Montenegro’s young guard aims to speed up EU accession

28 Maj 2023, 15:55Kosovo & Region TEMA

A new generation of politicians taking over in Montenegro has pledged to pass the reforms needed to speed up its EU accession and capitalise on the “window of opportunity” presented by the war in Ukraine. Jakov Milatović, a 36 year-old former European Bank for Reconstruction and Development economist, won the presidency of the Adriatic nation last month after campaigning for accelerated EU accession talks. His victory over the incumbent, Milo Đukanović, who led the nation for 33 years, marks a new dawn in the country of 620,000, which until 2006 was united with Serbia and loyal to Russia.

“This feels like a new beginning,” said Ivana Popović, a mother watching her children playing on Independence Square in the centre of the country’s capital, Podgorica. “We had poverty and corruption for too long. Leaders should not stay for 30 years. Ten, at most.” Milatović’s rise has been rapid; he founded his Europe Now! (PES) party only in 2022. The party also performed strongly in last year’s local elections and is on course for a victory in parliamentary elections on June 11.

Recent polls project it will win about 30 per cent of the vote, which would allow a PES government to assemble the majority needed to pass reforms required for EU membership. “The EU needs a success story [and] hopefully Montenegro can be it,” Milatović said in an interview after his inauguration on May 21, which coincided with the 17th anniversary of the country’s independence from Serbia.

Montenegro has already joined Nato but its membership talks with the EU have stalled due to slow progress on most accession criteria, particularly the rule of law and corruption issues. However, the war in Ukraine has focused minds in EU capitals on the dangers of neglecting countries formerly in Russia’s orbit, with Berlin and Brussels pushing for a renewed impetus in the Balkans. EU enlargement has largely been on hold since the bloc admitted Croatia a decade ago, with the remaining western Balkan nations lingering in various stages of the process. “Unfortunately, the EU reacted politically in the western Balkans only after the Russian aggression in Ukraine,” Milatović said.

“For a decade the whole enlargement process was very technical; now there is a window of opportunity in the next year or two, in which Montenegro can take a major step forward.” With just three of the EU’s 33 so-called accession chapters ticked off, that deadline may prove difficult to meet. Further damping PES’s ambitions are strong historic, cultural, religious and linguistic ties with Serbia. Belgrade continues to resent the west after Nato bombed Serbia in 1999 during a brief war over the future of Kosovo.

Milatović said that when he entered politics in 2020 his country “resembled Kazakhstan more than a western EU nation”, with China, Azerbaijan, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates the biggest investors and about 30 per cent of tourists hailing from Russia. “There were few economic connections with the EU, the US or the UK . . . something was wrong.” In 2015 China extended a $1bn loan — a fifth of Montenegro’s GDP — in an opaque bilateral deal to finance the construction of a highway towards Serbia. A hedge on that loan expires this summer, exposing Podgorica to big exchange rate risks.

Milatović said a new government would urgently review that debt, which has nearly two decades until maturity, and possibly refinance it with western assistance. More financing is also needed for the rest of the highway to open access to Europe via Serbia, he said. The PES candidate for prime minister, Milojko Spajić, said the new government would zero in on tackling shortcomings in the rule of law and fight against corruption. “Đukanović mismanaged the economy and the country was really corrupt,” Spajić said. “The rule of law was basically a joke. We will fix that problem.” Đukanović dismissed such claims as political. “It’s logical . . . I personified the power structures in the past 30 years,” he told the FT after attending his successor’s inauguration. “I have denied involvement by myself or family members in any corrupt activity a million times, but my opponents like to use this against me.”

Often described as autocratic, Đukanović alternated between the offices of prime minister and president nearly continuously since 1991 and was the longest-serving leader in Europe. “Đukanović is a dinosaur,” said Predrag, a taxi driver in Podgorica. “And he left a big footprint in Montenegro.” Still, the former president is hailed by many Montenegrins for turning around the fortunes of the impoverished former Yugoslav state, avoiding the wars that engulfed its neighbours in the 1990s and turning it westwards by joining Nato in 2017 and launching EU accession talks.

“Our turn towards the west is a U-turn,” Đukanović said. “Montenegro historically allied mostly with Russia.” The former president also oversaw a gradual shift away from Belgrade after 2006, including recognition of the 2008 independence of Kosovo, whose statehood Serbia continues to challenge. “We recognised Kosovo not because of an obligation to co-operate with the euro-Atlantic community,” Đukanović said. “We told our neighbours in Belgrade that Serbia lost Kosovo because of the wrong policy.”

The western track had its challenges. In 2016, as Podgorica was gearing up for Nato membership, Đukanović said his opponents attempted a coup with Russian help. Although Moscow has denied those claims, the US Treasury department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control has described “Russian financial support to a Montenegrin political party ahead of Montenegro’s 2016 elections”. Montenegro jailed more than a dozen people for their roles in 2016, including two Serb nationalist MPs and two Russians. Alongside PES politicians, another member of the new generation is Dritan Abazović, the current premier and leader of United Reform Action, a green-liberal pro-European party. An ethnic Albanian and Muslim, Abazović has earned respect for co-operating with a broad spectrum of political forces, including Serb parties. “Dritan is amazing,” said Albanian prime minister Edi Rama. “This young guard in Montenegro will go a long way in the region.” (FT)

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