Far from being a strictly national issue, the parliamentary elections held in Montenegro on 16 October were closely linked to the future positioning of the country in the international context. Plunged in the membership negotiations with the EU and NATO, the society decided whether supporting the Euro-Atlantic path, leaded by the left-wing Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS), or keeping closer ties with Russia by voting the Democratic Front big tent (DF), a turning point in the future direction of Montenegro. Despite the victory of the DPS as the strongest block, the results left a fragmented Parliament and a complex scenario which can put into risk the roadmap of the country, specially in its NATO membership expectations.
Parliamentary elections in Montenegro: the aftermath
The last parliamentary elections supposed a pre-referendum in the aspirations of Montenegro towards the Atlantic organization, highlighting the OSCE Observation Mission that “NATO membership was a key issue in the campaign”. With a turnout of around 73%, the highest since the independence of the country from Serbia in 2006, the results gave the victory to the DPS leaded by Milo Ðjukanović, a clue figure in the path of Montenegro towards the EU and NATO membership and Prime Minister or President since 1991, with few periods out of the office. After the signature of the NATO Accession Protocol for Montenegro on 19 May 2016, the prelude of membership, the parliamentary elections should ratify the citizens support towards this path, but the results were not strong enough. The DPS achieved 35 seats in the 81 seat-parliament, absolutely insufficient to carry out the ambitious Atlantic project alone and forced to seek a strong coalition.
Among the opposition parties, the DPS has high probabilities to find allies if they eliminate two important handicaps: the general rejection to Milo Ðjukanović, accused of corruption and cronyism and who had barely survived a vote of confidence in January 2016, and the generalised demand of a NATO referendum. The difference between remaining indifferent in front of these handicaps or facing them, supposes a stagnation with 35 seats or the chance to increase this number up to 59, unbalancing the parliamentary representation. There are six parties available for them: the Key Coalition (9 seats), the Democratic Montenegro (9 seats), Social Democrats of Montenegro (2 seats), the Bosniak Party (2), Albanians decisively (1), Croatian Civic (1). These different groups share the idea of the EU membership, but the goal of NATO is seen with more or less reticence due to the current social fragmentation: according to the last Public Opinion poll of June 2016, 50.5% was in favour of a referendum and 49.5% against; at the same time, 37.1% was in favour of joining NATO, 36.4% against and 26.5% with no opinion, a trend with ups and downs since November 2008 and stable since July 2015. Milo Ðjukanović has no intention of holding a referendum, but conscious of its low popularity and probably wanting to avoid being an obstacle, has given the first step, announcing last 26 October this resignation in favour of Duško Marković, the second in command of the party and right – hand man of the current leader.
On the other hand, the 22 remaining seats until the 81 of the Parliament are practically unreachable for the DPS, divided between the Democratic Front (DF) with 18 seats and the Social Democratic Party of Montenegro (SDP) with 4 seats. The DF is the strongest opposition block, a big tent with right-left ideologies, related to Russia, against accessing either the EU and NATO and in favour of a mandatory NATO referendum. In words of its current leader Andrija Mandić, “We perceive Russia and Russian people as the closest to us. For Russia, Montenegro and Serbia are the closest countries in Europe. And we intend to maintain this closeness as something sacred that we have inherited from our ancestors”. Is not casual that Mandić refers to Serbia: both suffered the bombing of the NATO troops during the war of Kosovo in 1999 and Serbia is the only Balkan country with no intentions of joining NATO. The gap with the DPS is unbridgeable and it has increased after the controversial arrest of 20 Serbians in the elections day, accused of planing attacks against institutions and representations, a “gross propaganda” according to Mandić. The SDP from its side is closer to the DPS in terms of left ideology and EU membership, but totally against the NATO accession, a priori a difficult point to agree with.
Regional and International repercussions
Beyond the borders of Montenegro the stakeholders remain expectantly. Although insufficient, the electoral results have favoured the goals of NATO in the country, concerning the interests of Russia. Nowadays, the Balkan region is strongly influenced by NATO, with Albania and Croatia as members and Bosnia Herzegovina, Kosovo and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia in process of negotiation, becoming the integration of Montenegro a key issue in the consolidation of NATO in the regional framework. The military organization needs as much Western allies as possible, but above all, needs to undermine the Russian influence, avoiding an Eastern hegemony, reconverting former Russian allies and pressing other countries in the region such as Serbia to follow the Atlantic path.
