Montenegro PM: ‘We are looking for a new opportunity with the EU’

Duško Marković, the current Prime Minister of Montenegro. [Government of Montenegro]

EU membership candidate Montenegro is carrying “a heavy legacy, plagued with low standards and weak institutions”, but it has already made progress and its EU orientation is “clear and strong”, its prime minister told EURACTIV Germany in an interview.

Duško Marković, the prime minister of Montenegro, visited Berlin last week to work on the bilateral partnership with Germany. In the interview with EURACTIV’s Germany Alicia Prager, he spoke of EU accession talks, problems of crime and corruption and Chinese investments.

Duško Marković is the prime minister of Montenegro and deputy president of ruling Democratic Party of Socialists. He was interviewed during his visit to Berlin.

The EU accession negotiations with Montenegro have been underway since 2012. At the moment, it looks as if the targeted accession year of 2025 could be realistic. How are the negotiations going? What difficulties are you encountering?

Montenegro is clearly oriented towards the EU and NATO, which we see as a basic prerequisite for improving our quality of life. Due to the internal situation in Montenegro, many hurdles still need to be overcome before there can be accession to the EU.

But we are determined to put our political past behind us. It has been marked by conflicts, clashes with our neighbours and a lack of understanding.

We are looking for a new opportunity with the EU, even if applying for membership was a difficult decision for our country at the time.

In what way? And what are currently the biggest hurdles to accession?

We are carrying a heavy legacy, plagued with low standards and weak institutions. And we have to deal with the anti-European sentiment that used to prevail in the Balkans.

In 2006, Montenegro adopted a more Euro-Atlantic friendly path. The basic prerequisite for our accession to the European Union will be our progress regarding the rule of law. I used to be the Minister of Justice and know the things one faces in that area.

Today, 32 of 33 accession chapters have been opened. Three have provisionally been closed and we are prepared to close seven more chapters.

We also hope to achieve this by the end of this year with regard to the provisional targets set in chapters 23 and 24 (ed.: these chapters set standards in the area of the rule of law). We have strengthened our institutions, our judiciary, our state administration, we have established new institutions.

Montenegro looks very different today than it did eight years ago. We have one of the fastest-growing economies in Europe. In the last two years, we received foreign direct investment worth over €1.5 billion.

But the level of corruption remains very high. In the past months, thousands of people protested in the streets of Podgorica, demanding the resignation of long-term president Milo Djukanović, as well as yours. What do you say to these people?

Thousands in Montenegro rally against President Djukanovic

Thousands protested in Montenegro’s capital Podgorica on Saturday (2 February), the fourth such rally in as many weeks, demanding that President Milo Djukanović and his government resign over alleged corruption, cronyism and abuse of office.

Corruption is a problem, but it is not as serious as it used to be.

Today, the biggest problem is organised crime, not only in Montenegro but also at an international level. In response, we have set up a special public prosecutor’s office, which has already convicted many, including many high-ranking state officials, who are also members of my party.

What does this mean in concrete terms for Djukanović? He has been leading the state since 1991 – changing between positions of head of state and president. 

The right to protest is a democratic right available to all citizens. And of course, their protests are a reason for those in power to think about why people demonstrate.

The initial spark was a bank going bankrupt due to its owners and employers engaging in criminal activities. Following that, a negative campaign was launched against the president, who did not want to protect these owners. And later, the political opposition used this as a motive to support the protests, gain the support of the masses and make demands.

For example, they demanded the resignation of the President, mine, as well as the resignations of the Chief Public Prosecutor and the Director of the Anti-Corruption Agency. The demands have become political.

What about the issue of freedom of the press? In recent years, various organisations have been ranking Montenegro lower than in previous years. What is going on?

The image we are reflecting is not a particularly good one. But that does not necessarily mean that the state or those in power are solely responsible for it.

The state was responsible at a time when journalists lived insecurely and when the property of publishing houses was being threatened.

