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How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love Milo

Note from LeftEast editors: this article is published in cooperation with the web portal Bilten.Org.

Montenegro’s President Milo Djukanovic gives an interview in Podgorica on February 10, 2020. Photo by Savo PRELEVIC / AFP)

On September 23rd, the Parliament of Montenegro had its first, quite uncertain post-election session, which saw Aleksa Bečić, a leader of the opposition, elected as its president. The session, as well as its outcome, was mired in uncertainty due to previous tensions among Montenegrin opposition groups on how to share the spoils of victory and who to put forward as a possible prime minister. With Bečić as its leader, the new parliamentary majority is finally complete, excluding, for the first time in 30 years, Milo Đukanović’s Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS). The situation is still precarious. The new parliamentary majority is diverse enough to raise questions about its longevity, and the cause of the (first) hurdles and obstacles, too, is an open question..

However, there’s no doubt this is a historical moment, especially for younger Montenegrins, who never had another leader but Đukanović, either as head of state or government. If it sounds like a monarchy, that’s because the situation was monarchical, or at least Bonapartist. Since the DPS is the heir to the League of Communists of Montenegro (LCM), the moment remains equally significant for older generations. The first president of the then-new DPS was Momir Bulatović, who previously served as the head of the Central Committee of LCM and the President of the Presidency of Montenegro. The political transition, as in many other formerly socialist countries, happened relatively smoothly and peacefully, with unelected party officials storming the heights of the new, electoral landscape. At the time, Milo Đukanović served as Montenegro’s prime minister; in 1994 he became vice-president of the DPS, and, finally, in 1998, after defeating his former mentor Bulatović in elections, he took power as president.

Public reactions to the defeat of Montenegro’s unchallenged, 30-year ruler are numerous and show no signs of abating. From Marko Milačić, the leader of the opposition-turned-ruling True Montenegro, who said that “St. Vasilije Ostroški won the election”[1], a sentiment echoed by Matija Bećković, the aging corypheus of Serbian nationalism; to car horns and songs in the warm Belgrade night of August 30th; but also to the dreary, heavy silence in the DPS’ election HQ, a silence best known to the vanquished; and all the way to liberal circles’ apocalyptic predictions of Chetniks, bishop Amfilohije, Russians or some other dark horde coming to power in Montenegro, with the country sliding back straight to the 1990s.

This is how Aleksej Kišjuhas put it in Danas: “What are we looking forward to? A nationalist counter-revolution, with a pinch of religious fundamentalism? To Montenegro profiling itself as a Serbian state? To a default to 1990s political settings? A Church-led awakening of a mythological, monocultural Montenegro, as opposed to a realist, multicultural one? A Serbian Sparta instead of a cosmopolitan Athens… A political Orthodoxy, in the image of Al Qaeda’s political Islam? An Orthodox republic, or a Balkan Jamahiriya?” When it comes to Đukanović, he has, according to Kišjuhas, led Montenegro to a “higher stage of civilization”. Andrej Nikolaidis, who is also a signatory of the Declaration on Regional Solidarity brought on by the Social Democratic Union (now the Party of Radical Left) in Serbia, Workers’ Front in Croatia and the Left in Slovenia, sees Milo Đukanović as the future “true, but unacknowledged father of a Euro-Atlanticist Serbia”. Pavle Radić, a regular contributor to Autonomija, wishes “good night” to Montenegro, because “a pitch-black night, like the one in 1990s, is falling upon it once more”.

Nenad Čanak, the leader of the League of Socialdemocrats of Vojvodina (now close to the ruling Serbian Progressive Party), foresaw terrible events unfolding right after the elections, pointing out Milo Đukanović’s Montenegro as a “beacon of pro-Western and pro-European thought” (!). Two weeks later, Dinko Gruhonjić wrote the following for Autonomija: “This thing with Montenegro isn’t funny – it’s dangerous. If anything, look at those Chetniks who have immediately resumed with assaulting Bosniaks across Montenegro, sharpening their long knives, a legacy of the butcher Pavle Đurišić.”

There is little doubt the majority of Montenegrin opposition truly occupies a hard-nationalist position and is also heavily influenced by the Serbian Orthodox Church. Just a day before the first session of the Montenegrin parliament, the leaders of the opposition have made a social call to Ostrog monastery, where they met with Amfilohije Radović and Joanikije Mićović, the head of the Eparchy of Budimlja and Nikšić, which makes it perfectly clear who is the real kingmaker here. Joanikije, according to media reports, almost expelled one of the opposition leaders, Milan Knežević, from the meeting.

In the election night, people sang “No more Milo, no more Tito, the bishop’s calling the shots here”, with the streets flooded with Serbian tricolors as opposed to Montenegrin golden eagles. Among the opposition leaders, there are those who would undoubtedly trade the tutelage of NATO for the tutelage of the Kremlin. Lastly, there’s no doubt that official Belgrade has lofty ambitions in Montenegro, just as it does in Republika Srpska (in Bosnia and Herzegovina).

