Hahn: All sides in Montenegro should show restraint

Johannes Hahn, European Commissioner for European Neightborhood Policy and Engagement Negotiations [European Commission]

This article is part of our special report Montenegro: Breaking the stalemate?.

In an exclusive interview against the background of stalemate in Montenegro, Neighbourhood Commissioner Johannes Hahn told euractiv.com that he trusts the country’s political leaders will find a way to compromise, and that he hoped to meet them soon.

Since the 16 October election, when 20 people were arrested for planning to carry out a coup d’état, tensions have built up in the small Western Balkan country.

Montenegro election marred by ‘coup’ accusations

Montenegro said it had arrested 20 Serbs for planning to carry out attacks after voting wrapped up in the Balkan nation’s tense parliamentary elections yesterday (16 October).

Since then, 39 opposition lawmakers in the country’s parliament, including the 18 lawmakers of the Democratic Front (DF, the hardline opposition), are boycotting the assembly over allegations of electoral fraud. They are asking for early elections to be held in 2018, together with the presidential election.

The government of the Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) and its allies who control a slim majority of 41MPs of the total of 81 lawmakers in the Montenegrin parliament believe that the elections were free and fair, and so does the ODIHR, the specialised OSCE body for monitoring elections. The DF, however, has produced a 40-page report listing various irregularities.

Tensions further grew after the special prosecutor in charge of investigating the coup attempt asked and obtained immunity from prosecution of two Democratic Front MPs, including the leader of the party.

Montenegro prosecutor targets opposition leaders in ‘coup’ investigation

Montenegro’s special prosecutor yesterday (13 February) received permission from a parliamentary council to strip immunity from two opposition leaders targeted in the investigation of an alleged coup attempt on 16 October, where general elections were held in the Balkan country.

Both Front leaders and the country’s Prime Minister, Duško Marković, have stated that there was a risk of “civil war” over the stalemate, exacerbated by divisions over the country’s NATO bid. The opposition wants a referendum for the ratification of the country’s NATO accession protocol, while the government plans to pass it through parliament. There is no constitutional requirement for holding a referendum.

Montenegro’s parliament ‘will vote for NATO by 59%’

Montenegro will finish the ratification procedure of its NATO accession with a vote in parliament in the coming months. Public opinion is evenly divided for and against NATO membership, but it is unlikely that a referendum will be called over the issue.

Asked on 22 February about the latest developments and fears that the situation could worsen if the opposition MPs were arrested, Commissioner Johannes Hahn said the EU had been very clear since the beginning, and that “all sides” should show restraint.

“We expect the relevant domestic authorities to swiftly and transparently investigate the events on the election day. Regarding the lifting of immunity of Members of Parliament, I cannot comment on ongoing legal procedures. I expect, however, that the principles of the rule of law will be fully respected. We are closely following the situation on the ground and I call on all sides to display restraint.”

‘Delicate situation’

Regarding the political stalemate, he said that the political situation was indeed “delicate at the moment, with the opposition out of the Parliament”.

“Boycott is not a sustainable solution. I expect all political actors, from the governing coalition and the opposition, as well as civil society, to return to a constructive political discourse and to work together constructively. This dialogue is crucial for the country to continue the modernisation process and to move forward on its EU path.”

Asked if he had plans to visit Montenegro and help stabilise the country, Hahn answered:

“I trust that the country’s political leaders will find a way towards compromise and dialogue that would take place in democratically elected institutions, most notably the Parliament. This is what we would expect from a negotiating country and this is what people would expect from their democratically elected leaders.”

He added that the contacts between Montenegro and the EU were close and frequent, including meetings in which he participates personally. Indeed, Hahn visited Montenegro in December and Prime Minister Marković was in Brussels in January.

Tusk warns Montenegro, Western Balkans, against ‘alternatives’ to EU

European Council President Donald Tusk warned yesterday (26 January) against “nationalist rhetoric” in the Western Balkans that may seek to divert Montenegro, and other countries, from their Euro-Atlantic path.

“I look forward to meeting the country’s political actors, whether in government or opposition, very soon”, Hahn said. He also insisted that when looking at current developments, one should not lose sight of the broader picture, which in his words for Montenegro is “overall positive”.

“With 26 negotiating chapters opened, with legislative and institutional reforms well underway, Montenegro is undoubtedly a frontrunner as regards EU integration. Based on our contacts with the government, the opposition and the civil society, and judging from the latest opinion polls which show an overwhelming support for the EU, I can say that Montenegro remains firmly committed to its EU path. We equally remain committed to Montenegro’s future in the EU,” the Commissioner said.

Diplomats in Podgorica recently confirmed that Montenegro was so good in the accession negotiations, that it could finish them within the mandate of the present Commission. However, they insisted that if Montenegro wants to be sure that possible referendums on its EU accession are successful, the country should address shortcomings in the fight against organised crime and the freedom of the press. Hahn to made reference to the need of “more concrete progress is needed in the rule of law”.

The wider picture

Asked if geopolitical games could be seen behind the increased trend of stalemates in the Western Balkans, with parliamentary boycotts being frequent in Albania and Macedonia, and the entities of Bosnia and Herzegovina pursuing divisive policies, Hahn gave a very diplomatic answer. He said that for the EU, the Western Balkans were “a real commitment, and not a geopolitical game”.

Albanian opposition to boycott parliament, defying EU appeal

Albania’s opposition leader announced a boycott of parliament yesterday (22 February), defying an appeal from the European Union not to disrupt parliamentary approval of judiciary reforms vital to starting EU accession talks.

“Speaking of the wider region, the Western Balkans are not only a key priority for the EU, they are already part of the EU family,” Hahn added. “The EU is the region’s biggest investor and trading partner, helping upgrade educational systems and environmental protection, create better conditions for entrepreneurship and jobs, fight corruption and organised crime – to name just a few avenues for our assistance. While the EU is not alone in recognising the importance of the region, we are in a unique position to help address its challenges. And as the region integrates with the EU, the benefits of this process are increasingly visible: from the thousands of students across the region broadening their perspectives and enhancing their employability through Erasmus+ to the entrepreneur who can increases his or her sales because they can now trade and travel more easily.”

“In short, for the EU the Western Balkans are a real commitment, with concrete deliverables and results, and not a geopolitical game. Of course, we cannot do the job of national authorities. All these countries must take ownership of the reforms. The pace of progress is in their hands,” the Commissioner said.