Analysis of socio-political trends in Montenegro

Analysis of socio-political trends in Montenegro

July 2021.

The Center for Democracy and Human Rights (CEDEM) has been conducting political public opinion polls for more than two decades with the aim of identifying attitudes of citizens of Montenegro on certain key socio-political issues. The basis for analysis is the longitudinal research of political and social developments in the context of political changes and the removal of the decades-long government of party of Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS), with special reference to the latest research conducted from June 18 to June 26, 2021.

Despite the long-awaited change in the political life of Montenegro, after 30 years of power of predominantly one political party, substantial changes are still not happening at the desired speed and towards the expected results. The signing of the coalition agreement, which states that the Government will fully and committedly implement all reforms necessary for Montenegro’s full membership in the EU and completely depoliticize key government institutions in order to ensure an uncompromising fight against crime and corruption is, as it turned out, declarative in nature and followed by a lack of the necessary political will of the parliamentary majority. In addition, insufficient functionality and operability of the executive and legislative branches is even more pronounced due to the disagreement of the representatives of the Democratic Front on one side, and Government and its members on the other, followed by frequent obstructions aimed at hindering the regular work of these two levels of government. The judiciary is still not characterized by a high level of independence and accountability. According to the citizens, since the formation of the expert government headed by Prime Minister Zdravko Krivokapić, its members have not done enough to be praised for either individual or collective success in any area, except in combating the pandemic (39.3%). The postponement of long-awaited results after 9 years of the negotiation process with the EU, on the one hand, and the lack of appointment of key functions within the negotiating team, the passivity of the legislature, and the crisis of government legitimacy on the other, led to an informal activation of the balance clause despite the constant support that the European officials are giving to the new government. Furthermore, despite the expectation that due to the change of government – the number of those who think that Montenegro is going the right way will increase, i.e. that the number of those who think that Montenegro is going the wrong way will fall – this did not happen. Rather, the change has been insignificant, which is indicative given the current political crisis. The regressive trend of satisfaction with the performance of the Government has continued and since 2007, for the first time, we have recorded a historical minimum of satisfaction with the performance of the Government, i.e. every fourth citizen of Montenegro is very or mostly satisfied. That is to say that as few as half the number of citizens are satisfied in 2021 (22.7%) when compared to 2011 (44.1%), when the greatest satisfaction with the performance of the Government was measured.

It seems that the removal of the long-standing regime eo ipso, was enough for the representatives of the new government and the parliamentary majority to point out that changes have already taken place, which states that the new parliamentary majority, or at least most of it, does not have enough awareness or political will on what needs to change, with what intensity and speed, but instead that they are already focused on internal political confrontations, or showing of their individual political power, or more specifically the strength of their electorate, to one another. On a political scene with a high level of disagreement between the main political forces oriented towards party interests, any expectation of resolving issues that are crucial to the citizens, in terms of basic social and political issues, is almost impossible. Several facts speak in favor of this, namely: 1) postponement of the adoption of the budget for the current year (finally adopted in June with a large number of political and personal blackmails); 2) the occasional or permanent boycott of Parliament by part of the ruling majority and the opposition; 3) continuation of practice of politicization of forefront positions within the public sector and of those in “depth”; 4) the absence of a continuous dialogue between ideologically different political parties; and 5) the emphasis on identity and national issues. Apart from the above, the efficiency of social and political reforms of the new government has a fundamental problem – the lack of a pre-defined strategy with clear goals, i.e. these are usually ad hoc decisions and reform processes, excluding the reforms in the judiciary. On the other hand, when there is a clear goal, due to insufficiently strong political will and legitimacy, reform solutions such as the Law on Citizenship and Residence, the Decision on Criteria for Determining Conditions for Acquiring Montenegrin Citizenship, and the Law on Amendments to the Law on Registers of Residence and Stay are abandoned or postponed. Amendments to the current legal solutions are often carried out without a comprehensive analysis, such as were to the Labor Law, but also without consulting with the European Commission and Council of Europe. Therefore, it is not unexpected that there is a crisis of confidence in institutions, especially political ones. With the exception of social institutions with which citizens have a direct and “emotional” relationship, such as the education system, Serbian Orthodox Church (SOC) and the health system, where we also measure a decline in trust, all other institutions are below 40% of citizens’ trust, with the most pronounced decline in trust in the judiciary. Confidence in political institutions, specifically the Government, the President, the Assembly, the police, the army, and the political parties, is at its lowest level since 2014, indicating the need to implement substantial structural and systematic changes and to put citizens at their center. Members of the Government, in public, often seem overburdened with their responsibilities due to the unification of different departments and inadequate institutional memory. The frequency of changes in personnel decisions additionally burdens the achievement of goals, and the non-appointment of state secretaries or general directors is almost a common occurrence. Although one of the priorities of the new government is to create public trust and full transparency of the state administration, the previous eight months marked a decline in trust and non-transparency of the state administration, so the availability of information has become a luxury, especially when it comes to transparency of the Ministry of Finance and Social Welfare which is similar to that under the rule of the DPS. The scandals that follow the Minister of Ecology, Spatial Planning and Urbanism, the former Minister of Justice, Human and Minority Rights, and others, show that the priorities from the Prime Minister’s exposition paper are left aside, which leads to very low evaluations of the work of the ministries, with opinion of the citizens who think that ministries are performing very or mostly well ranging from 24.8% for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to 33.6% for the Ministry of Health.

