Discover more from The Wayward Rabbler
Fearmongering Loses in Montenegro
How A Tiny State Ignored Claims of Russian Influence and Threw Out a Kleptocrat
“As a young man I was at first attracted like many others to politics, and in politics I was thwarted by many obstacles. In place of shame, self-restaint, and virtue, arrogance thrived and graft and greed…I was young and did not know how to resist. Caught in the midst of such corruption, I too was seized and corrupted by ambition. - Sallust [Catiline’s Conspiracy, 3]
The Wayward Rabbler is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
[Note: As you have probably seen, Twitter and Substack are in a dispute, and the embed functionality is coming and going. Some Tweets will have to be screencaps with links.]
The tiny former Yugoslavian nation of Montenegro held a Presidential runoff election on Sunday, April 2nd. Milo Djukanovic, who has led the republic in one form or another since the end of the Cold War was defeated by a young, Western trained economist named Jakov Milatovic. Some of the dialogue about this is absolutely deranged, with people worried that this election- considered fair and competitive by international observers- is somehow the end of democracy in Montenegro.
This is in spite of the fact that Milatovic is ardently in favor of joining the EU- he leads what is called the “Europe Now!” party- and will keep the country in NATO. There is great concern that because Milatovic has support from Montenegro’s large ethnic Serb population, and further wants a good relationship with its largest neighbor, that Montenegro has somehow fallen into the orbit of Serbia and Putin and this is a great problem for Western powers. Djokanovic himself was the primary source of this discourse before the election; some people believed him, but clearly more didn’t. Writing in Newsweek [of course, a Western publication that is rabidly anti-Russia,] Djokanovic claimed,
“The concept of the "Serbian World," is only a replica of the "Russian World" in the Balkans. Greater Serbian nationalists assume that Montenegro is a part of their historic project, worsened as it coincides with Russia's anti-NATO policy. Russia did not manage to stop us on our path to NATO, and they have not stopped destabilizing our country, hoping that in accomplishing this mission, they could destabilize the Alliance.”
It’s hard to imagine he expected any substantial body of people to take him seriously, though perhaps this was him begging for NED aid to throw the election in his favor. This takes the derangement of these people to truly farcical levels. It is already absurd that tiny Montenegro, an impoverished nation of 600k people with an army of 2000 men, was let into NATO at all, and there is no indication it intends to turn away from what constitutes a free security gurantee from the world’s most powerful military alliance. Beyond which, this is a mostly ceremonial position, Djukonavic was just the long-time political boss of the country and the leader of the ruling party so he had a lot of informal power [he has resigned from that position after losing the election.] It’s unlikely that anyone outside of Montenegro who didn’t already have strong opinions about international politics would be following the discourse about this election, but it demonstrates an insane need to control everything that goes on in Europe, their flagrant use of “democracy” to mean “our side,” and a belief that no one can be left being kind of neutral. It’s all a very bad look.
There is no reason that Montenegro should be hostile to Serbia; the countries were in a union until 2006. Montenegro originally became independent in the mid-19th century and was briefly a kingdom before being joined with Serbia following the First World War. As I just wrote an extensive piece on Serbia, I do not need to go into Montenegro’s broader pre-2006 history here.
Djukanovic became the Prime Minister of Montenegro at age 29 in 1991. His party was known as the The League of Communists of Montenegro, which was changed to the Democratic Party of Socialists. Originally a partisan of Slobodan Milosevic, Djukanovic is described as having “switched from a pro-Serbian Communist to a pro-Western politician.” One suspects then, that he doesn’t believe in anything, and that the real purpose of him maintaining power was the opportunities for corruption. The “Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project” named him their “Person of the Year” in 2015, an award they give to a notably corrupt figure, saying,
“He has built one of the most dedicated kleptocracies and organized crime havens in the world. For his work in creating an oppressive political atmosphere and an economy choked by corruption and money laundering, OCCRP honors Milo Djukanovic, Prime Minister of Montenegro, as OCCRP’s Person of the Year for his work in promoting crime, corruption and uncivil society.
