Last October, on the Sinjajevina plateau in the mountains of northern Montenegro, a group of local activists huddled around a bonfire in the biting cold. Supported by ecologists, they were fighting to prevent the military from taking over this austere yet beautiful pastureland.
Milan Sekulović, who founded the Save Sinjajevina association in 2018, told us, ‘The last government wanted to use this area, around Lake Savina Voda, for military exercises and destroying obsolete munitions. The plan threatens around 50 family livestock farms when the number of smallholders is already falling because of a lack of government support, and investment in roads and electricity. We import 80% of our food, but we could develop livestock farming and self-sufficiency.’
The last administration, led by Milo Đukanović, who had been in power since the days of communist Yugoslavia, suffered a shock election defeat on 30 August 2020, but activists are still waiting for a firm commitment from the new government. It is underconsiderable external pressure: since 2017 the Montenegrin army has been part of NATO, whose secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg is equivocal. Last October he told journalists, ‘I’m … confident that there are ways to reconcile the need to protect nature and, at the same time, to exercise forces, which is important for all Allies’ (1). It’s a sensitive issue because NATO bombed Montenegro, then still part of Serbia, during the Kosovo war in 1999 (2). As well as smallholders and ecologists, it mobilises all who identify primarily as Serbs and object to the monopoly on power held for many years by those who identify as Montenegrin. (Some consider the identities to be very close, if not identical.)
Up on the Sinjajevina plateau, a giant in a cassock extracted himself from an all-terrain vehicle and walked briskly towards the activists, his beard blowing in the wind. It was Joanikije Mićović, bishop of Budimlje-Nikšić and number two in the Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro.
He began by offering to baptise anyone who wanted it on the shore of the little lake. Then he declared, ‘This is a pivotal moment, our final battle against communism and what it did to Montenegro after 1945. People today are returning to their faith. They are defending the land, natural resources, everything on which their lives and survival depend. They are also defending their heritage, their family history.’
People today are returning to their faith … defending the land, natural resources, everything on which their lives and survival depend
To the bishop and his audience, the ecological fight echoes the struggle against a freedom of religion law introduced in December 2019, which they see as an attempt to rob the Serbian Orthodox Church of its monasteries and places of worship. Mićović spent three days in police custody last May. ‘They wanted to take away not only our churches, but our identity too. We had no choice but to demonstrate,’ he said. ‘It brought people together, and 100,000 of us took to the streets, which is equivalent to 10 million in France.’
President Đukanović’s Democratic Party of Socialists (Demokratska Partija Socijalista, DPS), an astonishing political chameleon that is a direct descendant of the League of Communists of Yugoslavia, remained in power for 30 years despite many changes of political direction. It first supported, then opposed Serbia’s president Slobodan Milošević; it was Russophile; then advocated independence; then became Atlanticist. It survived scandals involving its leadership, and an exodus of young people from Montenegro, but was finally brought down by an identity issue: setting out to build a Montenegrin Orthodox Church that would appoint its own head, at the expense of the Serbian Orthodox Church, to which most of the population still belongs.
At the last census, in 2011, 72% of the population recorded their religion as Orthodox, 19% as Muslim, and 3% as Catholic. By ethnicity, citizens identified as Montenegrin (45% of the overall population), Serb (28.7%), Bosniak (8.6%) or Albanian (4.9%), but many who identified as Montenegrin are members of the Serbian Church. During the communist era, it was felt more respectable to identify as Montenegrin, as 90% did in the 1948 census, and 68% in 1981 (when 3.3% identified as Serb).
The emergence of a Montenegrin national identity distinct from the Serbian identity is not a result of historical and geographical factors alone, according to Amaël Cattaruzza, an expert in geopolitics: ‘The authoritarian policies of Slobodan Milošević in Serbia and the strategy adopted by the international community (mainly the US and the EU), which sought to isolate the Serbian regime, helped to swell the ranks of sovereigntist protesters in Montenegro. These protesters justified their demands by championing a certain idea of Montenegrin national identity, based sometimes on ethnic and sometimes on civic criteria’ (3). After Milošević’s removal, in 2000, the breakup of the State Union of Serbia and Montenegro led to independence for Montenegro; 55% of the population voted for it in 2006, overriding those who identified primarily as Serbs.
