Montenegro’s new PM promises national ‘rebirth’

The tiny Adriatic country of Montenegro has experienced a “rebirth”, after more than three decades being run by the same party, its recently elected premier told the Financial Times.

Zdravko Krivokapic, a moderate conservative, is the first prime minister in that time to a run a government not dominated by the Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS). He said the country would retain its pro-western orientation and that he would make the rule of law and boosting the economy his primary focus.

“It is clear that Montenegro has experienced a rebirth, a transformation which citizens will protect,” Mr Krivokapic said from the capital Podgorica via video link.

Mr Krivokapic’s new government, a heterogeneous coalition that includes Serbian nationalists and greens, has a wafer-thin majority and commands just 41 out of 81 seats in the parliament. It was installed in early December following elections in late August.

Until the change of power in December, Montenegro had been governed since 1991 by the DPS, led by political strongman Milo Djukanovic, who is currently the country’s president. The DPS is the successor to the League of Communists of Montenegro, which governed Montenegro when it was part of the former Yugoslavia. Montenegro remained part of a rump Yugoslavia as the confederation began to disintegrate in the early 1990s, until declaring independence in 2006.

Mr Krivokapic compared his victory to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which monitored the vote, said the elections were “competitive”, but expressed concern that the DPS “gained an undue advantage through misuse of office and state resources and dominant media coverage”. 

Dejan Milovac, deputy director of MANS, a Podgorica-based watchdog, said: “For 30 years, Mr Djukanovic and DPS were unbeatable, and people were convinced that change is not possible, especially not through elections . . . because they held the levers of power: money, secret police, institutions, and media.

“That influence is not all gone, but people have had the realisation that change is possible.”

However, expectations for the new government are very high, said Mr Milovac.

“Yes, it is 41 [seats] versus 40, but it is a symbol that we succeeded even on an uneven playing field,” Mr Krivokapic said, noting that turnout was above 75 per cent, a record.

His chief priority is progress towards membership of the EU. Montenegro has been negotiating with Brussels over accession for eight years. 

“If we really do our best, we believe that the EU would also be more than eager to absorb us,” said Jakov Milatovic, economic development minister. No country has joined the EU since Croatia in 2013. Progress towards accession, Mr Milatovic added, would signal to other countries in the region hoping to join that “enlargement is still alive”.

Montenegro faces significant economic challenges, however. Tourism, a mainstay of the economy, was hit this year by coronavirus. The government forecast is for a financial contraction of 14.2 per cent due to the pandemic, said Milojko Spajic, finance minister.

Even before coronavirus struck, the Montenegrin economy was struggling under the weight of a costly loan for a Chinese-built highway. Together with the pandemic, this has sent net debt soaring to a projected 88.6 per cent of gross domestic product. Completion of the highway, which is being built by the China Road and Bridge Corporation, has been delayed by two years. Mr Spajic said that he hopes to renegotiate the terms of the $944m loan from China agreed by the previous government.

Last week, the government issued a €750m eurobond to refinance its debt. The bond carries a coupon of 2.875 per cent and demand was €3bn, which was a “massive vote of confidence for our new government”, Mr Spajic said.

The election campaign was roiled by fierce arguments over the role of the Serbian Orthodox church and national identity.

In 2019, the previous government passed a law of religious freedom that permitted the nationalisation of church property. Mass protests across the country followed.

Montenegro separated from neighbouring Serbia peacefully after a tight 2006 referendum. Approximately one-third of the country’s inhabitants describe themselves as ethnic Serbs. One of the groups in Mr Krivokapic’s government ran on a pro-Serb platform. The conservative Serbian Orthodox church campaigned energetically against the DPS.

Nato has been unpopular among many Serbs in Montenegro and the region since its 11-week bombing campaign against Belgrade during the 1998-99 Kosovo war. After the election, there were fears that a non-DPS government might withdraw from Nato, which the country joined in 2017, or revoke its recognition of Kosovo, which declared independence from Serbia in 2008 but remains unrecognised by Belgrade, nor by Russia or China. 

However, Mr Krivokapic said the governing coalition had agreed to maintain the country’s current international commitments.

The new prime minister also drew attention to the technocratic cast of what he called an “expert government” composed of ministers who do not come from traditional political backgrounds.

Mr Spajic, who is 33, returned to take up his position from Singapore, where he was a general partner at an investment fund. Mr Milatovic, 34, was the principal economist for the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, focused on southern EU countries.

“Everyone says we are doing something experimental,” said Mr Krivokapic.

“This is a chance to show that this period of democratic transition can only be done in this way.”

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