The news came as little surprise. After two years of retirement, Milo Djukanovic, the charismatic authoritarian leader – long suspected of corruption – is making his comeback in Montenegrin politics. Of course as a six-time prime minister, and former President of Montenegro, the is 56-year-old Djukanovic never really left.
Born to a middle-class family in 1962, Milo Djukanovic joined the League of Communists of Yugoslavia at the age of 17. He rose up the ladder quickly, getting noticed and taken under the wing of Slobodan Milosevic, the former president of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.
In January 1989, when he was only 26 years old, Djukanovic and two other young activists sealed their grip on power in Montenegro, refashioning the League of Communists of Yugoslavia as “Socialist Democratic Party of Montenegro”. He became Prime Minister on the day of his 29th birthday, and was re-elected twice, in 1993 and again in 1996.
A year later, he distanced himself from his mentor, Slobodan Milosevic, who had just lost a general election in Serbia and had been weakened by the wars in Yugoslavia. In Montenegro, Djukanovic won his first term as president and began instituting pro-western policies like adopting the Deutsche Mark and taking a public stand against the Yugoslav wars. In 2006, he organised a referendum on the independence of Montenegro, where the “yes” won by 55.5 percent.
He then decided to initiate the process of bringing Montenegro into the European Union and NATO. Negotiations with the EU began in 2011 and have been progressing since. Today, Montenegro and Serbia are considered to be the countries closest to membership, with the EU floating an indicative entry date of 2025 if it maintains its current pace of reforms. In 2017, Montenegro became the 29th member country of NATO.
For all his pro-Western democratic ideals, Djukanovic has been in the crosshairs of justice since the 90s. In order to get around the international sanctions placed on Montenegro in the 1990s, Djukanovic turned the country into a hub for the smuggling of contraband tobacco. .
Djukanovic was suspected of working with the Italian mafia as partners in the tobacco smuggling ring and in 2004, Italian prosecutors issued an arrest warrant for the Montenegrin leader. Djukanovic only escaped the dock by playing off investigators for two years, after which time Montenegro had become an independent state, and as its leader, Djukanovic could claim political immunity from prosecution.
Finally, his government has been accused of muzzelling or threatening the opposition and the media. Independent newspapers and anti-corruption activists are under constant pressure. In October 2015, thousands of Montenegrin citizens took to the streets demanding the resignation of Milo Djukanovic, the establishment of an interim government and the holding of early elections. The demonstration is violently repressed by the police. In October 2016, his party won the parliamentary elections, but did not reach an absolute majority. He then announced he was stepping down, but commentators were have been slow to write his political obituary given that he stepped down before in 2006 before returning to the post of prime minister again in 2008.
True to form, last month he announced that he will run in April’s presidential elections where he will face businessman Mladen Bojanic supported by the opposition Democratic Front, which favours closer relations with Russia. If the opinion polls bear out, Djukanovic is on course to win with 37 percent of the votes in the first round.