If the opinion polls are to be believed, Milo Djukanovic could find himself out of power for the first time in quarter of a century when the Montenegrin people go to the polls on Sunday. Europe’s longest-serving leader has watched support for his Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) evaporate, with a recent Eurobarometer survey showing the majority of people in the county do not trust his government, and think the economy is performing badly.
Following the breakup of DPS’s coalition with the Social Democratic Party of Montenegro (SDP), the prospect of a group of opposition parties toppling Djukanovic has begun to look more and more likely. However, what’s most remarkable about the 25-year reign of the one-time Slobodan Milosevic ally is the fact that he has managed to remain in office for so long, despite clear evidence of past and ongoing misdeeds.
Widely considered to be second-only to Russian President Vladimir Putin among world leaders when it comes to ruling over a state riddled with corruption, Djukanovic has a long history of crooked dealings and links to organised crime. Last year, the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) awarded him the dubious honour of being named 2015 Man of the Year in Organised Crime – and not without good reason.
The OCCRP – a network of media outlets, journalists and investigative centres – recognised Djukanovic for being the driving force behind a long list of corrupt activities that would not look out of place on the resume of a top international gangster. Djukanovic has been accused of smuggling tobacco on a grand scale in collusion with Italian crime families, hiving off large chunks of public assets to members of his own family in crooked privatisation deals, bankrolling and sheltering organised crime groups and notorious criminals, and selling off state-owned land to shady Russian businessmen. The list goes on.
Despite all of this, he has managed to serve as either President or Prime Minister of Montenegro for a generation, thanks in no small part to a compliant state media that has been instrumental in smearing activists and opponents who speak out against him. Now, it finally appears as though Djukanovic’s ability to play various political interests off against one another might be coming to an end.
Although he has successfully dodged criminal prosecution – once by claiming diplomatic immunity in Italy – and has somehow avoided being slapped with serious international sanctions on account of his regime’s blatantly corrupt behaviour, the Montenegrin electorate seems to have grown weary of the widespread self-serving dishonesty at the heart of its government at a time when the country’s economy is floundering.
Doubts over Montenegro’s much-anticipated accession to the EU – which is slated for 2020 at the earliest – are also damaging Djukanovic in the polls. Despite the fact that his actions whilst in office have put serious obstacles in the path of the country when it comes to its bid to join the 28-nation bloc, Djukanovic is stanchly pro-EU, and plans to ratify Montenegro’s membership of NATO without a referendum if he comes out on top of Sunday’s vote.
A coalition of pro-Serbian and pro-Russian opposition groups that are against the country’s NATO bid are looking to secure enough votes to stop Djukanovic in his tracks. Clearly feeling under pressure, Djukanovic this week suggested that Russia has been pouring money into Montenegro’s election in the hope of swaying the result in favour of these groups.
Speaking with Reuters, Djukanovic tried to frame the election as a last chance for his opponents to stop Montenegro adopting European values, as he accused those standing against him of taking cash from wealthy Russian oligarchs, funnelled into the country via Serbia. Djukanovic’s intervention came after opposition groups accused him of being complicit in Russia’s continuing influence in the country, suggesting that he had held talks with Russian mafia groups.
While a significant section of Montenegrin voters are opposed to both EU and NATO membership, anti-NATO protests held in the country last year by supporters of the Democratic Front party quickly mutated into calls for the country’s first free and fair elections. Despite the political leanings of some of the groups that are opposed to Djukanovic’s rule, it is by no means clear how the country would vote if it were offered a referendum on NATO or EU membership.
The irony of Djukanovic’s support of Montenegro’s membership of the EU and NATO could not be clearer. If he is ousted from power, or has his authority diminished to a level where he is unable to push legislation through Parliament without the support of the opposition groups currently campaigning against him, the country might stand a better chance of achieving full EU membership sooner rather than later.
Rampant government corruption and high levels of organised crime in the country are major barriers to Montenegro’s accession to the union. Far from pushing it further towards Russia, ending the crooked reign of Djukanovic and his cronies might allow the country to make a clean break from the past and set about making the changes required to move closer to Europe.