Montenegro’s president: EU’s neglect gave Russia a platform

Pro-Western incumbent Milo Djukanovic speaks to journalists after casting his ballot at the polling station in Montenegro's capital Podgorica, Sunday, March 19, 2023. Voters in Montenegro are casting ballots Sunday in a presidential election marked by political turmoil and uncertainty over whether the small NATO member state in the Balkans will unblock its bid to join the European Union or seek to improve ties with Serbia and Russia. (AP Photo/Risto Bozovic)
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By PREDRAG MILIC

Associated Press

PODGORICA, Montenegro (AP) — Montenegro’s pro-Western president criticized the European Union for allegedly allowing Russia to spread its influence in the Western Balkans, saying Tuesday that the volatile region has become a “platform” for anti-EU policies due to the bloc’s “negligence.”

President Milo Djukanovic spoke to the Associated Press as he prepares for a Sunday runoff election with a political newcomer who has the support of the Montenegrin government, which includes parties seeking closer relations with Serbia and Russia.

“Russia has simply walked into an open space left by the European Union,” Djukanovic said of the EU’s position toward the Balkans. “The European Union in the past 10 years didn’t know what to do with the Western Balkans, but Russia did. It has developed its network in the Balkans.”

Djukanovic, who has held Montenegro’s largely ceremonial presidency since 2018, won the most votes in the first round of the country’s presidential election, which was held March 19. Analysts in Montenegro think his challenger in the two-candidate runoff, former Economy Minister Jakov Milatovic, stands a good chance of winning because he has the backing of other candidates and political parties.

With an early parliamentary election scheduled for June 11, this weekend’s vote is considered an important indicator of the future path of Montenegro, a small NATO member nation of 620,000 people. A political stalemate has stalled the country’s EU path and raised fears of instability as the war rages in Ukraine.

Djukanovic told the AP the presidential contest presents a choice between his pro-EU policies and the “brutal populism” of the current coalition government, which formally backs EU integration but is dominated by parties that favor closer ties with Serbia and Russia.

Djukanovic’s Democratic Party of Socialists governed the country more or less unchallenged for three decades. The president alleged that the the ruling coalition that came to power after a 2020 parliamentary vote has devastated Montenegro economically and financially.

“For the past 2 1/2 years, we have witnessed serious stumbling by Montenegro,” Djukanovic said.

The coalition government has pledged that Montenegro would remain on its European Union path. Milatovic, the president’s challenger, also has expressed support for the country pursuing EU membership, but Djukanovic said the ruling majority’s policies indicate otherwise.

Milatovic served as economy minister from December 2020 through April 2022.

“Mr. Milatovic is a man who is still part of a parliamentary majority which won the (2020) election and which is directly responsible for such (bad) results,” Djukanovic charged.

Analysts say the Western-educated Milatovic, 36, is seen as the favorite on Sunday against Djukanovic, 61, who as prime minister took Montenegro to independence from Serbia in 2006 and defied Russia in 2017 to secure NATO membership. A political novice, Milatovic has campaigned as a fresh face for voters who are fed up with established politicians.

After the war in Ukraine started and the EU refocused on the Balkans, Montenegro had a historic chance to speed up the reforms needed to join the EU. But the current ruling coalition has failed to do so and has instead moved to mend relations with the Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro, the incumbent president alleged.

“We (Montenegro) have come from being considered by European officials as a positive example, an example of a country that promotes successfully European values in the Balkans, to the image of a cancer wound in the Western Balkans and a possibility … that negotiations with Montenegro be halted,” said Djukanovic.

“Would the victory of my opponent mean continuation of that road?” Djukanovic said. “I am more inclined to say yes than no.”

Before he became president, Djukanovic’s government in 2016 said it prevented a Russia-orchestrated coup that was designed to thwart Montenegro’s NATO bid and to install a government that would turn instead to Serbia and Russia.

Djukanovic, who first came to power at 29, said the governments he led managed to peacefully achieve independence, stay out of Balkan conflicts and preserve stability. Corruption, which was seen as a key problem during his leadership of Montenegro, exists in all countries in the world, he said.

“I am completely focused on victory, I believe in that victory. I do not think of a defeat at the election,” Djukanovic said. “I believe I will win the election, and I believe this will be good for the European future of Montenegro.”