Their editor, Drew Sullivan, further said, “We really see this as a lifetime achievement award.”
At some point Djukanovic decided that Montenegro should be independent, perhaps for less oversight of his corruption, though that doesn’t explain moving towards the EU. In 2006 55.5% of Montenegrins voted for independence, barely above the 55% threshold required. Serbia’s Parliament recognized Montenegro’s independence two days later. The narrow majority and peaceful separation makes stoking fear and hatred of Serbia particularly strange. He did rapidly recognize Kosovo after it declared independence in 2008, which upset Serbia; one wonders if he did it for any other purpose. Djukanovic’s hatred particularly turned towards the Serbian Orthodox Church, attempting to seize their property in 2019, which led to violent confrontations between Serbian clerics and Montenegrin police in 2020. In an unsurprising turn of events, covid lockdowns put an end to the protests.
Djukanovic got Montenegro into NATO in 2017. This was ludicrous from NATO’s perspective, as Montenegro has a tiny army and is of absolutely no geostrategic importance. At the time, Doug Bandow argued that “NATO Isn’t a social club,” which is language that I use frequently as there is commonly no thought about if a country’s ascension will actually be beneficial to NATO’s military capacity and instead it is seen as some sort of club of “liberal democracies.” It has been argued that by doing this Montenegro “jilted” Russia, and that Montenegro has “outsized strategic importance” but that is absolute nonsense, as it has a tiny stretch of coastline right near NATO member Croatia’s much longer coastline. It was said Russia had asked them to use the port as a transfer station on the way to Syria, but it’s completely out of the way from anywhere Russia would come from or transfer supplies. It’s obvious Djukanovic was just using the hatred of Serbia and Russia of his Western sponsors to his own benefit. He even claimed that Russia and Serbian nationalist parties sponsored a coup and assassination attempt at the time of the 2016 election in order to prevent NATO ascension.
The Serbophobia is particularly dangerous as Montenegro has a substantial Serb population. According to the CIA Factbook, 45% of Montenegrins are of the Montenegrin ethnicity, whereas 28.7% are Serbian. Further, only 35% speak the official language of Montengrin, whereas 42% speak Serbian, making Serbian the most popular language in the country. It needs to be mentioned, however, that there is an old joke in linguistics that “a language is a dialect with an army and an embassy,” meaning that the distinction between these things is generally political. In this instance, Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian, and Montenegrin are actually considered to be one dialect for linguistic purposes. The CIA Factbook gives this example of the major languages of Montenegro:
The point is that which language a person chooses on a census is clearly some sort of political identifier, and a plurality of Montenegrins identify with Serbia. None of this is to say that Montenegro should rejoin Serbia, just that it is insane that the same sort of people lecturing us about racism should think it is “dangerous” if this large group is properly represented within Montenegro’s democracy. It is entirely normal in a parliamentary system in any state with multiple ethnicities that there are ethnic parties- and even in America, without coalition governments, the Democrats are a coalition of minorities and wealthy white people.
US News & World Report was skeptical of the accusations of Russophilia towards Milatovic, writing, “The president-elect's commitment to EU membership appears to bely accusations by detractors that he is somehow a puppet of Moscow.” The publication reports him as saying, upon his victory,
“This is why we like to say we defeated one of the last dictators in Europe. This is why I truly believe that the victory yesterday in this tiny Balkan state is also a big European victory, a victory of European values…
Montenegro is strongly, 100% pursuing the foreign policy of the EU and this is going to stay…
So fully-fledged policy of the EU is the one Montenegro should pursue in the future, and it is particularly important now when it comes to the Russian aggression against Ukraine. There is nobody in Europe, and in Montenegro obviously, who can support invasion of one country against another sovereign country.”
