Meet Milo Djukanovic, the man who has ruled Montenegro for 26 years — the longest-reigning non-royal leader in Europe — whose regime continues to benefit from the European Union’s indifference.
Montenegro is a mafia state.
This really would be the most accurate way to describe my homeland’s predicament in a single sentence, if commitment to the task were to trump national pride.
I’ll admit that, over the years, I’ve struggled to reconcile these two things.
The “What’s your country like?” question, which I often get asked, demands at least a mildly interesting response. Since most of Montenegro’s charms are fittingly encompassed by that worn out oriental cliché of three W’s (lovely weather, great wine, beautiful women), obtaining the correspondent’s courteous nod of amusement is not too hard.
Yet, the unpleasant truth which, in time, I have come to accept, is that the most salient bit of Montenegro’s reality – one permeating all social, cultural and economic aspects of life in the country – is its ruling regime.
To understand any given fact about this little-known Mediterranean society, one has to be introduced to the peculiarities of this political structure: starting, perhaps, with the most authentic aspect – its leader.
Milo Djukanovic has ruled Montenegro for 26 years.
Since 1990, he has served six terms as prime minister, one term as president and a year or two as the country’s de facto boss, overseeing a puppet head of government. This makes Djukanovic the longest-reigning non-royal leader in Europe – a title he holds with understandable shyness (which is why it is often misattributed to Belarus’s Lukashenko).
Djukanovic started his political career as a protégé of Serbia’s newly appointed leader, Slobodan Milosevic, at the age of 29 (the post of prime minister of Montenegro was, in fact, his first full-time job). For the better part of the 90’s, Djukanovic was perceived as Milosevic’s most reliable aide, notorious for his anti-Croatian warmongering and eloquent in support for the ‘Greater Serbian’ cause.
When harsh war sanctions befell Montenegro, Djukanovic’s solution for rescuing the country’s exchequer was to facilitate an international cigarette-smuggling ring, in collaboration with the Italian mafia. In the process, he and his crew of crooks took a substantial share of the spoils, amassing millions offshore.
In 1996, Djukanovic switched sides, going from Milosevic’s yes man to a major Western ally in the region, paying frequent lip service to the cause of EU integrations, and the prospect of NATO membership.
Defeating the pro-Milosevic fraction of Montenegro’s ruling party (the Democratic Party of Socialists) in 1997, he laid the foundations for two decades of uncontested, authoritarian rule, during which a tight-knit group of kleptocrats would impoverish the country.
Throughout the 2000s, Djukanovic led the wholesale of Montenegro’s State-owned industry.
The whole affair turned out to be a government-sponsored land grab, in which Djukanovic’s cronies took hold of companies, drained them of cash, broke them down and tossed them back to the government.
The effects were disastrous: Montenegro’s industry, whose worth in 1998 was estimated at 4.5 billion USD, was eventually sold for a combined total of 735 million euros. Of the 198 firms privatized between 1998 and 2014, 176 went bankrupt. One fourth of the country’s workforce lost their jobs and poverty went through the roof. The nation’s economy was in tatters; Djukanovic’s inner circle made a killing on it.
The quarter-century of Djukanovic’s rule has offered few ideological consistencies: from Milosevic to NATO, from vowing to create ‘an island of communism in Europe’ to embracing neoliberalism, from vehement opposition to Montenegro’s sovereignty to its most ardent proponent.
The Enemy (whether it denotes ‘the opponents of Yugoslavia’ or ‘the Serbian-backed foes of Montenegro’s independence’) is always the same: a subversive, foreign-funded, country-hating, perpetually-plotting nemesis, an idea that is both laughably weak and threateningly potent.
The occasional ‘orchestrated attacks on the government of Montenegro, designed to sabotage its Euro-Atlantic path’ – i.e. critiques by Freedom House, reports by Transparency International – are, of course, all somehow part of this Grand Conspirator’s doing.
In the aforementioned swamp of self-serving demagoguery, one can, upon closer inspection, discern one genuine political commitment, to which Djukanovic has so far shown absolute, unwavering devotion: election theft.
The complete control that the regime exerts over the electoral process in Montenegro enables the Democratic Party of Socialists to run massive vote rigging schemes, and stage landslide victories in each election cycle.
For instance, the country’s public sector, which accounts for 35 percent of the workforce, has become a hub of partisanship and nepotism, where Party loyalty is a requirement of employment, and continuous electoral support a condition for keeping one’s job.
In another instance, the country’s intelligence services are harnessed to generate the so-called ‘safe vote’ database: a massive collection of private information about every single registered voter in Montenegro – family relations, sexual preferences, treatable illnesses and anything else that could be used to extort votes.
These are two of the many methods of electoral fraud Djukanovic’s regime has perfected over the decades. However, compensating a terrible record of governance with the ability to steal elections is not what sets Djukanovic apart.
The uniqueness of Montenegro’s regime stems from the relations it has built with the European Union – that is, from Djukanovic’s ability to eschew the EU’s demands for reforms and still remain the Union’s firm partner, and his capacity to exchange commitment to Western values for a frail pro-Western geopolitical alignment.
No dictator has ever benefited so long from the European Union’s indifference. Nor has a nation on European soil suffered so much as a result.
For more on Montenegro, read an Open Letter to the Government of Montenegro, the Ministry of Internal Affairs, and the Police Directorate
Cover photo credit: YouTube/Atlas TV Montenegro