Montenegro: Opposition riding the referendum caravan

Marko Milačić in his Podgorica office. [Georgi Gotev]

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

As Montenegro pushes ahead with its bid to join NATO, the pro-Russian hardline opposition, hoping to block the country’s accession, is using “neutrality” as ammunition to fight what it calls a pro-Western “mafia regime”.

Marko Milačić, a firebrand young opposition activist, who is a coalition partner of the Democratic Front, the hardline opposition in Montenegro described as pro-Russian and pro-Serbian, told EURACTIV that NATO is turning the country into a Ukraine-like model.

The stakes are high.  After a decade of negotiations, Montenegro has almost succeeded in joining the NATO military alliance at the end of 2015. Out of the alliance’s 28 members, 24 have already ratified Montenegro’s membership. But the vote is now stalled in the US Senate.

On one side, Donald Trump has put into question the usefulness of NATO and on the other side, Moscow sees the expansion of NATO as a top threat to its security.

Milačić, a journalist by profession, used to work in national television. He was fired when he participated to the first anti-NATO protests in 2010. Over the last 5-6 years he and his organisation “Resistance to hopelessness” organised many marches and protests.

He spoke to EURACTIV as he prepared for a roadshow across Europe to campaign for a referendum to be held on his country’s NATO accession.

The roadshow started on Monday (20 February) and is taking Milačić, together with five other activists, across Skopje, Belgrade, Banja Luka (the capital of Republika Srpska, the Serbian entity of Bosnia and Herzegovina), Zagreb, Ljubljana, Vienna, Prague, Berlin and Brussels, where an event at the European Parliament is planned on 28 February.

Milačić said he had written a letter to US Senators (on 24 January 2017), asking them not to ratify Montenegro’s NATO accession protocol, and was harshly criticised by the DPS, former Prime minister Milo Đukanović‘s party.

The ‘Ukrainisation’ of Montenegro

On Monday (20 February), Djukanović said that the parliamentary elections showed that after Ukraine and Syria, the turn came for Montenegro in the confrontation between Russia and the West, as a country of interest to both sides.

“Those who in 2006 were against the statehood of Montenegro cannot forgive the sin of independence. Their crazy logic is that if not independent, Montenegro would not be able to join the EU and NATO,” said Djukanovic. In his view, opponents of his political party DPS wanted to overthrow the current government and install a pro-Russian puppet regime.

For Milačić, Montenegro is just the finishing piece of the puzzle to complete “the militarization of the Balkans”.

Montenegro is seen as “the last step towards Serbia”, who for the time being insist on staying away from the Atlantic alliance largely due to public anger following the 1999 bombings of Belgrade.

“They [NATO] are making some kind of Ukrainisation of Montenegro, maybe a soft Ukrainisation. We are also being divided, even on ethnic grounds, although we are the same people,” he said.

The tug of war reached a climax during the parliamentary elections on 16 October, when the government announced that it had foiled a plot to assassinate Djukanović .

Since October, tensions have built up in the small Western Balkan country when the nation’s special prosecutor lifted the parliamentary immunity of two DF leaders who are suspected of having participated in the failed October coup.

EU calls for rapid investigation into Montenegro ‘coup’

Montenegro, which broke away from a union with Serbia to become independent in 2006, has been engulfed in a coup drama since the 16 October general election when authorities arrested 20 Serbians accused of planning armed attacks against government institutions.

Riot police were deployed to contain hundreds of protesters who gathered in front of the parliament in Podgorica last week to protest against the motion lifting the two leaders’ immunity.

In an attempt to defuse tensions, Montenegro’s chief prosecutor ended up overruling the motion, allowing the two men to walk free.

Russia has denied any involvement in the alleged plot, and the opposition in Montenegro has questioned whether any attempt at a coup took place.

“This is not responsible politics. This is a political trial. It’s clear they want to criminalise the anti-NATO politicians. They are for neutrality. Everything is related with NATO,” said Milačić, speaking in English.