In this advantageous position of NATO over Russia the EU has much to do. Montenegro is an EU candidate country since 2010, with 24 chapters of the Acquis Communautaire opened to negotiation (two of them provisionally closed) and 11 pending to be opened. Unlike with NATO, the consensus is higher with the EU either in the political and public opinion spheres, with a majority of pro EU political parties and with 61.7% of citizens supporting the membership, a trend with accentuated changes since October 2007, always over the 50% and more or less stable since September 2012. At the same time, between the EU, the USA and Russia, the public opinion considered the EU as a reliable foreign policy partner with 31% between “to a great extent” and “completely”, while the USA and Russia obtained a 16% and 24.3% respectively. Both the EU and NATO are mutually benefit by the approach of Montenegro to each other, considering the similarity in the minimum requirements for admission and being this another way to choose between West and East, but for NATO is much helpful do its current low popularity.
At the same time the EU has a potential interest in the development of Montenegro towards its control area. Since granting them the status of candidate in December 2010, the annual EU Progress Reports have demonstrated several improvements in relevant areas such as Human Rights, regional cooperation or market economy among others, still insufficient but towards the European model. Besides, the EU has currently a total control over the Western Balkan region, with Croatia as a member since 2013, and all remaining countries with the status of candidate or potential candidate.
The Western evolution of Montenegro, specially towards NATO, is a big prejudice for the interests of Russia. Still resentful after the dissolution of the USSR, Russia aims to stablish a red line against the Transatlantic organization even beyond its old empire, considering NATO a big threat and a misappropriation of the Russian Eastward space of influence, including Montenegro. Already in 2011 Moscow relied on the fraternal relations between both nations, on the decrease of the regional security due to the presence of foreign and potential military forces and in warning about an irresponsible and provocative step, but Montenegro opted for distancing the Russian influence in pro of a quicker EU and NATO acceptance. The EU accession is bad seen as well, but NATO means a bigger threat due to its military component. However, Russia has an element in its favour, which is the lack of understanding among the public opinion, now officially reflected in the last parliamentary elections. This gives Russia a democratic pretext in the defence of people contrary to NATO and in the protection of the Russian companies in the Adriatic coast, a third of all foreign-run companies in the country. Under the umbrella of democracy, Russia keeps on pressing on the demand of a referendum, threatening with economic sanctions, increasing its influence among the undecided people and with suspicions, although unproven, of funding pro-Russian factions.
The reality of Montenegro reflects an unbalanced scenario, not only due to the mostly existence of pro Euro-Atlantic parties, but because the Western block has expanded its model in all the Balkans region, triggering a domino effect unlikely to be reversed and increasingly consolidated. But even with it, the bad perception of NATO among the pubic opinion and the warnings of Russia towards the aspirations of Montenegro can slow down the process of Western integration.
The DPS has in its hands the key of success or at least a good part of it, but they will have to play their cards right. The hold of a referendum is key, but it can be also a double-edged sword. On one hand, the party must allow the vote if they want to be politically supported, reducing the distrust in its potential allies and unbalancing the Parliament representation. But on the other hand, they must be very careful about how this referendum is raised: a bad marketing campaign, a weak argument or a pedagogical mismanagement could become another Brexit scenario. They will have to assure that all the supporting allies agree with the pro NATO campaign, clarifying to the citizens the consequences of joining the military organization, avoiding attacks against Russia in order to arrive to the whole society and conscious that only a wide majority will legitimate them to act democratically.
Internationally, the EU, NATO and Russia are key elements as well. The EU, considering its compliance in the membership of Montenegro towards NATO, should do a parallel pro “yes” campaign, taking the chance of the mainly positive attitudes towards the EU in the country. In fact it would be a mutual favour, securing the EU a pro Western country and accelerating Montenegro its EU membership negotiations. NATO has a similar role, having to appeal to the need of political stabilization in the Balkans region, to a greater recognition, to the possibilities of regional and international cooperation and to the majority existence of pro NATO Balkan countries. Russian from its side, has the weakest position due to the lack of international support and the Western projection of the Balkans, but they can spread the disadvantages of becoming a NATO member in a transparent manner, assuring the respect of the results in case of a wide victory and avoiding the technique of fear, which could make the people feel themselves safer in the Atlantic model.
The Euro-Atlantic organizations have strategic objectives in Montenegro, fighting the EU for the consolidation of Western values in a former country of Russian influence and fighting NATO for a military ally positioned westwards, consolidating the Atlantic presence and pressing Serbia in the long term joining. The EU membership seems just a matter of time, while with NATO, Montenegro will have to be more convincing among its society in order to avoid a social gap. They have enough elements to do it, but the next months will determinate if they use them properly.
Master’s Degree in International Relations
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