There are few countries in Europe to which the Russian pro-government media has paid as much attention in recent years as to Montenegro. Developments before the parliamentary elections in Montenegro were an ideal opportunity for the Russian media to show how the forces of evil, represented by the local pro-Western government, and the forces of good allied with Russia, side by side with the Montenegrin patriots, are seen to struggle within a small Balkan country.
Following the parliamentary elections held in Montenegro at the end of August 2020, a new government will be formed in the country. Created by the current opposition, this new government is the result of an agreement reached in Podgorica in early September by leaders of three political groupings – “For the Future of Montenegro”, “Peace is Our Nation” and “Black on White”.
These three electoral blocks defeated the Democratic Socialist Party (DPS) led by Milo Djukanovič, the incumbent president and former multiple-term prime minister.
Although the DPS won the most votes among all parties involved, it failed to form a majority in the parliament, leading to their first defeat since the inception of the DPS in 1990.
The new ruling coalition, which brings together around 20 smaller political parties and movements, won a narrow majority in parliament (41 seats out of 81). This dramatic change in power has caused a lot of speculations about the trajectory of developments in the smallest Balkan country (the total population of Montenegro is about 620,000).
A thorny path to independence, problems with democracy
Montenegro became an independent state in June 2006. From 2003 to 2006 it was a part of the United State of Serbia and Montenegro, prior to this it formed part of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia with Serbia. This formed the “torso” of original socialist Yugoslavia after the succession of Slovenia, Croatia, Macedonia and Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Montenegro’s declaration of full independence was preceded by a referendum in May 2006, which led to a very close result – the minimum 55 per cent threshold for approval of independence was exceeded by only 0.5 per cent.
The relatively narrow result of the independence referendum revealed that the country is highly divided. The referendum not only concerned the opinion of the population on the establishment of an independent state (44.5 per cent of voters voted in the referendum “against” independence from Serbia), but also the question of the ethnic and linguistic identity of the population (Montenegrins versus Serbs), the relationship with the heritage of the former Yugoslavia, and the state of bilateral relations with Serbia.
While Montenegro’s integration into the EU is supported by a large majority of citizens and a consensus within the political scene, NATO membership divides both the population and politicians. Some citizens see the future of their country in close connection with the democratic West, others advocate an alliance with Russia. Many emphasise the importance of their own statehood and are in favour of maximal autonomy from Serbia, while others are in favour of special relations with Serbia, which is still considered a “mother country”.
The DPS government has thus far followed the lines of European integration and supported the transatlantic partnership.
Parliamentary elections in Montenegro were preceded by some turbulent domestic political developments, notably the strong polarisation of the population and the confrontation of political elites. This was in addition to all the above-mentioned divisions of society and in 2019 a conflict over the property of the local Orthodox Church – an offshoot of the Serbian Church.
An unprecedented 30 years of DPS rule without a real political alternative or alternation with the opposition has led to the ossification of power mechanisms and the oligarchisation of politics.
In 2020, Freedom House, which monitors the state of democracy in the world, downgraded Montenegro’s rating and, for the first time since 2003, reclassified it from a democratic state to a hybrid state due to authoritarian excesses, widespread corruption and abuse of power by government officials.
Montenegro in the Russian crosshairs
There are few countries in Europe that have gained as much attention from the Russian pro-government media as Montenegro.
Readers of Russian newspapers could have the impression of a completely corrupt state, where the mafia openly rules in combination with police wantonness, where citizens’ political rights are seriously violated and religious freedom is threatened, a country with a hostile policy against Russia and a government that behaves like a vassal of the West.
Montenegro’s alleged anti-Russian focus was confirmed by its membership in NATO, a notion further exaggerated by and Russian pro-government media that repeatedly describe Montenegro as “the most anti-Russian country in the Balkans.”
The idea that the pro-Kremlin media (and the Russian government along with them) are bothered by such phenomena as corruption, undemocratic excesses, the suppression of citizens’ political rights and the lack of religious freedom in some foreign state would hardly be believed today by anyone familiar with the internal situation in Russia itself, not to mention the countries with which the Kremlin maintains friendly relations (Lukashenko’s Belarus, China, Venezuela, Syria, Iran and North Korea).
The real cause of Russia’s propaganda attacks on Djukanovič and the DPS was not in relation to governance, but the pro-Western foreign policy course.
Keeping the Balkans as far away from the West as possible, turning it into a zone of its own influence and then using it in confrontation with Western countries is a tactic that features in the policy of contemporary Russia, inherited from the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union. This is actually the well-known Russian Balkan “geopolitics” by which Moscow assesses developments in the individual Balkan states.
Everything that helps to feed the notorious narrative about the West’s clash with Russia and its allies then becomes part of the interpretation schemes: arguments about Slavic brotherhood, unchanging spiritual values, Orthodoxy and historical traditions, etc.
Pre-election developments in Montenegro were an ideal opportunity for the Russian media to show how the forces of evil, represented by the local pro-Western government, and the forces of good allied with Russia, side by side with the Montenegrin patriots, are seen to struggle within a small Balkan country.
