Anti-government protests began in Montenegro in mid-October. The country’s official invitation to NATO, made by Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in early December, only added fuel to the flame. Contrary to popular belief, however, the whole story speaks more to the current Prime Minister Milo Đukanović’s wish to maintain power domestically than to foreign policy calculations.
Playing the leading role in the anti-government rallies is the Democratic Front coalition. It unites three opposition parties (New Serb Democracy, Movement for Changes, and the Democratic Party of Unity) and some who have left the Socialist People’s Party. The coalition’s chief demand is the resignation of the government and Milo Đukanović himself; he has been running the country for over 20 years.
However, the protests have drawn major attention to something other than their domestic political cause. The authorities see the “Kremlin’s hand” in them, and these accusations conveniently coincide with NATO’s official invitation. Against the backdrop of the general tension in international relations, such an announcement, taking into account Russia’s critical attitude towards the expansion of the alliance, was taken as impossible to be coincidence.
The opposition certainly does not conceal its sympathies for Russia. The Montenegrin weekly Vijesti, reporting on another protest on 12 December, noted that “the protesters were yelling out Vladimir Putin’s name”.
It is exactly this emphatic appeal to Moscow by the opposition that the Montenegro government uses as a piece of proof that the protests are being supported from without. Really, this is being done very skilfully, directed at two different audiences – the Euroatlantic and the Russian.
In an interview with the Russian newspaper Kommersant published on 15 December, Milo Đukanović spoke of the “support received by the Montenegrin opposition from part of the Russian state media, individual politicians, deputies, and institutes that openly boast about their ties with the Kremlin, which no one has ever disproved.” He emphasised “support” as a description of what Russia does in Montenegro.
On the same day, a similar interview was aired on the radio station Radio Free Europe, where the prime minister had in turn stated that there were “no remaining doubts about intervention” and spoke of “flagrant attacks and aggression” on the part of the State Duma, MFA and Russian state media.
The representatives of the Montenegro opposition and experts with whom Europe Insight has consulted deny categorically Russia’s participation. In these allegations, they see an attempt to play the foreign political card in order to maintain power. The opposition is prepared give the same sort of answer.
“In fact, the basic idea is simple: the American money with which the Montenegro oligarchy in power is bought dictates everything, including the anti-Russian hysteria,” Marko Milačić, the executive director of Movement for Neutrality of Montenegro, told Europe Insight.
Dragana Trifkovic, Director of the Centre for Geostrategic Studies, also categorically denies the participation of Russia. “Russia has never been a factor in the destabilisation of the Balkans,” she said in an interview with Europe Insight. According to her, Moscow “supports the democratic will and right of a people to determine its own future only by means of diplomacy, as a matter of principle.”
In May, the daily Dan published the results of a survey commissioned by the Montenegrin government and carried out by the agency Ipsos. Based on the research, 84% of respondents were in favour of a referendum. 68% of those who approve of the country’s joining NATO also supported it.
The history with the publication of the survey is known as the “Dispatch” affair. The ruling coalition insists that parliament must make the decision on joining the alliance, therefore, it is thought that the numbers concerning the necessity of a referendum were deliberately skewed in statements by official figures. The real data got into the hands of journalists thanks to “leaks” from diplomatic exchanges.
In the interview mentioned above for Radio Free Europe, Milo Đukanović said that the seething passions could have been absent if the question over whether or not to accede to NATO were being decided at a moment free from crisis in the relations between NATO and the EU on one side and Russia on the other. His rhetorical devices, used for various audiences, also show that “Moscow’s hand” is not of fundamental importance and the emergence of this theme is predicated solely on the international situation.