Montenegrin society is par excellence a political society and there is almost no way that any issue is not broken through the prism of political divisions and often narrow-party political interests. Instead of focusing on developing an autonomous civil society, strengthening critical thinking, reducing the polarization of society and nationalism and clerical nationalism, our society is led by political leaders of the government and opposition who further disrupt citizens interpersonal relations, encourage social divisions and neglect European standards and values which are in the interest of the overall democratization of society. The absence of social dynamics and constant avoidance of solving key political and economic problems, oligarchic tendencies with clientelism as a model of desirable political behavior, accompanied by nepotism, ideological criteria for personnel selection, and corruption, have long contributed to, and are still sustaining, this state of society in the state of Montenegro. Although none of the politicians have a good average grade since coming to power, the President of the Assembly and the Deputy Prime Minister have recorded higher average grades, while other politicians have recorded lower average grades compared to 2020. Certainly, the politician who sharply divides the public is the President of Montenegro, who has the largest share of the highest rating, but also the largest number of the lowest. Since coming to power, Democrats have pursued an even more visible policy of balance, which provokes support among the average voter, with 18.4% support of the electorate, while URA would record almost the same result (6.4%) since the last parliamentary elections which shows that they have not gained significant support from the electorate since coming to power. While the Democratic Front, although part of the parliamentary majority, mostly talks the pre-election and anti-regime rhetoric, DPS partially continues with state-building policy rhetoric and insisting on the protection of Montenegrin identity without major changes within the party. Unlike the DPS, which continued a regressive trend of support among the electorate (31%), the Democratic Front, on the wings of victory in the 2020 Parliamentary Elections, continues to gain support from the citizens (18.7%). Minority parties are at the same level of support as those achieved in the parliamentary elections, while civic parties such as SD and SDP continue with a slight downward trend after the parliamentary elections, at 3.4% and 3%, respectively. Obviously, the previous institutional support for the former ruling parties is increasingly disappearing, and the chances of increasing the coalition potential of DPS are decreasing. In this regard, aware of the aforementioned fact, DPS emphasized at the last party congress the need for increasing homogenization of society around priority interests, and political and intellectual leadership that will encourage overcoming historical divisions. At the same time, they changed the visual identity and told the citizens that they want a society of knowledge, freedom and citizens, which diverts attention from national and identity issues. However, despite the expectation that the Congress will bring significant changes to the currently strongest opposition party, personal changes towards unknown people with little political experience cannot be seen as a fundamental transformation and application of lessons learned after the election crash and the inability to form a new DPS coalition with traditional and other partners.