However, there was no ethnic and religious violence after the election. By all accounts, an isolated incident in Pljevlja, when the offices of the local Islamic community were vandalized, with perpetrators leaving behind a hateful message (“The blackbird has taken flight, Pljevlja will be Srebrenica”), was condemned by Amfilohije’s Metropolitanate of Montenegro and the Littoral. Not because the Metropolitanate has great love for Pljevlja’s Muslims, but because it knows what staying silent would mean. The incident also spurred ideas of “popular patrols” organized by Pljevlja’s Serbs to protect their Muslim neighbors from “DPS provocations”. Hateful graffiti, such as “Turks, get out”, have been taken down and painted over by local Serbs.

The point here is not that ethnic harmony reigns supreme in Montenegro –  it’s that things are much more complicated than they seem in the visions of bearers of bad news belonging to Serbian liberal circles. Firstly, the tight election victory of a diverse coalition will prevent absolute domination by any opposition party and will frustrate all Caesarist ambitions. Secondly, Đukanović’s presidential term ends in three years, and unless he backs down and calls for a new presidential election, a cohabitation arrangement between the DPS and the opposition is much more likely than a storm of Chetnik hordes. Thirdly, Montenegro’s NATO membership and its “pro-European course” are hard material facts that will likely grind to a halt possible long-term foreign policy changes. What can take place, in fact, are more intense political, religious and general social tensions in Montenegro, if the victory of the opposition actually opens the door to stronger Russian influence. Finally, the defeat of the DPS wasn’t brought about just by the religious crisis: a ruined tourism season, questionable pandemic management – Montenegro is now the worst in the region in terms of daily new cases of COVID-19 – a host of scandals and the general untouchability of the ruling class centered around Đukanović all played their part.

The iron is still hot in Montenegro – trying to predict what will be forged out of it is thus a foolish endeavor. The hypocrisy of liberal intellectuals is much more striking. They have shown they are willing to turn a blind eye to Đukanović’s political and economic crimes of thirty years, all in the name of the “Euro-Atlantic path”. As Roosevelt once allegedly said of a certain Latin-American strongman: he may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch. Apparently, it matters not that OCCRP, an umbrella for some of the best investigative journalist organizations, “honored” Đukanović as person of the year for his role in organized crime and corruption. It also matters not that privatization in Montenegro was followed by money-grabbing by Đukanović’s associates, as well as himself. It’s also beside the point that the coast of Montenegro was sold off to shady Russian business interests, Azerbaijani companies connected to the country’s ruling family, and Middle Eastern sheiks, under suspicious circumstances. It’s beside the point, too, that media closely connected to the former ruling party is engaged in smear campaigns against Đukanović’s political opponents – the very same campaigns suffered by these intellectuals in Serbia, led by the pro-government press – or that police forces repeatedly violently repressed the opposition. It matters not that news of a half a ton of cocaine found on a ship belonging to a Montenegrin state-owned shipping company captures attention as much as a summer vacation postcard. And finally, it matters not that the Đukanović regime has led Montenegro into a credit trap set by China, destroying some of the most captivating natural habitats in the country along the way. Thirty years in power – no big deal, if the “son of the bitch is ours”.

It’s telling that the opposition victory in Montenegro is claimed to be a sign of the “nationalist counter-revolution” (Kišjuhas), while the current protests against Aleksandar Lukashenko in Belarus take place under flags once proudly flown by the Nazi-collaborating regime in Belarus during WWII. Does that mean the participants of these demos are fascists and Nazis? Some surely are, most are not. Do fascist hordes take to the streets of Minsk every day? Hence, are all voters of the Montenegrin opposition mad Chetniks, extreme Serbian nationalists, and Russian agents? Is it truly a horde?

What is even more striking than the hypocrisy of these men of letters is their short-sightedness: it was exactly Đukanović who, in the long term, endangered Montenegro’s pro-Western course with his Bonapartism and his Godfather-like approach to politics. Pinning the legitimacy of the European project in Montenegro to Đukanović and his regime can only backfire. But when it comes to Đukanović, corruption, clientelism and the abuse of power are simply an eternal fact of Balkan politics and not much can be done about it. There, problem solved!

Therefore, the true ally of these intellectuals cannot and will not be anyone who really cares about freedom, equality and, if you will, democracy. This honorable spot can be taken only by Richard Grenell, Donald Trump’s special envoy for negotiations between Serbia and Kosovo, who recently said that he is most interested in “[young] people who want a career, a good job and a connection to the West”. The price, of course, matters not.

Vuk Vukovic (1990) is a sociologist and historical materialist, living and working in Belgrade, Serbia. He has been active in various social movements and socialist initiatives, and is currently serving on the Executive Board of the Party of Radical Left in Serbia. He is also the executive editor of the Serbian edition of Le Monde diplomatique.

[1] Milačić also had the following to say to Đukanović: „In such a war for love you lose, threathening in vain with tearing down the foundations of temples and churches. All the stones cast at Orthodoxy and our bishops have fallen on you now. Bear your burden, because every stone cast at God has fallen straight back at you.“