The identity issue hides a social question: Montenegro is divided most of all by unequal development. Covering just over 12,000 sq km, with a population of only 620,000, it has 66 millionaires, but a quarter of Montenegrins live below the poverty line, which was less than €2,261 a year for a single person in 2019 (4). Even more significant are the huge regional disparities, reflected in 2018 (pre-Covid) unemployment rates: 36.6 % in the north, which voted for change; 3.9 % in the coastal region (5).
Coastline now a playground for rich
The new marina at Porto Montenegro, on the shores of the Adriatic, is in another world. The huge naval dockyard at Tivat, once the pride of the Yugoslav navy, is now a hangout for rich foreigners: there are yachts for hire at €165,000 a week, prestige hotels (kitsch imitations of those on the French Riviera) and luxury boutiques. The Bay of Kotor, a huge, winding gulf with many creeks, fishing villages and several medieval towns listed by Unesco as world heritage sites,has changed in the last 20 years. Foreign investors, attracted by tax concessions, have concreted over the coastline with no regard for its natural and historical treasures, or for planning regulations.
On the eve of independence in 2006, the Canadian Peter Munk, founder of Barrick Gold, the world’s largest gold producer, was flying over the bay in a military helicopter chartered by Đukanović, then prime minister, when he spotted the naval dockyard, which still employed nearly 500 workers. The two men signed an agreement under which the new Montenegrin state would sell Munk 30 well-situated hectares of land for €23m (6). The Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska, who has since 2005 owned the Podgorica aluminium smelter Uniprom KAP, Montenegro’s only big industrial company, has invested in what is to become a new Monaco, along with the British investment banker Jacob Rothschild and the French tycoon Bernard Arnault.
We are not going to ignore the interference that has been taking place since 2016, since the moment Russia decided to impede Montenegro’s accession to NATO
The Montenegrin government is promoting luxury tourism and foreign investment on sites abandoned by the Yugoslav armed forces. At Kumbor, the other side of the Bay of Kotor, Arzu and Leyla Aliyeva, daughters of Azerbaijan’s president Ilham Aliyev, and his father-in-law Arif Pashayev are building a luxury development; on Luštica Bay, the Egyptian company Orascom Development, controlled by billionaire Samih Sawiris, is building apartments. Vanja Ćalović is executive director of MANS (Network for Affirmation of the NGO Sector), which fights corruption in Montenegro, though the revelations it has published have not as yet led to any prosecutions. ‘Behind all these projects,’ she told us, ‘as with the new motorway project, you find Bemax, a Montenegrin subcontractor with close links to the last government. The Bemax empire has swallowed up all other construction companies in the country.’
Other hotel, casino and amusement park projects are linked to organised crime. The best known is the Hotel Splendid at Bečići, just south of Budva, which hosted the extravagant weddings of the son and daughter of Montenegro’s ‘godfather’ Branislav Mićunović. Ćalović told us that the hotel, like many others, is rumoured to have been built without planning permission.
‘Lion’s share of the corruption’
Milka Tadić Mijović, co-founder of the independent weekly Monitor and president of the Centre for Investigative Journalism of Montenegro, said, ‘Those at the top take the lion’s share of the corruption. Over the last 30 years, most state enterprises have been privatised, and the process has lacked transparency. Đukanović and his family have become the richest people in Montenegro. His brother Aleksandar, who was unemployed, now controls the capital of Montenegro’s biggest bank, Prva Banka. His sister Ana, who was a judge during the privatisations, now owns one of the country’s biggest law firms. Any foreign investor who wants to avoid problems has an interest in using its services.’
Revelations published by Monitor and the opposition dailies Dan and Vijesti have brought trouble for journalists critical of the government, including a bomb attack on Vijesti’s offices, a journalist shot and wounded, and defamation campaigns in newspapers with links to the DPS. Mijović told us, ‘Since independence, there have been more than 30 physical attacks on our journalists. The daily newspaper Pobjeda has published more than 200 articles about us. They have called me a prostitute and a traitor to my country. It took me seven years to win one court case against them. Most of these attacks have never been punished, which suggests that the government is behind them somewhere.’
The change of government did not include Đukanović, who was elected president for a five-year term in 2018. During this new period of cohabitation, he will retain an important, if secondary, role. We asked him about the extent of corruption in Montenegro, but his answer seemed rehearsed: ‘We are a small community, and everything gets exaggerated. Moreover, because of the unique circumstances in Montenegro, we had no change of government for 30 years. Those who aspired to replace the government tried to discredit it by any means available, including exaggerating the scale of corruption. The problem certainly exists, but it is also certain that the state is taking it seriously.’
