Thousands in Montenegro are demanding the ouster of Prime Minister Dukanovic. People are protesting against corruption and a bid to join NATO. Dukanovic has rebuffed the criticism and suspects a conspiracy behind it.
No other European politician has ruled as long as Milo Dukanovic – not even Belarusian president Lukashenko. Since 1991, Dukanovic has either been president or prime minister - apart from two brief interruptions - of the small nation on the Adriatic coast with 600,000 inhabitants. Montenegro's strongman has always represented the political zeitgeist of the region: communist functionary in Yugoslavia, companion of the nationalist autocrat Slobodan Milosevic, engineer of Montenegro's separation from Serbia and now, a partner of the West, who intends to bring his country into the European Union and NATO.
Opponents from all classes
During a recent visit, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg praised Montenegro's progress and said that NATO will decide on its membership bid before the year is out. Experts believe that Montenegro will be given the go-ahead; however, it is not certain that the government has the support of the people. Opinion polls alternately put advocates or opponents ahead - depending on who has conducted or commissioned the poll. "Some of the opponents stated that their opposition has its roots in NATO's intervention against Serbia and Montenegro in 1999," says Milica Kovacevic from the Center for Democratic Transition. But she thinks more and more people are thinking "rationally" about the military alliance.
For weeks, hundreds of opposition members camped out in tents in the government district of the capital Podgorica to protest against NATO membership. They called for Dukanovic's resignation, the creation of a government and new elections. It was an eclectic group of demonstrators: supporters of Democratic Front, an alliance of opposition groups; representatives of civil society and the Serbian Orthodox clergy, who reject Montenegro's turning away from Belgrade. Last weekend, the situation escalated when the police cleared up the camp – many injuries and arrests ensued. Opposition movements are planning a major demonstration on Saturday, October 24. The Democratic Front says, "All of Montenegro is coming to Podgorica."
Marko Milacic will also take part in the protests. The director of the Movement for Neutrality of Montenegro (MNMNE) – an NGO that is against NATO membership - says that the Dukanovic system has been thriving on artificially created divisions. With regard to the pro-government media landscape – apart from very few exceptions – Milacic laments, "Now everything is becoming obvious because the time is drawing nearer for Montenegro's invitation to join NATO – or its rejection. The regime and the media it controls are thus trying to convince the public of the alleged benefits of NATO membership."
Revolt against hardship
Prime Minister Dukanovic himself suspects that religious circles and nationalists of the "Greater Serbia" movement are pulling the strings behind the scenes.
In a television interview, he said that the ultimate goals of the opposition are to undemocratically seize power, prevent bonding with the West and to cancel Montenegrin independence. According to Dukanovic, opposition groups supposedly enjoy the support of the Kremlin, as Russia would like to halt the strengthening of NATO in the Balkans.
Critics complain that Dukanovic is making things too easy by presenting such interpretations of the opposition's intentions. People do not view the geopolitical orientation of the country as the greatest problem, but actually economic hardship, corruption, and the fact that the Democratic Party of Socialists of Montenegro hires public service employees based on party loyalty. The average Montenegrin salary is about 480 euros per month and about 15 percent of citizens are unemployed, according to the official statistics – which many feel are sugarcoated. The rusty factories in the mountainous north of the country are evidence of the criminal privatization schemes when the country made its controversial transition to capitalism.
For years Dukanovic, has shaken off all criticism despite, for example, an indictment handed down by Italian prosecutors that confirmed his involvement in cigarette smuggling in the nineties. The EU also criticized the conditions in rule of law and the lack of clarification of attacks on critical journalists.
A series of political scandals, arrogance and "dirty thievery" have weakened the government, says the well-known Montenegrin author Andrej Nikolaidis. But he shares Dukanovic's view on the protests – that they are an attempt to sabotage the bid for NATO membership. "NATO membership would mean withdrawing from the Serbian and Russian sphere of influence. This would be a radical civilizational, political and cultural reversal," writes Nikolaidis in a commentary for a regional online portal.
Columnist and former general Blagoje Grahovac sees things differently: he says that protests cannot be seen as a mere NATO dilemma. He paints a bleak picture of the situation: "The majority of citizens see Milo Dukanovic as a symbol of utter decline but some see him as a symbol of success, their hopes and their pride. Montenegro is divided between Dukanovic supporters and opponents. Its citizens are caught up in a conflict," wrote Grahovac in the newspaper "Vijesti", which is critical of the regime.
It is highly unlikely that the divided people will be allowed to voice their opinions. There will be no snap elections, stated Dukanovic and took the opportunity to mock the opposition that has not been able to defeat him "for a quarter of a century". Montenegro's leaders also see no need for a referendum on NATO membership.