Milo Đukanović seems to have been around forever, or at least since the fall of communism. His biggest political achievement was Montenegro’s independence 10 years ago. Now that this achievement is well behind him (although he still positions himself as the protector of Montenegro’s independence, including in the latest elections) he has set the next targets: NATO and EU membership.
Critics suggest that Dukanovic and his Democratic Party of Socialists of Montenegro polarize the country to retain a handle on power through the use of identity politics and a ‘Montenegrins VS Serbs’ frame.
The country is currently facing an unprecedented political crisis with the opposition boycotting Parliament leaving the country’s most important democratic structure half empty and allegations of electoral tampering and insinuations of an alleged coup on election day remain. The last 2 elections (Presidential and Parliamentary) were very close indeed, and remain contested until today.
Is Montenegro’s political constant finally losing his grip on Montenegro?
Born in 1962, Milo Đukanović seems to have been the boss of Montenegro from time immemorial. He was elevated to prime minister in 1991 at the age of 29. Actually, it was the first paid job he’d ever had. Since then, he has served five terms as prime minister (1991-93, 1993-96, 1996-98, 2003-06, and again December 2012 – November 2016) and one term as Montenegro’s president (1998-2002). Đukanović is also the long-term president of the Democratic Party of Socialists of Montenegro (DPS), originally the Montenegrin branch of the Communist Party of Yugoslavia, which has governed Montenegro ever since the introduction of multi-party politics.
When Đukanović first emerged on the political scene, he was a close ally of Slobodan Milošević. In 1996, however, he turned against Milošević, abandoning the traditional joint Serbian and Montenegrin vision in favour of an independent Montenegro. He oversaw the conversion of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia into the State Union of Serbia and Montenegro and Montenegro’s increasing separation from Serbia under his leadership, culminating in victory in the May 2006 independence referendum.
Not all was peachy however for Đukanović. In the mid-2000s, an Italian anti-mafia unit looked into Đukanović over a cigarette smuggling racket worth billions, allegedly a cooperation with organized crime syndicates Sacra Corona Unita and Camorra. Đukanović used his diplomatic immunity to evade prosecution, and the Italian authorities dropped the charges in 2009.
Despite avoiding prosecution, Đukanović is one of the world’s richest leaders. The Independent put him in the top 20 of wealthy world leaders, with a fortune of over £10 million in 2010. The newspaper described him as “Mysteriously wealthy”. He allegedely wears an €100,000 watch and owns houses in Dubai. Members of his family are also thought to be – as one source familiar with their fortune put it “Immensely wealthy”.
In 2015, Dukanovic was satirically awarded the “Person of the Year in Organized Crime” by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP).
After serving continuously in office from 1991 to 2006, Đukanović first retired from politics in late 2006, but he returned to the office of Prime Minister in February 2008. He stepped down again in December 2010 before returning for a second time in December 2012 until the last elections, end of 2016.
During his years in ‘retirement’, loyalists like the current Prime Minister Duško Marković, have acted faithfully as his stand-ins. Writing on LSE’s EUROPP – European Politics and Policy blog, Srđa Pavlović a professor of European and Balkan history at the University of Alberta, writes: “Milo Đukanović had done the very same thing before – and not once, but twice. In 2006, he installed the late Željko Sturanović as his replacement, only to return as PM two years later. In 2010, Đukanović nominated his long-standing protégé, the Finance Minister Igor Lukšić, as his replacement. Once again, Đukanović came back two years later.”
In 1991, Đukanović backed the Yugoslav military action against Croatia and Montenegrin forces participated in the siege and bombardment of the historic port of Dubrovnik and other devastation in Croatia. “I’ll never play chess again,” Đukanović famously said at the time, referring to the chessboard-like pattern on the Croatian flag.
He always manoeuvred very cleverly. Before the euro, Đukanović introduced the German mark as Montenegro’s currency. The euro then became the de facto currency in Montenegro — which became in effect the only country in the euro zone, together with Kosovo, that wasn’t a member of the EU.
Đukanović has repeatedly been accused of running a network of cigarette smuggling and money laundering, but this was never proved. Montenegro became infamous throughout the former Yugoslavia as a supposed mafia state. “If your car has been stolen — look for it in Montenegro,” was the common wisdom in the Balkans. But Djukanovic steadfastly maintained his innocence and that the accusations were politically motivated.
Still, Montenegro’s aura will float over NATO and bring an element of exoticism inside the Alliance. How exotic? Well… the modern film remake of Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale, of the James Bond franchise, is set there, on Milo Đukanović’s Mediterranean turf.