23 years in power – the curious case of Montenegro

A change of the ossified governing structures and one-party control over the entire state remains a conditio sine qua non for genuine democratization of the Montenegrin polity and society.

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Conflict Background

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By M. Bogetic

As voters across Montenegro went to the polls on 14 October, few among them were expecting to see the ruling coalition defeated and the balance of power in the parliament significantly altered. And they were right – the ruling alliance led by the Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) scored another victory, winning over 45% of votes, and 39 out of 81 seats in the Parliament. This was the tenth consecutive victory by the DPS in parliamentary elections. In other words, the party has won every single election since the establishment of the multi-party system 23 years ago. This makes it a unique phenomenon in the post-communist Europe and, more broadly, on the European continent, as no other political party has been in power uninterruptedly since 1989. What makes the DPS so unique? What explains its almost two-and-a-half-decade long grip on power? A number of factors can be identified, some of which are personal, other cultural, historical, structural and geopolitical.

Many pundits attribute the dominance of the DPS to one man – the party leader, former prime minister (six times) and one-term president – Milo Djukanovic. Back in 1989, Djukanovic, along with his peers, led the so-called “anti-bureaucratic revolution”, which toppled the old Communist leadership of Montenegro and established a multi-party system. Two years later, Djukanovic assumed his first premiership, at the age of 29, thus becoming the youngest prime minister in Europe. Over the following decade, Djukanovic successfully eliminated intra-party competitors and established himself as the undisputed party leader and the most potent political figure in Montenegro. Djukanovic has successfully balanced and modified his positions over the years to fit the changing domestic and regional environment. For example, while Slobodan Milosevic was at the pinnacle of his powers, Djukanovic was loyally by his side; once Milosevic started to lose grip and entered into an open confrontation with the West, Djukanovic abandoned his mentor and started to promote a separate way for Montenegro. Djukanovic has also been widely acknowledged as a skilled and hard-working operative and a charismatic orator. In a country where good physique is viewed as a significant advantage in politics, Djukanovic’s imposing posture and handsome looks could only contribute to his overall popularity. An exit poll after the 14 October elections showed that more than two-thirds of DPS voters voted for the party because of its leader.

Djukanovic is not the first leader to be adored and placed on a pedestal by a significant portion of the population. Montenegrins have historically been attracted and attached to strong personalities. Some local historians argue that such a tradition had begun as early as the eighteenth century, with the prominent Bishop Peter I Petrovic Njegos (38 years in power), and was later continued with the Montenegrin King Nikola I Petrovic Njegos, who remained in power for almost 60 years. This practice of strong chieftains went on in the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, to which Montenegro was annexed, under the leadership of King Aleksandar I Karadjordjevic (13 years in power), and, after the World War II and the popular revolution, Josip Broz Tito, who headed Yugoslavia for 35 years. The fascination of Montenegrins with their leaders was – symbolically, but tellingly – demonstrated by the fact that Montenegro titled its largest city and the capital Titograd, whereas other Yugoslav republics named their small, provincial towns after Tito. Having this in mind, it should come as no great surprise that a good part of the Montenegrin populace feel attached to the dominant leader of the past 23 years, Milo Djukanovic.

While Djukanovic may indeed be a key factor behind many of the DPS’s victories, it is the formidable party organization which must be given credit for the continuing success. Between 1989 and 1991, the Democratic Party of Socialists inherited complete structures and the entire property of the dissolved League of Communists of Montenegro. That gave it a great advantage over all other newly-formed political parties which were dealing with numerous organizational and financial challenges. Even though over the years the DPS has formally given-up and returned to the State some of the inherited resources, it has, nevertheless, retained a majority of material properties. The party has, more importantly, benefited from all the accumulated experience and know-how which stayed among its cadres after the former Communists rebranded themselves as Democratic Socialists. Today, more than 20 years later, the party retains the most developed and complete infrastructure in Montenegro, including a well-researched and developed database of voters and their preferences. The DPS has more due-paying and active members than all other parties combined, and its pre-election activism and field work, including its signature “door-to-door” campaigning, remain unsurpassed. It has been reported that some of the leading social-democratic parties from EU member states have visited Montenegro in recent years with the view of learning more about the DPS’s best practices and stunning electoral successes.

All the while, some of the activities and mechanisms used by the DPS could not be described as fully legitimate. Due to the fact that Montenegro has not experienced a genuine change in government in many decades, given that the League of Communists was rebranded as the DPS and continued to rule, the distinction between the State and the ruling Party has in many aspects become worryingly vague.  The state-controlled media, such as the Radio-Television of Montenegro and the daily Pobjeda, have for years been on the forefront of promoting and defending the DPS’s policies, while denigrating and slandering the opposition. Party officials have regularly used state resources, including helicopters and vehicles, to campaign, while the cutting of red ribbon and opening of new schools, roads, tunnels and bridges just before the elections has become commonplace. State provisions – pensions and welfare, in particular – have been augmented and more regular throughout pre-electoral periods. Generous distributions of foodstuff and other goods to poorer, particularly, rural areas, have been commonly observed.

On a more disquieting note, the party’s undisputed control over the police and the state security apparatus, and the continuous covert abuse of these capacities for political purposes, have been notorious. Pressure on those employed in the state administration and state-run companies to vote for the DPS has been recorded multiple times. Often this pressure amounts to straight-out blackmail, when employees are asked to promise to vote for the ruling party or lose their jobs. Temporary “purchasing” of ID cards from suspected opposition supporters before Election Day, so that they cannot go to the polls, has also been documented on numerous occasions. Finally, the merger of the State and the Party means that the DPS remains largely in charge of assigning state contracts through tenders, hiring new state employees, giving scholarships, etc, which has formed an extensive paternalistic network in most spheres of society.

