Rivals unite to challenge Montenegro’s veteran ruler

Milo Djukanovic accuses opposition of doing Russia’s bidding ahead of contentious election

Election posters for Montenegro’s prime minister Milo Djukanovic in Podgorica: election is expected to be a heated affair, with disputes over results and possible protests. Photograph: Savo Prelevic/AFP/Getty Images

Election posters for Montenegro’s prime minister Milo Djukanovic in Podgorica: election is expected to be a heated affair, with disputes over results and possible protests. Photograph: Savo Prelevic/AFP/Getty Images

 

During more than 25 years as Montenegro’s ruler, Milo Djukanovic has survived the demise of Yugoslavia, the Balkan Wars of the 1990s and non-stop allegations of corruption and mafia links, but Sunday’s election may be one battle too far.

Several opposition parties that hold starkly different views on key issues such as Montenegro’s Nato accession and relations with Russia have agreed to unite around a simple goal: defeat Djukanovic and force him from power.

Whether they succeed will depend not only on how many of Montenegro’s 590,000 voters they can attract, but on whether the vote is peaceful and whether they can stick together and outmanoeuvre Djukanovic’s Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) in predicted post-election coalition talks.

Reduced support

Polls suggest the DPS will remain the biggest party in parliament, but with reduced support and big problems forming a majority, given the agreement between opposition parties not to do a deal with the veteran leader.

“We have agreed on three principles: to form a government without DPS and Djukanovic; that there will be no immunity from criminal prosecution for anyone, especially Djukanovic; and that the decision on Nato membership will be put to a referendum,” said prominent opposition leader Nebojsa Medojevic.

Djukanovic accuses the opposition of doing the bidding of Russia, which fiercely opposes Montenegro’s accession to Nato and has long sought to counteract western political, financial and military influence across the Balkans.

He said this week that Russia had put serious financial resources into the Montenegrin election campaign, which he assumed was made possible “through its oligarchs and funnelled through secret channels through Serbia and [Bosnian region] Republika Srpska”.

“Traditional opposition, pro-Serb parties are now proponents of Russian interests in the Balkans . . . These elections are the last chance for opponents of Montenegro and the Balkans adopting European values,” he said.

Medojevic said the depiction of the opposition Democratic Front coalition as a Kremlin tool is Djukanovic’s way of securing western support.

“We are an absolutely pro-western and pro-Nato party, but we think the Nato membership question should go to a referendum: if it is decided by parliament, what is to stop the next parliament voting a different way?” said Medojevic, a veteran anti-corruption campaigner who leads the Movement for Changes party.

Membership deal

Montenegro signed a Nato membership deal this year but it must be ratified, and Medojevic said the nation should vote on that because it was a “special case”: the alliance bombed Montenegro in 1999 when it was part of a rump Yugoslavia to stop leader Slobodan Milosevic’s forces using brutal methods in rebellious Kosovo.

The other main party in the DF alliance, New Serb Democracy (Nova), backs EU accession for Montenegro but opposes Nato membership and wants close ties with Russia.

“We’re sure the United States would like to see Djukanovic stay in power, because it doesn’t want to see any risk to the Nato path of Montenegro,” said Slaven Radunovic, deputy leader of Nova.

“America doesn’t care about the will of the Montenegrin people, but we think it would be better for our country to be neutral in a military way.”

After meeting Russian officials in Moscow earlier this year, the leaders of Nova and a smaller member of the DF alliance said that if they gained power, they would withdraw Montenegro from the EU sanctions regime against Russia.

“There is no worse crime than to betray the interests of your own country,” Djukanovic said of opposition groups that he claims obey Russia’s orders.

“They won’t succeed, no way,” he declared during the campaign.

Djukanovic was just 27 when he rose to political prominence in 1989. He became prime minister of Montenegro in 1991; the DPS has been in power since and he has ruled almost constantly as premier or president.

Even in the few years that he stepped back from political office, he was seen as the ultimate ruler of this tiny, beautiful but poor Adriatic Sea state, which he led to independence from Serbia in a tight 2006 referendum.

As he moved from being an ally of the ultra-nationalist Milosevic to an advocate of western integration, Djukanovic was pursued by claims that he was turning Montenegro into a mafia state and acquiring vast wealth in the process.

Drug trafficking

The country is used by traffickers of weapons and drugs, and Italian prosecutors accused Djukanovic of involvement in a vast 1990s cigarette smuggling network – a charge he denied and which was ultimately dropped.

Medojevic claims to have received evidence from contacts in Montenegro’s security services that the DPS is preparing massive election fraud and street violence to force the suspension of the election if the opposition is poised to win.

Djukanovic accuses his rivals of planning similar tricks, setting the stage for a heated election night, disputes over the results and possible protests.

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