The Balkans under a wave of protests: the Montenegrin Resist movement's deadline

Over the past several weeks, a series of demonstrations of a bigger and more serious nature hit the Balkan region, specifically Albania, the Republic of North Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and the Republic of Srpska in Bosnia and Herzegovina. All these protests included tens of thousands of people on the streets, and all are political and ongoing, directed against the authorities in Tirana, Skopje, Belgrade and Banja Luka. Although they are unrelated to each other, an additional common feature is that demonstrations are taking place in troubled times when the Balkans experts warn that there is a high risk of escalation.
The Resist movement's protests in Podgorica (photo: FB)

Montenegro's capital Podgorica was hit with four protests over the past six weeks, organized by the newly-formed citizens' movement "97,000 Odupri se" ("97,000 Resist") against the dysfunction of all segments of the political system in their country. This informal group of academics, intellectuals, journalists and activists, consisted of individuals with left-wing, liberal, moderate and right-wing views, demands that the government resigns for the formation of a technical government, on the grounds that the conditions for free and transparent elections are not in place, but also resignation of president Milo Đukanović, supreme state prosecutor Ivica Stanković, and the chief prosecutor for organized crime Milivoje Katnić. They accuse both senior law officials of ignoring evidence and not prosecuting manifest corruption in the ranks of Đukanović's inner circle. The first protest was held on 2 February and was rather modest, with several hundred people participating, but the movement's social media campaign proved successful and thousands marched in following three protests, held on 16 February, 23 February and 2 March respectively.

Demonstrations have started after the revelation of footage and documents that appear to implicate top officials in obtaining suspicious funds for Đukanović's Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS). In mid-January, a video clip from 2016 surfaced in which Duško Knežević, chairman of the Montenegro-based Atlas Group, appeared to hand Podgorica's then mayor Slavoljub Stijepović, an envelope containing what Knežević later said was $100,000, for the sole purpose of funding the DPS election campaign. London-based Knežević, a former ally of Đukanović, accused him and his ruling DPS party of corruption, cronyism, abuse of office and murky financial deals. He told the media he had been providing such secret cash to the DPS for the past 25 years, and many saw this as the first concrete confirmation of something that has long been an open secret in Montenegro. Another video released by Knežević late in February shown a senior central bank official asking for a bribe for not sending inspectors into one of Knežević's banks. He has also released documents claiming they prove that he helped finance Đukanović's lavish travels abroad in five-star hotels and covering his personal expenses.

The DPS and Đukanović have denied wrongdoing, insisting that all donations to the party are recorded in their own financial records. The Montenegrin prosecutors have since gone after Knežević, who now faces charges of money laundering. Over the past years, there has been much speculation about the extent and source of Đukanović’s personal wealth. In 2010, the British Independent newspaper placed him on a list of the world's top 20 richest politicians. A year earlier, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), estimated his wealth at $14.7 million. A severe opportunist and once an ally of Serbian strongman Slobodan Milošević, Đukanović has pivoted to portray himself as a staunchly pro-Western figure in the Balkans, where Russia and the United States are in a struggle for influence. He oversaw a 2006 split from Serbia, but stepped down as prime minister in 2016 after accusing Russia of trying to assassinate him during a coup attempt in the runup to Montenegro's 2017 entry into NATO. He denies virtually all of the claims against him and announced that he won't step down.

The day after the last protest, the Resist movement issued an ultimatum demanding ruling politicians to resign by 15 March, and urging the opposition parties to boycott the Parliament and all elections in Montenegro. "We are giving you 15 March as the deadline to fulfill citizens' goals, and if you ignore us we'll gather again on March 16 and we will not disperse until our demand is met," a protest organizational team stated. Responding to President Đukanović's statements that he is prepared to negotiate with Protestants, the organizers of the protest said that "protesters are neither terrorists nor kidnappers to negotiate with them, there is no an institution of negotiation between citizens and state leaders, as the head of state needs to serve the citizens." The organizers also threatened that the fifth protest will mobilize 97,000 free citizens, ready to fight together to the very end. Yesterday, Đukanović firmly rejected the possibility of resigning and now we will just have to wait and see if the protesters' plan will be realized or it's only a bubble that burst quickly, as a series of other Montenegrin protests organized over the past several years.

Marko Knežević

Marko Knežević is a historian and freelance journalist from Bar, Montenegro. He is a frequent traveller to the Middle East and East Asia.