The small Adriatic state and EU candidate Montenegro is at a historic crossroads after Sunday's parliamentary elections. After 30 years of permanent rule by Milo Đukanović and his DPS, a change of power is possible for the first time. The three victorious opposition lists could not be more different in their positions but they are united by their desire for change. The young, green party URA is crucial for the change of course with 5.5% and 4 mandates.
"How good it feels to wake up in free Montenegro" posted Dritan Abazović, President of the United Reform Action (URA) party, top candidate of the electoral alliance "Black on White" and new hope for democratic change in Montenegro with its 620,000 inhabitants on the day after the parliamentary elections. Around 77% of the eligible voters* had followed the call to vote on Sunday; a record result despite the Covid-19 pandemic. The 34-year-old Abazović comes from Ulcinj in southern Montenegro and is one of the very few leaders of a national party in the Balkans with ethnic minority background. He stands for a young, modern Montenegro that wants to overcome the borders of ethnic origin and looks to Europe. And he stands for a generation that knows nothing but the rule of Milo Đukanović and his family, over and over again in various government offices and business sectors, for 30 years.
In December last year, a dynamic began that can help us understand the election results. In the middle of the negotiations on electoral law reform (the opposition boycotted large parts of the last legislature), President Đukanović surprised with a proposal with the presentation of a Religious Freedom Act. A law dating from the Yugoslavian era of 1977 was to be revised, the aim was to register religious communities active in Montenegro as it is common in many European states.
In the absence of a narrow European acquis on the issue, the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe was called upon to consider the law as being in line with fundamental freedoms after amendments were adopted. In the weeks and months that followed, a polarising debate broke out between defenders of the law and the part of the population (about 29%) that considered themselves Serbian, who saw the law as a direct attack against the Serbian Orthodox Church. The question of registration is not so much the problem as is the issue of the properties, including churches, monasteries and other real estate and land owned by the Serbian Orthodox Church, which has been active in Montenegro for centuries. In lack of proof of ownership, these should fall to the Montenegrin state. What followed was a formation of opposite camps, which partly explains the current majority situation. For the progressive, pro-European camp, the law on freedom of religion was a further attempt by Đukanović to enrich himself and his friends and to determine the debate far away from other topics; for the pro-Serbian and Russian clerical camp it was an attack on their religious freedom with the aim of establishing a Montenegrin Orthodox Church based on the Ukrainian model. In the end, the DPS government had become unbearable for both.
The question of who actually caused the polarization remains open. For some, it was Đukanović, who presented himself in Montengro as the undisputed defender of European values and who utilised a "Divide & Conquer" tactic to secure the election victory. For the others, it is the right-wing, clerical establishment of the Serbs, who never really accepted Montenegro's independence from Serbia in 2006, and fanned the flames of conflict with much support from Belgrade. In any case, the election results show that things did not go smoothly for Đukanović’s DPS; they lost 6 seats in parliament, the alliance "For the Future of Montenegro" around the Serb-dominated DF was able to mobilise their ranks and gained 12 mandates.
For a small, young party like URA it was very difficult for these reasons to reach voters with a central position of reason on the church dispute and its own issues. Therefore they decided to use the idea of an open electoral list "Black on White" to generate support among respected personalities. Among the approx. 100 intellectuals, doctors, civil society activists and journalists there are people like Milka Tadić Mijović, a champion of independent journalism since the 1990s and founder of the Centre for Investigative Journalism in Podgorica. Now the young Greens of URA, who only joined the European Green Party (EGP) in June, face a complex challenge and a lot of responsibility in Montenegro. Such a close election result, with an expected 40-41 distribution of seats in parliament, a social atmosphere charged with ethnic resentment and a debate about national identity would be a real test for any country. If URA forms an alliance with the DPS, they will disappoint many people's desire for change; if they join the pro-Serb DF, they will be accused of making a common cause with clerical radicals and Serbian nationalists. If they remain in opposition, it will be very difficult for both sides to form a majority.
