In terms of optics, it was little surprise that Djordje Radulovic's first overseas trip as Montenegro’s foreign minister last week was to Berlin.
Ever since a coalition of opposition parties narrowly won national elections on August 30, ousting the Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) after three decades in power, Montenegro’s new government has been described as pro-Serb and pro-Moscow.
The result was a body blow to President Milo Djukanovic, the pro-Western leader who took Montenegro to independence in 2006, into NATO in 2007 and towards European Union membership, with negotiations beginning with Brussels in 2012. Djukanovic remains president until 2023 but faces a hostile parliament for the first time.
In the months since, Montenegro’s new government has been at pains to reassure Europe that this hostility is towards Djukanovic’s domestic, not his international, agenda. In October, Zdravko Krivokapic, the country’s new prime minister, told Euronews that Montenegro’s future was in Europe, and that his government would strengthen its relationship with NATO.
And the visit of Radulovic, a 36-year-old career diplomat, to Berlin to meet German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas was an attempt to hammer that point home. The inclusion of Serb nationalist parties in the government does not mean that its goal is no longer an independent Montenegro in the EU. There has been a change of guard, not a change of direction, he said.
“I just wanted to send a clear picture, you know, of where this country wants to go. [...] To the West, where this country belongs,” Radulovic told Euronews.
And the road to Europe, Radulovic maintains, runs through Berlin.
“Germany has been a staunch supporter of the EU integration. If you look back at the history, you will notice that every single enlargement was backed [...] by Germany,” he said.
Unlike elsewhere in the Western Balkans, European Union membership has overwhelming support in Montenegro, a country of 600,000 people that borders Croatia, Serbia, Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Albania and is a well-known tourist hub and wine-producer.
Recent polls put support for membership at more than 80%, compared to 63% in Serbia. Just as Montenegro escaped the worst of the violence during the Balkan wars of the 1990s, in the modern era the country has not witnessed the same form of ethnic nationalism of politicians like Aleksander Vucic in Belgrade and Milorad Dodik in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Not that there are not deep cleavages within Montenegro, a country where 28% of the population are Serbs. Montenegro's independence referendum in 2006 was won by just 55.5%. A nationalist, boisterous Serbia under Vucic on its doorstep has only emboldened those who want closer links with Belgrade.
“There are 10 million Serbs in the world and 300,000 Montenegrins. This is not an ethnic difference, it is a political, tribal difference,” said Ljubomir Filipović, an analyst. “It is two ideas of Montenegro, as an independent nation or part of some kind of Serbian supranational entity.”
Montenegro’s relationship with Belgrade deteriorated under Djukanovic, and in 2019 a cabal of alleged Serbian and Russian agents were arrested on election night planning to overthrow the government and kill the president. In the run-up to the 2020 elections, Djukanovic accused Vucic and Moscow of waging a media war against the DPS in order to install a puppet government.
But the major flashpoint came in 2019 with a law requiring the Serbian Orthodox Church to register its vast land holdings in Montenegro, effectively starting a war with an institution that claims to represent the 72% of Montenegrins that are Orthodox Christians. The law led to massive street protests and galvanised opposition parties, who united behind the church.
It was that movement that brought the current government to power, securing 41 out of 80 seats in parliament in a broad coalition that includes both Serb nationalists and liberals. Djukanovic, although still president for another two years, is increasingly isolated, involved in a public spat with the new government over his refusal to sign a repeal of the church property law.
With Montenegro’s parliament - and its population - split down the middle, some see the 2020 election as a portent of things to come. Djukanovic’s dominance of Montenegrin politics since the Communist era has given the impression of consensus, plastering over the cracks in everything from the friends it makes to its existence as an independent state.
“I think we’re seeing a bit of a preview of just how contested the idea of Montenegrin sovereignty is in some circles, and at the same time how profoundly and deeply it is felt in others,” said Jasmin Mujanovic, a political scientist and co-host of the podcast Sarajevo Calling.
“In that sense, it's less of a ‘finished state’, as it were, than I think we have [been] led to believe previously, largely thanks to [Djukanovic’s] dominance. Now that that's waning a little bit, we're seeing how profound some of these rifts actually are.”
As well as continuing Djukanovic’s European trajectory, the new government has promised to “reset’ relations with Belgrade. Indeed, Radulovic told Euronews that his opposite number in Serbia was one of his first calls when he took the job in August.
“We want to have very, very, very close relations with Serbia, based on mutual recognition, non-interference in domestic affairs and [the most possible friendly relations with Belgrade,” he said. “I proposed to him to [forget] all [the] bad things and put them back in [the] closet.”
