Two related issues were central to the 16 October
parliamentary elections: relations with the West and ties with
Russia. Montenegrin authorities accused Moscow of direct
interference in the election process. Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic
presented the vote as a choice between becoming a NATO and EU member
or becoming a “Russian colony.”
Although Djukanovic’s comments may sound like an
election slogan, Moscow continues to display its subversive
ambitions in Montenegro and the wider Balkan region. Above all, it
wants to preclude further NATO and EU enlargement by excluding
Montenegro, cultivating allies such as Serbia, and fostering divided
states such as Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Montenegro has spent the past few years
extricating itself from Moscow’s tightening grip after mistakenly
permitting corrosive Russian investments. Djukanovic, upon realizing
that major Russian business comes with political strings, ultimately
proved unwilling to become another Putin ally.
Russian investment in Montenegro has dropped
markedly in the past year. This is partly due to Russia’s declining
economy as a consequence of Western financial sanctions and a severe
drop in oil prices. Russia was once Montenegro’s leading foreign
investor, but in 2015 it cut its annual investments by half to just
€68.9 million. During the first six months of 2016, total Russian
investment in Montenegro came to only €22 million.
Moscow also attempts to exert its influence
through alternative channels. It has reportedly funded several
opposition parties, particularly the Serbian nationalists in the
Democratic Front. Last year, the Kremlin-backed Sputnik news agency
set up a local language portal in Belgrade; from there, it
broadcasts anti-Western diatribes and conspiracies into Montenegro.
Russian officials have also blackmailed Podgorica by threatening
severe consequences if it enters NATO. It has fed the constant
propaganda barrage about government corruption and tries to
undermine Djukanovic’s popularity.
Montenegro has a diverse opposition and not all
parties are anti-NATO. However, the Democratic Front ran the most
vehement campaign against the alliance, organized rallies that
occasionally turned violent, and called for unrest if the government
joined NATO without holding a public referendum. Its leaders also
claimed they would abolish sanctions against Russia for its invasion
of Ukraine and develop the “closest economic and political ties with
On the eve of the elections, Montenegrin police
arrested 20 Serbs for allegedly planning to attack state
institutions, police officers and government officials, including
Djukanovic himself. Yet Moscow is more likely to be behind such a
provocation than Belgrade, which has more to lose in terms of its EU
ambitions if it is caught trying to destabilize its neighbor.
The ruling Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS)
and its traditional allies, including ethnic minority parties, did
not win an absolute parliamentary majority and will need to broaden
the coalition. The Social Democratic Party (SDP), a former DPS ally
that ran on its own in the elections, may decide to rejoin the
coalition to help finalize NATO accession.
Minority support from Albanians, Bosniaks and
Croats has been crucial for Montenegro in gaining independence and
is now vital for maintaining a coalition to enter NATO and
eventually the EU. Albanians in particular calculated that the
victory of anti-Djukanovic parties would have been damaging for
The current Montenegrin government was among the
first to recognize Kosova’s independence in 2008—despite the furor
from Belgrade—and is more likely to settle the current dispute over
border demarcations. An anti-Djukanovic coalition would benefit
nationalists in Belgrade in their anti-Kosovar campaign and boost
Russian influence throughout the region.
Just as it stood up to Slobodan Milosevic during
the Yugoslav conflicts, Podgorica continues to defy Vladimir Putin,
despite the barrage of Kremlin attacks and threats. Unlike Serbia,
Montenegro supports the U.S. and EU policy of financial sanctions
against Russia over its annexation of Crimea and its ongoing attack
However, the Kremlin is unlikely to desist from
further provocations, as it aims to expand its influence in the
Balkans and create fresh problems for the West. In one particularly
dangerous scenario, it may seek to create a parallel authority or
another Bosnian-type Republika Srpska entity in northern Montenegro,
where a majority of people identify themselves as Serbs.
The incoming government must therefore prepare
itself for an intensified Kremlin operation to destabilize and
divide Montenegro. Declarations by the Democratic Front that it does
not recognize the results of the parliamentary elections looks
ominously like a step in that direction.