Montenegro – assessing five years of independence

Montenegro’s first five years of independence have seen an interesting mix of change, continuity and consolidation. Progress has been significant, but there is still work to be done before the country becomes an EU member-state.

By Kenneth Morrison

In March 2006, the Montenegrin government announced that an independence referendum would be held in May to determine whether the republic would remain a partner within the state union of Serbia and Montenegro or become an independent state. With the threshold set at 55%, a narrow majority (55.5%) of the republic’s citizens opted for the latter, heralding Montenegro’s re-emergence as a sovereign state. Independence was formally declared on 3 June 2006 and thus the issue of the republic’s status, which had dominated Montenegrin politics since 1997 (most acutely following the signing of the Belgrade Agreement in March 2003), was resolved. But with independence came responsibility and new uncertainties.

While the issue of status was formally resolved, many of the antagonisms between the parties which comprised the competing pre-referendum blocs continued into the post-independence period. After all, the referendum process, though peaceful, was not entirely bereft of controversy. The campaign had been energetically and bitterly fought by the respective blocs, and in the wake of the referendum there had been accusations of voting irregularities and coercion. There were political casualties, blood on the carpet; winners and losers; joy for the victors, despair for the defeated. Consequently, the country entered into this new era with a divided body politic, a significant minority of which (44.5 % had voted to retain the joint state) felt embittered. Not, by any standards, an ideal basis for future political stability, yet Montenegro began its life as an independent state within this political and social context.

What, then, of the subsequent years of Montenegro’s independence? Well, despite concerns the country was too small to be economically viable, too politically divided to be stable and too institutionally weak to effectively tackle endemic problems such as corruption and organised crime, Montenegro has, in spite of its evident problems, made impressive progress. The country has consolidated its position among its neighbours, and has made great strides toward achieving the government’s core objective – Euro-Atlantic integration. Indeed, in December 2010, Montenegro was formally awarded candidate status by the European Commission, a significant milestone in the wider accession process. Additionally, although there is less domestic consensus on the issue, Montenegro has made progress toward NATO membership.

The domestic political scene has been characterised by both change and continuity. Even those individuals, parties and institutions that vociferously opposed independence appear to have accepted Montenegro’s sovereignty and the realities of operating within that framework. There has been a minor recalibration of the Montenegrin political landscape, numerous splits, re-alignments and the creation of new parties and coalitions. Most of these have taken place among and between opposition parties, while, by contrast, the governing DPS-SDP coalition has remained relatively stable. Again, political change has emanated from within the system, rather than through the mechanism of democratic elections. The DPS remains the dominant party in the country, and there seems little chance that that will change in the near future.

The country has a new prime minister, Igor Luksic, who succeeded Milo Djukanovic in December 2010 (although the latter remains the Chairman of the DPS). But given the aforementioned, what, if anything, can anything new be expected of the Lukšić-led government? The composition of the new cabinet is suggests that while there is a symbolic change at prime ministerial level, there is little substantial change beneath it. Young, highly-articulate and Facebook-savvy, Luksic seems like a breath of fresh air, the personification of a new approach; engaging with the opposition, trade unions and the NGO sector, the latter of which he has referred to as ‘partners’. But the new prime minister is surrounded by Djukanović loyalists, and he will have only limited room for manoeuvre and limited scope for forging an independent policy.

For their part, the opposition remains relatively fragmented, although they proved capable of working together in the May 2010 local elections. The coalition-building that took place prior to those elections will almost certainly continue and, if it proves durable (which is by no means assured), it could present a challenge at the next parliamentary elections, scheduled for 2013. However, any coalition is only as strong as the weakest link in the chain, and the Socialist People’s Party (SNP), led by Srdjan Milic, may be that weak link. They have, after all, a strong base of support and are much closer to the DPS than other opposition parties. It may seem remote now, in light of the creation of a new government, but should Lukšić pursue policies that create conflict within the DPS, the party could split again. In such a scenario, the SNP could play a key role. There may, therefore, be interesting times ahead.

But to objectively assess Montenegro’s progress as an independent state, one has to first place it in a wider historical context. The country has passed through significant traumas in the 20th century, yet it appears to be moving toward a brighter future. There is, of course, still much work to be done, particularly if Montenegro is to meet the rigid membership conditions set by the EU. Addressing and effectively dealing with the key problems outlined by the EC in the November 2010 report will require strong political will and even a commitment to face up to some of those powerful individuals whose interests would be threatened by genuine reform. This will be neither easy nor possible without significant political flux.

Montenegro faced significant challenges in the first years of its independence, challenges that could have proved insurmountable. Yet, five years hence, the problems that seemed so acute in 2006 have been largely overcome. Montenegro has, despite political flux and a measure of economic boom and bust, consolidated. Yet, there is no room for complacency; myriad challenges lie ahead, and while the foundations have been laid for Montenegro’s European future, there is much yet to be done before that future is secured.

Dr. Kenneth Morrison is a Senior Lecturer in Modern East European History at De Montfort University, and a Senior Visiting Fellow at the London School of Ecomomics (2011-12). He is the author of ‘Montenegro: A Modern History’ (IB Tauris, 2009) and a member of the TransConflict’s Advisory Board.

The full LSE paper ‘Change, Continuity and Consolidation: Five Years of Montenegro’s Independence’ can be read on the LSE (Research on South East Europe) website by clicking here.

To read other articles for TransConflict by Kenneth, please click here.

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