Today, responsibility is shared between media organisations. Critical media is also in strong competition against other media organisations abroad. The problem is that we are not always professional and that media organisations cannot always organise themselves.

All this creates a pretty bad picture. There have also been some attacks on journalists because of their reporting.

The case concerning journalist Lakić was probably the worst: the police found out that organised crime was involved in the attack. In Montenegro, over ten people have been arrested in relation to this case. The masterminds, based in Kosovo, have also been arrested and their extradition has been requested.

In addition, we are also currently working on a new media law with the Council of Europe and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). We want to introduce the highest standards. This should not only improve our dealings with the media but also protect our media landscape from foreign influence.

But it is also the responsibility of politicians to take action against restrictions on the freedom of the press. Yet, only in January, did we see journalist Jovo Martinović being sentenced to two and a half years in prison. International observers have sharply criticised this verdict.

You cannot ask the Prime Minister about this. The Special Prosecutor’s Office was in charge of the case, and it is independent. The government has nothing to do with it.

The Special Prosecutor’s Office uncovered a drug trafficking group and, as far as I know from the media, he was part of that group. We cannot interfere in the matter. That is precisely what Europeans and the Special Prosecutor’s Office, in particular, are demanding. And they always receive brilliant accolades for their work from all over Europe.

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Back to EU enlargement: Negotiations seem to be going well but have also been taking quite some time. You mentioned the anti-European mood earlier.  How much pressure are you getting from the opposition, which looks more towards Russia? And how are the long negotiations affecting the population’s stance towards the EU?

Our orientation towards European integration is clear and strong. A European Union study was recently published: Over 60% of the population wants to belong to the European Union. In some surveys, the figure is even as high as 80%.

Of course, there is a section of the population, as well as politicians, who are opposed to NATO and EU membership. These are political leaders, who are influenced by Russia. But they are a minority.

Montenegro has been a NATO member since 2017. How has NATO accession influenced the country’s relations with Russia?

Because of our NATO membership, we are currently not holding any political discussions with Russia, only at a very low administrative level.

Russia has been very opposed to our NATO membership and has supported forces in Montenegro that oppose NATO membership. That is why they interfered in the elections.

Montenegro was halfway towards joining NATO at the time, and if the pro-European forces had not won the elections back in 2016, NATO accession would not have been successful.

In connection with Russian influence, false news has been quite a serious issue. To what extent has this trend influenced public opinion in Montenegro?

Montenegro has long been exposed to hybrid threats – including false reports. They are intended to compromise our European integration, as well as our institutions, government and economic development.

And, of course, they are supposed to upset and disturb the population. But, as you know, European countries are also struggling with this.

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In addition to the EU and Russia, China is also showing increasing interest in Montenegro. What can Europe learn from China’s involvement in Montenegro? Has the country benefited?

China has not invested a single euro in Montenegro. China does not own any assets in our economy either.

Montenegro decided to build a motorway in 2015. So far, we are the only country in Europe that does not have a single motorway. Due to the geographical situation, the first section of the motorway would be very difficult to build.

We were looking into seeking additional funds that were not part of the budget. The only interested parties were the Chinese company CRBC and the American company Bechtel – but their offer was over 300 million euros more expensive. Their credit conditions were also very unfavourable.

The Chinese Exim Bank gave us a 20-year loan, with a 2% interest rate and a six-year payment term. 85% of the highway is now being paid with this loan, with the remaining 15% coming from our own budget.

So we cannot speak of Chinese investment, but of our investment being implemented by a Chinese company.

What about other planned infrastructure projects with Chinese participation?

We are currently planning hundreds of infrastructure projects worth just under €330 million. In the energy sector, we are trying to weigh up our goals carefully and analyze who the right partners are.

Of course, China is interested in investing in our energy sector, such as our port or in other industries. But so far there has been no commitment.

We are leaning towards European companies, even though we would work with China again. China is committed to respecting EU standards, transparency and fair business practices. When a Chinese company responds to a tender, it must respect EU requirements.

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