Milo Djukanovic, the Political Sycamore of the Balkans, Finally Dies
Montenegro is a charming, small, mountainous country known for its resort cities on the Adriatic Sea coast. When we look at the recent political history of this Balkan country with a population approaching 700 thousand, it is striking that one politician occupies an extraordinary place. From 1991 to the present day, we can say that Milo Djukanovic has governed Montenegro almost single-handedly. In 1991, at the age of 29, as a young communist leader, “Milo” took the reins of Montenegro and 32 years later, on April 2, 2023, he lost to his young rival in the second round of the presidential elections. After this defeat, he resigned from his party (DPS) and retired at the age of 61. And he did very well. All the best to him and his country. In terms of Montenegro, which I had the opportunity to get to know closely due to my assignment in Belgrade (2003-2008) and which I continued to follow after my assignment, I can easily say that an era has ended and a brand new era has begun.
Sea in Budva and Kotor; rafting on the river Tara: Montenegro
Montenegro’s original name Crne Gore, meaning black mountain, is known as Montenegro in the world. Montenegro is Italian for black mountain. Before the Ottoman Empire, Italian city states were dominant in the region, hence the name. Montenegro is a really cute, green country. Resort cities such as Budva and Kotor are very popular in the summer months. From the Albanian border in the south of the country, you can reach the Croatian border in 4-5 hours (294 km) by following the coastline northward, after a pleasant winding journey with sea views. As you head inland from the coast in an easterly direction, mountainous areas begin. With the Tara river for rafters, national parks, ski resorts, Montenegro is an undiscovered tourist attraction. Let us take this opportunity to remind you that Daniel Craig’s James Bond movie Casino Royal was shot in Montenegro. The Bosniaks of Montenegro settled in Rozaje and its surroundings.
Milo’s career : 7 terms as prime minister, 2 terms as president
The first time I met Milo, on a courtesy visit, was in the spring of 2003. At that time, Montenegro was one of the two republics, together with Serbia, that made up the Yugoslav Federal Republic. More precisely, they were the Yugoslavia that remained after the painful secession of Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Macedonia from the Yugoslav Socialist Federal Republic (YSFC). A year or two later, the country was renamed Serbia and Montenegro. It is known that Milo entered politics at a very young age in the early 90s as the prime minister of Montenegro in the YSFC, with the support of Serbia’s fearsome leader Slobodan Milosevic. In the years that followed, Milo took advantage of Milosevic’s falling out with the international community and chose to distance himself from Serbia, but his star never made peace with Belgrade. Milo led his country for 32 years, serving seven terms as prime minister and two as president.
Milo owes his success to his stand against Milosevic and Serbian nationalism
Milo, 1.96 cm tall, is a charismatic, charming, overconfident politician from the former Yugoslav school. Although he was the leader of a small, non-independent country of 700,000 inhabitants, 85 percent of whom were of Serbian origin, he used to defy Serbia, a country of 8 million people. He effectively changed the country’s currency, abandoning the Serbian dinar and putting the euro into circulation. He emphasized the Montenegrin Orthodox Church against the Serbian Orthodox Church. I was surprised to see smuggled American cigarettes being sold openly on the streets of the capital Podgorica. It was said that the cigarette smuggling business was managed by Milo’s team. The cigarette issue was like a secret that everyone knew. Milo was also good at diplomacy: He developed good neighborly relations with Kosovo, Belgrade’s mortal enemy, sided with the bloc against the “Serbian butcher” Milosevic in the Bosnian war, established close friendships with Bosniak and Croatian leaders and gained the trust of all neighboring countries except Belgrade.
Montenegrin or Serbian?
If it is said that Montenegro owes its independence to Milo Djukanovic, this statement is a limited exaggeration. Milo was not satisfied with Belgrade’s efforts and concessions for the continuation of the common state of “Serbia and Montenegro”, and as a result of the referendum held in the spring of 2006 under the auspices of the European Union, Montenegro gained its independence (with 58 percent of the vote). I remember that on the occasion of the referendum, the identity of Montenegrins was intensely debated. Nationalist Serbs claimed that “there is no such identity as Montenegrins, they are Serbs”. Indeed, it is the same race, the same language, the same sect. However, despite these common elements, for a period of history (1878 to 1918) they existed as two separate Serbian states side by side, and remained two separate republics within the YSFRY. On the other hand, due to Milosevic’s policies, Serbia became a target of the international community, was subjected to sanctions, lost credibility, and the people of Montenegro distanced themselves from the Serbian identity. The debate on the identity of Montenegrin citizens, whether they are Serbs or Montenegrins, is still ongoing and is a sensitive issue that will not end today and tomorrow.
Milo reminds us of Boyko Borisov: Being both western and shady
After independence, Milo Djukanovic turned his country’s orientation completely towards the West. Under his leadership, significant progress was made towards European Union membership, with Montenegro joining NATO as the 29th member (2017). Montenegro’s choice for NATO naturally caused serious disappointment in Serbia and Russia. You might think that the unrivaled leader, who has marked the last 30 years of Montenegro by setting its direction and goal, would have established a throne in the hearts of the people. Unfortunately, this has not been the case. Probably in line with the traditions of the political environment in which he grew up (YSFC), Milo has made deficits in terms of democracy, human rights, justice and law, has been subjected to intense criticism from within and outside, has often faced accusations of organized crime and corruption, and has been accused of authoritarianism. In the end, opposition parties with different views came together to eliminate the corrupt common opponent. No one can claim that Milo will not face a judge in the coming period on the above charges.
Milo and anti-corruption united the entire opposition
The first sign that the end of the Milo era was near was the parliamentary elections held in the summer of 2020. The Opposition, united in a broad alliance, managed to oust Milo’s party from power with a narrow majority in the Parliament (41 vs. 40). The local elections last fall were the occasion for the second sign, with Milo’s DPS party losing 10 out of 14 municipalities, including the capital Podgorica. And finally, the knockout blow came with the presidential elections on April 2, 2023, when his 36-year-old rival, the leader of the “Europe Now” party, economist Jakov Milatovic, supported by the united opposition, won 60 percent of the vote and sent Milo a retirement notice. All eyes in the country now turn to the parliamentary elections to be held in a few months. Probably, another defeat awaits the DPS.
Montenegro looks to Brussels, not Belgrade
While the electoral defeat of Milo, who has been distant and cold towards Belgrade for years, is welcomed in the Serbian capital, it should be emphasized that this result does not mean a victory for Belgrade. There is no doubt that Milatovic’s priority and goal is the European Union. As a matter of fact, we read that his first foreign visit will be to Brussels, not Belgrade. Contrary to Belgrade’s expectations, the future president announced that there is no question of reversing the decision to recognize Kosovo. Milatovic, who declared his goal to make his country a member of the EU within 5 years, announced that he would support the integration of the Western Balkans and pay attention to establishing good relations with all Balkan neighbors. It is understood that relations with Serbia will be organized in line with this understanding, neither too close nor too distant, and that a middle path will be adopted.