As for Russia, the government has promised to continue to uphold sanctions on Moscow, but pursue better relations with the country than under its predecessor. “We don’t consider that Russia is our enemy, our foe, or anything,” Radulovic said.
But Montenegro, like the rest of the Western Balkans, is also part of a bigger cleavage in Europe, one between the duelling influences of the US, Brussels and Moscow, and one only likely to be increased with President Joe Biden in the White House. Across Europe, political parties, politicians and even nations are having to pick a side. Will Montenegro?
“I think we have already picked a side, if there are sides. [...] We are going to keep pursuing our happiness in the political West, in the EU, where our citizens want to go,” said Radulovic.
Montenegro first applied for EU membership in 2008 and negotiations opened with Brussels in 2012. After eight years of accession negotiations, all the 33 screened chapters have been opened, and three are provisionally closed. The biggest hurdles remain what they have always been: corruption, organised crime and the health of the economy.
In 2020, the European Commission report into Montenegro’s ascension status noted progress on almost every chapter except freedom of expression, which it criticised after arrests and legal proceedings launched against journalists for posts written on social media and a failure to solve the 2004 murder of editor Dusko Jovanovic and the 2018 shooting of a journalist.
A European Commission spokeswoman told Euronews that Montenegro was “well advanced in its EU accession process and that the EU “remains fully committed to Montenegro's future in the European Union.” She said corruption, organised crime and media freedom were key issues.
But despite these failings, Montenegro could be an easy win for Brussels after the high-profile collapse of North Macedonia ascension talks in 2019. It is a small country, just 600,000 compared to Serbia’s seven million and Bosnia and Herzegovina's 3.3m, and is not embroiled in territorial disputes, such as Kosovo and Serbia.
Indeed, Radulovic believes that should Montenegro gain EU membership before its neighbours, it could act as an honest broker to help Belgrade, Tirana and Sarajevo get over the line.
“I think that if we lead by example, the whole Western Balkans region might be following us. Not because we are best, far from that,[...] but because maybe we want EU membership the most.”
But the question remains of whether the EU is really ready to push forward on enlargement, which so far is scheduled for 2026 for Montenegro. There are prominent voices within the European Commission, first among them France, that are against widening the bloc, despite the promises made to the Western Balkans over the past two decades.
For President Emmanuel Macron, who faces elections next year and who finds a significant population of citizens hostile to further immigration, enlargement carries significant political risk.
“I can't see a new intake of members coming in before 2030. And that, to my mind, is actually kind of optimistic. I fundamentally don't think the EU wants new members,” said Mujanovic.
The issue for Europe is that as it recedes from the Western Balkans, it creates a vacuum, a vacuum that is increasingly filled by nationalist and populist forces such as Dodik and Vucic. At the same time, a younger generation that might stick around in a European Montenegro get sick of waiting and find other ways to emigrate in search of better prospects overseas.
“It is a fundamental question in the region now. It is like after the Rapture. What do you do, on Earth, after the rapture? I think we are only now seeing the very early, pre-mutations of a kind of post-European Western Balkans,” said Mujanovic. “I think it is going to get a lot more choppy.”
For Filipović, the risk is an existential one. Membership of NATO has been integral to countering the forces in Montenegro that would see it move back into Serbia’s orbit, and membership of the European Union - or the prospect of it - has only strengthened the hand of progressive, liberal forces to push back against Serb nationalism in the country.
But even EU membership, if it should come, would not prevent that regression, Filipović said. Both Poland and Hungary have proved that European Union membership does not guarantee good governance, he added. All the changes that the EU requires for membership are ultimately reversible, as Poland and Hungary have shown recently with their reforms to the judiciary.
So while Montenegro’s new government talks a good talk on Europe, Filipović urges caution.
“Even though they accept the EU and NATO, they don’t accept the values. I'm talking about individual liberties. I'm talking about liberal democracy, human rights and respect for the minorities, especially ethnic minorities,” he said.
“And what bothers me the most is that even though they are saying it, they’re not speaking their mind. They have a hidden agenda.”
Radulovic, meanwhile, has branded his government’s attitude to regional and international affairs as a “zero-problem doctrine” - no border issues, no quarrels, no fights, he says, and none of the “diplomatic ping pong” that he believes epitomised the Djukanovic and DPS era.
“We don't want to have hostilities with anyone, you know? We’re too small to have enemies," he said.
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