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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0 Response

  1. V. Krnjevac

    I just returned from a visit to Montenegro and the economic conditions there are dismal. Every year that I go there I hope that the economic conditions would improve, but they turn out to be worse than the previous year; this economic decline started with the independence from Serbia.
    Dr. Morrison mentions the voting irregularities in the referendum without mentioning the most notorious one of not allowing the Montenegrins living in Serbia to vote while the Albanians living in the USA and Europe were allowed to do so and they all voted for the independence. Had the Montenegrins living Serbia been allowed to vote, the outcome of the referendum would have been different. The majority of the Montenegrins did not want the independence from Serbia, but the US and EU governments did and that is what counts.

  2. Astoria

    This is a proper summary of the ‘political’ terrain, however, Morrison fails to mention a number of significant aspects:

    (1) On-going corruption and political patronage within the political system, which directly impacts on the quality of democracy in the country and induces fear in the citizenry.

    (2) The role of the national intelligence services (ANB) and police (Uprava Policije), which effectively serve to neutralize democratization and serve to further instill fear in the citizenry. The ANB has admitted to monitoring NGO activists and the Police Director is too busy attempting to sue opposition politicians or NGOs that raise questions about corruption.

    (3) The failure to solve any of a number of murders of prominent regime critics, including the murder of Dusko Jovanovic (the editor of DAN newspaper).

    (4) The failure to arrest or indict the individuals most responsible for organized crime in the country, including Stanko ‘Cane’ Subotic, Branislav Micunovic, Veselin Barovic, the Ban brothers, Darko Saric, etc., etc.

    (5) The massive privatization of the country with little benefit to ordinary citizens. Most privatized businesses have gone bankrupt, while those that have ‘succeeded’ (like the telecom companies and energy companies) have only imposed larger costs on the population. Montenegro has one of the highest mobile phone rates in the region and the cost of electricity continues to mount.

    (6) Massive unemployment – labour force surveys put it at around 18% – and the on-going erosion of workplace rights. This is compounded by a burgeoning black market and informal sector, which accounts for 25% of the economy and where rights are crushed and gender-based discrimination is rife.

    (7) The tourism industry, one of the only ‘bright’ spots, is responsible for unrestrained and illegal coastal development (for which no officials are made to answer for). The ‘boom’ in the tourism industry has devastated the landscape. Socialist era resorts have been privatized, many lie derelict and unused, while the labour force is let go. Instead cheap labour is imported from across the region. This has led to an ‘enclavized’ economic sector that does not benefit most Montenegrins (this according to the World Bank).

    8. The failure of Montenegro to prosecute those actually responsible for the deportation / massacre of 80 Bosnian Muslim males, the ethnic-cleansing of Bukovina’s residents, the organization of the Morinj torture camp, etc.

    9. The politicized removal of the Central Bank governor who refused to bend to political pressure to bail out the First Bank (Prva Banka) owned by former Prime Minister Djukanovic and his family.

    Montenegro represents everything that is wrong with Western policy in the Balkans over the past 20 years. The EU and USA have placed ‘stability’ in the region above democracy. This policy has enabled the uninterrupted rule of the DPS over the past 22 years (making it the only postcommunist country that has not seen an actual change of regime since 1989). This is hardly a stellar performance.

  3. Milenko Marković

    Professor Morisson may have been tricked by the outside calm in Montenegro, but the rift caused by the referendum is far deeper than it is visible. For example: if someone wants to be employed by the police, his political background is most thoroughly checked, including his distant relatives, and of course only DPS loyalists get the job. In pro-Serbian dominated areas, such as town of Pljevlja, when Montenegrin football team plays a match, tickets are given only to DPS loyalists and members of local Muslim population (!?). Otherwise, they would be booed out. There is also massively implemented practice of payments for votes during elections etc, etc.

    Montenegrin independence is a joke, a house of card that can crumble in a second. And finally, in spite of all irregularities, DPS’ margin of victory is around only 10.000 votes!

  4. Serdar

    Serbs, get over it, Montenegro is an independent country and that it will remain, your pathetic lies will not change that fact(I really do not want to be rude,but there is no another way to say this). EU and every other relevant international organization is congratulating Montenegro on its progress and giving it praise for its achievements, saying that Montenegro is bright spot of the Balkans, unlike Serbia for example and I think that time is finally came for you to look at your own courtyard and stop constantly criticizing ALL of your neighbours for problems you imagine that they have.Maybe then you will realize why your country (Serbia) is shrinking every year.
    @ Mr Morrison,text well written! It is evident that you know lot about Montenegro and try to comprehend its problems objectively unlike some other individuals that still lives in the past.

  5. Astoria

    Serdar, it is not only Serbs criticizing Montenegro’s performance. Many ethnic Montenegrins are also critical of DPS/SDP governance, including many of those who contributed to the country’s struggle for independence. There are many cleavages in Montenegro between the Serb/Montenegrin one, including:

    + Between rich and poor;
    + Between the coast and the interior;
    + Between the parties in power (which include members of all ethnic communities) and the opposition (which also include members of all ethnic communities);
    + Between the majority orthodox Slavic population (Serb or Montenegrin) and other minority communities;
    + Between citizens and refugees;

    You are correct that Mr. Morrison provides a solid analysis of some of the basically features of the Montenegrin political system – but there is a much wider set of issues that he chose to marginalize as well. If we want to see a democratic Montenegro, then these issues will have to be addressed as well. Yes, the European Commission has consistently applauded Montenegro on its reforms, though it has also been critical of how it has implemented these reforms (especially when it comes to the fight against corruption and organized crime). Furthermore, the EC, seldom comments on the socio-economic situation in the country, where Montenegro has one of the largest income inequalities and despite a significant post-independence boom (2006-2008), the country failed to reduce poverty in any significant way. It is worth reading the UNDP’s latest report on these matters for a more balanced picture of the ‘Montenegrin economic miracle’ that the current elite trumpets to justify its 22 years of uninterrupted rule.

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