MEP: Montenegro elections may be the most significant since independence referendum

MEP Vladimír Bilčík during hearing of Maroš Šefčovič, Vice-President designate of the EC in charge of Interinstitutional Relations and Foresight, on 30 September 2019. [European Union, 2019]

EU candidate Montenegro is holding a crucial parliamentary election on Sunday (30 Aug). Slovak MEP Vladimír Bilčík, who leads the European Parliament’s delegation for relations with the country, said it is “essential” that they are conducted safely, peacefully and freely, recalling a coup d’etat attempt that marred the previous ballot in 2016.

Vladimír Bilčík (EPP) is the chair of the Delegation to the EU-Montenegro Stabilisation and Association Parliamentary Committee.

*This article is the abridged version of the full interview published on EURACTIV.sk.

Montenegro is preparing for crucial elections on Sunday (August 30). Although the opposition has boycotted parliamentary activities since 2016, they will eventually take place in a timely manner. Is this a positive development for the country?

The last election in 2016 was marked by the coup d’état attempt, which resonated internationally. These are regular parliamentary elections held four years since the last ones and the decision on their final date was legitimate.

The good news is that despite the fact that the opposition has boycotted the work of the parliament for a long time, boycott of these elections is not happening.

What will be the key factor for these elections?

From both domestic and international point of view, it is essential that the elections are conducted in a calm and peaceful atmosphere, given also the specific experience from four years ago. It is important that Montenegrin citizens make their choice freely and public authorities ensure the safe conduct of elections during the ongoing pandemic.

The EU, but also the OSCE, may be a little disappointed with the conduct of the elections, given that the country has failed to reform its electoral system. The opposition left the internationally supported council in charge of that reform. Despite that, can Sunday’s elections follow standards that the EU will consider sufficient?

This is a crucial question for the OSCE observation mission, ODHIR, which has been physically present in the country. In the European Parliament, we will refer in our assessment to the findings and conclusions of this mission. We are not sending an election observer mission to Montenegro – we have not been able to deploy any election observation missions in the region due to the ongoing pandemic. However, together with other colleagues from the EP, we do our utmost to be in touch with political partners, media and citizens in the Western Balkans.

From the European Parliament delegation’s point of view, how has the election campaign developed?

Given the ongoing pandemic, this has not been a typical election campaign as most campaign events were moved to the online space, media and have taken place through other means. For this reason, feedback from the monitoring of the media will also be important for us.

Which topics were crucial in the campaign?

I hope that the elections will take place peacefully and that the political parties will behave responsibly. These elections may be the most important ones since Montenegro’s referendum on independence in 2006. They can in a significant way contribute to the country’s geopolitical future. If they help create a political atmosphere that could contribute to substantial domestic reforms, there is a good chance that during the next four years Montenegro can realistically move closer to its goal of a European perspective.

It is crucial, however, that elections take place without outside interference. Montenegrins must decide for themselves by themselves. This is an extremely sensitive topic in connection with the events of 2016, but also with what is happening in Europe today. We are all watching the events in Belarus closely. And external interference has been a topic in the pre-election campaign in Montenegro.

You are probably also referring to non-state actors. The question of the influence of the canonical Archbishopric of Montenegro, which is subject to the Serbian Orthodox Patriarchate, resonated in the election campaign.

The position of European institutions is clear: people need to decide freely and in a fair political fight based on competition among political parties.

One of the campaign topics was the question of freedom of religion. In modern European democracies, we apply the principle of separation of powers. It is important that a state guarantees freedom of religion and at the same time, religious institutions respect the political institutions of a state.

Do you already have information from the Commission on which topics will be included in the report in relation to Montenegro?

It would be irresponsible to have any political conclusions on Montenegro before the conduct of the elections. I trust that the Commission will be clear in this area when it presents its report this autumn.

Which topics should the recommendations focus on?

There are deficits in democracy, which we repeatedly emphasize. Montenegro has been negotiating EU membership for eight years. It is now the first country to have opened all substantive negotiating chapters, but it is important that it also starts closing them. And this requires substantial reforms that will also lead to a better quality of democracy and, above all, improvements in the rule of law and the system of justice.

[Edited by Vlagyiszlav Makszimov/Zoran Radosavljevic]

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