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Montenegro urges EU not to tie its hands in anti-corruption fight

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By Orlando Crowcroft
Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic prepares his ballot to vote in parliamentary elections at a polling station in Podgorica, Montenegro, Sunday, Aug. 30, 2020.
Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic prepares his ballot to vote in parliamentary elections at a polling station in Podgorica, Montenegro, Sunday, Aug. 30, 2020.   -   Copyright  Risto Bozovic/AP
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Montenegro’s new government has accused the country’s EU-backed special prosecutor of blocking corruption investigations into the nation’s president, Milo Djukanovic.

Dritan Abazovic, who is deputy prime minister in the coalition government that ousted Djukanovic’s Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) in parliamentary elections in August 2020, told Euronews that at least four corruption probes involving the president are currently on hold.

Abazovic is leading efforts by the new government to oust the special prosecutor, Milovoje Katnic, who he describes as a Djukanovic ally with close links to the DPS.

DPS held power in Montenegro for 30 years before being brought down by a coalition containing pro-EU liberals and pro-Serb nationalists last year. Djukanovic remains president until elections in 2023.

A new law introduced to Montenegro’s parliament last month to dismantle the special prosecutor’s office has provoked criticism in Brussels, which was involved in setting up the office in order to tackle corruption and organised crime in the Balkan state.

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A spokesperson for the European Commission said that “independent functioning and integrity of the Special Prosecutor’s Office is key for Montenegro’s progress in the area of rule of law”.

But Abazovic, speaking to Euronews from Brussels, said that fighting corruption is not possible with the current prosecutor and urged European lawmakers not to tie the new government’s hands as it attempts to undo three decades of DPS rule in Montenegro.

“[It is] not because we don’t like [Milovoje Katnic] or we don’t like the concept of the specialist prosecutor but because we need new management of that institution if we want to deliver results. With the same person, we cannot deliver the result,” he said.

“We need people who have the courage to start over, that’s it [...]. This is not revanchism, this is responsibility.”

Abazovic said that the four cases against Djukanovic are on Katnic’s desk but have yet to be opened by the prosecutor.

Meanwhile, Katnic told Euronews that the allegations that he is blocking investigations into Djukanovic are untrue. He said that the specialist prosecutor's office had initiated several proceedings against the president, as well as of his family members, but of 18 cases, 12 had been rejected for lack of evidence.

Police were still investigating four cases, and another two had been transferred to other prosecutors.

"As a rule, criminal proceedings are instituted regardless of who it is and what [their] status in society is. This institution has initiated several proceedings against Milo Djukanovic, as well as against every other citizen against whom criminal charges are filed," Katnic said.

"What will happen with any criminal proceedings depends on the evidence."

The prosecutor, who said he is confident his office has the support of Montenegro's "Western allies", also denied that he is an ally of Djukanovic, and said he was politically independent.

"Mr. Djukanovic and I have no friendly, business, or any other connection. I am not a member of any political party, I am not a DPS voter, or a voter of Mr. Djukanovic," he told Euronews.

Abazovic said that Montenegro’s constitution would permit the indictment of a sitting president.

“Parliament has [...] the possibility to start the constitutional process in the constitutional court against the president if they think that he [violated] the constitution.”

Asked whether that was likely, Abazovic said: “If we have these changes - I can’t say for sure that it will not happen.”

Risto Bozovic/Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.
Zdravko Krivokapic, centre, leader of the coalition "Black and White" Dritan Abazovic, left, and leader of the "Peace is Our Nation" group, Aleksa Becic.Risto Bozovic/Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

But despite Abazovic’s attempt to convince the EU to let Montenegro go through with the changes, lawmakers in Brussels are unlikely to approve of what is being seen by critics of the new government as a witch-hunt against political rivals, Djukanovic included.

“Montenegro needs to make further progress on rule of law reforms, including to advance and not reverse the implementation of the judicial reform,” the Commission spokesperson said.

The spokesperson did not respond to specific questions about the attempt to remove Katnic as prosecutor.

Critics have suggested that the attack on Katnic is the settling of scores by members of the Democratic Front [DF], a pro-Serbian Montenegro party that is part of the new coalition after the prosecutor convicted two of its members, and 16 others, over their involvement in a 2016 coup during parliamentary elections that were won by the DPS.

Fabricated

Andrija Mandic and Milan Knezevic were sentenced to five years in jail alongside two Russian nationals, who were convicted of 12 to 15-year jail terms in absentia, and nine others in a preliminary ruling by the court which is currently on appeal. The DF and its allies denied the charges and claimed that the coup was fabricated by Djukanovic and his allies.

“This was mainly requested by the strongest governing party, DF, whose leaders were accused and sentenced in [the] first instance for organising the failed coup in 2016,” said Sinisa Vukovic, a lecturer at the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) at Johns Hopkins University. “This was their way of getting back at the special prosecutor.”

Commenting on the claims that the coup was fabricated, Katnic said: "I have been working in the judiciary for almost 30 years as a judge or prosecutor and in most cases the defendants claim innocence."

In a statement, the Cabinet for President Djukanovic said: "It is clear that the Deputy Prime Minister's claims are unfounded, as it is clear that he obviously intends to place the State Prosecution Service under the influence of the legislative and the executive branches of power, i.e. that he intends to indict, to adjudicate and to sentence.

"The European Commission witnessed such an intention these days as well as the Venice Commission, which gave a negative opinion on the draft laws that are nothing but a failed attempt to dismantle the Special State Prosecutor's Office through a gross violation of the Constitution of Montenegro and a failed attempt to put an independent state authority under the political influence."

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