Yes, this is an enormous victory for Putin. Besides Djukonavic lying and fearmongering, this entire accusation is based on the broad coalition that supported Milatovic including parties “close to” Serbia, Russia, and the Serbian Orthodox Church. He has further said he wants to “repair” relations with neighboring Serbia. For some reason this is supposed to be nefarious and anti-Europe, despite that it is also the Serbian government’s policy to try and join the EU and they could potentially work together on any number of issues, such as crime and corruption, which have been making it hard for both countries to join the bloc.
Most of the press has been reasonably responsible in reporting on this election, recognizing that Djukanovic’s problems were probably mostly voter fatigue with the leader of 32 years as well as discontent with vast corruption. I have to admit, I mostly agree with this Michael Martens, that these people can ignored:
Still, there were amusing tweets from the usual Eastern European pro-Western propagandist types we have gotten to know so well in this space, and I am kind of a connoisseur of these sorts of bad geopolitical takes. Further, this illustrates an important point about the folly of thinking everything is an epic global struggle, when local conditions and domestic issues are commonly the driving feature in how people vote. The powers that be have long used the tactic that people caring about domestic problems is a Putinist plot [and have of course portrayed any RT coverage of any Western domestic issues from “Occupy Wall Street” onward in this light,] but it mostly fell flat when applied to Djukonavic’s enormous levels of corruption and extremely long tenure. Here are some of the worst takes from supposedly serious people on Twitter:
Right, I get all of my information from the only reliable source, an official propaganda organ of the US government.
This whole thread from sort of of EU-Kosovo integrationist is priceless:
The PM of Kosovo is also pushing this line, based on absolutely nothing:
This next one came up in the Serbia piece as well. I suspect it is not a coincidence that dapper gentleman such as this fellow have a tendency of being slavishly devoted to NATO:
To be honest I feel bad for Putin if the best his influence schemes in Europe can do is elect a less corrupt pro-Europe candidate in Montenegro, have a friendly “Kingmaker” party in Bulgaria [IE a small party that may be necessary to form a coalition and gets a couple of ministers out of proportion to its size], and that a party in Finland that got 20% of the vote was in favor of better relationships with Russia before the invasion but isn’t anymore:
This next guy’s entire Twitter feed is like this, and is passing himself off as a professional West Balkans analyst though he has absolutely no insight besides a simplistic worldview based on hatred of both Serbs and Croats:
These bad takes notwithstanding, Milatovic’s victory is probably a good thing for Montenegro. It isn’t a huge change of direction, but the state will at least have a chance to move away from the severe levels of corruption. It also appears Montenegro will have a peaceful transition of power for the first time since the end of communism, and the first one is a big test. It is telling that anyone thinks it is bad for Milatovic to want to repair relations with Serbia. It is one thing to want solidarity against Russia after the invasion [which is his policy,] but Serbia has nothing to do with that and is also trying to join the EU. No one who wants Montenegro to have bad relations with Serbia is actually thinking of the country’s best interests, they are simply driven by raw ethnic hatred and lacking rationality. There is also a great irony here that is similar to the “Russiagate” mania in the United States, in that nothing they claimed Russia had done would have “undermined our democracy” except that domestic forces spent years trying to convince the public that our election had been unfair due to malign foreign influence. No aspect of the election in Montenegro would have been a “victory for Putin” except that Djukanovic cynically framed it that way and then still lost. It is perhaps a minor victory for Belgrade in the sense that a better relationship is mutually beneficial. For the rest of us, perhaps the election in Montenegro has shown the limits of claiming everything in politics that the Western elites don’t like is a Russian plot. We may be at least somewhat spared from hearing about it in the future.
Correction 4/9: The first version of this article said Djukanovic seized Serbian Orthodox Church property in 2019. He attempted to but was not successful. I apologize for the mistake.
Thank you for reading! If you enjoyed this content please subscribe and share. My main content will always be free but paid subscriptions help me a huge amount. I have a tip jar at Ko-Fi where generous patrons can donate in $5 increments. Join my Telegram channel The Wayward Rabbler. My Facebook page is The Wayward Rabbler. You can see my shitposting on Twitter @WaywardRabbler.