In Montenegro, a changing of the guard

Montenegro’s presidential runoff election saw the defeat of long-time ruler Milo Đukanović by newcomer Jakov Milatović. But the extent of Milatović’s success will be determined by parliamentary elections in June.

Following the failure of any candidate to secure a majority of the vote in the first round of Montenegro’s presidential election on March 19, incumbent president Milo Đukanović and former minister of the economy Jakov Milatović progressed to a run-off held on April 2.

Đukanović secured the most votes of any candidate in the first round with 35 per cent, while Milatović earned roughly 29 per cent.  

Đukanović has led Montenegro as either its prime minister or president almost continuously for three decades, through its independence from Serbia in 2006 and accession to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) in 2017. He led the Democratic Party of Socialists of Montenegro (DPS)—the successor party to Yugoslavia’s Communist party—which governed Montenegro alone or in a coalition from 1991 until 2020, when it was defeated in parliamentary elections. 

Milatović was the replacement candidate for the centrist Europe Now party. Milatović co-founded the party in 2022 with former finance minister Milojko Spajić. Spajić was originally the party’s presidential candidate and was considered a serious threat to Đukanović’s, but Montenegro’s central election body ruled Spajić ineligible in late February due to his dual Montenegrin and Serbian citizenship.

Milatović, an Oxford-educated economist, replaced Spajić less than a month before the first round of voting.  

After Milatović advanced to the runoff, opposition parties consolidated around him in a bid to oust Đukanović. The succeeded. Milatović won 60.1 per cent of the vote and Đukanović just 39.9.  

“Tonight is the night we have been waiting for over 30 years,” Milatović told his supporters on election night. “Within the next five years, we will lead Montenegro into the European Union.” 

Philip Merrell, Aretera Public Affairs’ regional director for Serbia and Western Balkans, tells Emerging Europe that Milatović notably pledged in his victory speech that, “Brussels would be his first official visit, which gives some symbolic indication as to his key objective.”

In the wake of his defeat, on April 5, Đukanović resigned as the head of the DPS. 

Little space for manoeuvre

Dragoș Ioniță, a researcher at the National School of Political and Administrative Studies’ (SNSPA) Centre of European Studies in Bucharest, tells Emerging Europe he expects Milatović “will be actively involved in mediating between political actors in charge of the much-needed economic reforms – part of the EU membership negotiations” and implementing anti-corruption policies.” 

“Nevertheless, one must keep in mind that Milatović’s constitutional duties are limited, leaving him with little space for political manoeuvre,” Ioniță adds. 

Đukanović dissolved Montenegro’s parliament on March 16 after a three-month deadline expired for then prime minister-designate Miodrag Lekić to form a government. This followed two years of unstable minority governments that followed the DPS’s loss in the 2020 elections.

New parliamentary elections will be held on June 11. 

Merrell suggests that Europe Now will need to do well in those elections and bring an end to Montenegro’s political instability for Milatović’s to have any real impact.

“The EU has likely been waiting for a resolution to this division before meaningfully pushing on with accession talks. In Europe Now—provided they continue their success into the parliamentary elections—they have a partner that is equally committed to EU integration, but also has the broader popular legitimacy, especially among the sizeable Serbian minority, to push legislation through,” he says. 

The Serbian question

However, Europe Now is unlikely to secure an outright majority in the June elections, and the composition of the new governing coalition will depend on the exact vote margins. 

“As the country’s new political force, Europe Now will be keen to build a coalition around the other civic, pro-Western parties, namely the Democrats and [prime minister Dritan] Abazović’s United Reform Action (URA)”, Merrell predicts. “However, as it stands, this bloc is unlikely to be able to secure a majority, and so will face a tough choice of bringing in the pro-Serb Democratic Front (DF)—which backed Milatović in the second round—or DPS.”  

Most opposition parties have long campaigned against DPS, so the optics of bringing them back into the governing coalition after they were ousted for the first time in three decades is less than ideal.

Đukanović’s resignation as DPS party boss could allow them to begin to rebrand, but that could take time. However, Milatović’s opponents have already been working to paint him as a “puppet” and “stooge” of the Kremlin and Belgrade, meaning that partnering with the DF also has its political downsides. 

“Serbia is Montenegro’s biggest trading partner, investor and the source of most of its tourists. However, politically this relationship has been convoluted given the controversially close personal ties between presidents Vučić of Serbia and Đukanović of Montenegro,” Merrell adds.  

During his presidential campaign, Milatović argued for closer ties between Podgorica and Belgrade, up to the point of easing transit between the two countries, says Dragoș Ioniță.

“On the other hand, Milatović and other representatives of his party avoided discussing sensitive issues such as the national identity of Montenegrin citizens, relations with Serbia, or the role of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro, thus leaving an uncomfortable amount of room for Montenegrin voters to doubt the post-election strategy vis-à-vis Belgrade.”

Now president-elect, Milatović has little choice but to confront these polarising issues head-on while maintaining the support of his future coalition partners as he balances EU aspirations with pragmatic relations with Montenegro’s neighbour – and its supporters.  

Photo: Jakov Milatović official Facebook page.

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