published on October 23, 2020

Montenegro: The longest-lasting autocracy in Europe peacefully deposed in elections

by Vera Šćepanović


That was the title nobody published, though every word in it is true.

In the three decades since the collapse of socialism in former Yugoslavia, Montenegro has changed names and friends. From the staunch ally of Milošević that sent volunteers on Dubrovnik to aid Serbian war efforts to a fierce opponent of Serbian hegemony; from the last member of rump Yugoslavia that stuck with Serbia through the international sanctions and NATO bombing to an independent state and proud NATO member; from the favourite European destination of Russian oligarchs to the forerunner for EU membership, Montenegro changed everything – except its government.

And yet when the ruling Democratic Party of Socialists lost elections to an alliance of nearly all opposition parties in the country, the response was consternation. The international press was quick to warn of the danger to the country’s pro-Western trajectory, of NATO losing its ally to a ‘pro-Russian alliance’, and the Russian ‘stooges’ pushing this bright outpost of the Western values back into the embrace of its ‘traditional Slavic allies’. That a journalist would reach for the nearest grand narrative to report on the complicated politics of a small country hours after an election is, of course, understandable. What is more worrying is that it might be a sign of a larger trend. In 2020, we are no longer so naïve to celebrate – like we did in Libya, in Egypt, in Eastern Europe not long ago – the ‘rebels’ who bring change to a captured polity without even asking who they might be. We are no longer impressed by revolutions at the ballot box. We are too worried about what comes next.   

What came before

For 31 years – a tenure longer than Lukashenko’s – DPS and its leader Milo Đukanović held the reins of the state. For 31 years the ravages of transition and ‘wild’ privatization left the country with unemployment in the double-digits and a fast-rising foreign debt. The concentration of political power came with concentration of economic power: no feature on Montenegro in the international press failed to mention Đukanović’s personal wealtheconomic successes of his family, or allude to his connections to organized crime. International observers regularly pointed to the fraudulent conditions in Montenegrin elections, and the arrival of smartphones provided definite evidence of vote buying and illegal party financing. Montenegro had long trailed behind in all international indices of human rights, press freedom, and quality of governance, and in 2019 the Freedom House noted that the judiciary had been so brazenly politicised that the country dropped even the pretence of being a democracy.

And yet, as autocracies go, the Montenegrin was a fairly presentable one. If the country has the highest number of police officers per capita in Europe, this is not because its regime suppresses dissidents, but because employment in the public sector buys votes. No journalists had been killed since all the way back in the dark 2000s, though some beatings could still befall the nosier ones. That none of these cases had ever been properly prosecuted remained a grim warning at the back of everyone’s head, though most of the time the worst that happened to the critical media was that the state, and then the private sector, would take its advertising monies to friendlier outlets.

Most importantly, in a region famous for its simmering inter-ethnic hatreds, Montenegro styled itself the beacon of multiculturalism. Representatives of Albanian and Bosniak ethnic minorities were regularly invited to the DPS-led coalitions, where they would get a token seat – usually the Ministry for Human and Minority Rights. After some scuffles in the early 2010s, even the LGBT community was given the official licence to exist and the first Pride took place on the streets of the capital. The state apparatus may have been turned into the wealth-extraction machine for the ruling party, but whatever else the Montenegrin government did, it did not pick on minorities. Except one.

Serbian nationalists are always lurking

The identity line between ‘Serbian’ and ‘Montenegrin’ is fluid. In the latest available census (2011), 45% of the population declared itself to be of Montenegrin nationality, but only 37% professed to speaking Montenegrin. The Serbian Orthodox Church remains the most trusted institution in the country. The long history of political and cultural entanglements was part of the reason why only a slim majority of Montenegrins (55%) voted for independence in 2006, despite the evident dysfunctionality of the State Union of Serbia and Montenegro.

Since then, the DPS has turned every single election into another referendum on the survival of the country. It used the threat of Serbian revisionism to drive a rift between the Serbian national parties and the ‘civic’ opposition, and to secure the loyalty of the Albanian and Bosniak minorities. It was also easy pickings. Serbian nationalism has a well-deserved reputation as the chief boogeyman of the Balkans. It does not help that the pro-Serbian parties in Montenegro are fronted by some fairly unsavoury characters, known for anachronistic outbursts of panslavism and Russophilia. It also does not help that the Serbian leadership is given to casual displays of hegemony, such as the recent announcement that it will make it its business to ‘protect Serbian holy sites in the neighbouring countries’.

It bears noting, however, that DPS has skillfully exploited the boogeyman to create a sense of instability from which it alone could rescue the state. Tensions with Serbia soared before every election. In 2016, mass protests against corruption were again turned into a fight over identity as the government egged on the Serbian parties with the promise to push NATO membership through the Parliament despite resistance from the opposition and slim popular support. Then, in the midst of the election campaign, the police arrested two leaders of the Serbian opposition on charges of plotting a coup d’etat with the help of Russian security services. In the uproar that followed, the international opinion rallied behind the Montenegrin government, opposition broke ranks, and DPS sailed through the elections on a comfortable majority. Four years later, however, the facts of the case remain murky.

