In terms of optics, it was no surprise that Djordje Radulovic’s first overseas trip as Montenegro’s foreign minister last week was to Berlin.
Since a coalition of opposition parties narrowly won the national elections on August 30, toppling the Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) after three decades in power, Montenegro’s new government has been described as pro-Serbian and pro-Moscow.
The result was a severe blow to President Milo Djukanovic, the pro-Western leader who led Montenegro to independence in 2006, to NATO in 2007 and towards accession to the European Union, with negotiations starting with Brussels in 2012. Djukanovic remains president until 2023 but faces a hostile parliament for the first time.
In the months since then, the new Montenegrin government has struggled to assure Europe that this hostility is towards Djukanovic’s domestic agenda, not the international one. In October, Zdravko Krivokapic, the country’s new prime minister, told Euronews that Montenegro’s future lay in Europe and that his government would strengthen its relationship with NATO.
And the visit of Radulovic, a 36-year-old career diplomat, to Berlin to meet with German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas was an attempt to clarify that point. The inclusion of Serbian nationalist parties in the government does not mean that their goal is no longer an independent Montenegro in the EU. There has been a changing of the guard, not a change of direction, he said.
“I just wanted to send a clear picture, you know, of where this country wants to go. […] To the West, where this country belongs, ”Radulovic told Euronews.
And the road to Europe, Radulovic argues, passes through Berlin.
“Germany has been a strong advocate for EU integration. If you look back in history, you will notice that each of the enlargements was supported […] for Germany, ”he said.
Unlike other parts of the Western Balkans, membership in the European Union has overwhelming support in Montenegro, a country of 600,000 that borders Croatia, Serbia, Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Albania and is a well-known tourist center and wine producer.
Recent polls put membership support at over 80%, compared with 63% in Serbia. Just as Montenegro escaped the worst of violence during the Balkan wars of the 1990s, in the modern era the country has not witnessed the same form of ethnic nationalism from politicians like Aleksander Vucic in Belgrade and Milorad Dodik in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
It is not that there are no deep divisions within Montenegro, a country where half the population is or identifies as Serbian. Montenegro spent most of its history as part of Serbia, and its 2006 independence referendum was won by only 55.5%. A boisterous, nationalistic Serbia under Vucic at its doorstep has only emboldened those who want closer ties to Belgrade.
“There are 10 million Serbs in the world and 300,000 Montenegrins. This is not an ethnic difference, it is a political, tribal difference, ”said Ljubomir Filipović, an analyst. “They are two ideas of Montenegro, as an independent nation or part of some kind of Serbian supranational entity.”
Montenegro’s relationship with Belgrade deteriorated under Djukanovic, and in 2019 a clique of suspected Serbian and Russian agents were arrested on election night who planned to overthrow the government and kill the president. In the run-up to the 2020 elections, Djukanovic accused Vucic and Moscow of waging a media war against the DPS to install a puppet government.
But the main high point came in 2019 with a law requiring the Serbian Orthodox Church to register its vast land holdings in Montenegro, effectively starting a war with an institution that claims to represent 72% of Montenegrins who are Orthodox Christians. The law sparked massive street protests and galvanized opposition parties, which rallied behind the church.
It was that move that brought the current government to power, securing 41 of the 80 seats in parliament in a broad coalition that includes both Serbian nationalists and liberals. Djukanovic, although he will remain president for another two years, is increasingly isolated, embroiled in a public dispute with the new government over his refusal to sign a repeal of the church property law.
With Montenegro’s parliament, and its population, split in half, some see the 2020 elections as a harbinger of things to come. Djukanovic’s dominance in Montenegrin politics since the communist era has given the impression of consensus, covering the cracks in everything from the friends he makes to his existence as an independent state.
“I think we are seeing a preview of how questioned the idea of Montenegrin sovereignty is in some circles and, at the same time, how deeply and deeply it is felt in others,” said Jasmin Mujanovic, political scientist and co-host of the Sarajevo Calling podcast.
“In that sense, it’s less of a ‘finished state’, so to speak, than I think we have. [been] previously led to believe, largely thanks to [Djukanovic’s] domain. Now that that is diminishing a bit, we are seeing how deep some of these gaps really are. “
In addition to continuing Djukanovic’s European trajectory, the new government has promised to “reestablish” relations with Belgrade. In fact, Radulovic told Euronews that his opposite number in Serbia was one of his first calls when he took the job in August.
“We want to have very, very, very close relations with Serbia, based on mutual recognition, non-interference in internal affairs and [the most possible friendly relations with Belgrade,” he said. “I proposed to him to [forget] everyone [the] bad things and put them back [the] closet.”