At the end of 2019, the approved law on the inventory of church property, with which the Orthodox Church did not agree, provided a large amount of material for the propaganda-media machinery in Moscow. A quote from an article in the newspaper Vzgljad provides one such example:
“The Montenegrin people have repeatedly rebelled against their “benefactor” [Djukanovič]; the most visible were the protests in connection with the accelerated entry of the republic into the North Atlantic Alliance. The Serbian Orthodox Church became a key participant in these protests […] There is the Serbian Church – an ally of the Russian Orthodox Church, an opponent of NATO, a supporter of friendship with Russia. And there is Milo Djukanovič – a de facto dictator, a mobster, a puppet of “hawks from the Pentagon”, one of the most anti-Russian politicians in the Balkans, who, contrary to common sense, promotes church schism …”
According to the same newspaper, the incumbent Montenegrin president “turned Belgrade and Moscow into his worst enemies and brought the country into NATO, thus breaking Montenegrin society in the process.”
The coup against NATO and the “Ukrainian scenario” in Montenegro
Russia has tried to prevent Montenegro from joining NATO by any means possible. On 16 October 2016, the day of the local parliamentary elections, with the help of its local and Serbia-based agency, Russia attempted a violent coup in Podgorica to thwart the pro-Atlantic election victory through a fake “people’s uprising” (in fact, it was supposed to involve the occupation of government buildings by local “Girkin-Strelkov” figures, as in Donbas).
This attempt failed, which prompted two Russian military intelligence officers (sent to Montenegro from Moscow to coordinate the coup – one of whom previously served as a Russian naval attaché in Poland) to flee back to Russia via Serbia. Montenegrin police did catch local coup plotters, and in May 2019 the Supreme Court in Podgorica sentenced two Russians (in their absence) to 12 and 15 years in prison for attempting an armed coup to prevent the entry of Montenegro to NATO.
Russia ultimately failed in its attempt to prevent Montenegro’s entry into NATO, as in 2017 Montenegro became a full member of the alliance. Following the events of October 2016, the publication of the results of the investigation and the verdict of the Montenegrin Supreme Court, relations between the Kremlin and Podgorica have reached a boiling point.
The Moscow media launched a fierce campaign against the Balkan country and its pro-Western leadership. Kremlin propaganda created an imaginary list of treacherous behaviours exhibited by the government such as “unjustified accusations” that Russia organised the attempted coup, support for EU sanctions following the annexation of Crimea and the war in eastern Ukraine, or a “submissive” stance towards the EU on legalising gay partnerships.
More recently, the case of returning Russian tourists from Montenegro and Montenegrin citizens from Moscow during the corona crisis in March 2020 was described by the Russian state authorities and the pro-government media as blackmail by Podgorica.
To steer the domestic audience towards a pro-Russian perspective on the political situation in Montenegro, pro-Kremlin media used a well-known propaganda trick. They compared it to a situation that was better known to the Russian audience. They used the “Ukrainian” card. After 2014, Kremlin propaganda managed to create a negative image of Ukraine and Ukrainians, believed by a large segment of the Russian population. Ukrainians are allegedly ungrateful, apostate, heading to the West, and in denial of their common historical roots with Russia.
Montenegro was accused of having a leadership that was following the “Ukrainian path” by completely separating itself from Serbia (as Ukraine allegedly did with fraternal Russia). The Russian media claimed that the events in Montenegro were reminiscent of “the terror unleashed by the Kiev power against supporters preserving the Russian language and the opposition in general.”
According to the Moscow media, the “Ukrainian way” was advanced by the efforts of Montenegrin leadership to separate the Orthodox Church in its country from the Serbian Orthodox Church (just as Ukraine allegedly proceeded to do against the Russian Orthodox Church).
There have even been speculations that Montenegro’s westward movement may have been caused by the fact that more Ukrainian migrants had settled in the country shifting the balance of Ukrainians and Russians living there.
Elections 2020: what’s next?
Moscow had high hopes for Montenegro’s parliamentary elections and a possible victory for opposition forces. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said: “Good relations between Russia and Montenegro will be restored and the temporary holders of power pursuing a Russophobic policy in Montenegro will leave.”
The media in Moscow presented representatives of the Montenegrin opposition parties as potentially transformative for the country. In particular, they provided airtime to politicians – such as Milan Kneževič, pro-Russian leader of the Democratic People’s Party – who argued that if a new parliamentary majority was formed, dominated by parties advocating military neutrality, the new government could reconsider the “illegal decision” of joining NATO.
Additionally, airtime was given to those who proposed the withdrawal of support for EU sanctions against Russia or promised to establish relations with the Eurasian Economic Union, as well as politicians who demanded the annulment of the convictions of local participants in the October 2016 coup attempt.
The elections have taken place and it is clear that power in the country will soon be in the possession of a new government. On the second day after the announcement of the election results, its representatives rushed to reassure the domestic and foreign public that the basic direction of the country’s foreign policy would not change – it will work on the fastest possible accession to the EU and membership in NATO will be continuing. This was stated directly in an interview with Deutsche Welle by the leader of the civic-oriented block “Black on White” Dritan Abazovič.
Abazovič rejected the claim that the new governing coalition was made up of pro-Russian and pro-Serbian forces, adding that the new government would strengthen Montenegro’s independent statehood and fulfil all the country’s existing international commitments, including the recognition of Kosovo. Even pro-Russian politician Kneževič conceded that although his party was once against Montenegro’s accession to NATO, no one can reverse the decision. Such references will hardly fill Moscow with great enthusiasm and satisfaction.
Time will tell whether the new Montenegrin government, with a narrow majority in parliament, will last longer and stick to its post-election promises. If it does, it is quite possible that it will come under the same fire from the Russian media as its predecessor.
This article is the ninth of a monthly series called “Central Europe in the mirror of Russian media“ run by the Institute for Public Affairs (IVO) and the supported by the Open Information Partnership. It is also available in Slovak on Denník N.