As a non-partisan person, Zdravko Krivokapić was the leader of the ZBCG coalition and, according to the general opinion, he came to the position of the Prime Minister of Montenegro at the suggestion of the Serbian Orthodox Church. From the very beginning, there was talk of a significant deviation of Krivokapić from the ZBCG coalition, as well as disagreements reflected in the boycott of the Parliament by DF MPs. At the same time, the DF is strongly against the actions of the Government and the Prime Minister, which often obstruct their work, while hints of the government reshuffle and perhaps even the removal of the Prime Minister reached their peak after the dismissal of Vladimir Leposavić as Minister of Justice, Human and Minority Rights. Also, although it was strictly said that the Government would be exclusively expert, today we have more and more representatives of political parties – almost all of the political parties, with the least representatives around DF coalition, which is why it is not surprising that DF opposes the current government. However, although DF does not believe or acknowledge the support Prime Minister Krivokapić has, forming of its own political party could secure him a parliamentary status because, according to a survey, 4.9% of citizens would certainly or probably vote for it. Having in mind the boycott of the Parliament by the largest opposition party and DF, it is necessary to find a solution that will stabilize the political situation in the country, such as the government reshuffle with different spectrum of options for the reshuffle, or early parliamentary elections. In addition, the status quo in the field of justice continues after the change of government, and progress is difficult or uncertain without a two-thirds or three-fifths majority in Parliament. The lack of dialogue and political will is obvious on this issue as well, which is why substantial changes are missing with the new government, despite the expectation of moving from the deadlock. Thus, about 70% of supporters of the former government think that early elections should be called as soon as possible, while, in contrast, supporters of the current government think that they should be held in the a regular term.

Representatives of the former and current authorities, as well as the media, focus their attention on establishing stable interethnic relations and resolving the Montenegrin/Serbian national issue in Montenegro. In contrast, only 4.9% of citizens believe that these are priorities that should be addressed by government representatives. COVID-19 pandemic further unmasked the Montenegrin economy and provided further evidence of the need for diversification due to the Montenegrin economy’s over-dependence on tourism. In this regard, 54.9% of citizens believe that the Government’s key priority in domestic policy must be the fight for a better standard of living and new jobs, and that it must be equally committed to the fight against crime and corruption.

Relevant social actors such as the media, instead of contributing to reform processes leading to the adoption of European standards and values, are increasingly occupying their own space by advocating the views and opinions of certain political entities and their representatives, omitting objectivity and independence in media reporting. Thus, the additional polarization of the media scene, which has an extremely high degree of influence on the formation of opinions and decisions of public opinion in Montenegro, is not surprising. The fact is that the citizens of Montenegro do not have access to media that informs them impartially and independently, additionally encourages the polarization of Montenegrin society, while the media scene has standardized and normalized biased political connotations in its reporting. This is especially unacceptable for a public service broadcaster financed from the budget. Despite the fact that the election of the new RTCG Council followed the most transparent process until the appointment itself, no significant changes can be expected when it comes to impartial decision-making, as there are serious doubts that the RTCG Council is the result of informal lobbying of the new parliamentary majority which was one of the characteristics of the previous regime as well.

Despite various factors such as the influence of the pro-Russian media, delays in the negotiation process, change of government, etc., it is very encouraging that Montenegrin citizens are mostly pro-Western when it comes to foreign policy, i.e. citizens opinion is clear that Montenegro needs to lean on its Western foreign policy partners. The issue of EU membership is almost the only issue on which there is a general social consensus, and it has been raised ad acta throughout the DPS rule, as it has been since the signing of the coalition agreement. Certainly, the ninth anniversary of the negotiation process warns that Montenegro does not have strong enough institutional and administrative capacity to accelerate this process, but also that there is a lack of political will that has been implicitly discussed for many years, and with the adoption of the new methodology explicitly. The lack of these capacities is especially visible with the arrival of the new government, because the dynamics of forming of the negotiations structure is so slow that it took over eight months to appoint the heads of working groups. Also, it is very questionable how the process will continue because there is no prospect of appointing a new Minister of Justice, Human, and Minority Rights, and it is well known that the backbone of the negotiation process are Chapters 23 and 24. On the other hand, the new government expectations that we will become member of the EU in 2024, do not seem realistic, because, as with the previous government, there is not enough political will for reform processes. Certainly the will of a few individuals does not make up the will of the current total government. This is recognized by the citizens themselves, given that 21.4% of citizens believe that the current Government will continue the negotiation process with the same intensity, while 26.4% of citizens believe that the negotiation process will slow down significantly. In general, citizens still view the EU as an ideal of values and living standards, regardless of whether they are supporters of the new or former government, which is why 70% of citizens support Montenegro’s accession to the EU. It is necessary to point out that the supporters of the new government most often linked the European path with DPS, but after constant support of the EU and its officials towards the new government, the amount of citizens which support Montenegro’s membership in the EU has increased by about 16 percent compared to August 2020. Although supporters and representatives of the new government see the NATO alliance as a military force that has carried out a military intervention, the new political constellation and strengthening cooperation within the NATO alliance have changed the attitude of our membership in this Alliance. In this regard, there is an increase in the number of those citizens who support Montenegro’s membership in the Alliance (44.7%), but also a decrease in the number of those who oppose this membership (34.5%).

