As Montenegrins go to the polls on Sunday, the spectre of a second Belarus is rearing its head. Can the EU avoid the same unrest and chaos by acting sooner?
As the situation in Belarus continues to deteriorate, Europe may soon have another electoral crisis at its periphery. In Montenegro, decades of the same man’s rule and widespread discontent is likely soon to be the for electoral fraud. The tiny Western Balkan nation – currently waiting for EU membership to be bestowed upon it – is heading to the polls on Sunday for a result many believe has already been sealed.
The West must brace for the expected if they are to prevent another Belarus. With Lukashenko, the strategy of waiting to see how things played out has gone awry. Weak statements immediately following the results allowed the former collective farm manager to believe his position was tenable. It emboldened him to crush opposition, rather than resign himself to the logic of the situation. His contempt for his people – who allegedly voted for him in vast numbers – was chilling. As he dressed himself in combat gear and gave instructions to his police to shoot, the exposure of the depth of his electoral fraud was complete.
Most predicted this fraud, and its potential consequences. Yet, the West strangely prepared no concerted action for this eventuality – bar beating the drum of empty rhetoric and leaving the people of Belarus to sort it out for themselves.
The same mistake should not be made again. In Montenegro, instances of pre-poll deception give some indication of what to expect. Investigations of the electoral roll shows the presence of 50,000 phantom voters in a country with little over 600,000 people. Half of registered voters are listed without an address. And now, new evidence is emerging of citizens from other Balkan countries being fraudulently given voting cards.
The recourse to desperate measures is understandable, given increasing levels of opposition in the country. President Djukanovic has faced two years of large and sustained protests. January 2019 saw months of demonstrations after a video emerged of a Montenegrin tycoon handing money to the leader’s party to buy the 2016 election. This year, the passing of a controversial religious law saw the largest number of protesters gather in the country’s history. The protests only stopped with the arrival of the coronavirus. The discontent remains simmering beneath.
This unprecedented street opposition reflects, as with Lukashenko in Belarus, the impossibility of staying elected in a true democracy for nearly 30 years. No politician remains that popular for so long. The vicissitudes of public opinion are not nearly generous enough. Those in power are bound to lose touch with those they are supposed to represent, citizens will seek out change with the inevitable passage of time, or scandals shall accumulate till they are unsustainable.
Pertinently, scandal sticks to Djukanovic like glue. In 2015, he was unceremoniously named Man of the Year by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project. Ordinary voters rarely cast their votes in favour of the known corrupt, especially when most are shut out of prosperity. It breaches an instinctive feeling of fairness, usually then corrected at the ballot box in fair elections.
Instead, Djukanovic has used the levers of the state to entrench his position. Opposition is minimally tolerated, and the legal system has turned on his political foes. Peaceful protests have been violently put down by police this year, including – most astoundingly – the arrest of bishops. Even Interpol, the world’s police force, has now voided international arrest warrants requested by the Montenegrin government because they were deemed politically-motivated.
Those within the country are less fortunate. Whilst police wield brutality on the street, the judiciary maintains the status quo in court: handpicked prosecutors investigate how corrupt deals are leaked to the press, rather than those named in the reports (unless, of course, they have fallen out of favour with the president).
That the state machinery will be used against protestors is in little doubt. The EU, UK government and their allies must therefore be explicit: Djukanovic’s position will not be sustainable if he claims a fraudulent election as a mandate. Here, fortunately, the West have more leverage than in Belarus: Montenegro is a member of NATO and a candidate for EU membership. Both must be thrown into jeopardy with external pressure applied once the expected fraud occurs.
Yet, Djukanovic will be cleverer than Lukashenko. Where everyone thought the latter faced his most serious challenge, he saw it necessary to fix the election with an unbelievable 80 per cent of the vote. A Soviet mindset framed this decision: anything less could be construed as weakness.
The result in Montenegro, by contrast, shall be plausible to an international audience: Djukanovic will try to fix it just enough. The West should not be fooled. For those inside the country, a stolen election is a stolen election. When the result is wrong, the discontent will swell into action. If Djukanovic is only given weak words, repression will be inevitable.
Instead, words and actions should be swift and measured. We have already seen what happens when hands are sat on. In today’s climate, another Belarus must be avoided at all cost – and the people of Montenegro must be given the respect they deserve.
- Steven Kay QC is head of 9 Bedford Row Chambers and founder of MontenegroWatch.com
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