Montenegro moved a step closer to EU membership this week when two new chapters in its negotiations to join the bloc were opened in Brussels on Monday. With talks now set to begin on freedom of movement for workers and the right to establish and provide services, it brings the number of open chapters under discussion to 33 out of a total of 35.
But even as so many chapters are opened on the subject of Montenegro’s future, serious questions still remain about whether it can turn the page on its murky political present. News that Milo Djukanovic, the country’s long-time leader has intimated that he might run for president again in 2018 – after just stepping down as prime minister last year – would suggest that the more things change in Montenegro, the more they really stay the same. Should Djukanovic return to the presidency it would be his second term in that office, adding to his four terms as prime minister.
During his nearly three decades of unbroken power Djukanovic has acquired the kind of reputation that should rightly put him at odds with everything the EU is supposed to stand for. Indeed, as recently as 2015 he was awarded the dubious honour of Man of the Year in Organised Crime by the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project. In explaining why Djukanovic was such a worthy recipient of the accolade, the OCCRP said: “While he casts himself as a progressive, pro-Western leader who recently helped his country join NATO and is on track to join the European Union, he has built one of the most dedicated kleptocracies and organized crime havens in the world.” The website’s editor, Drew Sullivan added: “Nobody outside of (Russian President Vladimir) Putin has run a state that relies so heavily on corruption, organized crime and dirty politics. It is truly and thoroughly rotten to the core.”
To be sure, charges of corruption, including his alleged involvement in a billion dollar tobacco smuggling operation with the Italian mafia, and turning Montenegro’s oldest bank into a personal atm machine for him and his cronies, have failed to stick; however, the country’s dismal record when it comes to solving gang-related murders supports the charge that Djukanovic has allowed Montenegro to become a playground for organised criminals. Of the 27 suspected gangland murders in Montenegro in the last five years only 4 have been brought to trial. Looking at the figures, crime expert Dobrivoje Radovanovic concludes that: “The reason most [of these] killers are not identified yet are the links between organised crime and police structures, prosecution and security institutions.”
With all of this in mind, one can’t help but wonder if Montenegro’s steady progress towards the EU constitutes one step forward for Podgorica and two steps backwards for Brussels.