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The Game is Finally Up for Europe’s Longest Serving Autocrat

Ever since it emerged out of the collapse of Yugoslavia, Milo Djukanovic has been in power in Montenegro. Nikola Mikovic explores the end of an era and what it means for the future

Milo Djukanovic as Prime Minister in 2014. Photo: Francesco Gustincich / Alamy

The Game is Finally Up for Europe’s Longest Serving Autocrat

Ever since it emerged out of the collapse of Yugoslavia, Milo Djukanovic has been in power in Montenegro. Nikola Mikovic explores the end of an era and what it means for the future

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In Montenegro, a tiny Balkan nation of around 600.000 people, the era of M is over. After 32 years in power – be it as a president or a prime minister – the 61-year-old politician lost the presidential election to a young former banker Jakov Milatovic. What awaits the former Yugoslav republic in the coming months and years?

According to preliminary results, Milatovic won 60% of the vote, while Djukanovic, who first came to power in 1991, got 40%. Montenegro’s long-standing autocrat congratulated the deputy head of the Europe Now movement on his victory, and admitted defeat. April 2 has become a historic day for the Adriatic nation.

Back in 2020, it became clear that Djukanovic’s era is coming to an end. Following a wave of protests against the controversial Law on Freedom of Religion, his nationalist Democratic Party of Socialist (DPS) lost its parliamentary majority in the 2020 election. Despite winning most seats, it was not able to form a government. As a result, new political figures such as the current Prime Minister Dritan Abazovic as well as Jakov Milatovic have started playing important roles in Montenegro’s political arena.

These new faces have continued implementing Djukanovic’s pro-Western foreign policy. In June last year, Abazovic visited Kyiv where he met with Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky. He strongly supported Kyiv’s aspirations to join the European Union, while the Montenegrin government decided to provide military assistance to Ukraine. Previously, in April 2022, Podgorica joined anti-Russian sanctions the West has imposed on Moscow following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. 

On February 25, 2022, one day after Russia invaded its Eastern European neighbour the president-elect, Milatovic, who at the time served as the minister of economy and economic development, clearly stated that Montenegro will firmly stand with its NATO and EU allies. Under the leadership of Djukanovic and the DPS, Montenegro joined NATO in 2017, moved away from Russia’s influence, and kick-started the negotiating process for European Union membership. 

EU Future

Under the Milatovic presidency, the nation’s geopolitical course will almost certainly remain intact. Podgorica will continue pursuing pro-Western policy, hoping to join the European Union by 2025

However, after French President Emmanuel Macron proposed a new political organization to bring together countries on the continent that share European Union values but are not part of the bloc, it became more doubtful if a new wave of EU enlargement woud happen in the near future. Macron emphasized that joining the new organization would not guarantee future EU membership, which means that Montenegro, as well as other Balkan countries, may not join the bloc anytime soon, if at all.

Quite aware of that, Milatovic seems to support the former Yugoslav republic’s participation in the Open Balkan Initiative – a regional integration process whose members are Serbia, Albania and North Macedonia. For Djukanovic, any attempt to include Montenegro into the Open Balkan Initiative would be “equal to high treason”, even though 41 percent of the country’s population supports the Adriatic nation’s membership in the regional integration initiative. Moreover, the United States officials repeatedly said that all countries in the Western Balkans should join the Open Balkan Initiative. 

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Therefore, Milatovic will not have a hard time incorporating Montenegro into this entity. What he will have to deal with, though, are deep ethnic and religious divisions in Montenegro’s society. His key challenge will be to ensure that identity politics and nationalism do not prevail over the country’s EU association. Even though Milatovic was backed by pro-Serbian parties, who called on their voters to support the 37-year-old economist, that does not mean that he will pursue a pro-Serbian policy. 

However, Milatovic is expected to attempt to improve relations with neighbouring Serbia, which dramatically deteriorated in 2008 after Podgorica recognized Kosovo’s unilaterally declared independence. In spite of that, Serbia remains one of Montenegro’s leading trade partners. Moreover, ethnic Serbs make up some 30% of Montenegro’s population, and in the past, they have accused Djukanovic of pursuing a discriminatory policy against the Serbian community in the former Yugoslav republic. Milatovic will likely have to balance between them, and the Montenegrin nationalists who support Djukanovic’s DPS.

Though Montenegro’s president, elected for a five-year term, has a mostly ceremonial position – Milatovic’s Europe Now movement is expected to win most seats in early parliamentary elections scheduled for June 11. The DPS and the pro-Serbian Democratic Front will almost certainly be the two strongest opposition parties. The problem for the DPS, however, is that the party could split and its leader could face criminal charges connected to the illicit trafficking of tobacco

At this point, it remains highly uncertain if Milatovic and the new Montenegrin authorities will decide to prosecute Djukanovi. One thing is for sure: Now that era of Milo Djukanovic is finally over, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, who came to power in 1994, will “officially” become Europe’s longest-serving autocrat.

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