Podgorica is framing the issue of NATO membership as the main political wedge in Montenegrin politics, justifying the prolongation of a heavy-handed approach vis-à-vis political opposition.
The tactic works, but is not beneficial to rule of law, a level-playing political system, and Montenegro’s human rights track record.
Deterioration of human rights standards
But whereas Montenegro is nearing NATO accession, despite current Republican opposition in the Senate, the Freedom House suggests standards of civic liberty are declining, particularly when it comes to the freedom of peaceful assembly.
A case in point is the detention and arrest of an opposition leader, Marko Milacic, who was “pre-emptively” detained and summoned for questioning on Wednesday, as he joined a protest against welfare cuts on a motherhood allowance.
Mr. Milacic remained in custody for violation of the law on public gatherings and remained in custody until a duty judge could be found.
The allowance for mothers with children older than three years old was introduced last year, during a period of electoral campaigning, and it is now being slashed despite buoyant economic growth of 5,1% in 2016.
Women have been protesting in front of the Montenegrin Parliament for over 20 days, with some of them on hunger strike for the 10th day. Gender inequality and poverty in Montenegro is particularly acute, according to UN Gender Inequality Index, and women do not frequently find support in the political mainstream.
Milacic joined the protest by blocking a main road.
Now you see it, now you don’t
For over a generation, coverage of Montenegrin politics in Europe has focused on a neat “East versus West” encounter, whilst overlooking the tendency of the government of Montenegro to change political trajectory whenever required, as Milo Djukanovic appears to be a master of political survival.
The current Prime Minister, Dusko Markovic, a former national security chief, is a long-time political ally of the Djukanovic regime and his administration appears to have done little to counter what Transparency International regards as a less than exemplary record on political corruption. The latest report on Montenegro confirms that administrative corruption remains under-reported and under-prosecuted, while the political system is described as “captive,” mainly by means of the government intimidating donations to opposition parties while ruling parties abuse state funds for electoral purposes, including vote-buying.
While a number of policy issues are raised, the government often frames each issue raised by the opposition as a case of a pro-Kremlin underling undermining a pro-Western government. While it is true that Mr. Markovic has been advocating a referendum on NATO membership, along with 84% of public opinion, Podgorica appears to gain considerable leeway on governance.
For Milo Djukanovic, the strategy has worked for over a generation, as he reinvented himself from a staunch ally of Slobodan Milosevic to the main advocate for NATO membership in Montenegro.