Speculation abounds as rumours of Djukanovic’s departure intensify

As speculation intensifies that Montenegro’s prime minister, Milo Djukanovic, will retire from politics relatively soon, the plotting and jostling for power within the ruling Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) has begun in earnest.

By Kenneth Morrison

As speculation intensifies that Milo Djukanovic is about to leave the political stage, the jostling for power within his party has begun in earnest, despite denials from within the ruling Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) that his departure is imminent. Debates over the timing of the departure of Montenegro’s long-term leader from political life – and the impact this will have on the political scene – are a constant feature within the pages of Montenegro’s print media.

Much of it is, however, fanciful and speculative, as Milo Djukanovic, the 48 year-old prime minister, has given no clear indication of when he intends to step down. But speculation over Djukanovic’s departure aside, one thing is certain: the DPS, the dominant political force in the country, is entering into a period of flux. For the first time since the party’s cathartic split in 1997, issues of leadership and the party’s orientation are back on the agenda, and in an uncertain new climate, internal consensus within the party is proving harder to achieve than has been the case for some time.

Djukanovic has led the DPS since 1997, though he has been a key figure in the party and in the political life of Montenegro since 1991. One of the longest serving politicians in Europe, he has, since then, held the post either of prime minister or president. But since his arrival on the Montenegrin political scene, Djukanovic has undergone something of an ideological transformation. Once an enthusiastic supporter of the Serbia’s strongman Slobodan Milosevic, he turned away from Belgrade and engineered the restoration of Montenegro’s independence, lost following the creation of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (later Yugoslavia) in 1918.

Djukanovic wrested control of the DPS in 1997 from a faction led by the former Montenegrin president and Milosevic ally, Momir Bulatovic, when consensus over Montenegro’s political direction abruptly ended. He subsequently steered Montenegro through the stormy waters of NATO’s bombardment of Yugoslavia, the war in neighbouring Kosovo, and the very real threat of civil war in Montenegro itself before leading the country to independence in 2006.

In a sense, he has come to personify Montenegro’s modern history. But now, as speculation intensifies that he will retire from politics relatively soon, the plotting and jostling for power within his party has begun in earnest.

So far, Djukanovic has given little away, sending ambiguous and contradictory signals about the timing of his departure. He has stressed his aim to retire as Prime Minister, but has simultaneously expressed a desire to oversee Montenegro’s achievement of EU candidate status and NATO membership before he steps down. He has denied that the international community has put pressure on him to go, although there is a perception among the international community that Djukanovic’s longue durée in power has inhibited Montenegro’s democratic development.

But while his decision to give up the post of Prime Minister appears inevitable, whether he will rescind the post of DPS leader is another matter. Nevertheless, a number of names are in the frame to succeed Djukanovic in either role, but the most likely successors appear the finance minister, Igor Luksic, or the recently installed “minister without portfolio” and former head of Montenegro’s secret service, Dusko Markovic.

Many DPS deputies favour Luksic as premier, and his potential appointment remains a possibility. But Markovic also appears likely to play a key role in the future, perhaps even as leader of the DPS. Djukanovic’s decision to designate Markovic, a strong supporter of his, as “minister without portfolio” may have been driven primarily by a perceived need to discipline deputies seen as cherishing designs to acquire power following his departure. These include the country’s president, Filip Vujanovic, and joint-deputy prime minister, Svetozar Marovic, who, while harbouring their individual ambitions, would undoubtedly prefer Luksic over Markovic.

Markovic’s rise, however, almost certainly negates the possibility of either Vujanovic or Marovic obtaining leadership of the party. Vujanovic has struggled lately to strengthen his position within the party, while Djukanovic has increasingly marginalised the latter.

Markovic’s subsequent appointment as head of the newly formed National Security Council has meanwhile thrust him into a key position, and a possible springboard to becoming Djukanovic’s successor. It would appear, therefore, that the latter’s strategy is to promote close allies and marginalise potential opponents. And in so doing, Djukanovic is attempting to forge a DPS that will remain under his influence, regardless of whether he is still formally the party chief.

That this is not going unchallenged has, however, become more obvious to analysts of Montenegrin politics during recent debates over the law on education, when Djukanovic had to implore DPS deputies to vote in favour of the law, in order to prevent Vujanovic and Marovic from forging a deal with opposition leaders, a development which could have opened the door for further cooperation with the opposition. It may yet.

Some commentators, such as Novak Kilibarda, former leader of the People’s Party (himself no stranger to party schisms), have boldly predicted that future flirtations between Djukanovic’s opponents within the DPS and the opposition could lead to a schism within the party akin to that which occurred in 1997, creating possibilities for establishing a new political landscape. This will not go unnoticed by the opposition, who while denying meddling in internal DPS affairs (by attempting to flirt with those within the party who are on the margins), are hungry for power.

Is a split possible? Well, Montenegrin politics has long been characterised by a series of splits within the ruling elite, rather than changes that take place through the mechanism of democratic elections. That political change will once again occur as a consequence of the former seems inevitable.

However, predictions of a cathartic split in the ranks of the ruing party may still be premature. The internal conditions and external variables that led to the 1997 split do not exist today and it remains unlikely that there will be an existentialist crisis within the DPS, a party of competing but overlapping interests. In the past, most DPS members have understood that maintenance of the party’s structure, and of all the benefits that this brings, needs to override narrow personal ambitions. It is an approach that has served them well and is unlikely to change any time soon.

Moreover, the question remains whether Djukanovic’s departure would represent a real shift in political power in Montenegro, or be merely a symbolic gesture. If Djukanovic steps down as Prime Minister but retains control of the DPS, power would remain firmly in his hands. In the event of his departure from the party leadership, he seems bent on ensuring that only a trusted ally, such as Markovic, would take his place. As is so often the case in Montenegrin politics, superficial change would merely mask relative continuity.

In any event, whether recent developments represent a summer storm in a teacup, a diversion or a genuine crisis will become clearer in the months leading to the next party congress in spring 2011.

Kenneth Morrison is a Senior Lecturer in Modern East European History at De Montfort University, the author of ‘Montenegro: A Modern History’, IB Tauris, 2009, and a member of TransCconflict’s advisory board.

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