A few months ago, few people predicted that Montenegrin presidential challenger Jakov Milatovic was on track to unseat Europe's longest-serving democratically elected leader. In fact, the 36-year-old, Western-educated economist wasn't even his own party's choice for the job.
But he is now, thanks to his second-place finish right behind President Milo Djukanovic in the first round of voting on March 19.
And endorsements from other challengers and parties since that vote suggest the former economy minister could easily ride anti-Djukanovic sentiment to victory in the April 2 runoff, unless the 61-year-old incumbent can somehow redirect an avalanche of public distrust.
Djukanovic, the head of the Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS), has effectively led Montenegro as president or prime minister since 1991, but his rule has been sullied by corruption allegations and accusations of involvement with organized crime.
A victory for Milatovic could also provide momentum for his 9-month-old Europe Now! party ahead of snap parliamentary elections already scheduled for June 11.
But just two and a half years after he gave up international banking to join an ill-fated cabinet led by pro-Serbian forces, Milatovic remains a mystery to many Montenegrins and most outsiders.
He was born in the Montenegrin capital, Podgorica, which was known at the time as Titograd, in December 1986. That was the same year that rising star Djukanovic joined the presidency of Yugoslavia's Socialist Youth League, an eventual springboard to presidential and prime ministerial stints in Montenegro's postcommunist and postindependence eras.
After finishing his studies in economics at the University of Podgorica, Milatovic spent one year as a scholar at Illinois State University in the United States and then had stints studying in Vienna and Rome. He went on to earn a master's degree in economics at Oxford.
Following his academic studies, he worked at a regional bank and then Deutsche Bank before joining the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) as an economist in London and Podgorica.
Then, watershed elections in 2020 handed a one-seat majority in the Montenegrin parliament to an assemblage of pro-Serbian, pro-Serbian Orthodox, and other groupings to send Djukanovic's DPS into opposition for the first time since multiparty elections began in 1990.
Around one-third of Montenegro's residents identify as Serbian and around two-thirds worship under a local arm of the Serbian Orthodox Church. Tensions with Belgrade have broadly eased since Montenegro declared independence from a union with Serbia in 2006, but questions of Montenegrin national identity and shared culture remain sore spots.
Milatovic left his job abroad to become economy minister in the "technical" cabinet of Prime Minister Zdravko Krivokapic, one of the 12 "apostles" -- as Krivokapic famously called them -- in a government negotiated under the watchful eyes of the Serbian Orthodox Church at the Ostrog Monastery to assert the coalition's pro-Serbian, pro-church credentials.
In government, Milatovic soon joined forces with another well-traveled thirtysomething analyst: Finance Minister Milojko Spajic.
They quickly demonstrated a knack for populist simplicity.
Spajic and Milatovic were the architects of a stimulus-and-reform scheme that boosted wages in part by abolishing contributions to health care in the midst of a pandemic. Dubbed "Europe Now," the plan showed immediate results, contributing to more than doubling the monthly minimum wage -- from 222 euros ($242) to 450 euros ($491) -- and boosting average wages from 530 euros to 670 euros.
Critics say the moves effectively reneged on Milatovic's pledge that the government was "dedicated…to structural reforms," crippled the financial fitness of the health-care system, and left the country vulnerable to a "Greek scenario" of default. Milatovic has blamed reform failures on a lack of political will that he says has also hamstrung Montenegro's EU candidacy.
But the "Europe Now" initiative earned both men considerable popular support.
In a pointed critique of the Djukanovic era, Milatovic boasted that "this was the first significant increase in the standard of living [in Montenegro] in the past 30 years." He also suggested that the country could "reach an average [monthly] salary of 1,000 euros in a short period of time."
The Krivokapic government lost a no-confidence vote in February 2022 brought on by a crisis over denial of the 1995 Srebrenica genocide by a junior minister, although it stayed on in a caretaker capacity until April.
By June 2022, with Spajic as president and Milatovic as his deputy, the duo created a new political party with a stated centrist, pro-EU, anti-corruption agenda called Movement Europe Now! (Pokret Evropa Sad!).
In October 2022, with Milatovic heading the party list in Podgorica, home to nearly 1-in-3 Montenegro residents, Europe Now! won a stunning 21 percent of the vote on pledges of modernizing the workforce and delivering economic prosperity.
Spajic, a Serb, announced his plans to challenge Djukanovic in this month's presidential election, but his bid was derailed by his longtime official residency in Serbia and suspected dual citizenship.
In next-man-up fashion, Milatovic quickly stepped in to fill the void.
"Whether it's me or Spajic is really not so important at the moment," Milatovic said in January ahead of Spajic's withdrawal, describing himself as "a man who has never run from responsibility."
As a candidate, he has played up his economic experience and support for Montenegro's EU membership bid, which has slowed over reform failures and enlargement fatigue among the bloc's members.
He has also consistently argued for closer relations with Serbia.
Among the field of seven candidates on March 19, Djukanovic won nearly 36 percent of the vote to Milatovic's 29 percent. Since the first round, Djukanovic has sought to mobilize voters among non-Serbian national minorities like ethnic Albanians and Bosniaks, who have supported him in the past.
Djukanovic's nearly 36 percent tally reflects a drop-off of around one-third of his support from the 2018 election, when he won outright with around 54 percent of the vote.
Within hours of polls closing on March 19, several of the also-rans and other parties affiliated with the post-DPS governments were urging their voters to support Milatovic in the second round. (RFERL)
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