Taking on the church

In 2019, with a new wave of local protests gathering momentum, DPS reached for the same identity lever, this time with the artlessly titled Law on the Freedom of Religion. An otherwise innocuous piece of legislation, the law was designed to cripple the Serbian Orthodox Church by outlawing operation of religious communities that ‘have their seat outside of Montenegro’ and nationalizing all Church property that had been built from public or communal funds before 1918.

It was the perfect foil. The Serbian Orthodox Church gets little sympathy from the outsiders: the pictures of priests blessing tanks that headed over the border to Bosnia are still etched in memory. What better to trigger those images than the footage of protesters led by black-clad men in long beards, and foaming right-wing nationalists waving Serbian flags and threatening revenge on the Muslim minorities should they allow their churches to be taken. For any progressive liberal looking outside in, the idea that defending democracy, equality, and the rule of law should require defending the property rights of the Serbian Orthodox Church was enough to go cross-eyed with contradictions. From the inside, though, it was easy to see it for what it was: another land grab, a government accustomed to impunity bending the force of law to its whim. And it backfired.

The protests remained remarkably peaceful and well organized, and the Church kept its rhetoric moderate and focused on its rights. The slogan ‘We won’t give up the holy places’ chimed well with the ongoing environmentalist protests fighting over-construction all over the country. The epidemic probably helped. It stopped the protests, but left the bitterness. It made it clear how empty the state’s pockets were, how little it could do to protect the citizens after the collapse of the tourist season blew a giant hole through the national budget. When the election day rolled around, 76% of the voters showed up at the ballot boxes. And DPS lost.

Great expectations

Three coalition lists hold the majority. The largest one, ‘For the Future of Montenegro’, is led by Democratic Front, itself an amalgam of mostly pro-Serbian right-wing parties with some more liberal elements mixed in. The other two are ‘Peace is Our Nation’, composed mainly of the catch-all, vaguely centrist and pro-European Democratic Party, and the social-liberal United Reform Action (URA).

It’s the first that has been setting off the alarm bells in the international press. Its leaders are well known and disliked for their paranoia, crude nationalism and unreflexive Russophilia. Surprisingly, they seem to know it. All politics is, after all, local. Russia is far from Montenegro, and not particularly interested in it. Support from Serbia may be all you can get when you’re in opposition, but nobody likes to be told how to govern from Belgrade. And the Serbian Orthodox Church has shown that it knows when to step back and avoid tying itself to volatile politicians. This is why the coalition is not led by any of the old hands, but by a brand-new face on the Montenegrin political scene: Zdravko Krivokapić, a soft-spoken university professor of mechanical engineering with the perennial cheer of Santa Claus.

The negotiations for the new government are still ongoing, but for the time it seems that the unsavoury characters will be kept in the closet. An agreement signed early after the elections by representatives of all three coalitions lays down the key principles: no backtracking on Montenegro’s international commitments (including NATO membership, recognition of Kosovo, and economic sanctions against Russia), no tinkering with the national symbols and anthem, doubling down on efforts to join the EU, prosecuting organized crime and corruption, and favouring expertise over ‘quotas’. Matching individuals to these lofty goals will be a challenge, but in a country where for 30 years nobody outside the ruling party had a single shot at governing, much remains to be learned.

Since it became obvious that the country is not about to collapse into a civil war, the Western reception has also begun to thaw and the EU officials now emphasize the ‘great expectations’ the new government is facing. Of course they are. After 30 years of DPS the wish list is sky-high, from an end to corruption to more women in government. But also, they aren’t. Most Montenegrin citizens still seem stunned and in disbelief that DPS really will leave peacefully. The victory celebrations were quickly wound down for fear that they might provoke some desperate counter-reaction. Everybody knows that the winter is coming: Montenegro has already lost 7% of its GDP in the first half of the year and there is no telling how much more will be gone with the tycoons fleeing the withdrawal of DPS’ protective racket.

If there’s a lesson for anyone else in Montenegro’s electoral revolution, it has little to do with the geopolitical balances or the role of religion in contemporary politics. It has to do with the basics of democratic accountability. If one party holds on to power for so long, how can a competent alternative ever arise? If one party controls all the resources, public and private, where will the opposition find the resources to resist, if not abroad? Peaceful transition of power may not be enough for a well-functioning democracy, but, as the current turmoil in the US also shows, it is necessary for it to even be possible.

The unofficial slogan of the election campaign amidst the August heat was a cry for a breath of fresh air even when you know that it won’t stop the drought: ‘let it fall, just to freshen up’. Whatever the Montenegrins wish for from the new government, there is one thing they can now rightfully expect: to be able to vote them out.


Vera Šćepanović is a lecturer at the Institute for History, Leiden University. She is a political economist with an interest in dependent development and the politics of economic integration. Her work has been published in the Review of International Political Economy, European Journal of Industrial Relations and Transfer: European Review of Labour and Research.