The DPS’s clinging to power for 23 years has only been made easier by the inherent weakness and divisiveness of the Montenegrin political opposition. Ever since the collapse of communism, throughout ten electoral cycles, Montenegrin opposition parties have not managed to forge an all-encompassing, coherent and formidable alliance to challenge the ruling party. Reasons for such a continuous failure may be sought among seemingly profound differences which these parties have had on the issues of Montenegrin nationhood and statehood, the break-up of the SFRY, relations with Serbia and Kosovo, World War II revisionism and Euro-Atlantic integration, etc. Recurring disputes have been frequently caused by oversized egos and personal animosities among opposition leaders. The DPS has, naturally, always stood ready to explore and poke at the opposition’s weaknesses; in addition, it has sometimes actively, if covertly, contributed to breaking-up of several parties, thus further fragmenting the opposition scene. On one occasion, in 2001, when various opposition parties actually won a plurality of parliamentary seats to form a coalition government, their negotiations fell through and the DPS was decidedly victorious in early elections in the subsequent year. Instead of trying to attract disillusioned DPS voters, opposition parties have thus far mostly fought to win the backing of each other’s’ voters. A possible qualitative change in this respect occurred in the last election, with the formation of a brand new party which focused on those abstaining and on former government supporters, which may have caused the loss of the DPS’s absolute majority. It remains to be seen if this trend will continue or it is just a short-lived fluke on the opposition scene.

Finally, the series of ongoing successes of the DPS and its leader Djukanovic would have been much harder without regional and international support for their cause. Between 1989 and 1997, Djukanovic and the party enjoyed a full-hearted backing of the Serbian leader Milosevic. Once Djukanovic started to turn his back on Belgrade, the EU and the USA started to entice him and provide support, both economically and politically. This was perhaps most obvious during the 1999 NATO air campaign against the then Yugoslavia, when Montenegro was largely spared thanks to Djukanovic’s decision to stay clear of the Kosovo conflict. Ever since then, Djukanovic and his party have been rather reliable partners of the leading Western powers, and “factors of stability” in the volatile Balkan region. All the while, Djukanovic maintained close political and financial ties with Russia, whose investors have flooded Montenegro over the past decade. Playing a smart card of indispensability, not unlike Tito, Djukanovic has managed to position himself as a reasonably safe and reliable partner for Brussels, Washington and Moscow alike.

Since the renewal of its independence in 2006, Montenegro has achieved substantial progress in coming closer to both the EU and NATO membership. Internally, a lot remains to be desired in Montenegro, including the judiciary, rule of law, a genuine fight against corruption and organized crime, fair and transparent privatizations, the depolitization of public and secret police, and an improved electoral process. Nevertheless, both European and American partners have willingly chosen to keep a “semi-blind eye” on many of the existing weaknesses and irregularities because they believe that it is better to deal with Djukanovic and his apparatus rather than try the unknown waters and experiment with the untested opposition. The Western Realpolitik in this sense, and the absence of real pressure on the Montenegrin leadership to implement necessary reforms, have undoubtedly helped Djukanovic and the DPS maintain their grip on power.

At the end of 2012, Montenegro remains the only post-communist country in Europe which has not yet experienced a change of government. Furthermore, Montenegro is still awaiting the first peaceful and democratic change of government in its entire history. A change of the ossified governing structures and the one-party control over the entire state remains a conditio sine qua non for genuine democratization of the Montenegrin polity and society. For that to happen, at least some of the above-listed factors have to change. Until then, dethronement of Djukanovic and fall of the DPS government in Montenegro remain no more than a distinct possibility.

M. Bogetic is a graduate of the Diplomatic Academy Vienna and Johns Hopkins University – School of Advanced International Studies.

5 Responses

  1. M.Ilickovic

    The curious case of Montenegro , Mr Djukanovic success demonstrates ability of regime insider to work the system for their own advantage making a mockery of the legal system. The market serves as vehicles for converting family political capital into cash. How turn the page. Why continue what has failed. Obviously elections are not an instrument of significant political change.

  2. Anonymous

    Mr. Bogetic is not quite correct as the main reason for Mr. Djukanovic and his party (DPS) is the fact that opposition is not opposition to Government (as it should be) but opposition to independent state of Montenegro. They are anti-Montenegro, do not acknowledge Montenegrin people and nation (for them we are all “Serbs”), they are extremely anti-NATO and openly Russophiles, pan-Orthodox and pan-Slavonic oriented. Unfortunately, the problems are expounded by unresolved issue of Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro who is actively spreading anti-Montenegro sentiments we had mentioned above.

    There are other factors but the main one is Serbian Clerical-nationalism.

  3. Maintaining that the opposition is not opposition to Government (as it should be) but anti independent state of Montenegro (or state’s enemy) is a speculation backing official propaganda.
    Montenegro experience a new forms of one-party rule (often seen as family enterprise). The core of the opposition consists of pro-independence , liberal western style political parties some with a long history of dissent against the regime and Mr Djukanovic..
    The political importance pro Serbia oriented political parties have been deliberately overstated.As for Serbian Orthodox Church anti Montenegrin activities there is just not political will to engage legal system..
    Labelling the entire opposition as pro Serbian and now Russian – “empire of evil -” awakening 19 century’s prejudice,” Russophiles, pan-orthodox and pan-Slavonic, “ is the way how the governing parties manipulate citizens in a bid to gain more support. A widely deployed misconception is that the nation is choosing between Europe and Serbia with Russia
    The question is why many Montenegrin citizens stick closely to Serbia looking to give them access to a “second hand identity”. There is something missing. Absence of national identity that is relevant to all citizens, properly reflecting a modern Montenegro. It is about giving the direction, meaning and purpose to national life

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