATO membership in 2017. However, such accomplishments cannot outweigh the failures in the domestic state-building process after 2006. The DPS and their governing partners did not build the solid foundations required for a well-functioning state, thereby missing the opportunity to create a professional, independent and non-partisan state bureaucracy and institutions. Those fragile institutions, underpinned by structurally weak foundations, have crumbled in the years that have passed since the DPS lost power. And it is that failure that has made the political takeover of Montenegro easier than it might otherwise have been.

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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