Op-ed: A Tale of Two Countries

With historic protests about to take place in Montenegro, Ivana Jordanovska reflects on dictatorship, democratic deficiency, civic action and the role of the EU and Russia in both Montenegro and Macedonia.

Once upon a time, or in 2006 to be more precise, two seemingly separate events took place in two different Balkan countries. In Macedonia, Nikola Gruevski came to power as the fresh-faced, highly-educated, reform-implementing center-rightist. His reign, which continues to this day, was at first characterized by progressive fiscal and tax collection legislation, and slightly patriotic, but predominantly pro-EU rhetoric that seemingly broke away from the cult of the “charismatic leader”. Almost 10 years later, Gruevski has silenced almost all media in the country, illegally wire-tapped more than 20,000 citizens and laundered millions of euros through the project “Skopje 2014”. In the not-so-distant neighborhood, Milo Djukanovic became the first Prime Minister of the newly-independent state of Montenegro.

However, the razor-tongue brilliance of Djukanovic had already been recognized several decades before. Djukanovic first appeared on the late-Yugoslav political scene as a high school member of the Yugoslav Communist League, where his father was already an influential figure. By 1988, he was the youngest member of the last sitting of the highest decision-making body, the Central Committee. The fall of unitary Yugoslavia was the first chance for Djukanovic’s reach for power, who became Slobodan Milosevic’s extended hand in Montenegro. By the age of 29, Djukanovic was elected to his first job ever: Prime Minister of the Federal Republic of Montenegro.

Djukanovic maneuvered his political career through the tumultuous 1990s remarkably well. As presidents and prime ministers were falling from grace, Milo managed to stay in power and spread his wealth and influence. In 2003, the prosecutor’s office in Naples linked Djukanovic with an international organized crime racket worth billions of euros. The case went through three court instances in Italy, finally ruling in 2004 that Djukanovic, as the prime minister of Montenegro, was not eligible for immunity since Montenegro was not a sovereign state. In a curiously incidental turn of fate, Montenegro’s referendum in 2006 proclaimed Montenegro to be a sovereign state, independent from Serbia, and luckily enough, Djukanovic received the previously lacking immunity.

Since 2006, Djukanovic has resigned from the post of prime minister and retired from politics twice, in 2006 and 2010, while Montenegro’s democratic deficiencies seem to be piling up. Every election cycle has been plagued by complaints of irregularities, culminating in Transparency International’s “complaint” in 2014 that the country never dealt with 842 reports of electoral fraud. The privatization process, dragging on from the late 1990s, has been scandalized by evidence brought forward by workers that capital was sold to tycoons for prices much lower than market value.

Fast forward to 2015, and Montenegro and Macedonia seem stuck in a very similar form of dictatorship. Analyzing the scandals and key events of Montenegro in the past 10 years, I couldn’t help but experience a déjà vu of sorts: Both countries have seemingly functional electoral cycles, an opposition struggling to take power, freedom of speech and a workable free market. Meanwhile, in reality, elections have been plagiarized, the opposition undermined by threats and lawsuits, journalists under attack for doing their jobs and a line of “businessmen” working hand-in-hand with the government. The similarities extend even further, as both countries are involved in the same corruption case: The bribing of high government officials by the Hungarian Telecom for the favorable sale of both the Macedonian and Montenegrin national telecommunications companies. The affair was prompted by an investigation of the US Securities and Exchange Commission, which found irregularities in the transactions.

So it comes as no surprise that the Montenegrin opposition is organizing a protest on Sunday and a camp in front of the Parliament of Montenegro, asking for a transitional government in preparation for fair and democratic elections next year. For me as a Macedonian, the protests sound all too familiar, but with one big difference.

The Montenegrin opposition has taken the protests a step further. In order to finance the protests, but also to increase the involvement of citizens, an online crowdfunding campaign has been launched, aimed at being “the first democratically financed protests for democracy”. Their website, FreedomCalling.Me, is accessible in both the local language and English, gives an overview of the situation, provides live coverage of the events, and offers the possibility to donate money. Their current goal is to raise 20,000 euros by October 1st.

If successful, this will be the first such campaign in the Balkans to raise funds from small, individual donors. In addition to involving the citizens of Montenegro, the initiative also asks the widespread diaspora and foreign pro-democracy activists for support. In a region where no one is ever quite sure where money for political campaigns comes from, this is a brave step for the eternal opposition of this tiny Balkan country. But will it make a difference?

Djukanovic’s long reign has been paired with an equally long period of civic inactivity. Unlike Macedonia pre-May 17th, citizens in Montenegro have yet to get used to protests “every day at six”. Activists in Montenegro have, in some cases, survived attacks even worse than those in Macedonia. (Does anyone remember Vanja Calovic, who was accused of having oral sex with a dog?)

But is everyone involved prepared to put aside their minor political differences to achieve the greater goal? And finally, what is the emotional drive animating them? For Macedonia, it was the murder of Martin, the death of Tamara, the imprisonment of the journalist Kezarovski, the suspicious car crash that killed the newspaper editor Nikola Mladenov… For Montenegro, will it be the death of police inspector Scekic, who investigated far too many murders of government critics? Or the murder of newspaper editor Dusko Jovanovic, investigated by Scekic himself? Or perhaps the economic exodus of more than a fourth of the population of the northeastern town of Rozaje?

As a country with a tiny population of some 600,000, Montenegro is not at the top of everyone’s agenda. Additionally, it’s the only country in the Western Balkans that has opened negotiations for EU accession. It would be silly to expect a country as troubled as Montenegro to become a part of the EU any time soon, but the question is how enthusiastic Brussels will be about the demands of the opposition. If we are to learn from Macedonia’s example, neither the opposition nor the EU should support any public or direct form of action by the EU. Best case scenario, the EU will facilitate the establishment of a transitional government, and offer all existing instruments on hand to monitor the elections next year. However, in all of this, we must not forget a factor not as present in Macedonia as it is in Montenegro: Russia. With millions of Russian tourists and businesses, Montenegro has become the playground of Russia’s moneyed elite. The effect that the eventual change in the status quo will have on Russian interests could swing the EU’s support one way or the other.

As both Macedonia and Montenegro follow a similar pattern, we can’t avoid the question “Where did we make the mistake?” As former Yugoslav republics, both countries share a common history spanning almost 80 years. But ever since 1991, the countries seemingly took divergent, individual paths and made very different political decisions. And yet, here we are, 24 years later, at the same crossroads and with the same democratic deficiencies. Could it be that all of us, foreigners and natives alike, tried to apply the same democratic structures, without teaching and learning the democratic principles first? Did we try to perpetuate the weakness of the civic voice in state affairs on all levels until it was too late? Or is the current rise of the highly-educated, social-media savvy and democratically sensitive youth a necessary step in the creation of our democratic structures and principles?

An analysis of what went wrong is a must for the creation of more democratic societies in the long run. But in the short term, the protests in Montenegro are necessary for setting in motion the environment for analyzing and amending its many democratic deficiencies. Because the only thing worse than a dictator ruling for 10 years is a dictator ruling for 26 years.


Cover photo: Milo Djukanovic (Wikipedia commons) 

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Ivana Jordanovska

Ivana is a graduate of the Institute for Political Science of Paris, with a focus on transatlantic relations. She is also a member of the Executive Board of the Young European Federalists (JEF Europe), and believes justice is more important than ethnic belonging.