Small but complex: Montenegro’s minority government and the EU’s role in democratic reform

The recent collapse of Montenegro’s ruling coalition creates both risks and opportunities for democratic reform. The EU needs to help the country’s interim minority government resist Serbian and Russian influence.

epa09728111 Montenegro’s Prime Minister Zdravo Krivokapic (L) and Deputy Prime Minister Dritan Abazovic (R) attend the parliament session in Podgorica, Montenegro, 04 February 2022. Montenegro’s lawmakers are set to oust the country’s conservative government on less than two years into its two year term. The parliament will vote on a no-confidence motion against the government of Prime Minister Krivokapic which appears to have lost majority in the country’s 81 member assembly. Photo: picture alliance/EPA/BORIS PEJOVIC
Montenegro’s Prime Minister Zdravo Krivokapic (L) and Deputy Prime Minister Dritan Abazovic (R) attend the parliament session in Podgorica, Montenegro, 4 February 2022
Image by picture alliance / EPA | BORIS PEJOVIC
©

The August 2020 parliamentary election in Montenegro saw a narrow defeat for President Milo Djukanovic’s Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS). After 30 years of DPS rule, many observers in this tiny Balkans state and beyond welcomed the prospect of change.

The new government comprised a contradictory mix of alliances, ranging from socially conservative, pro-Serbian, and pro-Russian nationalists (including the Democratic Front, the Popular Movement, the Socialist People’s Party, and the Serbian Radical Party) to the socially liberal, pro-Western greens (United Reform Action). Their unifying mission was to remove Djukanovic from power and free Montenegro’s institutions from his autocratic and corrupt rule. The presence and support of the EU helped them do so. But, in recent years, this support has been waning. While Montenegrins are generally pro-EU, the lack of realistic prospect of joining the union has had serious repercussions in the country (as it has in other parts of the Balkans).

But what was for some a promising government lasted less than a year and a half. On 4 February 2022, following months of political deadlock, Prime Minister Zdravko Krivokapic’s technocratic coalition lost a vote of no confidence initiated by Dritan Abazovic, deputy prime minister and leader of United Reform Action. So, was the outgoing coalition just a brief experiment or a true force of reform?

The government’s collapse

The last 14 months have shown that reform in Montenegro will be more difficult than many imagined. And it will perhaps only be possible with the support of the DPS, at least in the interim.

Montenegro may be small, but it is politically complex – especially concerning matters of identity. On the surface, the crisis stems from a need to break the parliamentary deadlock by forming a minority government that can restart the process of reform. Beneath it all, however, complicated power struggles are taking place over two main issues: foreign policy and identity politics.

Montenegro’s society has long been polarised. In recent years, public dissatisfaction with the direction of the country and its fragile security situation has made matters worse. Montenegrins make up the largest ethnic group at 45 per cent, followed by Serbs at 29 per cent. Other minorities (Albanians, Bosniaks, Croats, and Roma) account for the remainder of the population. All these groups have their own demands. Disputes over identity and interference by the Serbian Orthodox Church – as well as meddling by the Serbian and Russian states – have undermined Montenegro’s unity. The country is at risk of long-term instability and chronic failure to carry out democratic reforms.

Even though Montenegro has been a candidate for EU membership since 2010, many of its institutions are still marred by corruption

During his 30-year rule, Djukanovic distanced himself from former Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic’s crimes in the early 1990s – in part by smoothly ushering Montenegro to independence in 2006, candidacy for EU accession in 2010, and NATO membership in 2017. But, with Djukanovic in power, Montenegro’s institutions have never been independent. The country has failed to engage in legal reform and has experienced a substantial increase in crime and corruption. Furthermore, Montenegro has received growing Russian investment and struck a financially damaging infrastructure deal with China. Meanwhile, the government’s relations with the Serbian Orthodox Church have deteriorated thanks to a DPS proposal to return church property to the Montenegrin state.

Krivokapic, the inexperienced prime minister of the outgoing government, is close to the Serbian Orthodox Church. He made his name co-leading anti-Djukanovic protests with the late Metropolitan Amfilohije Radovic (who would eventually bless the government’s inauguration).

Krivokapic expressly aimed to transform Montenegro by fighting corruption and strengthening institutions that protect the rule of law. As discussed above, there is a real need for reform in these areas because the country lacks independent institutions, including an independent judiciary. Even though Montenegro has been a candidate for EU membership since 2010, many of its institutions are still marred by corruption, while organised crime groups have widespread influence in society. His government has undoubtedly tried to address these structural problems, but it has been unable to engage in far-reaching judicial reforms or make significant progress in the fight against corruption.

Despite Krivokapic’s closeness to the Serbian Orthodox Church – which often has different political interests than the Serbian state – he has neither questioned Montenegro’s membership of NATO nor its broader efforts at Euro-Atlantic integration. He has also kept his distance from Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, who does not shy away from trying to dominate Montenegro and even erode its independence. It was this political orientation – as well as failed institutional reform and probably Krivokapic’s decision to sack a justice minister who downplayed the Srebrenica genocide – that prompted the pro-Serbian and pro-Russian Democratic Front to boycott parliament and withdraw its support for the government.

Diverging interests

Following the vote of no confidence in his leadership, Abazovic proposed the formation of a cabinet based on a stable parliamentary minority. So far, he has secured the nominal backing of the DPS and smaller parties, but has yet to receive an official mandate from the president to form a government. Neither the DPS nor these smaller parties will be part of the government, but they will offer their conditional support. It is unclear how long this minority government will last or how sustainable it will be. But it provides a clear opportunity to revitalise judicial and legal reform, initially by supporting the operations of the existing Prosecution Council, which could appoint a chief prosecutor. This could spur wider institutional reform based on EU legislation.

However, the main challenge for the new minority government will be to draft an agenda that reconciles the interests of Montenegro’s two main political groups. The government will need to fight the corruption and state capture that the DPS allegedly promotes while also relying on DPS support to refocus the country’s foreign policy on Euro-Atlantic integration. This means rejecting the growing influence of Serbia and Russia, which could again alienate the Democratic Front.

Abazovic, then, needs to find a way to accommodate and unite these political forces without losing parliamentary support. This is precisely why stronger cooperation with the European Union and the United States is necessary. The EU and the US can help the minority government persuade those responsible for state capture to accept reform and new initiatives to create resilient institutions.

Instability in Montenegro and the lack of a clear EU presence in the country is detrimental to the entire region. Therefore, it is important for EU member states and institutions to prioritise support for the Western Balkans’ security and defence architecture, and to insulate the region from Russian influence – which, in Montenegro’s case, is most apparent in the behaviour of the Democratic Front. The Democratic Front recently claimed that it would “block Montenegro” in response to the formation of the new government – whose members the party sees as having abandoned their electoral promises.

The political upheaval that has occurred in Montenegro in recent years may be a form of generational change. The country’s fight against corruption and its efforts to protect its institutions from Serbian and Russian pressure could be transformational. But the Democratic Front could pose a long-term threat to Montenegro’s democracy. Russian interests are trying to block Montenegro’s and other western Balkan countries’ accession to the EU. In these crucial moments of change, Montenegro needs support from the EU and the US. If it does not receive it, other global players will try to fill in the void.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.

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