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Five years in

June 3, 2011

Montenegro can celebrate many major advances in the five years since its independence, including an economic boom and candidacy to become a member of the European Union; but it's not all peaches and cream.

A traditionally dressed soldier watches national flag being lifted after Montenegrin parliament deputies voted to proclaim independence in Podgorica, Saturday, June 3 2006.
It's been five years since the Montenegrin flag flew freelyImage: AP

Montenegro's stable government, solid economy, and lack of any serious ethnic conflicts can be counted as great successes since the country's formation, according to an expert on the Balkans at Munich's South Eastern European Society, Hansjörg Brey.

"People in Montenegro can look back with a certain satisfaction on what they have achieved in the five years since their independence," Brey said.

Montenegrin journalist Zoran Radulovic also says that, for the most part, the country has handled its independence as expected. Radulovic was campaigning for Montenegrin independence immediately after the collapse of the former Yugoslavia in 1991, some 16 years before the country gained stand-alone status.

"I do think independence was a good move, though I didn't really expect any major changes. But what I didn't expect was for everything to be put on ice for so long, as was the case in Montenegrin politics," Radulovic said.

Prime Minister Igor Luksic (R) shakes hands with former Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic
Luksic (right) took over from Djukanovic in DecemberImage: picture alliance/dpa

'New' country, old leader

Radulovic is particularly disappointed that independence wasn't followed by a quicker change of leadership in Montenegro, with political veteran Milo Djukanovic only stepping down in December 2010. Djukanovic held various offices within the former Yugoslavia's Communist government, and was named prime minister of Montenegro in 1991 when the county was still closely tied to Serbia and was active in the Bosnian and Croatian Wars. Save for a few brief interludes, Djukanovic had been either prime minister or president of Montenegro ever since.

As well as his two dubious decades in charge, Djukanovic is also suspected in black market trading; Italian state prosecutors for instance launched investigations against him on suspicion of large-scale tobacco smuggling.

Djukanovic is still the head of the ruling Democratic Party of Socialists, but his younger colleague Igor Luksic has taken over as prime minister.

Change of direction

Balkans expert Hansjörg Brey is more positive about the new political landscape in Montenegro. He points to the unified belief, held by government and opposition alike, that the country should target membership of NATO and the EU.

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and Montenegro Prime Minister Igor Luksic
Luksic wants to lead Montenegro into EuropeImage: AP

"When I look at the new Prime Minister Igor Luksic, I see a new generation of politician, someone who's looking forward and who is also not ensnared or burdened by the conflicts of the past," Brey said.

Due to its ties with Serbia, Montenegro was also hit by the Western sanctions against Slobodan Milosevic's old regime in Belgrade. The economic hardship and isolation that followed eventually caused Djukanovic - once a close ally of Milosevic - to seek independence from Belgrade.

The fall of Milosevic's regime strengthened the already growing Montenegrin independence movement, which culminated in a May 2006 referendum, followed 13 days later on June 3, 2006 by an official declaration of independence from parliament.

Boom time

Independence brought greater monetary aid from the international community, as the government in Podgorica struck deals with the EU on starting the bloc's lengthy accession process.

The prospect of EU membership also boosted trade, as international firms saw greater value in either locating in or investing in the country's economy. But regional expert Brey said that independence itself in 2006 provided the biggest boon.

The "Island Hotel" in Montenegro
Tourism is a boom industry in the picturesque countryImage: DW

"In 2007 [Montenegro secured] 10.7 percent growth in GDP. Obviously, that was a massive success," he said. Europeans and Russians started investing, especially in the tourism sector, Brey said, but the bubble began to burst just as the recent recession kicked in. "GDP shrunk again by over five percent in 2009, but things have recovered somewhat since."

Money-laundering hotspot?

Local journalist Zoran Radulovic, however, is unconvinced by the official tale of economic prosperity.

"The economic problems stem from the fact that Montenegro has no real development strategy. More than 3.5 billion euros have been poured into this country since indepedendence," Radulovic said. For a country with 600,000 people, that's a tidy sum - but Radulovic says it's not clear where it went, given the absence of tangible evidence like hotels, repaved roads or streets, and other infrastructure improvements.

"It's like sand in your hands, it's run out and disappeared. Nobody knows where or how. I believe that a large chunk of the money has been laundered in Montenegro - and I mean a sizeable sum, laundered in the classic, criminal sense."

Radulovic believes the real positive Montenegro can draw is the relative lack of ethnic tensions in a region still scarred by full-scale war. Serbs, Albanians, Croats and Bosnians all live peacefully with the Montenegrins, which Radulovic describes as "an enormous step forward, compared to the times that lie behind us."

Author: Mirjan Dikic / msh
Editor: Nicole Goebel