When we mentioned revelations that had not led to any prosecutions, suggesting a culture of impunity, he replied, ‘That’s a completely false perception. People very close to me have been tried and sentenced.’ Đukanović was referring to his former right-hand man Svetozar Marović, president of the state of Serbia and Montenegro 2003-06 and number two in the DPS. He was arrested in 2015 on charges of corruption and involvement in organised crime, found guilty and sentenced to 44 months in prison, but fled to Serbia. The government presented the fall of the ‘Marović clan’ as evidence of its fight against organised crime; the opposition interpreted it as an internal settling of scores. Mijović said, ‘The most important thing for Montenegro now would be to get an independent justice system. If we do get one,I’m sure many other scandals involving Đukanović and his family will emerge.’
‘The law is being hijacked’
To gauge the sense of impunity that poisoned the election campaign, we took a boat trip on Lake Skadar with Dražen Ivanović, formerly in charge of the 16 rangers who guard the national park surrounding it. The park has outstanding biodiversity and is home to some of Europe’s last pelicans and hundreds of other bird species. The lake, which straddles the border with Albania, was once filled with carp, eels and other fish that were good eating.
For nine years Ivanović hunted poachers who use electrofishing and other illegal techniques. He showed us the remains of unauthorised buildings whose construction he had managed to stop. Last summer he resigned, disgusted by the lack of resources and the feeble punishments handed out when so many natural species are under threat: ‘The fines don’t do much to deter fishermen who break the rules. They can afford to pay them if they get caught. And we have only five boats, which are far too slow. The law is being tragically hijacked.’
The river Tara, another of Montenegro’s natural wonders, has the triple protection of designation as a national park, a Unesco listing and a parliamentary declaration. All this has not prevented irreparable damage during the construction of a motorway from the Montenegrin port of Bar to the Serbian border village of Boljare and on to Belgrade. The 170km stretch from the Adriatic to the Serbian border includes some 40 tunnels and 80 bridges. A viaduct already towers over the Morača gorge. When we visited, one of the piers was decorated with a huge Montenegrin flag, celebrating the completion of the first stage of construction.
The motorway, a source of national pride, would not have been possible without foreign investors. The Export-Import Bank of China has provided a loan of €809m to cover the cost of the first 41km section, which is being built by the China Road and Bridge Corporation. The entire project is expected to cost €2.5bn, around half of Montenegro’s GDP. According to Aleksandar Perović, executive director of the environmental organisation Ozon, ecocide and corruption go hand-in-hand. He is pressing the new government to draw up an ecological plan: ‘We are concerned that our society is entering a period of revanchism, and our initiative aims to go beyond the spurious talk of patriotism. If we truly wish to defend our country, we should start by defending our natural environment and our fragile natural resources.’
On 31 October we visited the monastery at Cetinje, for centuries a bastion of resistance against the Ottomans, and the historical heart of Montenegro (see map). The precincts were crowded withpeople who had come to pay their last respects to Amfilohije Radović, metropolitan of the Serbian Orthodox Church and figurehead of resistance to the last government. Inside, representatives of the new government, including Prime Minister Zdravko Krivokapić, stood around the open coffin. Radović had been a victim of the second wave of Covid-19, which has hit the Balkans hard. He had toured Montenegro tirelessly since his appointment in 1990, working to rebuild his church.
Radović was a skilled politician too, supporting Đukanović when he turned away from his mentor Milošević in 1997. Radović was silent during the independence campaign of 2006, but later criticised the government’s power-grabbing and bestowal of sinecures, which it did under cover of constructing a Montenegrin nationalism (which he considered fake) through language and religion. He was also critical of Serbia’s president Aleksandar Vučić and his political horse-trading over Kosovo (7).
‘We have lost our archbishop’
Next day, thousands of people gathered outside the cathedral in Podgorica for Radović’s funeral, with little regard for health precautions. As the procession arrived, they knelt spontaneously. Svetozar Pavićević, 95, who had come on foot from his home village, said, ‘We have lost our archbishop, who united the people.’ The president was conspicuously absent, but another head of state, Vučić, was in the front row, alongside religious dignitaries from across the Orthodox world. It was his first visit to Montenegro since coming to power in Serbia (as prime minister in 2014, then as president in 2017).