Asked to comment on the widespread view that the opposition, including his organisation was paid by Moscow, he said: “In this part of the world, if you are against NATO, it’s normal that they call you a Russian spy, a Putinophile, that you are paid by Putin.”

“I have more connections with the West than with the East. When members of the Bundestag from Die Linke were here, they gave my organisation something like €500. And I wanted to take a picture. Germans are paying us. Is that OK?” he asked amused,  urging the government to prove that he had taken any money from Moscow.

Special Prosecutor Milivoje Katnić, who is in charge of the coup investigation, has investigated cases of suspicious money transfers, but no charges have been made so far.

‘Neutrality’ instead of ‘anti-NATO’ 

Asked by EURACTIV whether he would allow Russia to establish a military base in Montenegro, whose deep-water ports would be a perfect stopover for Russia’s naval missions in the Mediterranean, the young opposition leader said:

“I am for neutrality. The smart policy is not to be involved. EU members outside alliances are safe and prosperous. [There are] zero terrorist attacks in neutral countries. Montenegro has no place for a military base. And the Russians need no military base here.”

But the activist insisted that sharing the same border with Russia would be dangerous, but with the US it was dangerous to share the same planet.

According to Milačić, Montenegro’s NATO accession protocol has been on the table five times but never managed to go through ratification and now the problem is of a different nature.

“It’s an issue of politics, between Trump and Putin. The US doesn’t care about Montenegro. For Russia, Montenegro is important, because before this was their zone of influence,” he said.

Azra Karastojanović, project manager at the Atlantic Council of Montenegro, said that despite the fact that Trump said NATO was “obsolete”, Montenegro’s was a specific case, because its accession would be a test for the alliance’s open door policy, and because it would prove that third countries don’t determine NATO’s enlargement.

Germany says NATO concerned about Trump ‘obsolete’ remark

Germany’s Foreign Minister said yesterday (16 January) that US President-elect Donald Trump’s comments that NATO was obsolete had aroused concern across the 28-member alliance.

Additionally, Montenegro’s accession to NATO would prove wrong those who believe in a US-Russia rapprochement, she added.

Political crisis?

Asked if there was a danger of civil war in Montenegro, as leaders of DF have been warning in recent days, Milačić pointed at great instability.

“We are in a big political crisis, but not only since the elections. It has been one year. There were protests, I was arrested, we saw tremendous police brutality, it was recorded on mobile phones,” Milačić said of the situation preceding the election.

Under pressure from the opposition, Djukanović put in place a cabinet of “reconciliation” joined by 5 ministers of the moderate opposition.

The Western diplomatic community in Podgorica doesn’t call the situation following the election a political crisis but admits that it could deteriorate.

“Then the election took place, it was more rigged than before”, said Milačić, repeating the DF accusation of massive electoral fraud. However, OSCE considers the elections as generally free and fair.

“DPS is a mafia type criminal organisation,” Milačić repeated, adding that Western diplomats knew that perfectly well.

Asked what his main criticism of Djukanović is, the activist said: “He is a real criminal. The West knows that better than me. They are totally aware. There is a totally different story what people say in public and what they say in private. It’s huge hypocrisy. They say: He is a criminal, but he serves us well.”

Diplomats told EURACTIV that during the breakdown of Yugoslavia, Montenegro had no financial resources and that Djukanović had instituted smuggling as “a national sport,” initially thanks to the UN embargo on Yugoslavia. But as one of them said, at that time “there was no other choice” for building the small nation’s statehood.

From the early days, Djukanović positioned himself as pro-Western and spearheaded the 2006 independence referendum as a shortcut to EU accession.

Montenegro is indeed a champion in the accession talks, having opened 26 chapters, compared to Serbia, who opened only six. But more importantly, for joining the EU, Serbia will have to recognise Kosovo, a move Montenegro made in 2008. A diplomat conceded that Montenegro could, in theory, finish its accession talks in one and a half year.

“We have a mafia regime. Everyone who has illusions will realise one day,” Milačić ended.

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