Srdja Pavlovic – Electoral Glimpse of Hope in Montenegro

After ruling the country for almost three decades, Milo Djukanovic no longer offered hope of a better life and prosperity for the citizens.

Srdja Pavlovic is an Adjunct Professor specializing in the political and cultural history of the South Slavs during the 19th and 20th centuries at the University of Alberta.

Cross-posted from Open Democracy

After governing Montenegro for 29 years as the successor to the League of Communists of Montenegro, the big-tent Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) lost its first-ever electoral race on August 30. Three political coalitions, each including a number of opposition parties and movements with rather divergent programs won the day by the skin of their teeth and secured a parliamentary majority of 41 in an 81-seat parliament. Most importantly, the change of power occurred via the ballot box and not under the watchful eyes of tank commanders, riot police units, and army sharp shooters.

While DPS alone won 30 seats it would not have been able to form the next government had all of its earlier allies rushed to its aid. Such a coalition would have had only 40 seats and would require 1 member of parliament from the opposition parties to cross the floor and deny to the opposition what it had achieved through the ballot box. It is, however, worth noting that over the past three decades in Montenegro post-election political horse-trading and floor-crossing in favour of DPS has happened more than once. In other words, to use a popular colloquialism, “it ain’t over till the fat lady sings”.

Assuming that the dream of turning the DPS into the parliamentary opposition materializes, the new governing coalition faces a daunting task of salvaging the devastated economy of a country whose foreign debt approaches 85% of its annual GDP. Dismantling a hybrid regime and deconstructing the discourse of stability requires time, courage, and enviable political skills. The new government has to engage in a series of painful economic, political, financial, legal and social structural reforms. It has to restart the capacity-building process and gradually turn state institutions and partitocracy into functioning and independent segments of a state bureaucracy. It also has to initiate a healing process in a society deeply divided along ethnic and religious lines. The understanding of this effort as a generational task should be a guiding principle for the newly-minted election victors.

This remarkable election defeat of DPS and its leader, Milo Djukanovic, has been the product of many factors, two of which are particularly important.

The first is the time factor. For a number of years, the people of Montenegro have been fed up with the never-changing order of things including endemic corruption, nepotism, the increasing threat of organized crime taking over the state apparatus, protracted economic crisis, rising unemployment, a growing poverty rate, and the steadily rising number of young people seeking a better future in western Europe and North America. After ruling the country for almost three decades, Milo Djukanovic could no longer offer hope of a better life and prosperity for all citizens. The fact that he had gradually privatized the state and turned it into both his personal and his party’s service provider has been well-documented. In more than one analysis Montenegro has been characterized as either a private state, mafia state, or a hybrid regime. This author has written about it both as a proto-democratic regime, and as a stabilitocracy. It was just a matter of time and an opportune moment, when the people’s growing frustration with the autocratic rule of Djukanovic would find its political voice able to win at the ballot box. That moment came on August 30. Djukanovic’s time was up.

Religious rivalry

A second factor was Djukanovic’s peculiar political self-inflicted wound. By insisting on adopting a controversial and rather problematic law regulating freedom of religious expression in Montenegro, he initiated a bitter conflict against his long-standing ally, Metropolitan Amfilohije Radovic of the Serbian Orthodox Church (SPC) in Montenegro. What followed was a series of protests led by the SPC, paired with the radicalization of identity politics and an upsurge of Serbian and Montenegro ethnic nationalisms. This also confused a significant segment of DPS’s own voter base that regularly attends religious services and venerates Metropolitan Amfilohije personally. Following this logic beyond my comprehension, Djukanovic appeared convinced that he could benefit personally and politically from this conflict. It would seem that he thought the loyalty of the traditional DPS voters would supersede their loyalty to their church and a dignitary that personifies it. At the same time, he hoped to rally once again the so-called “sovereignist” vote to carry him over the threshold of another election victory.

To secure that vote, Djukanovic and his DPS resorted to the time-honoured tactic of fear mongering and argued that voting for them meant saving Montenegro from disappearing from a political map of independent and sovereign states. The election defeat demonstrated that he overestimated the value of party loyalty and underestimated the resentment the “sovereignist” voters held against DPS and Djukanovic personally.

The true winner of the election was Metropolitan Amfilohije

It is both factually inaccurate and disingenuous to suggest, as analysts and interested parties do, that the self-styled civic option defeated Djukanovic’s DPS. That was not germane. Making such a claim projects an infantile desire for something that has yet to be achieved. Political rhetoric aside, the reality is that the Serbian Orthodox Church defeated Djukanovic’s private state. Metropolitan Amfilohije was indeed a catalyst of prolonged religious and political anti-government rallies. It was those protests that generated the necessary political energy to carry the political grouping led by a non-politician and known clericalist, Zdravko Krivokapic forward, rallying around the pro-Serbian Democratic Front (DF) to the brink of electoral victory, earning them 27 parliamentary seats. It is important to stress that the ideological underpinnings and the political program of DF are firmly anchored in both the Serbian hegemonic discourse and a peculiar local Serbian version of Eastern Orthodox Christianity known as Saint Savism (Svetosavlje). Other election victors include two self-proclaimed civic and pro-European opposition coalitions led by Aleksa Becic (10 parliamentary seats) and Dritan Abazovic (4 parliamentary seats) respectively. Those three opposition coalitions plan to form the next government.

Being careful of what you ask for

Many sovereignists, however, are concerned with the early actions of Zdravko Krivokapic. As soon as the preliminary election results came in indicating the opposition victory, he rushed to the church in Podgorica to kiss the hand of Metropolitan Amfilohije. This move clearly shows who has been the power behind the opposition election victory and where Krivokapic’s loyalty lies. As he was having an audience with the Metropolitan, the streets of Podgorica and other cities rang loudly with the cheers of DF supporters, singing praises to the Metropolitan, to the SPC, and to Serbia, while castigating the election losers. What could only be described as an explosion of nationalist hatred garnished with expressions of a Balkan version of Chistofascism stood in sharp contrast to the pre-election rhetoric of all three opposition leaders. It took them a day or so to issue statements condemning such behavior in general terms, while blaming the DPS-controlled security apparatus and criminal gangs for staging attacks on Muslim-owned businesses in northern Montenegro.

The most significant result, however, remains the fact that a functioning democratic, centrist, civic, and pro-European political alternative to both the DPS and the SPC, led by Becic and Abazovic, has emerged from this election. Such an alternative constitutes both the hope and the promise of a truly independent, multiethnic, and tolerant Montenegro.

I should note that over the past three decades the emerging of such a political alternative was not possible because the ruling partnership between DPS and Metropolitan Amfilohije would not allow it. For three decades, they kept political choices in Montenegro within the confines of a binary opposition: an authoritarian and criminalized DPS on one side, and an aggressive Serbian nationalism projected through the SPC, on the other. This so-called choice mimicked a fault-line of identity politics: defending independent Montenegro, or supporting its joining with Serbia. Citizens were not even able to vote for a proverbial lesser evil because the two options given were equally horrendous.

Now, the electoral promise of hope could change this old pattern, and that is why both Abazovic and Becic deserve support and encouragement. Their new government is facing a truly monumental task of turning what was Djukanovic’s latifundia into a functioning state, keeping in check aggressive Serbian nationalism and resisting the hegemonic tendencies of Montenegro’s northern neighbour, while navigating the murky waters of Balkan politics. They have to do all this in the midst of a massive economic crisis and a pandemic that threatens to tear down the very fabric of Montenegrin society.

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