Despite the apparent coldness of Vučić’s relations with Đukanović, the two have much in common: absolute authority, a taste for gigantic projects funded by foreign investors, and governing their country as if it was a family business, with a stranglehold on institutions and media (8).
In an interview on the opposition TV channel Vijesti, Vučić defended himself against accusations of having secret links with Đukanović and interfering in elections in Montenegro. ‘I’m not the American ambassador, so I don’t try to tell them who can and can’t be in the government,’ he said, implying that any external pressures on Podgorica there may be don’t come from Belgrade. A few days earlier, US Ambassador Judy Rising Reinke had called on Krivokapić to ensure that ‘people appointed to posts in the new government, especially to sensitive roles in the security sector, have a proven attachment to western values, to Montenegro’s sovereignty, and to the Euro-Atlantic line, which includes responsibilities to NATO’ (9).
Montenegro’s new prime minister used to teach mechanical engineering at the University of Montenegro in Podgorica, and did not find forming a government easy. Chosen by the Montenegrin clergy, he took command of a ragged coalition of Atlanticist liberals, conservatives with ties to Serbia, ecologists and former socialists. He could not count on the support of a faithful political party, and faced scepticism from western governments. He told us, ‘When we came to power, no one wanted to talk to us. On the evening of 30 August, I wrote seven letters to foreign embassies, but no one wanted to see us. They labelled us “pro-Russian” or “pro-Serb”. They said that we were endangering regional stability, and that Montenegro was no longer trustworthy.’
‘Democracy we can now aspire to’
Krivokapić had to act quickly.The new government’s leaders met on 8 September, again under the auspices of the Church, at the monastery in Ostrog, where they agreed on a number of undertakings designed to reassure the West: to increase cooperation with NATO; to implement the reforms required for accession to the EU; to respect the constitution and the symbols of the state (flag, national anthem); and not to go back on Montenegro’s recognition of Kosovo’s independence. After the Ostrog meeting, the German ambassador agreed to meet Krivokapić, who told us, ‘It wasn’t an official meeting — we didn’t publish a declaration. I talked about my experiences in Germany, and told him that for me, Helmut Kohl was the incarnation of the kind of democracy I wanted for Montenegro, and to which we could now aspire.’
Đukanović, an expert on western intentions, visited Berlin on 7 October. He told us about the warning he had given his opponents: ‘If the new government endangers the state, it will have a problem with everyone who respects ten centuries of Montenegrin independence. And we will defend that independence by any means necessary. We are not going to ignore the obvious interference that has been taking place since 2016, since the moment Russia decided to impede Montenegro’s accession to NATO. That interference can be seen in the presence of high volumes of illegal funds, in Russia’s strong influence over the media via Serbia, and in the involvement of intelligence services.’
The final makeup of the new government was only revealed on 4 December. The main difficulty had been the appointment to ministerial roles of the leaders of the Democratic Front alliance — the largest contingent in the For the Future of Montenegro coalition, which included 27 of the 41 MPs in the new parliamentary majority suspected of having links to Russia and Serbia. Andrija Mandić and Milan Knežević have been sentenced to five years in prison over the mysterious attempted ‘coup’ of 2016. They have appealed against their conviction as being based on trumped-up charges. But they have already had to give up part of their programme — taking Montenegro out of NATO. Mandić admitted, ‘We wanted a referendum on NATO membership, but we don’t have a political majority for that.’
Deputy prime minister Dritan Abazović, a liberal Atlanticist and darling of the West, explained the trick the new government had used: ‘I don’t believe Washington has anything against a government of experts.’ The Montenegrin parliament accepted a government of technocrats, and Democratic Front MPs decided to put up with this, hoping to gain ground on their priority issues. Mandić said, ‘Our first priority is government reform, getting rid of systems left over from the communist era. We also want to end discrimination against Serbs, who have been excluded from public sector jobs. And finally, we want to fight against the culture of impunity and bring in a lustration law to remove people who are corrupt.’
The pandemic and its impact on the economy, internal tensions and the ever-present supervision of the West all suggest the new government is not likely to have an easy time, especially as tensions between government and president have grown, and Đukanović intends to make full use of his prerogatives. He began 2021 by refusing to sign the first major laws passed by parliament, notably the repeal of the most controversial provisions of the religious freedom law. This symbolic gesture, which forced a second vote in parliament, shows that, after 30 years as leader of the DPS and the country, he is not afraid to stir up division to bolster his own position.