By Kenneth Morrison

Milo Djukanovic may have stepped down as the Prime Minister of Montenegro, but the conclusion of a protracted struggle over succession will ensure that he remains a key figure in Montenegrin politics.

December had been a bleak month some familiar names that hold, or have held, high office in the Western Balkans. Former Croatian Prime Minister Ivo Sanader was arrested in Austria, charged with high-level corruption and money laundering. Less than a week later, the Council of Europe's Dick Marty published a report in which he implied Kosovo's Prime Minister Hashim Thaci was involved in the practice of 'organ harvesting'. And in Serbia, former Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica was accused of hindering efforts to arrest the suspected war criminal, Ratko Mladic, during his term in office.

It may have gone almost unnoticed amidst such controversy, but on December 21 the longest-serving senior politician in the region formally retired from political life. Milo Djukanovic, a major player in Montenegrin and Balkan politics for over two decades, announced that he would step down to concentrate on his (myriad) business interests. At just 48 years old, Djukanovic has an impressive political pedigree and leaves a significant legacy. He has served five terms as prime minster, one as president, and has led Montenegro's dominant political party, the Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS), since 1997, wrestling control of it from a faction led by Momir Bulatovic, an ally of Slobodan Milosevic. He subsequently steered Montenegro through the stormy waters of the war in neighbouring Kosovo and the threat of civil war in Montenegro before leading the country to independence in 2006. Since then, Montenegro has, despite residual tensions, become politically stable and has made steady progress towards membership in the European Union (UN) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

At the end of 2020, the European Commission granted Montenegro formal candidate status, an important benchmark in the EU accession process. It asserted, however that the government must intensify its endeavours to tackle 'endemic' corruption and organised crime. Corruption, lack of judicial independence, weak parliamentary control over the government and slow progress in tackling organised crime were highlighted in the November's European Commission report as particularly problematic.

The European Commission also implied, albeit subtly, that Milo Djukanovic's overly-lengthy period in power and the dominance of the DPS are detrimental to democratic development. Critics have also suggested that his alleged links to organised crime, in particular the so-called 'Tobacco Mafia', may inhibit Montenegro's EU ambitions. Indeed, given the constant allegations of his connections with Italian mafia and Balkan underworld figures, Brussels increasingly perceived him as an obstacle to, rather than a facilitator of, reform. There may, therefore, have been some 'friendly' pressure applied to convince Djukanovic to rescind his post sooner rather than later. He, of course, rejected accusations that pressure from the EU hastened his departure, but his decision to step down suggests it may well have been a factor, if not a causal one. In any event, by late December, Igor Luksic, Djukanovic's favoured successor, was confirmed as his replacement. Young and energetic, Luksic's youthful appearance belies his experience in senior Montenegrin politics. He has been a key member of the governing DPS for almost a decade, and has proved an effective finance minister during difficult economic times. Expectations are high.

Perceived as a reformer and of a generation untainted by involvement in the dark days of the Yugoslav wars of succession, both Brussels and Washington hope, or rather expect, that he will quickly and robustly push through reforms. And indeed Luksic, determined to demonstrate his commitment to tackling corruption and organised crime, took early and seemingly decisive action in this regard. Within days of his formal appointment, ten individuals were arrested in the coastal resort of Budva on charges of corruption. These not insignificant figures - those arrested included the mayor and deputy mayor of the town - were arrested on the basis of their involvement in the so-called 'Zavala case', an alleged corruption affair involving politicians, construction companies and spatial planners. Critics have, however, speculated that there may have been an ulterior motive, largely premised on the fact that the deputy mayor of Budva was none other than the brother of the former Montenegrin deputy-prime minister, Svetozar Marovic, who, perhaps under pressure, also retired from political life in concert with Djukanovic.

But are these arrests a sign that the Montenegrin government is serious about tackling corruption and organised crime, or were they politically motivated? Whether the former or the latter, one thing is clear - in the past six months, as speculation over Djukanovic's departure intensified, factions emerged within the DPS and a struggle within the party reached a zenith as potential successors jostled for position. In this struggle, two Djukanovic allies - namely Igor Luksic and Dusko Markovic (the former head of Montenegro's state security) - became ascendant. Both were potential successors, although Luksic, younger and undoubtedly more 'marketable', was always the more likely heir, with Markovic playing the key role of internal party whip. Indeed, Djukanovic's decision to designate Markovic the post of 'minister without portfolio' last year was interpreted by DPS members as an attempt to discipline those inclined to seek to acquire power and ensure Luksic's succession with the minimum of intra-party flux. In short, Djukanovic's strategy was to empower allies and marginalise opponents, and by doing so shaping the composition of the upper echelons of the party - one that would remain under his influence, even after his formal departure.

But not all within the DPS leadership advocated Luksic's appointment, or the way in which the succession process was handled. Montenegro's President Filip Vujanovic and Deputy Prime Minister, Svetozar Marovic, both resisted Djukanovic's efforts to dictate terms. Both endeavoured to improve their position when circumstances allowed but, having struggled to convince the key party members, they retreated in the face of determined opponents. Marovic, perhaps knowing in advance his brother's - and potentially his - fate, also stepped down on December 21, and although Vujanovic remains in post he is unlikely to mount a challenge now that Luksic has been confirmed as prime minister. Thus with the issue of succession resolved, Djukanovic's departure was facilitated.

But do recent events indicate change or continuity? This is, of course, a well organised succession from within the dominant governing party and not one generated through the mechanism of democratic elections. Moreover, not only will Djukanovic remain the chairman of the DPS - a position that still gives him a significant level of influence - he has not ruled out standing for election as president in 2013. In the meantime, it remains uncertain whether Luksic will pursue a course that differs from that of his predecessor, and there was certainly little in his inaugural address to the Montenegrin parliament that signaled a substantial departure from Djukanovic's line.

These are early days, but the honeymoon will be short. The EU will provide strong rhetorical support to the new government but will, simultaneously, expect it to robustly tackle the issues highlighted as problematic in the November report with relative brevity. The first weeks and months of the Luksic government should clarify whether a change of leadership heralds a genuine political shift, characterised by a commitment to dealing with difficult concerns, or business as usual.

(Dr. Kenneth Morrison is Senior Lecturer in Modern European History at De Montfort University and the author of 'Montenegro: A Modern History'.)


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