Contrary to the significant progress made so far when it comes to the secularity of the state, the formation of a new government and the parliamentary majority have negatively contributed to strengthening of the influence of the Serbian Orthodox Church (SOC) and deepening of the gap in an already seriously polarized society. Announcements that Montenegro will no longer be a divided country, and that there will no longer be a sharp political division into two options – one embodied in the former government that is ideologically reflected in state-building policy, modern and secular state, and the other that is reflected in refuting of the results and policies of DPS, significant interference of the church and non-Western foreign policy orientation – this did not happen, but instead, today we are talking about Montenegrin society, which after many years, focuses on issues such as the denial of the Srebrenica genocide, the denial of the state status, influence of the church and the state of Serbia on internal affairs issues of Montenegro, as well as maintaining of the civic concept and respect for the rights of minorities. The influence of Serbian Orthodox Church has been present at various levels for years. It is unequivocally very visible after the adoption of the Law on Freedom of Religion, in December 2019. The protests of the Serbian Orthodox Church, through liturgies and prayer proceedings, attracted a large number of citizens who at the very beginning had the characteristics of a religious protest due to the passing of the law, while after that have turned into a kind of political protest with features that are not part of Montenegrin identity and the state of Montenegro which turned out to be expected in the run-up to the parliamentary elections with the appointment of the current prime minister as the leader of the coalition whose key priority was to change the aforementioned law, since when the effects of the SOC’s influence have become increasingly apparent and uncovered. The dominant opinion of the citizens is that the influence of the SOC on the Government is excessive or stronger than it was before the change of government, and that there are a number of factors that create additional space for visibility of the SOC’s influence on the Government representatives of the Government of Montenegro: 1) naming of the representatives in the Government that are close to the church; 2) non-transparency of the Government when it comes to the Basic Agreement with the Serbian Orthodox Church; 3) violation of epidemiological measures in the midst of the pandemic without consequences for the clergy; and 4) amendments to the Law on Freedom of Religion in response to support during the 2020 parliamentary elections.

Following the influence of the Serbian Orthodox Church, the influence of state of Serbia is inevitable, which is why the majority of citizens (56.6%) believe that the influence of state of Serbia is greater than before the change of government. This is reflected on two levels. The first level of influence is on the representatives of the new parliamentary majority, specifically on the DF deputies, with regards to internal issues and decisions of Montenegro, such as the issue of the Srebrenica Resolution, sending troops to Kosovo within the NATO alliance and the like. The second level is reflected in the influence on the recent local elections in Nikšić and Herceg Novi and the aspiration of the Serbian authorities to influence the election process and the results through various mechanisms.

The census is one of the key issues of the agenda of the representatives of the new parliamentary majority who are in constant intention to increase the number of Serbs in Montenegro. However, over 90% of citizens will vote equally nationally in the upcoming census, as in 2011, and every second citizen believes that the census should be held this year, which means that no drastic changes can be expected when it comes to national population structure in Montenegro.

The majority of the ruling coalition is oriented towards the idea of a Greater Serbia while everyday rhetoric is very indicative when it comes to the state status of Montenegro. Therefore, it is necessary to conclude such rhetoric, bearing in mind that 70.6% of citizens are of the opinion that Montenegro is an independent state and that this should no longer be an issue that is talked about in the public.

Analyzing the trends on key socio-political issues, and having in mind the polarized society and the influences of different political structures, one can unequivocally point to the maturity of Montenegrin society given its pro-Western orientation and aspiration to resolve basic life issues regardless of political and religious affiliation, and in the constant setting of new goals and expectations that will further lead to the democratization of Montenegro, the adoption of European values, and the strengthening of the state as a civic, secular and anti-fascist creation. On the other hand, the social moment (period, time …) after three decades of DPS rule requires structural qualitative changes, which is why public expectations are directed towards depoliticization of system institutions, clear reforms, and sustainable solutions. They should result in an effective political and social system in the interest of the citizens as opposed to indulging in party and personal interests that have led to a trapped and dysfunctional system with a weak or non-existent system of accountability.

CEDEM Analytical Team