Montenegro is epitomizing the cliches “be careful what you wish for” and “the lesser of two evils”. After 30 years, the Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) lost its majority and a coalition of parties from moderates to the far-right took over. Both sides have done their fair share of democratic abrading that has hurt the countries progression.
Montenegro is somewhat of a new democracy. They have only independently existed for 15 years. Prior to claiming its independence, Montenegro was in a political union with Serbia. Before this, both Montenegro and Serbia were a part of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. In May of 2006, Montenegro held an independence referendum that passed with 55 percent approval. In the past 15 years, Montenegro has struggled to become a member of the European Union and just barely gained admission to NATO (North Atlantic Trade Organization). There have been severe restrictions on civil liberties, external country influence, massive amounts of corruption, and singular party control. Although the majority of the blame is to be put on the DPS, there should be caution when praising the opposition coalition.
Democratic Party of Socialists:
Montenegro was under the rule of DPS from 1991 to 2020. Some of the main goals of the DPS are to shift more towards Montenegrin independence and western ideals. In theory, this sounds exactly like the shift to democracy, but the ethics of how DPS has gotten there, show otherwise.
The leader of DPS is Milo Dukanovic. Dukanovic is essentially the most influential figure in Montenegrin politics. He has held either the position of President or Prime Minister since 1997. President Milo Dukanovic has also been accused of being involved in sex trafficking, cigarette smuggling, and patronage for friends and allies. In the time that Montenegro has become an independent nation, the ruling party (DPS) has eroded democracy in many ways, but particularly by having unfair elections and restricting the free press.
The DPS has been accused of stealing, threatening, or paying for votes in almost every presidential election since 2006. Nearly one-third of Montenegro’s population is employed by the federal government and therefore receives government benefits. It has been alleged that these citizens have been bribed into keeping DPS in office to maintain their employment status. The party has also been caught keeping voters who no longer live in Montenegro full-time (making them ineligible to vote) on the list of eligible voters.
Since 1991, Montenegro’s population has barely grown, residents have moved away, the birth rate has decreased and mortality has increased. However, the eligible voter population has somehow grown over 34.33% in that same time period. Even more interesting is that the majority of this voter growth occurred shortly before the 2006 referendum that would determine whether or not Montenegro would break from Serbia. This leads voters to believe that it may not have actually been the rule of the majority in declaring independence, but voter fraud committed by the DPS.
All of this is a blatant attack on a fundamental principle of democracy: access to fair and free elections. As DPS continued to obtain power, it seemed unclear whether or not they had gotten there fairly. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe has been forced to investigate these irregularities far too many times.
Restriction of Press:
Another barrier in Montenegrin democracy is the restrictions on freedom of the press. Since 2004, there have been 85 attacks on journalists in Montenegro. Some outlets have seen their reporters threatened more than others based on how favorably they cover the national government (DPS). Another major issue is DPS’ control of the national broadcast system, RTCG. In the years between 2015 to 2017, some of RTCG’s top executives were taken out of their positions and replaced by people who would present the DPS more favorably to the public. Although the DPS may claim they are for advancing western ideals, restricting citizens’ access to fair and free press fundamentally goes against those ideals.
Caution of Coalition of Opposition Parties:
In the 2020 parliamentary elections, a coalition of opposition parties joined together and narrowly took the majority. This was a major turning point for the country as it forced President Dukanovic to propose an Independent as the next Prime Minister, Zdravko Krivokapić.
However, this coalition of opposition parties has its own problems. The only thing this coalition can actually agree on is their opposition to the DPS, nothing else. Having such a wide range of political perspectives, from conservatives to center-leftists, makes things extremely difficult. The three major parties within the coalition have each accused each other of treachery and siding with DPS. There have even been calls for Prime Minister Krivokapic’s resignation because of his inability to unite the coalition.
The parties on the right have also shown signs of violence, religious extremism, and being coerced by outside forces. On election day of 2016, there was a failed coup attempt to overthrow Dukanovic. It was found that two of the people sentenced were opposition politicians as well as another two Russian intelligence officers. This is not the only instance of far-right extremists (typically Serbian loyalists) working with Russia to bring down the DPS. Having an alliance with Russia, a corrupt state ruled by a corrupt leader is bound to hurt Montenegro’s progress in becoming a strong democracy.
There are also many instances of religious extremism that lead to violence. The Serbian Orthodox Church (SOC) still has a heavy influence on many Montenegrins who identify closely with their Serbian roots. The church has aggravated some citizens with its overwhelming presence. The DPS tried to enforce laws that would allow for more religious freedom, but the SOC has remained consistent. There have been numerous protests that have become violent against and for this church with little to no government intervention.
Montenegrin citizens should be aware that the country could fall down a slippery slope of abrasion at the rate it is at. Without any doubt, DPS running the show for over thirty years was unhealthy to Montenegro’s democracy. The party acted in a corrupt manner in both its control of the press and elections that showed it did not truly stand for what it said it did. However, the current opposition coalition is not much better as it seems to have no control over the country. Be careful what you wish for.
Hi Grace, a wonderfully concise and constructive article you have written here. Montenegro under the late-DPS regime reminds me of the Pavão article we read for class “Corruption as the Only Option: The Limits to Electoral Accountability”. Specifically, the article’s findings that in democratic systems where corruption is widespread voters tend to rank corruption as less of an issue and increasingly hold politicians to lower and lower standards of accountability. One solution that Pavão cites in his article is that to combat a lack of electoral accountability anti-corruption advocates should push independent bodies such as the courts to hold corrupt politicians accountable. This makes me wonder what the state of the judicial system is like in Montenegro. Considering that President Dukanovic has been able to act with impunity, I imagine it cannot be very independent? I wonder if you could broaden Pavão’s theory and analyze not just judiciaries, but the way international bodies such as the EU and NATO could potentially hold corrupt politicians to account. I know that the EU has pretty stringent anti-corruption measures in order to be admitted and it would be interesting to read about how much Montenegro has struggled to meet those regulations while wanting to maintain their state-run clientelistic economy.
As of right now, I agree with your assessment that the newly minted anti-DPS government is unlikely to have a bright future. In similar cases in other transitioning democracies, it seems that for the most part, the coalition partners spend their time bickering with each other while the lives of ordinary citizens continue to decline in the standard of living and they get increasingly restless as their safety-net patronage jobs are removed from the equation. Armenia and Ukraine went through similar processes that Montenegro is going through right now.
Countries in that liminal space between dictatorship to corrupt and highly flawed “democracy” to fully-functional democracy always fascinate me because it makes me consider what basic material changes are necessary for a citizen to “buy-in” to a fully-fledged real democracy. Montenegro with its 1/3rd of citizens being employed by the state brings back memories of New York’s Tammany Hall which ran the city from the 1850s to 1930s. The political machine in Tammany Hall made sure that all of its patrons and their families got jobs working for the city government. Except New York under Tammany was booming and always growing while Montenegro stagnates on both population and economic measures. Why does one succeed and the other fail? If I was told that I could get a guaranteed job just as long as I voted for the party I would probably take it. I would love to read the analysis of these jobs and see if they are anywhere capable of putting food on the table.