The will and desire for change and transformation towers above all
After an initial agreement between the three opposition alliances, lines of compromise are emerging. They agreed on four basic principles of cooperation: Montenegro would remain a member of NATO and respect all international treaties, joining the European Union as soon as possible would remain a strategic goal, the articles on property rights in the law on freedom of religion would be resolved in a compromise between state and church, an expert government with as many experts as possible should be appointed.
Perhaps this is a way to pacify the situation for the time being and bring together the strongly divided society, but how democratic is a government of experts? In the first days after the election, opposition parties reached out to the minority parties, all signaling reconciliation and understanding. A new government could not be formed without them, the opposition leaders said. It remains questionable whether a government with such different orientations can bring a country together. A further risk remains that with the DF and its clerical and security policy entanglements, Serbia could continue to interfere in Montenegrin domestic politics as it does in Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina. The attempt to divide the Balkans along ethnic-religious identity has still not ceased in the Serbian government. From Belgrade's point of view, these Montenegrin elections are the latest chapter in an opportunity to improve the unjust history of the 1990s and to implement Greater Serbia's ambitions. This is illustrated not least by these pictures of a nationalist motorcade in downtown Belgrade on election night.
Scenes from last night in downtown #Belgrade in front of the Parliament and the President's office. Many showed the "Serbian three-finger salute" as a symbol of Serbian ethnic nationalism, representing the Holy Trinity in the Orthodox Church. 🤦♂️ pic.twitter.com/KeRoK76m2W
- Simon Ilse (@simonilse) August 31, 2020
But even in Montenegro one cannot speak of a fait accompli. If anyone in the Balkans is a master of power, it is Đukanović. He will remain president until 2023 anyway, and is now waiting. It will therefore depend on the election in Parliament after it has been reconstituted. In any case, a peaceful transfer of power is not an established practice in Montenegro. URA is advised to revise its expectations of rapid change for the time being. Now is the time to define priorities and principles of coalition participation in a democratic manner. Before the election of a government, independent institutions should be supported, the rules of procedure of the Parliament, the High Council of Judges or the Broadcasting Council should be adapted so that a roll-back of the rule of law becomes more difficult. In any case, Montenegro still has a long way to go before it frees itself from state capture and lives up to the dream of an ecological state, as formulated in the constitution.
Background of green parties and initiatives in the Western Balkans
URA had only been accepted as a candidate member of the European Green Party EGP in June. In July the green-left platform "Mozemo" (We can!) had won five seats in the Croatian parliament. In Serbia, the opposition has tripped itself up by boycotting the parliamentary elections in June; but there too, "Ne Davimo Beograd" (Don't Drown Belgrade!) is establishing itself as a green-progressive urban initiative, focusing on Belgrade's mayoral elections in 2022 prepared. It is still too early to talk about a green wave in the Balkans, but these young, green, progressive European initiatives look at each other, get to know each other and can learn from each other. What unites them is a new kind of policy offer to citizens in the Balkans. They rely on strong networking with civil society initiatives and participation, mobilisation through social media. They are all united by a determined fight against the corrupt political elite of their respective countries. They use the civil society against the mafia regime.
It is interesting to note that this struggle for increased rule of law can be combined more effectively with green demands in the areas of environmental protection, energy and urban policy. In Montenegro, for example, URA demanded a Moratorium on small hydropower plants on Montenegrin rivers, which are installed all over the Balkans with no respect for nature and wildlife, often by businessmen from the immediate family environment of the presidents. In Ulcinj, Abazović’s home town, the preservation of an old salt works as a nature reserve for flamingos and other birds from another tourist complex with marina for the super rich has been a political bone of contention for years. The defence of city parks, the questioning of highway projects through UNESCO-protected areas or the air quality in cities are all issues that have occupied people's minds because they directly influence their quality of life, and for which the Greens can offer solutions.