Montenegrin Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic survived a confidence vote in parliament yesterday (27 January) in the wake of an invitation to join NATO, but had to rely on the votes of an opposition party after his own coalition partner abandoned him.
The vote signalled the end of a political alliance between Djukanovic’s Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) and the smaller Social Democratic Party (SDP) dating back to 1998.
Their partnership has long been shaky, with the SDP regularly rebelling mainly over economic policy.
Djukanovic, who has led the former Yugoslav republic as either president or prime minister, with one brief pause, for the past 25 years, faces a regular parliamentary election anyway later this year.
The SDP’s desertion, however, injects some uncertainty into the vote and its outcome.
Djukanovic’s government won the confidence motion, which he submitted after NATO in December invited Montenegro to join the military alliance, by 42 votes to 20 in the 81-seat parliament. The rest were not present.
He managed to garner the support of the opposition Positive Montenegro party, which said it had won concessions from Djukanovic to draft opposition representatives into certain ministries in order to create conditions for a free and fair election later this year. The details of the deal were not clear.
“I consider the plan of Positive acceptable,” Djukanovic told the assembly. “I invite all opposition parties to enter the government.”
The opposition accuses Djukanovic’s DPS of running the Adriatic country of 650,000 people as a fief, allowing organised crime and corruption to flourish in the years since federal Yugoslavia fell apart in war in the early nineties.
Djukanovic denies the accusations and will enter this year’s election on the back of the NATO invite and having made progress in accession talks with the European Union.
“Our concept offers what everyone in the opposition wants – free and fair elections,” Positive Montenegro leader Darko Pajovic told lawmakers. “We don’t agree with the DPS on internal politics, but our policy aim is Euro-Atlantic integration.”
But SDP leader Ranko Krivokapic, having abandoned his alliance with Djukanovic, condemned the deal.
“The government is creating a (parliamentary) majority under suspicion of political corruption,” he said. “Victories that are not based on the free will of the people cannot last.”
The United States has been spearheading Montenegro’s accession to NATO in spite of Russian opposition.
Russia has described NATO's extension into the Balkans, where Moscow enjoys historically close relations with fellow Orthodox Christians, as a "provocation".
Western diplomats say Montenegro's accession would send a message to Moscow that it cannot halt NATO's expansion, though it is much less contentious than the its earlier overtures to the likes of formerly Soviet Georgia, whose own membership ambitions were quashed by its war with Russia in 2008.
Montenegro's breathtaking Adriatic coastline has seen an influx of Russian private money, homebuyers and tourists since the country split from a state union with Serbia in 2006.
But Podgorica's relations with Moscow have long been uneasy given the Montenegrin government's pursuit of closer integration within the West largely since the end in 1995 of the wars over the break-up of old federal Yugoslavia.
Ties deteriorated further when Montenegro joined EU sanctions against Russia over its annexation of Ukraine's Crimean peninsula and support for pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.
Montenegro's government points to opinion polls that suggest a narrow majority support entering NATO - 17 years after the alliance struck targets in the country during an 11-week air war to drive security forces under Serbian strongman Slobodan Miloševi? from Serbia's then-southern province of Kosovo.
Montenegro was at that time part of a rump Yugoslav state with Serbia, left over after Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia and Macedonia broke away from their joint communist federation.
But unlike Miloševi?'s Serbia, Montenegro began leaning towards cultivating ties with western Europe. It won independence in 2006 and has undertaken reforms in pursuit of EU and NATO membership.
Critics, however, point to the 25 years of political domination by Montenegrin Prime Minister Milo Djukanovi? and his Democratic Party of Socialists, long dogged by allegations of organised crime that the government says are unfounded.