Russia, religion, and Montenegro’s ruling coalition

Russia, religion, and Montenegro’s ruling coalition

New leadership may bring geopolitical shifts, but rifts over religion could prompt new elections.

WHAT’S HAPPENING?

A month after Montenegro’s landmark parliamentary election, the new ruling coalition has chosen a prime minister and Parliament speaker and begun talks on forming a government.

KEY INSIGHTS

– The Montenegrin leadership will likely uphold the high-level foreign policy direction on key issues while making crucial changes in bilateral and domestic policy
– Ties with Russia and Serbia will likely be strengthened should the larger opposition blocs both retain the allegiance of and power over smaller blocs
– The political power of the Serbian Orthodox Church and its links to the Russian Orthodox Church could heighten this realignment and be leveraged by Moscow
– EU accession will likely be hindered by ethnic tensions and closer ties with Serbia and Russia

THE ELECTION AND ITS AFTERMATH

Photo: Espreso/Wikimedia Commons

On August 30, Montenegro’s pro-European ruling party narrowly lost the parliamentary election to a largely pro-Serbian, pro-Russian opposition coalition, winning only 30 seats to the opposition’s 41. President Milo Djukanovic and his Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) had been in power since 1990. Although Djukanovic will remain president until 2023, the position is largely ceremonial. A series of DPS-linked corruption scandals and a December 2019 law that some feared would allow the state to seize religious property have prompted mass protests. The Serbian Orthodox Church opposed the law and urged Montenegrin citizens to vote against DPS, a move that may have helped to account for the particularly high turnout at the August election. Ethnic Serbs make up approximately one-third of the population, and many are devout Serbian Orthodox believers. Religious and ethnic divides in the Western Balkans are historically volatile, and Bosniak minority citizens faced targeted attacks and vandalism after the election.

The election also drew international attention due to the background and geopolitical leanings of the new ruling coalition’s leadership. The leaders of the Demokratski Front (DF) alliance — which makes up the largest segment of the largest winning bloc, Za Buducnost Crne Gore (ZBCG) — served prison time for their ties to the allegedly Russian-backed coup attempt in 2016, and the leader of another — Aleksa Becic of the Demokrate Crne Gore (DCG) party — has ties to a party that backed a union with Serbia. Although the opposition blocs have pledged to uphold obligations under NATO and maintain recognition of Kosovo, pro-Serbian and anti-NATO symbols were deployed by supporters and during the campaign.

Ethnic minority parties met with majority blocs in early September about forming a government, and the Parliament speaker and prime minister were chosen on September 23. Becic was elected speaker, while ZBCG’s Zdravko Krivokapic was put forward for the premiership. According to Krivokapic, a new government should be formed within the next month. Given the diverse makeup and often contrasting policy positions of the current and potential additional ruling coalition members, this process will likely prove more difficult than in years past.

TECTONIC SHIFT OR SUBTLE REALIGNMENT?

Photo: Herbert Frank/Flickr

Should the ethnic minority parties in the Montenegrin parliament choose to join the coalition in forming a government, some observers are hopeful that they and key small parties in the ruling bloc, such as the pro-European United Reform Action (URA), will be able to curb the coalition’s pro-Serbian and pro-Russian tendencies. While these parties may indeed serve as a mitigating factor, it is unlikely that they will have a major influence on any but the most contentious of policy stances.

Other observers fear that the coalition, with or without the influence of smaller parties, will break with its promises not to derecognise Kosovo and to fulfil its obligations as a NATO member state. However, according to the terms of the NATO treaty, Montenegro cannot officially withdraw from the alliance before 2037. Having openly declared that they would uphold the current foreign policy path on these key issues, it is also unlikely that the new ruling coalition would jeopardise its narrow majority and risk losing precious seats from smaller parties such as the URA by reneging on these assurances. Should these parties choose to abandon the coalition, new elections would almost certainly be called for, and the coalition leadership would be left at a disadvantage in a new campaign.

However, one issue that could become a breaking point is the December 2019 Freedom of Religion law, which URA recently called to be changed rather than repealed. Previous talks on amendments failed in late June, and Democratic Front leader Milan Knezevic identified an agreement to abolish the law as a necessary precondition to forming a government. Unlike foreign policy, a fundamental disagreement over this key domestic campaign point could cause a lasting rift among the ruling blocs and prompt new elections.

Should the coalition remain intact, the most likely outcome is that the new Montenegrin parliamentary leadership will uphold DPS’ high-level foreign policy course in relation to NATO membership and the recognition of Kosovo, with subtler departures from that course taking place in the form of economic policies, bilateral relations, and the overall political environment.

The current pick for prime minister, Zdravko Krivokapic, stated mere days after the election that Montenegro’s imposition of sanctions on Russia was a “wrong step” that has had a major negative effect on the Montenegrin economy. Despite the sanctions, Russia remains the leading source of foreign direct investment (FDI), investing over €95 million in Montenegrin business and real estate since early 2019. Should the main opposition blocs retain a hold on the winning coalition’s policy in this area, it is entirely possible that Podgorica will at least partially lift sanctions on Russia and expand on these existing economic ties. Another distinct possibility is that the new ruling coalition will gain control over the security sector and increase cooperation with Russian and Serbian security services. If cybersecurity and other precautions are not undertaken, these closer ties could potentially put sensitive NATO information at risk and create a conflict of interest in dealings with NATO allies and the alliance as a whole. However, Turkey-Russia relations over the last several decades have provided a precedent for simultaneous NATO membership and close economic and security ties with Russia, which Montenegro’s new leadership may choose to follow.

The political sway of the Serbian Orthodox Church was also made evident by the elections and their outcome. In the runup to the 2006 referendum on Montenegrin independence, the Serbian Orthodox Church advocated a union with Serbia. It also echoed the warnings issued by the Russian Orthodox Church against following “pressure from the ruling clique” to go forward with NATO membership without a public referendum in 2016. These past political stances indicate that the Church could influence the geopolitical bent of the political leadership that it helped to bring to power in Serbia’s favour. Ties between the Russian and the Serbian Orthodox Churches could serve as a lever for Moscow to influence Podgorica’s affairs and policy. However, URA’s position on the Freedom of Religion law indicates that the party is willing to assert itself against the larger blocs to curb their policy inclinations vis-à-vis the Serbian Orthodox Church, and could do so successfully if the coalition endures.

In terms of the domestic political and social environment, the new ruling opposition coalition may alter citizenship legislation to facilitate dual Montenegrin citizenship for Serbian citizens. Serbian authorities have also declared an interest in bolstering Serb demographic statistics within Montenegro. These and other developments may indirectly embolden the harm and harassment of ethnic minorities as occurred after the election. Despite the opposition coalition’s stated intention to continue pursuing EU accession, shifts in policies on issues such as Russia sanctions and any erosion of protections or conditions for minorities would almost certainly hinder Montenegro’s bid to join the union. Closer ties and cooperation with Serbia, which is currently at only 48% policy alignment with the EU, would likely exacerbate these factors.

While a tectonic shift in high-level foreign policy is unlikely due to the role of key parties, the dominant blocs will likely retain policy control over the smaller coalition members — should they remain members. Changing ties with Russia and Serbia and pivots in the domestic socio-political environment could ultimately have an outsize impact on Montenegro’s external affairs.

Any views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Internews.