As for Russia, the government promised to continue maintaining sanctions against Moscow, but will seek better relations with the country than under its predecessor. “We do not consider Russia to be our enemy, our enemy or anything,” Radulovic said.
But Montenegro, like the rest of the Western Balkans, is also part of a larger divide in Europe, one between the dueling influences of the US, Brussels, and Moscow, and one likely to grow with President Joe Biden in. the White House. Across Europe, political parties, politicians and even nations have to choose sides. Montenegro?
“I think we have already chosen a side, if there are sides. […] We will continue to seek our happiness in the political West, in the EU, where our citizens want to go, ”said Radulovic.
Montenegro first applied to join the EU in 2008 and negotiations with Brussels started in 2012. After eight years of accession negotiations, the 33 selected chapters have been opened and three have been provisionally closed. The biggest obstacles remain those they have always been: corruption, organized crime, and the health of the economy.
In 2020, the European Commission report on Montenegro’s rising status noted progress in almost all chapters, except freedom of expression, which it criticized after arrests and legal proceedings initiated against journalists for written posts on social media and the unsolved 2004 murder of publisher Dusko. Jovanovic and the shooting of a journalist in 2018.
A spokeswoman for the European Commission told Euronews that Montenegro was “well advanced in its process of joining the EU and that the EU” remains fully committed to the future of Montenegro in the European Union. “She said that corruption, organized crime and freedom of the media were key issues.
But despite these flaws, Montenegro could be an easy victory for Brussels after the high-profile collapse of the North Macedonia ascension talks in 2019. It is a small country, just 600,000 compared to Serbia’s seven million and the 3.3 million from Bosnia and Herzegovina, and it is not. embroiled in territorial disputes, such as Kosovo and Serbia.
Indeed, Radulovic believes that if Montenegro becomes a member of the EU before its neighbors, it could act as an honest broker to help Belgrade, Tirana and Sarajevo get over the line.
“I think that if we lead by example, the entire Western Balkan region could be following us. Not because we are the best, far from it,[…] but because perhaps what we want most is to be a member of the EU. “
But the question remains whether the EU is really willing to push for enlargement, which is so far scheduled for 2026 for Montenegro. There are prominent voices within the European Commission, first among them France, who oppose the bloc’s enlargement, despite promises made to the Western Balkans over the past two decades.
For President Emmanuel Macron, who faces elections next year and finds a significant population of citizens hostile to increased immigration, the enlargement carries significant political risk.
“I cannot see a new addition of members before 2030. And that, in my opinion, is somewhat optimistic. Basically, I don’t think the EU wants new members, ”Mujanovic said.
The problem for Europe is that as it moves away from the Western Balkans, it creates a vacuum, a vacuum that is increasingly filled with nationalist and populist forces like Dodik and Vucic. At the same time, a younger generation that might stay in a European Montenegro grows weary of waiting and finds other ways to emigrate in search of better prospects abroad.
“It is a fundamental question in the region now. It’s like after the Rapture. What are you doing on Earth after the rapture? I think we are only now seeing the very early pre-mutations of a post-European Western Balkan species, ”Mujanovic said. “I think it’s going to get a lot more hectic.”
For Filipović, the risk is existential. Membership of NATO has been instrumental in countering the forces in Montenegro that would see it return to the orbit of Serbia, and membership of the European Union, or the prospect of it, has only strengthened the hand of progressive and liberal forces to push back the Serbs. nationalism in the country.
But even EU membership, if it came, would not prevent that regression, Filipović said. Both Poland and Hungary have shown that membership in the European Union does not guarantee good governance, he added. All the changes the EU requires for membership are ultimately reversible, as Poland and Hungary have recently demonstrated with their reforms to the judiciary.
So while the new Montenegrin government speaks well about Europe, Filipović urges caution.
“Although they accept the EU and NATO, they do not accept the values. I’m talking about individual freedoms. I’m talking about liberal democracy, human rights and respect for minorities, especially ethnic minorities, ”he said.
“And what bothers me the most is that even though they say it, they don’t say what they think. They have a hidden agenda. “
Meanwhile, Radulovic has called his government’s attitude toward regional and international affairs a “zero problem doctrine”: no border problems, no disputes, no fights, he says, and without the “diplomatic ping pong” that he believes to be. personifies the Djukanovic Era and DPS.
“We don’t want to have hostilities with anyone, you know? We are too small to have enemies, “he said.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism