On August 31 of this year, Montenegro’s pro-Western ruling party was voted out of office after nearly 30 years in power and replaced by a pro-Russian coalition of parties. This is the first party change in the country’s post-Cold War electoral history, and the political realignment is sure to create significant changes not only within Montenegro, but well beyond the Balkans, to Europe and Russia.
President Milo Djukanovic heads the outgoing Democratic Party of Socialists, which has served as a NATO and EU ally in the Balkans,
especially following Montenegro’s 2017 accession to NATO. Now, a coalition of pro-Russian and pro-Serbian opposition parties is taking the helm, raising many questions about the post-Soviet state’s future. The largest alliance in the victorious opposition coalition is the Future of Montenegro group, which is notedly anti-NATO, and whose Democratic Front party leaders Andrija Mandić and Milan Knežević were convicted of an attempted coup d'état in 2016. The coup attempt allegedly was organized by members of Russia’s military intelligence arm (the Organization of the Main Intelligence Administration, or GRU). The August election combines regional political-religious tensions with broader geopolitical competition. Montenegro, which has a majority Orthodox Christian population, is a part of the autocephalous Serbian Orthodox Church. President Djukanovic, however, has lobbied for the establishment of an autocephalous, or self-governing, Orthodox Church of Montenegro, with the new national Church functioning independently from the Serbian Church. This religious saga reached a boiling point in July 2019, when the Montenegrin Parliament passed legislation effectively nationalizing Serbian Church monasteries in Montenegro, thereby deepening the political rift originating with Montenegro’s secession from Serbia in 2006 and aggravating identity cleavages inside Montenegro, between the third of the population that identifies as “Serbian”,” rather than “Montenegrin.” The election victory of the pro-Serbia opposition, oriented towards Russia, signals a political crisis over Montenegrin nationalism and a geopolitical division over the country’s EU versus Russian orientation. Despite the relative dearth of international reportage on Montenegro, geopolitical experts understand that Montenegro matters in terms of four key factors: 1. Geography: Montenegro’s location in the Balkans underscores the significance of Southeastern Europe as a regional space of competition between the EU and NATO on the one hand, and Russia, on the other hand. The Balkans, which, in the 20th century, were the site of multiple wars originating in the disintegration of the former Yugoslavia, remain a crucial territorial, ideological, and identity geospace in the 21st century recalibration of Great Power geopolitics in Eurasia. 2. Global crisis of democracy: Montenegro’s recent electoral results present an important example of the ongoing struggle to consolidate democracy in post-communist countries formerly part of the Soviet bloc. The election of a far-right coalition in Montenegro puts the country into the broader context of what is developing into a global crisis of democracy. From the United States to Turkey to Brazil to Hungary, to Russia, China, and Indonesia, democratic ideals and regimes are being put to the test worldwide. Montenegro may now be at a tipping point in its democratization project. 3. EU membership versus national identity: The subtext of Montenegro’s election speaks to the complex linkages between geopolitical alliances and cultural orientation. The “European orientation” of post-communist states in the Balkans has been a dimension of the EU enlargement process for the past three decades, and the possibility of an EU accession pathway for Montenegro had been bolstered by with the Djukanovic administration’s detachment and continued distancing from Serbia since 2006. Brussel’s active engagement with Podrogica will likely come to a hard stop with the election of Montenegro’s anti-Western coalition government, giving traction to the kind of inward-looking nationalism that is damaging for European solidarity as a whole. 4. Sharp power’s new currency: Finally, the mix of politics and religion inside Montenegro points to the growing importance of sharp power in contemporary geopolitics. Sharp power involves the use of cyber and other hybrid tools for censorship, mis/disinformation, and influence-building within and across state borders. Russia’s use of sharp power to try to penetrate Montenegro’s political system and shift the country away from the Western structures of NATO and the EU leaves no doubt about the importance of asymmetrical forms and tools of geopolitics in the 21st century.